SARASOTA, Fla. - At the Senior Friendship Center, a bustling hub tucked amid palm fronds and azaleas where elders gather to socialize, exercise, and seek medical care, political banter is interwoven with gentle ribbing and flagrant flirting.
When talk turned to Medicare and Social Security in the days leading up to tomorrow’s Florida Republican primary, this critical voting bloc voiced disappointment that the issues disproportionately affecting seniors have been notably absent from debates and candidates’ stump speeches here. Most older voters say they don’t know what distinguishes the GOP contenders from each other when it comes to the future of the two programs.
“I think the candidates want to stay away from it, keep it quiet until after the primaries,’’ said Ralph Lawson, a 71-year-old retired financial planner from Dracut, Mass., in between dancing to live jazz. “They don’t want to upset seniors, the majority of the voters here.’’
Sarasota County, where Newt Gingrich drew more than 4,000 in a campaign appearance last week and Rick Santorum has set up his Florida headquarters, has one of the highest proportions of seniors in the country, with nearly a third of the population aged 65 or older, according to 2010 Census figures.
The GOP candidates might be surprised that many seniors do not reject out of hand two major proposals made earlier in the campaign: raising the age of eligibility for Medicare - the health insurance plan for the elderly - and its full or partial privatization. This might reflect the fact that most would be grandfathered into the existing program. Some say privatizing Medicare makes sense because something drastic has to be done to slice the nation’s debt.
This view echoes the finding of a Kaiser Family Foundation poll last spring reporting that 61 percent of Republicans 65 or older favored gradually raising the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 67 for future retirees.
It’s been nearly three months since Mitt Romney announced his plan to rein in skyrocketing costs by increasing the eligibility age and allowing seniors to choose between traditional Medicare or federal vouchers to buy private insurance. His plan was light on politically sensitive details, such as how much more seniors would be expected to pay, and he has not elaborated.
Medicare was a politically combustible issue last year, and Democrats are threatening to make it so again in this year’s general elections. House Republicans last spring passed a budget that included a radical prescription, one that would privatize Medicare and restrict the value of vouchers to the general inflation rate. Early in the campaign, Gingrich characterized the plan as “right-wing social engineering,’’ and the Senate rejected the budget, with some Republicans backing away from the Medicare transformation.
The author of that plan, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, developed a new proposal last month with Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. The plan, similar to Romney’s, would preserve government-run Medicare as an option alongside a gamut of private insurance programs. Romney and Gingrich have endorsed it.
Elders who are supporters of the Tea Party divide sharply on proposals for reducing Medicare and Social Security, said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard government professor who coauthored a book about the movement. She said the Tea Party, which preaches limited government and fiscal restraint, draws lifelong conservatives who are mostly older, white, and middle-class Americans.
The well-funded national Tea Party organizations pushing for lower taxes strongly support Medicare privatization, yet grass-roots supporters worry about losing benefits they feel they have earned by working hard their entire lives, said Skocpol.
“When it comes to Social Security and Medicare, politicians playing to the Tea Party have a tricky task,’’ Skocpol said. “The person who strikes me as understanding that the most is Gingrich. He has been trying to attract votes by walking a very careful line.’’
Many Florida seniors who support the Tea Party believe that Congress could easily find enough money to keep Social Security and Medicare afloat by cutting waste and abuse instead of benefits, said Steve Vernon, vice president of the Manatee Tea Party.
While Gingrich was lambasted by some in the Tea Party movement for his critique of the original Ryan plan, Skocpol said, the former House speaker’s sentiments did not hurt him with the grass-roots movement. And his move during last Monday’s debate in Tampa to show his support for the Medicare prescription drug benefit - despite its expense and amid Romney’s accusations he was guilty of influence peddling in promoting the proposal in 2003 - may have won him even more favor with Florida seniors, she said.
But Francis Kendrick, an 85-year-old retired oral pathologist for the National Institutes of Health, believes every option should be considered to drive down costs.
“My feeling is half a loaf is better than none,’’ Kendrick said. “If we don’t take some prudent action, we’re going to lose the whole thing.’’
In the airy atrium of the Senior Friendship Center, Paul Huff, 88, set down his pool cue to weigh in: “We should be going after the aliens getting free health care instead.’’
In an adjoining room, Red White, an 82-year-old retired photo engraver and former nightclub owner from Dorchester, said it would be reasonable to delay Medicare benefits by several years, given how much longer people are living.
“The younger generation is going to have it tough because there will be nothing for them,’’ said White, while playing a game of pinochle.
Even some younger Republican seniors say it makes sense to consider increasing the eligibility age. Jay De Feo, a 57-year-old home repairman who visited the senior center’s health clinic last week, said he supports the premise of Romney’s Medicare plan even though that would probably mean at least two more years he will be without insurance.
With his business slowing down, De Feo, who has liver disease, said he has had to forgo health insurance, saving $250 a month. On this day, he paid $15 at the senior clinic, staffed by volunteer doctors who have retired from their practices.
“I have worked my whole life to get to 65. But I feel as an American we’re all going to have to do our part and if that’s what it takes to lower the deficit, I’m going to make the sacrifice and wait two more years,’’ said De Feo, who is undecided about whom to vote for tomorrow but is leaning toward Romney because of his business background.
Dr. Thomas O’Malley, an 80-year-old physician at the clinic, said he switched from Republican to Democrat two years ago because of his belief in universal health care. “Privatizing Medicare would be an unmitigated disaster,’’ he said. Those who support it, including some of his patients, are deeply mistaken he said, because private enterprise would only increase the costs of care. “They’re nuts,’’ O’Malley said. “They don’t know what’s good for them.’’