By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
LAKEWOOD As Medicare has leapt into the top-tier of issues that will decide the presidential contest, Colorados population of older adults is ballooning.
Colorado now boasts the fourth fastest-increasing population of seniors in the country and these aging baby boomers who vote in large numbers could help drive election results in key swing counties of this crucial swing state.
Mitt Romneys pick of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, for his running mate has put Medicare at the center of the national debate. Ryan supports dismantling the public health insurance program for seniors and replacing it with a voucher program for future Medicare recipients, those now under age 55.
During his first visit to Colorado as the vice-presidential candidate last week, Ryan didnt utter a single word about Medicare, but the budget hawk revved up more than 2,000 fans at Lakewood High School by promising to usher in a new era of belt-tightening.
Then over the weekend in Florida, with his 78-year-old mother at his side, Ryan accused President Obama of raiding Medicare to divert more than $700 billion into funding for the Affordable Care Act. Ryan claimed Obamas plan could shutter one out of six hospitals and nursing homes.
Obama shot back during an appearance in New Hampshire saying that the Republicans are the ones who want to gut Medicare in order to give tax breaks to the super-rich. Obama said the only changes to Medicare now are that preventive services like cancer screenings will be free. Obama told voters that the $716 billion comes from reducing reimbursements to hospitals and reducing waste and fraud which would make Medicaresolvent for an additional eight years.
Colorado has a significantly smaller percentage of seniors about 11 percent than traditional magnets for retirees like Florida, where about 22 percent of the population is 65 and older. But the unprecedented population growth among older adults is far outpacing other population growth across Colorado. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of adults ages 60 to 64 who were on the cusp of Medicare eligibility, increased by a whopping 86 percent in Colorado, while the population as a whole grew by 17 percent.
This is a boom and its hitting right now. This decade is where were going to have the fastest growth, said Elizabeth Garner, Colorados state demographer, who released a report in July on the unprecedented increase among aging Coloradans.Garner says Colorado has never had a large population of older adults, but the young ski bums, federal workers and East Coast transplants who flocked to Colorado in the 1960s and 70s and stayed are now aging and retiring in Colorado.
The trend is most pronounced in some of the Front Range counties where Colorados presidential race could be decided. Arapahoe, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson and Larimer counties led the state during the last decade in growth among people ages 65 and older. Altogether, Colorados population of baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, is expected to increase the states population over 65 by 150 percent between 2010 and 2030.
Medicare issues will definitely be hitting now. The impact will be significant in Colorado, Garner said.
Altogether, Colorado has more than 665,000 Medicare recipients and costs for their care exceeded $5.3 billion in 2009, the last year for which data are available. Nationwide, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 49 million people are on Medicare now. That number is expected to grow to about 75 million by 2025.
With so many seniors invested in the popular government program and so much money at stake, Mediscare tactics are in full swing on both sides of the political debate.
A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post has found that a majority 55 percent of Republicans oppose changing Medicare. Of Democrats, 68 percent said Medicare should continue as it is today; among independents, 53 percent preferred the status quo. The poll was conducted in late July and early August before Romney selected Ryan.
In Colorado, seniors on both sides are pleased that health issues have risen to the top of the nations agenda, but they differ sharply on their views of the candidates.
Henry Barlow, 77, moved to Highlands Ranch with his wife last year to be closer to their two young grandchildren. A volunteer with the Colorado Senior Lobby and a member of the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare, Barlow is a former professor at Cleveland State University who was director of the schools gerontology program.
Barlow said the ads claiming that the Affordable Care Act is draining money from Medicare are patently false and that cost-savings for Medicare in the health law actually help extend Medicares solvency. Hes dismayed by Ryans voucher plan, comparing it to the disastrous strategy from the Vietnam War: destroying a village to save it.
Whats at stake here is the preservation of Medicare. My reaction to the voucher idea is you get less, you pay more and you die quicker, said Barlow, a Democrat who supports Obama.
No doubt about it, Barlow said. (With vouchers) one is left in a position where not only is Medicare greatly damaged, we in effect greatly damage the whole health system. We open the floodgates for the private health insurance system to charge whatever they want.
Barlow wants health reforms that rein in health costs.
I dont mind the for-profit insurance companies being in the arena, but we need a level playing field, Barlow said.
He said the Medicare debate brings crucial issues into sharp focus.
It raises a nasty question. What are older people for? They are here not to be dependent, not to be moochers. Theyre here to stand up and provide a moral example for everyone else. You pay attention to future needs and you care about future generations.
At Paul Ryans campaign rally in Lakewood, Irv Doty, 75, was so thrilled with the addition of Ryan to the GOP ticket that he literally danced out of the high school gym after Ryans 20-minute speech.
I like Romney a lot better now, said Doty, a Republican.
Health issues are on the front burner for Doty.
Medicare needs to be revamped. Its become more expensive and less available.
You cant throw grandma off the cliff, but you have to solve the problem, Doty said.
Said his wife, JoAnne Doty, 70, We have to do something about entitlements.
The couple said they are financially secure and would be willing to pay a greater share of their health costs.
Dorothy Light, who is in her 70s, brought her husband, Ernest, who is in his 80s to the rally, pushing him in a wheelchair.
Im not alarmed, Dorothy Light said of Ryans plans to reform Medicare.
I think weve got to do something about Medicare. We have to raise the age (of eligibility), limit benefits and clean up the fraud, Light said. If we dont do something, Medicare is gutted.
Her grandson, Daniel Dorchuck, 18, who is headed to Duke University as a freshman this fall, joined his grandparents at the rally and shares their enthusiasm for Ryan.
Change is better than bankruptcy, said Dorchuck, who welcomes Ryans honesty about the need to cut federal spending.
The AARP, the lobbying group for adults ages 50 plus, is not making an endorsement in the presidential contest, but is urging members to speak up about Medicare through a new campaign called Youve Earned a SAY.
We want Social Security and Medicare to be there for our children and our childrens children. Weve earned these benefits and we feel they are major safety nets. We know that these programs keep people out of poverty, said Angela Cortez, communications director for AARP Colorado.
The group is conducting a national listening tour with older adults and plans to make a splash at the University of Denver when one of the presidential debates is held there on October 3.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is also stepping up critiques of the Ryan budget.
Choosing Paul Ryan as Mitt Ryans vice presidential candidate has changed the whole dynamic of this campaign, said Dan Adcock, director of policy and government relations for the group.
He said Republicans are now using a divide and conquer strategy where they try to convince older seniors that Ryans proposed changes wont affect them.
Thats just not true, said Adcock. The way the newest version of the Ryan plan is structured, you get a voucher and you compete. You can use that on a traditional Medicare plan or a private plan.
He said policy experts expect private companies to try to cherry-pick the younger and relatively healthier older adults, which could then send traditional Medicare into a death spiral.
The new conversation about Medicare will be especially relevant in states like Florida, Iowa, Nevada and Pennsylvania, Adcock predicted.
Colorados senior surge means that policymakers here will need to pay close attention to the needs and the political views of this ever more powerful group.
Currently, weve got a very young old population, Garner said. They are basically 65 to 70.
But health costs surge with age and people ages 65 and older could eventually represent nearly 1 of every 5 Coloradans.
Garner cites data in her report on aging that show health costs increasing from an average of about $1,800 a year for young adults in their 20s and early 30s to more than $4,800 for those over 65.
The fastest growth industry in Colorado over the last 10 years has been health care. That is due in large part to the aging of the baby boomers. Thats when things start hurting a little. Even at 55, you can have problems with hips and knees. Thats when you start needing a little more health care.