WASHINGTON — The Republican plan to privatize Medicare wouldn't touch his benefits, but Walter Dotson still doesn't like the idea. He worries about the consequences long after he's gone, for the grandson he is raising.
"I'd certainly hate to see him without the benefits that I've got," said Dotson, 72, steering a high school sophomore toward adulthood.
The loudest objections to the GOP Medicare plan are coming from seniors, who swung to Republicans in last year's congressional elections, and many have been complaining at town-hall meetings with their representatives during the current congressional recess. Some experts say GOP policymakers may have overlooked a defining trait among older people: concern for the welfare of the next generations.
"I remember the days when we had poor farms and elderly people on welfare, before we had Social Security and Medicare for seniors, and I'm afraid it will lead right back to that situation," added Dotson, from the village of Cleveland in rural southwest Virginia.
Another nagging worry for seniors may have more to do with self-interest: If Congress can make such a major change to Medicare for future retirees, what's to stop lawmakers from coming back and applying it to everyone currently on the program?
The budget passed earlier this month by House Republicans would replace Medicare with a government payment to buy private insurance, for people hitting age 65 in 2022 or later. Hailed as bold and visionary by some in Washington, the proposal is stirring opposition around the country, polls show. No group has been more negative than seniors, although GOP lawmakers carefully exempted anyone now 55 or older.
The plan's author, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., says he thinks the main problem is that President Barack Obama and his allies have distorted the details to scare older people. It's actually going to take something like what he's proposing to save Medicare for future generations, Ryan maintains.
"Seniors, as soon as they realize this doesn't affect them, they are not so opposed," Ryan said in an interview. "I really don't run into that much opposition. I run into some confusion. As soon as people understand what we are talking about, that clears the air."
A study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that future retirees would pay much more under Ryan's plan than if they went into traditional Medicare. By 2030, a typical 65-year-old would be paying two-thirds of his or her health costs. But Ryan says the comparison isn't valid because Medicare is financially unsustainable in the long run.
Another part of the GOP budget would affect today's retirees. It calls for repeal of Obama's health care law, and that would eliminate new help for seniors with high prescription costs.
It's too early to tell how seniors' views will settle out. The House budget could go down as a political blunder that costs Republicans the support of seniors in the 2012 elections. Or, since the budget has no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, it could be a wash.
It's already changed the political dynamic, said Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor who tracks public opinion on health care. Last year, nearly three out of five people 60 and older voted Republican, reflecting concern over Medicare cuts to finance Obama's health care overhaul. Now Republicans are on the defensive. "It's a way of Democrats taking the health care issue back to their side," Blendon said.
Seniors' skepticism cuts across party lines, a problem for Republicans.
An AP-GfK poll late last year, before House Republicans officially embraced Ryan's approach, found 80 percent of seniors who are Democrats opposed Medicare privatization. Among Republicans age 65 and up, 71 percent were opposed. The poll asked about the idea generally, without linking it to Republicans.
Dotson, who owned a machine shop before he retired, says he's a lifelong Democrat. But Sharon Bergeson, 68, a Republican, is also uncomfortable with privatization.
"What worries me is if something not as good as what I have was to come along for my children or grandchildren," said Bergeson, from Idaho Springs, a small town in the mountains west of Denver.
Medicare has its flaws, she said, but on the whole it has worked well for her. Bergeson said she'd have to know a lot more about how privatization would work for future generations, including how much they'd have to pay and how secure it would be. Her children and grandchildren deserve the same she has, or better.
"I don't want to put the future generation into a situation changing their program when it's something that's working for me at this time," she explained.
A prominent Democrat who co-authored an earlier version of the Medicare plan with Ryan says seniors' reactions are understandable.
"Seniors aren't just thinking about themselves," said economist Alice Rivlin, a former vice chair of the Federal Reserve. "They believe in these programs. They are worried about a proposal that radically alters a program they are relying on and others will rely on in the future."
Rivlin objects to Ryan's latest version, saying it leaves future retirees too exposed.
The chief strategist for AARP says House Republicans' problem with Medicare reminds him of the rejection of former President George W. Bush's plan for private accounts in Social Security. Like Ryan, Bush would have exempted those already in the program or nearing retirement. The seniors lobby opposed Bush's plan then, as it does Ryan's now.
"I've never seen a group of seniors, once you tell them that this isn't going to affect them personally, say it's OK, we're fine with that," said John Rother. "They kind of see themselves as guardians of the programs for their children."
Associated Press Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.