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Democrats Facing Political Fallout on Medicare

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Bera is one of nearly 60 House Democrats who signed a letter urging HHS to maintain this year’s Medicare Advantage spending levels.

Three words strike fear into the hearts of this cycle’s most endangered House Democrats: Medicare Advantage cuts.

In February, President Barack Obama’s administration proposed cutting from Medicare Advantage as part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans seized on the administration’s announcement and are now plotting to use it to hammer Democrats in the midterm elections this fall.

Seven months from Election Day, angst over the program is pitting the Medicare Advantage’s vulnerable Democratic backers against the party’s more liberal members, many of whom hail from safe districts.

“We’ve strongly encouraged the administration that this is the wrong time to do this, particularly with what’s already happened with the Medicare cuts and the [Affordable Care Act],” Rep. Ami Bera, a California Democrat who faces a tough race in November, told CQ Roll Call last week.

That’s one reason Bera and nearly 60 House Democrats signed a letter urging the Department of Health and Human Services to maintain this year’s spending levels into the next fiscal year.

Medicare Advantage is an alternative to Medicare that is administered through private insurers, although the government subsidizes more per enrollee than under traditional Medicare. It’s a popular program among seniors, who are a key and reliable voting bloc in midterm elections.

The timing couldn’t be worse for vulnerable Democrats, whose electoral fate continues to be tied to the president’s landmark health care law. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the government department overseeing the payment rates, is scheduled to release its payment rate on April 7. But the political problem is that open enrollment for Medicare Advantage starts in October, as early voters head to the polls.

“It is surprising that the Obama administration is insisting on these cuts this year despite their obvious unpopularity,” said Dan Conston, spokesman for the center-right group American Action Network, a player in congressional races. “Survey after survey has shown that seniors overwhelmingly oppose the new Medicare Advantage cuts and that it will be effective in galvanizing opposition to Obamacare.”

Conston’s group is already targeting Democrats with advertisements on the proposed cuts in a handful of House and Senate races. Earlier this year, Republicans successfully used the issue in a House special election in Florida district with a large senior population.

“To pay for Obamacare, Washington is forcing seniors to endure deep cuts to Medicare Advantage,” warned the narrator in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce advertisement attacking the Democratic nominee there, Alex Sink, who lost to Republican David Jolly.

Privately, Republicans said polling shows voters often juxtapose Medicare Advantage with Medicare — which means the attacks resonate with seniors who are not even enrolled in Medicare Advantage.

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