LADY LAKE, Fla. — Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum on Monday warned Florida's seniors that the Democrats' health law would limit their access to doctors and dollars and criticized his main rivals for backing its requirement that younger Americans buy health insurance.
Santorum tried to draw a connection between Medicare and a key provision of the health care law, the so-called individual mandate, which doesn't affect older Americans because virtually all of them are already covered through the government program.
Santorum, however, argues that the health care law puts a cap on Medicare spending and that, because Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich at one time supported the idea of an individual mandate, they share the blame for the impact of the health care law on Medicare.
The former Pennsylvania senator said Republicans cannot pick a nominee who would not be able to challenge President Barack Obama aggressively on the law its opponents call "Obamacare."
"I never supported anything close to Obamacare. Sadly, that is not the case with the rest of the people in this field," Santorum told an older audience at an American Legion hall near Orlando. "Whether it's Gov. Romney with Romneycare or Speaker Gingrich and a 20-year promotion of the individual mandate."
Both candidates, he said, should be unacceptable to conservatives, especially among seniors who make up much of Florida. Some 3.3 million Floridians are over the age of 65.
Santorum centered his criticism of the health care law on a panel that is intended to keep increases in Medicare spending manageable by controlling payments to health care providers. The Independent Payment Advisory Board's unelected members would have too much power over seniors' care, he said.
The panel was designed to curb Medicare spending and its recommendations — such as cutting Medicare rates paid to doctors — would be binding unless Congress overrules them. Santorum called it a clever way for Obama to avoid taking responsibility for cuts.
"The effect is rationing care. It's rationing indirectly. You'll be mad at your doctor, you'll be mad at your hospital," he said. "You won't be mad at Obama, who is the real reason for your doctor or hospital not seeing you."
But the panel has yet to be set up, and Obama's health care law explicitly forbids it from rationing care, shifting costs to retirees, restricting benefits or raising the Medicare eligibility age.
It's terrible policy, Santorum said.
"The bottom line is more and more providers of health care are not taking Medicare because of the reimbursement rates," he added.
And when people do see a doctor, it is after delay, Santorum said.
"The average wait is getting longer and longer," he said. "The average wait is 29 days now."
However, a nonpartisan agency that advises Congress on Medicare policy, reports that access for seniors generally remains good, despite localized problems and concerns about appointments for primary care.
The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission said in a report to lawmakers last year that its most recent survey showed beneficiaries reported "similar or better access" than people age 50 to 64 with private insurance.