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Republicans aim to dismantle Medicare, Biden says

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. -- Campaigning in South Florida, Vice President Joe Biden lashed out against House Republicans' proposed changes in Medicare, telling a roomful of retirees that the plan would jeopardize the future healthcare of millions of older Americans.

Biden said the Medicare plan in a House GOP budget would effectively dismantle Medicare as it is currently structured. Senior citizen-rich Florida, a key battleground state in the presidential race, has about 3.3 million Medicare recipients.

"We believe in strengthening Medicare, and they don't," Biden said. "We can make Medicare solvent again. We don't have to gut it to make it last."

Medicare covers healthcare for 49 million seniors and disabled people, providing essential protection against unpredictable medical costs in retirement.

But the program is widely acknowledged to be in serious trouble. Its giant trust fund for inpatient care is projected to become insolvent in 2024, meaning that payroll taxes collected will not be enough to cover the full cost of expected benefits.

Republicans would convert Medicare into a system dominated by private health insurance plans closely regulated by the government. Future retirees would get a fixed payment to buy either private coverage or sign up for a new government plan modeled on traditional Medicare. The plan counts on competition among the plans to help keep costs in check, but the annual government payment would also be limited by tying it to economic growth.

That's the basic approach embodied in the budget released this week by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, and seconded by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Theoretically, such a system could help rein in Medicare cost increases, economists say.

The question is whether it would be politically acceptable to seniors and future generations, with polls indicating that the public is resistant to major changes.

Recognizing the sensitivity, Ryan's plan would exempt anyone now 55 or older.

Biden said that if Republicans in Congress gain a president with one of "their amen corner of Romney, [Rick] Santorum, and [Newt] Gingrich," "I promise you, you will see the end of Medicare as we know it."