Preserving Medicare is a main concern for some California voters

The Sacramento BeeOctober 3, 2012 

Bill Schuman, a semiretired 67-year-old management consultant who is active in the Republican Club at Sun City Lincoln Hills, is concerned that the Medicare coverage that he and his wife, Beth, automatically began receiving at age 65 won't be there when his grown children reach retirement age.

"My biggest concern is for younger people, that they have a safety net," said Schuman. "There should be a safety net for them."

His Sun City Lincoln Hills neighbor Ralph Novak, 73, who retired after 24 years' service in the Air Force and another two decades working for the Pentagon, shares his concern.

"I have health insurance coming out of my ears," said Novak, "but I have two sons in their mid-40s who have no medical plans, no retirement, nothing. My big concern with Medicare is what happens to the generations that follow us."

They agree on the heart of the issue – the importance of preserving Medicare, which accounts for 16 percent of the federal budget – yet Schuman is voting for Republican Mitt Romney, and Novak is voting to re-elect President Barack Obama.

In Sun City Lincoln Hills, the active aging community of 11,000 that rose from the farmland on the edge of Lincoln beginning in 1999, a crisp divergence of views arises from residents' mutual concern about the future of Medicare.

It's also one of the hottest election issues nationally, which puts Sun City Lincoln Hills voters on the cutting edge of the debate.

"It's a campaign issue, because it's easy to demagogue the other side whether you're a Republican or Democrat," Marilyn Moon, a former Medicare trustee who's now a senior vice president for the American Institutes for Research, said in a video prepared for her association's website.

"To say we have to change Medicare makes people a little crazy."

Established in 1965, Medicare today provides health coverage for 40 million people age 65 and older – 4.1 million of them in California – at a cost of $560 billion in 2010 alone. It is a huge and hugely expensive program, one that's expected to double its number of beneficiaries within the next two decades.

Even so, research consistently shows that Americans think it's worth the cost. Along with Social Security, Medicare has raised millions of elderly people above poverty level in their last years of life.

As a result, Medicare enjoys substantial nationwide popularity: In a 2011 Harris Interactive survey, 88 percent of respondents said they supported Medicare.

"Medicare is highly valued by people across the political spectrum and up and down the age spectrum," said Cheryl Matheis, a Medicare expert and AARP senior vice president for health care strategy. "It doesn't take something earth-shattering to fix it.

"The disagreement is how. What do you do? Do you find ways to bring more revenue to the program? Do you raise the age of eligibility?"

People 'pretty adamant'

Reforms through the federal Affordable Care Act would keep Medicare on good financial footing through 2024, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, while Romney's proposed repeal of the act would deplete the Medicare trust fund by 2016.

The Romney campaign proposes instead to save the program through "premium selection," which would change Medicare for people not yet age 55 into a system providing them a fixed amount to buy private health insurance.

Because Medicare is vital for seniors' well-being, and because keeping the program solvent is both complicated and crucial, experts say it's easy for politicians to play on older voters' fears.

"Nobody really has the expertise or analysis they need to understand," said UC Davis political science professor Robert Huckfeldt, who has written widely about partisan politics. "People have to embrace somebody's line of reasoning, so the tiebreaker is where people's inclinations lie.

"I think people have an almost infinite ability for beating on information until they can reconcile it with the position they already hold."

In Sun City Lincoln Hills, residents may not have answers, but they have opinions. Along with the economy in general, Medicare is one of the top issues shaping how residents plan to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

"People are pretty adamant about their beliefs, and they're politically active," said Schuman, who moved to the development two years ago from the Bay Area.

A good sprinkling of Romney signs, as well as a handful of Obama signs, dot small front yards on the neighborhood's winding streets. More than 90 percent of Sun City Lincoln Hills residents are registered to vote, compared with 75 percent statewide.

And vote, they do: In 2008, Placer County records show, 96 percent of registered voters in Sun City Lincoln Hills cast ballots, with turnout in a few neighborhood precincts hitting 98 percent. By comparison, more than 79 percent of registered voters statewide went to the polls.

Residents tend to vote conservative, but not by overwhelming margins. In the last presidential election, Republican John McCain earned about 55 percent of the vote in the neighborhood, and in 2010, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman garnered about 60 percent of the vote.

A statistical snapshot shows that residents are affluent, educated and, in large majority, white: Sun City Lincoln Hills is one of the Sacramento region's least diverse communities, census figures show, with roughly 91 percent of residents non-Hispanic whites.

Concerns about premiums

Romney supporters in the neighborhood worry that the Affordable Care Act as well as the country's economic problems will spell the end of Medicare for them and generations to come.

As Tom Webb, co-chairman of the Sun City Lincoln Hills Republican Club, said: "In my opinion, Obamacare would make Medicare disappear. If that happens, seniors will really be stuck."

Webb, 76, moved to the community in 2002 from Los Gatos, where he worked as a marketing executive in the electronics industry.

"I wish I understood more about Obamacare," he said. "People don't know much, and they're more frightened than anything else.

"What we can't have is health care taken away from us. We need it more and more as we get older. My wife has had dual hip and knee replacements. I have a pacemaker. Without some sort of health care, we'd be in dire straits."

At a recent Republican Club meeting at the development's lavish Kilaga Springs Lodge – one of its two community centers, nestled next to one of its two 18-hole golf courses – members told co-chairman Bob Alaimo some of their concerns about Medicare: Their premiums continue going up, he said, yet fewer doctors take Medicare patients.

At 72, Alaimo is a retired research scientist who bought a house in Sun City Lincoln Hills not long after it opened, then moved there from New York in 2001.

"I had bypass surgery in 2002 before I was on Medicare," he said. "My private insurance covered most of it. If I had to have that under Medicare, would it be covered?

"People at the meeting were concerned about decisions being made by someone other than their physician."

Shirley Malick admits she doesn't know all the details of Medicare reform, and keeping up with the daily ins and outs of the issues on TV gets her too riled up and worried.

Even so, the 73-year-old widow – a retired special education teacher who moved to Sun City Lincoln Hills from San Jose seven years ago – proudly displays a Romney sign in her yard, because she wants people to know where she stands.

"I don't want Obamacare, and that includes Medicare reform," said Malick. "I'm banking that with Medicare and the debt we're in, because of Mitt Romney's values and knowledge, he'll work to get it straightened out. I feel I can trust him to do the right thing for the country."

It 'makes a difference'

The Ebenholtzes – Jean and Shelly – live a few blocks and a political ocean away from Malick. They plan to vote for Obama.

They retired to Arizona from New York, where Shelly was a professor and Jean worked as an administrator, in 1996, then moved to Sun City Lincoln Hills in 2004. And they're active: Shelly helped set up the development's Yahoo group, which now numbers 1,000 members, and Jean founded the local Alzheimer's Association support group and serves on the board of the Lincoln Hills Foundation, which helps older adults in Lincoln.

"I suspect Republican alternatives to Medicare are really an attempt to undo a program that has helped so many generations of individuals," said Shelly Ebenholtz, 79. "That's exactly what they want to do.

"Attacking Medicare is a step in that direction. They're trying to de-fund programs that make us a civilized society."

In 2010, Jean Ebenholtz, now 77, had a cancerous lobe removed from her lung. She has also had heart stent surgery. In both cases, her Medicare and the couple's Medicare supplement covered almost all the costs.

"Having Medicare is the difference between retiring and not retiring for people," she said. "If people didn't have Medicare, it would be difficult to say, 'I have enough set aside to retire.' "

"It would be impossible," said her husband.

Georgia Vonk still hasn't retired. At 65, she works at the Macy's store in nearby Roseville. She has lived in Sun City Lincoln Hills since 2002, when she sold her property in Rio Linda.

She has cast her ballot through the years for Republicans and Democrats alike, she said, but this year she plans to vote for Obama.

"Medicare makes a difference for me," she said. "I pay less now for medical care than I did with my insurance through Macy's.

"People get so rigid in their thinking. They go on and on about no new taxes. I ask them, 'So are you going to give your Medicare and Social Security back?' They don't want to hear that."

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