WASHINGTON – Before a noticeably cool but polite audience of conservative activists, Mitt Romney redoubled his efforts Friday to align his agenda with that of the tea party – laying out a plan to slash $500 billion from the federal budget, in part through major changes to the nation’s entitlement programs.
Romney’s proposals to reduce federal spending to 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product by 2016 were far-reaching but often lacked specifics.
The former Massachusetts governor said he would reduce the cost of Social Security by raising the eligibility age for benefits, but he did not specify how quickly those changes would be phased in. He estimated that he could achieve tens of billions of dollars in savings by capping the cost of Medicaid, the federal program that provides medical care to the poor, and allowing the states to take it over.
In one of the most controversial elements of his plan, Romney proposed a major restructuring of Medicare, which currently provides health insurance to about 47 million elderly and disabled people. Under the changes, Medicare would become just one of many plans that seniors could purchase with a new “premium support” system that would give them a set amount of money each year to purchase a plan.
Aides said the plans would have to offer a level of coverage comparable to the benefits offered under the current Medicare system. They asserted that by encouraging a range of private insurers to compete with Medicare they could lower the program’s costs.
“The future of Medicare should be marked by competition, choice, and by innovation – rather than bureaucracy, stagnation and bankruptcy,” Romney said at the gathering of Americans for Prosperity.
Romney underscored that there would be no changes to either Social Security or Medicare for Americans who are at or near retirement.
Perhaps to shield Romney from attacks as the campaign grows more heated, many of the most controversial aspects of the plan were hazy on Friday. It was unclear, for example, how a potential Romney administration would set the level of premium support and how much that defined amount would increase as medical costs continue to skyrocket. Although Romney said wealthier seniors would be asked to pay more than low-income seniors, he did not explain how those differentiations would be made.