JANESVILLE, Wis. — Brian Krutsch has been long one of many automatic votes here for Rep. Paul Ryan. The unemployed warehouse manager, along with a solid majority of other Janesville voters, has helped elect Ryan seven times and watched with pride as he became one of Congress' leading authorities on the federal budget. But this week, admiration has been tinged with apprehension as one of Ryan's signature ideas – ending Medicare's status as a full, guaranteed benefit for senior citizens – suddenly took a step toward reality.
"I think that's one of the things they should probably leave alone – you know – unless it's absolutely necessary," Krutsch said as he took a break from reviewing job openings at the Rock County Job Center. "Old people need help with medical bills. There's too many people under-insured right now – especially people like myself right now who don't have insurance."
Changing Medicare has become a hot topic around town, and the qualms underscore why many officeholders are wary of talking about it.
No one in Janesville can be surprised by Ryan's ideas for reining in government spending. The cerebral, soft-spoken congressman has been explaining and diagramming his proposals at community meetings for years. But this week House Republicans gave Ryan's plan a high-profile show of support in a televised press conference, ensuring that it will be a key issue in the 2012 election even if the measure goes no further in Congress this year.
Now, Ryan's fix for Medicare, as well as Medicaid, has gotten more personal for hometown friends and neighbors who may be thinking as much about their own retirement or medical expenses as about the size of the federal deficit. Under Ryan's plan, the government would no longer cover seniors' health expenses as Medicare has since the 1960s. Instead, it would provide a certain amount of money to health insurers, with the exact coverage not locked in.
His plan is dubbed the "Path to Prosperity." In Janesville, there's some anxiety.
Howard Gage, a 74-year-old Medicare recipient who owns a three-person video-production company, said he has voted for Ryan in all seven races, still supports the congressman and likes him as a person. But, he added, it's hard to accept that fixing the budget should mean that his family wouldn't receive the same Medicare benefits that he relies on.
"It bothers me that my kids or grandchildren might be affected by whatever has to be done" to curb spending, he said.
Like others in Janesville, he's worried about financial security. Janesville, a town of 61,000 about 40 miles southeast of Madison, is struggling with one of the worst unemployment rates in the state. In February its unemployment rate was 11.2 percent, significantly higher than the state average of 7.4 percent.
Ryan's political stock in town soared as he and other Wisconsin politicians worked – ultimately in vain – to prevent General Motors Corp. from shuttering its local SUV plant in 2009 and cutting more than 1,200 jobs.
The 41-year-old Ryan now chairs the House Budget Committee and is a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. But a lot of people still think of him as one of the town's two famous politicians. The other is former Sen. Russ Feingold, who served three terms but lost his re-election bid in November.
Tom McDonald, a 30-year-old personal-injury attorney whose walk to work takes him past Ryan's home, gives the congressman credit for taking on a very tough problem.
He said he, too, has concerns about Medicare's costs, but he was more concerned that the plan wouldn't address the greater health issue – out-of-control expenses.
"Costs are a major problem," McDonald said. "If the government gives vouchers but does nothing about the costs, who knows how high they'll go? You could end up with vouchers that don't cover the expenses."
Char Christensen, a retired social worker, said she wonders what happened to the congressman who once seemed to vote with his heart. She said she fears he has strayed from his small-town roots and become part of a partisan machine.
"Ryan used to be for the people and now he's for himself," said Christensen, 63, who doesn't plan to vote for Ryan again. "That's not what public service is supposed to be."
After Ryan's plan was formally unveiled on Capitol Hill this week, most Republican presidential hopefuls avoided addressing its specifics. It could rile a pivotal constituency, millions of senior citizens who depend on the government-run health care programs, even though those over 55 would stay in the old Medicare plan. Democrats underscored that they will make the Medicare plan an issue in 2012, and the candidates will be pressed to take a position as the election draws closer.
Greg Tschudy, who was laid off from his job as an assembly worker 18 months ago, said he was confident that Ryan was committed to doing the right thing. Ryan has said his plan will save Medicare and Medicaid by making them solvent for future generations.
"Everybody's worried about the future, and there are no easy answers," said Tschudy, 31, as he scoured employment listings at a job center. "Ryan's job is to help people take care of their financial needs, and I'm just kind of watching to see how this develops."
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.