Republicans are working tochange the  health care conversation with atried-and-true technique used by both parties over the years:telling seniors their Medicare coverage may be in danger. (Photo:Shutterstock)

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Once again, Medicare is front and center in this fall'scampaigns.

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Democrats throughout the election season have been hammeringRepublicans over votes and lawsuits that would eliminateinsurance protections for preexisting conditions for consumers.

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But now Republicans are working to change the health care conversation with a tried-and-truetechnique used by both parties over the years: telling seniorstheir Medicare coverage may be in danger.

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Related: Social Security & Medicare rules: How a few'insignificant' changes add up

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It's not yet clear, however, whether these dependable voters areresponding to the warning.

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Republicans charge that Democrats' support for expandingMedicare would threaten the viability of the program for theseniors who depend on it.

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“The Democrats' plan means that after a life of hard work andsacrifice, seniors would no longer be able to depend on thebenefits they were promised,” wrote President Donald Trump in a guest column for USA Today on Oct. 10. “Under theDemocrats' plan, today's Medicare would be forced to die.”

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In a speech to the National Press Club on Oct. 8, House Speaker Paul Ryan saidalmost exactly the same thing. “Democrats call it'Medicare-for-all,' because it sounds good, but in reality, itactually ends Medicare in its current form,” Ryan said.

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It's a sentiment being expressed by Republicans up and down theballot. In New Jersey, where Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber isrunning for an open U.S. House seat, he enlisted his elderly fatherin one of hisads. After the candidate notes that his opponent is“interested” in Medicare-for-all, Webber's father, Jim Webber,says, “That would end Medicare as we know it.”

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Fact-checkers have repeatedly challenged these claims. Healthinsurance analyst Linda Blumberg of the Urban Institute told PolitiFact that suggesting Medicare-for-all would disruptcurrent enrollees' coverage is a “horrible mischaracterization ofthe proposal.” Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post's “FactChecker” column noted that a leading proposal “in theory would expand benefitsfor seniors.”

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Furthermore, in New Jersey, Webber's Democratic opponent, Mikie Sherrill, is not one of themany Democrats who have specifically endorsed the idea ofMedicare-for-all. In fact, how to assure health coverage for allAmericans remains a point of contention among Democrats. They arefar from united on the topic of expanding Medicare.

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But Republicans have pushed the issue this fall, said Harvardpublic health professor and polling expert Robert Blendon, because“people over 60 are very high-turnout voters,” particularly innon-presidential election years like 2018.

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Issues involving Medicare and Social Security can motivate thoseolder voters even more, said Blendon, “because they are sodependent on [those programs] for the rest of their lives. Retireesare very scared about outliving their benefits.”

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Medicare is often a rallying cry for politicians from bothparties. And it can be critical in both presidential and off-yearelections.

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In 1996, Democrats in general, and President Bill Clinton inparticular, campaigned on the early GOP attempts to rein inMedicare spending. Republicans coined the term “Mediscare”to describe Democrats' attacks. But in the 2010 midterm contests,just after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Republicanszoomedin on the billions of dollars of Medicare payment reductions tohealth providers to help pay for the rest of the law, sparkingprotests against Democrats around the country.

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The irony is that after Republicans regained control of theHouse in that election, Ryan, then head of the House BudgetCommittee, opted to call for a repeal of everything in the ACAexcept the Medicare reductions the GOP had so stronglycampaigned against.

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Democrats in 2018 have hammered back, noting that both Trump andthe GOP Congress have proposed even more cuts in Medicare and thatunder Republican leadership the insolvency date of the Medicaretrust fund has gottencloser.

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According to Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellalso misstepped when, in an interview with Bloomberg News, he blamed higher deficitnumbers on Medicare and other entitlement programs rather than theGOP's tax cuts from 2017.

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“We can't sustain the Medicare we have at the rate we're going,and that's the height of irresponsibility,” he said.

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That came after Trump's economic adviser Larry Kudlow suggested that theadministration will push for larger entitlement cuts in 2019.

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“First they passed a tax bill that gave a huge windfall tocorporations and the wealthy, despite warnings from nonpartisanscorekeepers that it would explode the deficit,” said a statementfrom Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate FinanceCommittee. “Then, before the ink was even dry the knives came outfor Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”

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Despite the coordinated talking points, it is unclear whetherthis year's GOP attacks on Democrats over Medicare will work. Thatis not just because Democrats have ammunition to throw back, butalso because seniors don't seem particularly threatened by the ideathat expanding insurance to others could jeopardize their owncoverage.

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In a poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in September2017, seniors were no more likely than younger respondents to saythey thought health care costs, quality and availability would getworse if the U.S. instituted a national health plan. Fewer than athird of respondents overall, as well as those 65 and older, saidthey thought national health insurance would worsen their owncoverage. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent programof the foundation.)

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In addition, pollster Geoff Garin, president of Hart Research,said in a conference call with reporters Oct. 15 that the attackson Medicare-for-all had not shown up in polls yet. But he said he'sskeptical of how much impact they could have.

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“The basic idea of expanded health care in America is generallypretty popular,” he said.

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Still, Harvard's Blendon said he understands why Republicans aretrying: “Seniors are critical for Republicans to maintain theirmajority.”

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KHN's coverage related to aging and improving care of olderadults is supported in part by The John A. HartfordFoundation.

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Kaiser HealthNews (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is aneditorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation whichis not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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