By Kelly Kennedy and Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
To hear President Obama's re-election campaign tell it, you would think Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to end Medicare immediately and give the money to millionaires.
And to hear Romney and Ryan tell it, you'd think Obama wants to fleece Granny and Grandpa of $700 billion in Medicare benefits and use the cash to finance "Obamacare."
The truth is nothing of the sort - but those charges may drown out the truth between now and Election Day.
"Campaign periods are not a good time for accurate information about serious policy issues," said Gail Wilensky, a health policy analyst for Project HOPE and senior health adviser to President George H.W. Bush.
One advertisement from Obama says that there are serious philosophical differences between the two candidates. "I saw that as a good advertisement," she said. "They are proposing differing solutions, and you need to figure out where you stand on those differences."
The goal of both campaigns is to accuse the other of weakening Medicare - something independent experts say is inevitable if the program's unsustainable growth is to be contained.
"The truth is that no one can preserve Medicare as we know it," says Bob Laszewski, a health care consultant. "There isn't a prayer that your father's Medicare will be around in 10 years."
Here's what the proposals would really do - and what they would not.
The Romney-Ryan plan
Q: Obama says Romney wants to "end Medicare as we know it." Is that true?
A: Not really. The original budget plan written by Ryan and passed by House Republicans would turn Medicare into a "premium support" plan. Seniors would have a fixed government subsidy with which to purchase private insurance - but the new version of that plan includes an option to retain traditional Medicare coverage.
Q: Does Ryan's plan affect people on Medicare today, as the latest online adby the Obama campaign implies by showing seniors in a seated exercise class and referencing "Florida's massive retirement population"?
A: No. It would not begin until 2023. That means today's seniors, plus those 55 and older, would be exempted from the new system. And by the time there's a deal on any plan, a 10-year exemption likely would include people younger than 55 today.
Q: Would the Ryan plan raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67?
A: Yes, by 2034, but the eligibility age for Social Security already is headed to 67. Medicare is in worse financial shape than Social Security. In last year's deficit-reduction talks, Obama was willing to consider the higher age in exchange for higher taxes on the wealthy.
Q: Would the Ryan plan affect rich and poor alike?
A: No. Like Obama's plan, the Republican plan includes higher Medicare premiums for wealthier beneficiaries. And it includes extra government subsidies for lower-income beneficiaries.
Q: Would private insurance options be more expensive?
A: Yes, because the money seniors would get to put toward their insurance would be capped, while medical costs would not. But the figure used as recently as Wednesday by Obama while campaigning in Iowa - that seniors would pay an average of $6,400 more annually - is based on the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of an older version of Ryan's plan.
The Obama health care law
Q: Does the Obama plan cut about $716 billion from Medicare, as the Romney campaign argues it does?
A: Not exactly. There are no cuts in benefits, and, in fact, seniors have already seen preventive services, such as annual exams and cancer screenings, with no co-pays. Instead, the savings comes by decreasing provider payments. Ryan's plan would repeal the health care law but keep the $716 billion in savings in place. Romney says he favors "putting that $716 billion back."
Q: Does Romney oppose these cuts?
A: He says he does - but Ryan's budget includes them.
Q: What about Medicare Advantage? Do those benefits decrease, as the Romney campaign has claimed?
A: No. Payments to Medicare Advantage insurers created to encourage participation will shrink to levels of traditional Medicare payments. Insurers must provide all benefits to participate in Medicare Advantage.
Q: Will Medicare Part B average monthly premiums increase under Obama's plan, more than doubling to $247 by 2014, as claimed in an anonymous chain e-mail circulating again?
A: No. The premium fell in 2012 to $99.90, down $14.50 from 2011. Future premiums have yet to be figured because they're based on Medicare costs, but Medicare trustees predict average premiums won't top $200 until 2020.