U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler told a group of senior citizens Friday that he opposes "dismantling" the $500 billion-a-year Medicare program, as he claimed some Republicans have proposed.
"I feel some in Congress want to basically give our seniors a discount coupon and a get-well card," Chandler said in a speech to about 120 at the Lexington Senior Center on the 45th anniversary of Medicare.
Chandler, a Versailles Democrat who probably faces a tough re-election race next year, took aim at a proposal by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, dismissing it as a voucher system.
Republican Andy Barr, a Lexington attorney who lost to Chandler in last year's 6th Congressional District election by only 648 votes, already has announced his candidacy for next year's race.
Barr said in a phone interview that Chandler's campaign strategy "is to scare senior citizens."
Barr said he would have voted for the Ryan plan, along with several other proposals to make sure Medicare stays solvent.
"Ryan's plan makes no changes for people over 55," Barr said. "Chandler's plan is to bankrupt Medicare. I'm interested in saving it."
Chandler, who did not mention Barr by name, said Ryan basically would convert Medicare from an entitlement program with defined benefits to an insurance system with a defined government contribution.
Ryan's plan would rely more on private insurance, Chandler said, giving Medicare recipients a fixed sum of money to buy their own coverage.
"Can you imagine seniors actually having to go out on their own in the private market and having to negotiate with these big insurance companies to try to get health coverage?" Chandler asked.
Chandler acknowledged that Ryan's plan would affect only people who are now younger than 55, but "it's still a slippery slope."
Chandler, 51, said Medicare covers 47 million people who are 65 or older or who have disabilities. About 40,000 people in Fayette County receive Medicare, and about 20 percent of all people living in Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District rely on the program, he said.
By 2030, the number of Americans on Medicare is expected to rise to 78 million, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Chandler said in an interview after his speech that possible adjustments in the program could include cutting the costs of services that are provided.
"Cost containment is something we have done a pretty poor job of," he said.
Asked whether cutting costs of services could mean fewer services for senior citizens, Chandler said, "No, not at all. We must protect the services but I think we would find problems with many of the costs."
Juanita Preuitt, who has lived in Lexington for nine years, said she's concerned about the future of Medicare.
"All of us old people just want to make sure that Medicare is not ended and remains affordable," Preuitt said.