Tommy Thompson

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Thompson told the State Journal editorial board that he wants future Medicare enrollees to choose between the current program or the federal employee insurance plan.

AMBER ARNOLD — State Journal

U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Thompson acknowledged Friday that he doesn't know whether his latest plan to change Medicare will save recipients or the federal government any money.

Thompson, the Republican governor of Wisconsin from 1988 to 2001, outlined the plan before the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board: Allow those who are 50 by the year 2020 to either stay on Medicare or join the same health insurance plan that members of Congress and federal employees have.

Asked how much the plan would cost, Thompson initially said the Congressional Budget Office had evaluated his plan and "it has been projected that it would save money." He later acknowledged that the nonpartisan CBO had not evaluated the plan.

"I have not scored it," Thompson said, adding that since he is not in office, "I have no ability to score it."

A side-by-side evaluation of Medicare and the federal employee health insurance program done in September found the federal plan grew by an average of 7.1 percent per enrollee per year compared to a 5.8 percent average growth rate for traditional Medicare.

The evaluation was commissioned by Kaiser Health News, the nonprofit health care news arm of the Kaiser Family Foundation. The organization reported that the data analysis and interviews with experts showed the federal employee plan "had not held down costs per enrollee as efficiently as Medicare during the past decade."

Medicare has become a central issue in the race for Senate between Thompson and U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison. Baldwin campaign spokesman John Kraus said Thompson's plan is "something he came up with in the last week or two."

Kraus accused Thompson — who ran Medicare for four years while secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — of changing his stance to appeal to voters nervous about big changes in Medicare.

Thompson had been a vocal supporter of the plan by vice presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan that calls for recipients to receive a set amount of money with which to purchase either traditional Medicare benefits or a private plan.

"For the last year, he has stood very firm in support of the Ryan plan to end the guarantee of Medicare in favor of a voucher plan," Kraus said. "The last month of the race, he's trying to run away from the Ryan plan."

Last week, a Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded that under Ryan's plan, 59 percent of retirees and the disabled on Medicare would pay more for health care, ranging from hundreds to thousands more per year, depending on where they live. In Wisconsin, 10 percent of Medicare recipients would pay at least $100 more per month, the study predicted.

On Friday, Thompson described his latest proposal this way: "This is a plan by Paul Ryan, I've modified it. I think my plan is better."

Bobby Peterson, president of the health care advocacy group ABC for Health, credited Thompson for creative thinking when he established BadgerCare, a public-private program administered by the state that now ensures 700,000 low- and moderate-income Wisconsin residents.

But, said Peterson, "I'm skeptical about this brainchild — whether it would help or hurt health care costs."

Asked why he is proposing a plan with no known price tag, Thompson called it "a giant step in the right direction."

"Medicare is going broke, and we have to do something about it," he said. "It's a plan. It's a plan that I believe more than likely will work."