Ryan's speech, delivered to an event sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons, demonstrated how volatile and politically charged the issue of health care is for older Americans. Telling his audience that "we respect you enough to level with you" about the financial challenges Medicare faces, Ryan drew an audible mixture of cheers and boos as he assailed the Affordable Care Act.
“If we reform Medicare for my generation we can protect it for those in or near retirement today," Ryan said. "The first step to a stronger Medicare is to repeal Obamacare, because it represents the worst of both worlds."
Noting that the health care overhaul seeks to save $716 billion by cutting down on Medicare payments to health care providers, Ryan charged that Obama “turned Medicare into a piggy bank for Obamacare." And he attacked a panel created by the Affordable Care Act, known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board, that is tasked with making decisions about Medicare coverage.
Playing off of Obama's campaign theme of "Forward," Ryan charged that the president's plan would bring the country “forward into a future where seniors are denied the care they earned because a bureaucrat decides it’s not worth the money."
By selecting Paul Ryan to be his running mate, Mitt Romney ensured that Medicare would play a prominent role in the presidential race. Ryan was the architect of a budget plan that would restructure the program, giving seniors a choice between enrolling in Medicare and receiving vouchers with which to purchase private health insurance plans.
“We propose putting 50 million seniors, not 15 unaccountable bureaucrats, in charge of their own health care decision," Ryan said on Friday, saying his plan would force private insurers to compete for new customers. "Our plan empowers future seniors to choose the plans that are best for them.”
Since Ryan's selection, the Romney and Obama campaigns have sparred over whose approach to Medicare will be better for seniors. Both sides are cognizant of the electoral influence of elderly voters, who tend to vote in higher numbers than any other demographic – the Republican wave election of 2010 was powered in part by older voters who were skeptical about the effects of the health care overhaul on which Obama has staked his presidency.
The Affordable Care Act calls for reducing Medicare spending by more than $700 billion through reduced payments to providers. While Ryan’s plan also called for curtailing Medicare costs by the same amount, he has since backed Romney’s calls to restore the full amount of funding. The Romney campaign now accuses Obama of siphoning money out of Medicare to pay for the health care law.
President Obama addressed the AARP via satellite shortly before Ryan, and the Department of Health and Human Services preempted Ryan’s speech by releasing a report on Friday that anticipates Medicare enrollees saving $5,000 on out-of-pocket costs thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
"I am pleased that the health care law is helping so many seniors save money on their prescription drug costs," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement accompanying the report. "A $5,000 savings will go a long way for many beneficiaries on fixed incomes and tight budgets."
Ryan also proposed to help Social Security stay financially sustainable by gradually raising the retirement age over time and reducing benefits for higher-income recipients.