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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher May 10, 2011

Wisconsin GOP Rep. Petri says Obama commission recommended vouchers for Medicare

When House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan submitted his 2012 federal budget plan in April 2011, he touted how much more it cut spending, debt and deficits than President Barack Obama’s plan.

Some of the loudest objections to the Wisconsin Republican’s proposal, however, decried its transformation of Medicare., a left-leaning political advocacy group, went so far as to say Ryan would abolish the 46-year-old program in 10 years.

We ruled that claim False, partly because current Medicare recipients would continue to receive traditional Medicare even after 10 years.

But, as we noted, Ryan’s plan would change Medicare dramatically. Starting in 2022, Medicare would no longer directly help pay for doctor visits, hospital care, other services and prescription drugs. Rather, future Medicare participants would choose a private insurance plan and Medicare -- through what are called premium-support payments or vouchers -- would help pay for the insurance.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan group that studies health care policy, noted that in the days after Ryan’s budget plan was released, three national polls found Americans divided on such a change.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wisconsin, was conducting his annual survey of constituents. In his April 2011 newsletter, the 32-year Fond du Lac congressman posed this question to residents in the 6th District, which is north and west of Milwaukee:

"One of the recommendations put forth by the president’s debt commission was to convert the Medicare system from a government-run insurance program to a system where Medicare participants are given a voucher to purchase insurance in the private market. Would you support such a change?"

That left us with this question: Did a commission created by a Democratic president recommend the same sweeping change to Medicare that was part of the House GOP budget?

The debt commission mentioned in Petri’s question -- the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform-- was formed by an Obama executive order in February 2010. The 18-member panel included Ryan, who was appointed by Republican leaders of the House of Representatives.

The commission was charged with making recommendations to balance the federal budget, excluding interest payments on the debt, by 2015. The recommendations came in a report issued in December 2010. This is what Petri’s survey question cited in saying the commission recommended a voucher program for Medicare.

The word voucher appears only once in the commission’s 66-page report, as part of Recommendation "3.3.13." The recommendation addressed Federal Employees Health Benefits, the health insurance program for federal employees and retirees.

The commission said the insurance should be made into a premium-support or voucher program. Federal retirees could use their voucher to pay part of their Medicare premium.

But that is for a limited group, federal employees and retirees.

That is not transforming all of Medicare into a voucher program. Had that recommendation been made, it undoubtedly would have stirred the same criticism that the Republican plan has.

The commission’s report noted that two commission members -- Ryan and Alice Rivlin, director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton -- had proposed converting Medicare into a voucher system. The commission’s view was that such a system "holds significant promise of controlling costs, but also carries serious potential risks."

The commission suggested that, if its recommendation were put in place to make health insurance for federal employees and retirees a premium-support or voucher program, "that experience would be useful in considering a premium-support program for Medicare."

So, the president’s commission recommended trying a voucher program with federal employees and retirees and then, based on the results, deciding whether to try it with Medicare.

After we contacted Petri’s office on May 6, 2011, spokesman Niel Wright said the wording in the constituent survey question about Medicare was incorrect. He said the question should have stated that the president’s commission "discussed," rather than recommended, making Medicare a voucher program.

Also after our call, this note was added to the electronic version of the survey question on Petri’s website:

"CORRECTION: The question above is somewhat misleading. Instead of saying that the recommendation was ‘put forth’ by the president's debt commission, the question should read that this recommendation was ‘discussed’ by the president's debt commission."

Wright told us that when Petri’s office distributes results of the survey, a note will be included "indicating that a problem with this question was brought to our attention," as would "additional information clarifying how the question should have been phrased."

Wright also said the survey was reviewed by the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards, also known as the Franking Commission, and that "neither the Republican nor the Democratic staffers at the commission noticed anything objectionable" or partisan.  

Turning to the Truth-O-Meter, in surveying constituents, GOP Congressman Tom Petri said a commission created by the Democratic president had recommended making Medicare a voucher program. The commission did not make that recommendation and Petri admitted the wording in his survey was wrong. We rate his statement False.

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Wisconsin GOP Rep. Petri says Obama commission recommended vouchers for Medicare

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