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Story by Oregon State Media, Inc.
Published on Sunday December 18, 2011 - 11:25 AM
 
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SALEM, Oregon - U.S. Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon took quite a bit of heat from his fellow Democrats and even the White House this week when he teamed with a Republican congressman to propose a significant redesign of Medicare.

Under fire for a bipartisan health care proposal, Wyden is on familiar ground.

The four-term Oregon Democrat has made waves before with bold ideas on the topic. His 2006 Healthy Americans Act was widely blamed for the eventual demise of former Sen. Bob Bennett, a conservative Republican who angered tea party activists by working with Wyden on the issue.

"This issue cannot be ducked any longer," Wyden told The Associated Press, explaining his decision to work on a bipartisan Medicare proposal. "It's been put off again and again. This ought to be an opportunity to look at approaches that can be fresh and help to break new ground."

The proposal, crafted with Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and released Thursday, would guarantee Medicare's existence for future retirees and allow private companies to compete. The private competition proposal was anathema to some Democrats, who have insisted that Medicare continue to be a public program and have sought to hammer Ryan and other Republicans for supporting "privatization."

Even the White House quickly weighed in with sharp statements. Two officials said the proposal could cause Medicare to "wither on the vine."

"At the end of the day, this plan would end Medicare as we know it for millions of seniors," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. "The Wyden-Ryan proposal is the wrong way to reform Medicare."

Wyden shrugs off the criticism.

He said the Medicare issue is a "long-running battle" and "any time you try to break the gridlock you stir up a lot of passion. I understand that."

Wyden insists he'll be vindicated, and said his critics would be more supportive if they'd spend more time mulling the specifics.

Wyden said he has been interested in health care since his work with seniors as a young lawyer in the 1970s. He co-founded the Oregon chapter of the Gray Panthers, a liberal activist group that often focuses on issues affecting seniors. He later was a lawyer for a legal aid group for the elderly.

Through those jobs, he said, he quickly concluded that health care was "the most important issue," because most other aspects of life require good health.

Wyden has a long history of trying to break ground on health care, sometimes with blunt ideas that are never enacted but force Congress to have a conversation, said Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University.

"It's a pretty good tactic," Moore said. "Because he doesn't have the power in the Senate to sit at the central table and say, 'This is what we're going to do.' It's interesting that he's working with Paul Ryan, who does have that power in the House."

Wyden's Healthy Americans Act would have loosened the link between employment and health coverage for Americans not yet on Medicare. It did not become law, but pieces of it did become part of the health care overhaul that President Barack Obama eventually signed in 2009.

The firestorm he created on the left this week came as Wyden was enjoying significant praise from liberal activists — and even from tea party Republicans — for pledging to filibuster a bill intended to fight online piracy. Opponents of the bill would lead to online censorship.

Wyden, 62, was elected to the Senate in 1996 in a special election after Republican Bob Packwood resigned under pressure following allegations of sexual harassment. He was re-elected three times, most recently by a wide margin in 2010.

Previously, Wyden held a Portland-area congressional seat for 15 years.

Under the Wyden-Ryan plan, current beneficiaries and those close to retirement would get to remain in Medicare as it is now.

But the program would be re-engineered for those 54 and younger. Upon reaching 65, future retirees would have a choice between traditional Medicare and regulated private insurance plans, all competing to lower costs and provide quality care. Seniors would get a fixed amount to spend on a health plan, no matter which coverage they selected. Low-income, and older, sicker people would get more money.

The plan also would limit the overall increase in Medicare spending, holding it to no more than 1 percent above the rate of economic growth.