William Tucker of Hampton beams with pride when he talks about meeting President Barack Obama last month when the president made a campaign stop in Hampton.
Tucker, 83, a veteran of three wars who has also been the head of the state longshoremen's union, thinks Obama's health-care reform package, the Affordable Care Act, is one of the president's greatest achievements. Tucker has volunteered for Democratic campaigns at all levels for decades. He said he now refuses to work for local Democrats who don't support the Affordable Care Act "100 percent."
Newport News retiree Mike Joseph, 66, holds the opposite view.
Since GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate in Norfolk two weeks ago, Medicare has become a major campaign talking point directed at senior citizens in Republican and Democratic campaigns from the presidential level to Virginia's U.S. Senate race and local congressional races.
Tucker worries about Romney's promises to repeal Obama's omnibus health care reform package. He said he doesn't think Romney and Ryan are giving people all the facts about Ryan's budget plan, which turns Medicare into a voucher program for people under the age of 55.
"Don't ask for my vote if you won't tell me these things. If you're going to change health care, tell me exactly how and where the money's coming from," Tucker said.
Joseph worries about claims that Obama is cutting Medicare by $716 billion to pay for the Affordable Care Act. He said he believes there are provisions in the long, complicated law that will further cut Medicare benefits as the legislation is fully implemented.
Claims that Obama has cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicare have been repeatedly debunked by fact-checking organizations such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, which have also taken issue with claims that Romney would "end Medicare as we know it."
Here's how FactCheck.org summarizes the situation:
"The Obama campaign is trying to peg Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as the guys who will 'end Medicare as we know it,' and make seniors pay thousands more for health care. The Romney campaign is trying to paint President Barack Obama as the one who is 'raiding Medicare,' and cutting benefits for current seniors. But the reality is that both campaigns propose cutting the growth in future Medicare spending — for good reason — and each is trying to scare seniors about the other campaign's plan."
'Truth may be a casualty'
Senior citizens vote in much higher numbers than other age demographics and can't be ignored by candidates in what is shaping up to be "razor tight" elections at the presidential and Senate levels.
Seniors in key battleground states like Virginia are being bombarded with campaign attack ads and talking-points in the news media from both parties that don't quite tell the whole story about their opponent's positions.
Jesse Richman, a professor of political science at Old Dominion University, said both sides agree that something has to be done about the rising cost of Medicare, which annually grows faster than the rate of inflation while revenues remain fairly stagnant.
Richman said both parties are trying to rein in the costs of the massive entitlement program in different ways. Republicans and the Ryan budget plan look to shift costs to beneficiaries. The Democrats and Obama on the other hand want to shift costs to the providers like doctors, hospitals and insurance companies.
Richman said the pick of Ryan as the GOP vice presidential nominee has made Medicare a much more "salient issue" in the election that both sides are trying to sue for political gain.
"The truth may be a casualty in both cases," Ryan said.
The real plans
Republicans repeatedly claim that Obama has cut $716 billion from Medicare. The reality is that these are reductions in the future growth in the program over the next decade. These spending cuts play out largely in reduced payments to providers.
More than $100 billion in the reductions target Medicare Advantage supplemental insurance programs that many seniors opt to add on to their Medicare benefits. It reduces the services these insurance companies offer that are more affordable for the government under the traditional Medicare benefits plan.
The reductions do not affect basic benefits such as hospital care, lab tests, visits to the doctor and outpatient care.
Democrats have gone on the attack saying the Ryan budget, which Romney has endorsed, would end Medicare by turning it into a voucher program. They claim seniors could lose benefits they currently have because they will be forced to buy insurance in the private market.
Under the Ryan plan people currently 55 or over can opt to use the current Medicare benefits structure rather than getting a yearly check from the government to purchase insurance. This means current beneficiaries and those who will age into the system over the next decade won't lose any benefits.
People entering the system in 2022 would have to use the voucher plan. If the cost of the private insurance plan a person needs costs more than the government subsidy, that person would have to pay the difference.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that this could cost those entering the program in 2022 up to $6,400 a year in out-of-pocket medical expenses.
Richman said Social Security is not as big of an issue this election cycle as Medicare because at this point most economists agree that the program can "be tweaked in a variety of ways" to keep the program solvent.
Fellow Republicans convinced Ryan to abandon attempts in earlier versions of his budget to privatize Social Security by turning it into a program similar to 401(k) plans. A similar proposal by President George W. Bush in 2006 flopped after a huge outcry from senior citizens and their lobbying organizations such as AARP.
Straight answers wanted
Ginger McDaniels, spokeswoman for the Virginia chapter of AARP, said many members of the powerful lobbying organization feel candidates are being vague about their plans for Medicare and Social Security. She said they're also saying those plans will go a long way in determining their vote.
McDaniels said AARP — which is holding a meeting in Newport News Sept. 19 to discuss Medicare proposals — has recently called on candidates to give fuller explanations of their positions than those found in the attack ads.
"Voters deserve more than 30-second sound bites," she said. "Candidates owe voters straight answers about where they stand."
Selma "BeBe" Petock, an 81-year-old Obama supporter from Newport News, said she is embarrassed as an American by the attack ads run by both sides.
"People that don't know who they want to vote for are maybe going to make a wrong decision based on the ads," Petock said. "Are the ads truthful? I don't think they are from either side."
Dems can capitalize
Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said the Medicare debate as it's being played out may give Democrats an advantage.
He pointed to Quinnipiac University Poll released last week that showed voters in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin — which like Virginia are key swing states — reject turning Medicare into a voucher program by a wide margin.
He said Democrats don't have to win over a majority of senior citizens, who tend to lean conservative. He said reducing the GOP advantage by as little as 2 to 3 percentage points with a voting bloc that comes out to the polls in large numbers could tip the scales.
"Two to 3 percent in Virginia this year could be the difference between winning and losing," Kidd said.
From the polls
Here's what recent polls and exit polls show about candidate support from senior citizens.
Quinnipiac University, New York Times, CBS News Poll Aug. 8:
Barack Obama, 42 percent; Mitt Romney, 52 percent
CNN presidential exit polls:
2008: Barack Obama, 46 percent; John McCain, 53 percent
2004: George W. Bush, 49 percent; John Kerry, 51 percent
Quinnipiac University, New York Times, CBS News Poll Aug. 8:
Tim Kaine (D), 42 percent; George Allen (R): 53 percent
CNN U.S. Senate exit polls:
2008: Mark Warner (D), 64 percent; James Gilmore (R), 36 percent
2006: George Allen (R), 50 percent; Jim Webb (D), 50 percent
Campaign messages to seniors
President Barack Obama Virginia state spokeswoman Marianne von Nordeck:
"America's seniors have earned their Medicare and Social Security through a lifetime of hard work and responsibility, and President Obama believes we must hold up our end of the bargain for our seniors. That's why he strongly opposes efforts to balance the budget on the backs of seniors, and he continues to defend both programs against Republican proposals to take the retirement savings of a generation and hand it over to Wall Street and efforts to end Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher program*. The fact is, President Obama strengthened Medicare for 1.2 million Virginians, and last year, his plan saved seniors in the 'donut hole' an average of $600 in prescription costs."
Republican National Committee Victory Campaign Virginia spokesman Michael Short:
"Seniors are a critical bloc of voters, and we're not ceding one inch of ground to President Obama. Of the more than 1 million voter contacts we've made since April 1, literally hundreds of thousands have been Virginia seniors. When it comes to important issues such as health care, Governor Romney is clearly the best choice for Virginia's seniors. On its present course, Medicare is going bankrupt and the $700 billion the president cuts to pay for Obamacare* makes it worse, not better.* Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will reverse these harmful cuts to strengthen Medicare for today's seniors and reform the program so it can continue to be there for the retirement security of future generations."
George Allen spokeswoman Emily Davis:
"Too many seniors tell George Allen they're worried about their health care, rising food and electricity prices and what kind of America their children and grandchildren will inherit. George Allen is committed to keeping our promise to seniors by strengthening Medicare and that begins by repealing the health care tax law that cuts $716 billion from the program*. George Allen will apply his proven economic growth record with job-creating tax relief and unleashed American energy resources that will provide fixed-income seniors the healthy economy they need for more affordable food, gas and electricity."
Tim Kaine spokeswoman Lily Adams:
"Tim Kaine is committed to strengthening programs like Medicare and Social Security that are critical to the retirement of millions of Virginians. He has offered commonsense reforms, like allowing the federal government to negotiate lower rates for Medicare prescription drugs at a savings of $24 billion per year, without jeopardizing care. As Virginia's senator, he'll oppose efforts to privatize these programs, reduce services, or shift costs onto the backs of retirees."
U.S. Rep Rob Wittman:
"Social Security and Medicare provide critical benefits promised to seniors by the federal government. Those promises must not be broken. I will continue to support the protection of benefits for seniors who are counting on Medicare and Social Security, and the preservation of these programs for the future, for their grandchildren. Doing nothing leaves these vital programs in jeopardy."
Democrat Adam Cook:
"My grandparents worked hard their entire lives and now depend on Social Security and Medicare for their living and medical expenses. After a lifetime of hard work, no senior should have to worry about putting a roof over their head, food in their cupboard or essential medicine in their cabinet. My opponent voted for the Ryan budget that would replace traditional Medicare with a risky voucher scheme and would raise the average senior's medical costs by more than $6,000 per year. These drastic changes would unnecessarily increase the burden on millions of older Americans who can least afford it. Let me be absolutely clear, if elected I would oppose any efforts to privatize Medicare or Social Security and would never support benefit cuts to either of these vital programs."
U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell:
"Like so many Americans, my parents and my two aunts depend on Medicare – a promise made to them by the government and a promise we must keep. That is why I support a budget plan that fulfills our deep obligation to America's current seniors and makes absolutely no changes to Medicare benefits for anyone over the age of 55. The president's plan is the wrong way to honor America's seniors, and that's why I have voted to overturn it and in contrast have voted for legislation that fulfills our obligation to strengthen and protect Medicare."
Democrat Paul Hirschbiel:
"My mother is 96 years old and lives in an assisted living facility. My parents worked hard for many years paying into Social Security and Medicare. Today, thanks to those payments, Medicare and Social Security provide her the income and benefits to live a good quality of life in her waning years. These are benefits she has earned, and as your next congressman I'll work to protect and strengthen Medicare and Social Security for each and every generation."
U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott:
"The most important priority when it comes to seniors is to make sure that Social Security and Medicare are protected for their current recipients and for future generations. These programs were instrumental in reducing poverty among our seniors. Our goal should be to preserve them, not to fundamentally alter them as Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan have suggested. While important, Social Security and Medicare are not the only issues facing seniors. We must also protect investments that help our seniors lead fulfilling lives. These include: NIH funding for research on the chronic diseases of old age like Alzheimer's, transportation resources that help our non-driving seniors get around, and outreach campaigns that give seniors the knowledge to protect themselves from consumer scams and rip-offs."
Republican candidate Dean Longo did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. Rep J. Randy Forbes:
"Few issues are as important or as urgent to seniors as ensuring the strength of Social Security and Medicare today, and guaranteeing it for tomorrow. Our promise to seniors can only be fulfilled if we address the pitfalls that currently plague these important services. I have fought for legislation to stop the diverting of funds out of Social Security and supported a bill that would avert drastic Medicare cuts to physicians that would have reduced access to quality care for seniors. I was honored to have recently been awarded the 'Guardian of Seniors' Rights' award for this work. I look forward to continue my work to partner in our communities to host important events for our seniors on issues such as preventing identity theft."
Democratic Chesapeake City Councilwoman Ella P. Ward:
"First, I will fight any attempts to privatize Social Security or Medicare. Seniors, if issued Medicare vouchers (now under serious consideration by Congressional Republicans), are not in a viable position to deal with private sector providers. Second, I will fight any attempts to reduce veterans benefits. Third, I will work with local groups like Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia to build local support for senior services covering, for example, housing, transportation, education and training, consumer protection, identity theft, and community linkages from Chesapeake to Emporia and beyond."
*These statements have been disputed or proven false by independent fact-checking organizations.