It's risky to read too much into Kathy Hochul's upset victory in a special congressional election in western New York on Tuesday — it was, after all, just one race. Still, Hochul's fellow Democrats are touting the outcome as a voter rebellion against the House Republican plan to transform Medicare into a subsidy program for private health coverage. If the election prompts Republicans to rethink that plan, that would be a welcome development. But it shouldn't persuade lawmakers to abandon efforts to rein in Medicare costs.
Hochul's rural and suburban district has been sending Republicans to Congress for decades, usually by lopsided margins. After a scandalized Rep. Christopher Lee stepped down earlier this year, the GOP shoo-in seemed to be Jane Corwin, a relatively new member of the state Assembly. But Corwin encountered two unexpected hurdles: Jack Davis, a successful local businessman who ran as a third-party candidate, and the plan advanced by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to cut Washington's share of the cost of providing healthcare to seniors.
Some GOP analysts downplayed the significance of the Medicare issue, arguing that Davis cost Corwin the election by attracting almost 10% of the votes. But a recent poll showed that Davis' populist, protectionist campaign attracted support from Democrats as well as Republicans. Exit polls also showed that Hochul's relentless attacks on the Ryan plan struck a chord with some Republicans, who feared the loss of "Medicare as we know it."
There are some good ideas in Ryan's plan, including the use of insurance exchanges to help seniors shop for policies. But there's no getting around how dramatically Medicare would change for those who retire in or after 2022, when the plan would take effect. It's not at all clear that Ryan's approach would slow the growth in healthcare costs. And if it doesn't, the limits it would place on insurance subsidies would leave more elderly Americans without insurance and unable to afford the care they need.
Ryan's proposal has yet to be vetted by lawmakers or subjected to even a single hearing. In fact, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has said he's not planning to take up the issue. Instead, the House GOP leadership forced members to vote on a budget resolution that promoted Ryan's vision for privatizing Medicare, putting Republicans on the hook for a controversial concept that may never become law. That political blunder contributed to Corwin's defeat.
The worst outcome of all this would be if lawmakers concluded from Corwin's defeat that it is simply too politically risky to address the growing cost of Medicare between now and 2012. Medicare is the biggest budget challenge Washington faces over the long term. The healthcare reform law enacted last year offers some help, but it postpones Medicare insolvency for only a few years. There's much more work to be done on Medicare by both Democrats and Republicans, and Hochul's victory doesn't change that fact.