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Republicans May Be Rethinking Medicare Overhaul

GUY RAZ, host:

So in the midst of the bin Laden story, one story went somewhat unnoticed. House Republicans seem to signal that they would drop their plans to overhaul Medicare.

Last month, House GOP members voted to back a plan by Congressman Paul Ryan that would essentially privatize the entitlement program. They argued it was necessary to balance the federal budget. But after getting an earful from angry constituents over the recent two-week break, they may be reconsidering whether to go ahead with that legislation, a plan President Obama promised to veto anyway.

With me now in the studio is NPR's health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. Julie, thanks for being here.

JULIE ROVNER: My pleasure.

RAZ: First, remind our listeners exactly what the proposal is that the Republicans voted for last month.

ROVNER: Well, it would actually end Medicare as a government-run program. It would basically give people a set amount of money. They'd be able to use that to buy private insurance.

But there's a catch that the amount of money they'd be given wouldn't rise as fast as medical inflation. The hope is that the private insurers would find ways to hold down health care spending, otherwise, seniors and the disabled people who get Medicare would end up paying more, potentially a lot more, for their health care.

RAZ: So what has happened? I mean, have the Republicans now dropped the idea, and if they have, why?

ROVNER: Well, it depends who you ask. On Thursday, there seemed to be signals from some top leaders, particularly House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, that Republicans knew it couldn't pass. But then, he was overruled by House Speaker John Boehner, who obviously didn't want to take anything off the table right as these budget negotiations were starting. He insisted that the budget the Republicans passed last month, including the Medicare provisions, are the Republicans' position.

RAZ: OK. So what is their position?

ROVNER: I think it's part of their strategy to really not let anybody know exactly what their position is. I was at a breakfast Thursday morning with the Michigan Republican Congressman Dave Camp, who's the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

RAZ: Right.

ROVNER: It would be his job to actually write any of these big Medicare changes into legislative form. And here's an exchange that he had with a reporter from the Huffington Post.

Unidentified Man: Just so we have perfect clarity on your position on where we're headed...

Representative DAVID CAMP (Republican, Michigan): I don't know if that's my goal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: So it sounds like they want to keep people guessing here.

ROVNER: Yes, either that, or they haven't decided amongst themselves exactly what they want. But I think one thing they do agree on is that they've put a plan, however unpopular it may be, on the table. And now they want the Senate and the Obama administration to put a plan that they have on the table.

RAZ: Should we expect that to happen?

ROVNER: Well, for now, I think Democrats are kind of enjoying watching Republicans squirm on the Medicare issue. You know, a lot of these freshman Republicans in particular actually got elected by campaigning last year against cuts to Medicare.

RAZ: Against cuts.

ROVNER: Yes, against cuts, much smaller cuts, I hasten to add, included in the big health overhaul bill. So there is not a small amount of satisfaction from these Democrats in the idea that turnabout is fair play.

I was talking to one House Democrat this week who says that the Ryan budget -that's the budget that the Republicans passed - is the biggest gift Republicans will give to Democrats in this Congress.

RAZ: That's NPR's health policy correspondent Julie Rovner.

Julie, thanks so much.

ROVNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.