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Health debate still alive and kicking

By Matt Pommer

Turn in your Medicare cards here.”

The sign was hoisted on the edge of the anti-government Tea Party rally on the Capitol Square in Madison last month. Of course, no matter how outraged people are about big government, few people would give up their Medicare.

The signs were just a reminder that there are popular government programs in the land.

Much of the political rhetoric, both pro and con, this year has focused on the health care reform legislation enacted at the federal level. It’s likely to be a key issue in this year’s elections.

Reading new poll numbers, Republicans sense a year of opportunity. The party out of power traditionally gains in Congress two years after a presidential election.

Perhaps a GOP surge on the health care issue also could help elect a Republican governor and return GOP legislative majorities.

How will Republicans fashion their appeal to voters? Will they call for a repeal of the new heath reform legislation or merely call for changes and improvements to the new law?

At first blush, repeal seems to be the easy political pitch. But not even the most conservative commentators suggest Republicans will pick up enough congressional seats to pass a repeal of health care reform and then override a certain veto by President Obama.

Republicans might even be embarrassed if they were to return with a narrow majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. The other troubling possibility for Republicans is the public may start to like the reform legislation, perhaps more than than the old status quo.

The chief actuary of the Medicare system has said the reform act will keep Medicare solvent for an additional 12 years. Rather than running out of money in 2017, the money will extend to 2029. The actuary is a widely respected, nonpartisan official.

Some senior citizens seem to like the changes to the “doughnut hole” in the Medicare drug program.

Abortion also got into the health care reform debate. Catholic hospitals and an organization of nuns endorsed the health reform act, but the nation’s Catholic bishops opposed the measure. The Catholic bishops have other problems, and they’d probably like to focus political talk on abortion.

Republicans may see political gain at the state level in the new health care legislation passed in the Legislature. BadgerCare Plus Basic is a stripped down plan that will provide some health coverage for an expected 40,000 low-income citizens.

Democrats contend the new program will be paid for by premiums. Republicans scoff at that claim and say it undermines the private insurance industry.

It’s a perfect issue on which Republicans can hitch their state wagon to the federal health care reform debate.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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