- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Seated onstage across from his Republican challenger, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado needed fewer than 40 words to sum up four years of squabbling over Medicare and federal spending.

“Congressman Gardner voted for $800 billion in cuts to Medicare that went to tax cuts,” the Democratic incumbent told a debate crowd in Denver last week. “I voted for $800 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage that went to shoring up Medicare and extending the solvency of it.”

As Election Day nears, both Republicans and Democrats have taken to attacking each other for having voted to cut the program as a way of making inroads with senior citizen voters — but as Mr. Udall’s defense makes clear, the attacks often gloss over the reality.

Mr. Udall was trying to push back against Rep. Cory Gardner, the Republican nominee for Colorado’s Senate seat, who has attacked Mr. Udall for voting for Obamacare and its more than $700 billion in cuts to Medicare — particularly insurer-run Medicare Advantage plans — over a 10-year period.

Democrats defend the cuts, saying the Medicare Advantage plans were a bad deal for taxpayers, and lowering spending has forced those plans to be more competitive.

They also charge that the GOP, despite calling for the repeal of Obamacare, still counts on the Medicare cuts to balance their budgets.

“The big challenge for Republicans is [that] their argument is more nuanced, in that they want to get rid of the ACA but need to keep the cost savings that already have been passed into law,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “They have to say they are on the side of seniors even though they want to rein in federal spending.”

For now, Republicans are content to seize on the health law’s unpopularity in red states with tight Senate races. Night after night, leading GOP candidates in debates around the country roll out the link between Medicare cuts and Obamacare.

“Robbing Medicare of $700 billion over the next 10 years by reducing doctor reimbursements and hospital reimbursements [does] not make sense,” North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, said in a recent Senate debate against Democratic incumbent Kay R. Hagan.

“They used it as a piggy bank,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said late Monday in a debate against Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.

But the sky isn’t falling, health analysts say. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation reported that enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans had reached an all-time high of 16 million in 2014, or 6.3 million more than congressional budget scorekeepers projected when Obamacare passed in 2010.

And even if Republicans do win control of the Senate, they’ll have a tough time picking apart the health law that’s been up and running in part for four years, said Dan Mendelson, CEO of the Avalere Health consultancy in Washington.

He said a Republican-controlled Congress would likely have to phase in their reforms — for instance, scaling back subsidies on Obamacare’s health exchanges to create budget savings — instead of scrapping the overhaul outright.

“We present a lot of scenarios to our customers,” he said. “Full repeal is not one of the scenarios we are dealing with right now.”

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