PHILADELPHIA - Protecting Social Security and Medicare are emerging as high-profile issues in Pennsylvania's increasingly contentious race for U.S. Senate, as Democratic Sen. Bob Casey tries to fend off Republican challenger Tom Smith and gain the upper hand with crucial senior voters.
Pennsylvania, at nearly 16 percent, has one of the highest proportions of residents who are at least 65 years old.
Casey went on the attack in a Philadelphia news conference Thursday, highlighting his opposition to Smith's support for giving future Medicare recipients the option to take a government check to help buy coverage from a private insurer.
Casey suggested that Smith's "first principle is taking away the guaranteed benefit of Medicare." But Smith's campaign insisted Thursday that Smith wants to keep the guarantee, and says on his campaign website that "government should retain the current fee-for-service program, with both current and future Medicare recipients free to elect this option."
Smith views the private insurance option as a way extend the solvency of the program because it would be more efficient way to provide health care and, ultimately, more popular than traditional Medicare, his campaign said. Smith, in turn, has criticized Casey for voting to cut more than $700 billion over 10 years from Medicare reimbursements to hospitals, insurance companies and other service providers.
Casey pounced on that Thursday.
"When I voted on that health care bill, I voted in several ways to strengthen Medicare," Casey said.
Reducing reimbursements to the Medicare Advantage program is closing the "doughnut hole" carved into the original Medicare prescription drug benefit created under a Republican Congress in 2003.
Plus, cutting the cost of Medicare extended its solvency by eight years, Casey said.
In the meantime, the Obama administration recently announced that average premiums for Medicare Advantage insurance plans will barely inch up next year, while enrollment in the private medical plans will continue to rise.
Undoing the cuts would mean a shorter life for Medicare's trust fund, Casey said, adding that repealing President Barack Obama's signature health care overhaul law - as Smith advocates doing - would end the prescription drug aid.
Casey wouldn't say exactly what he would support to extend the solvency of Medicare and Social Security. A bipartisan agreement will have to be negotiated in Congress after the election, he said, and stressed that he is willing to work with Republicans.
"I think there are a lot of Democrats and Republicans that can work this out," Casey said. "I have no question, no doubt about that. I've worked with a lot of people in the Republican party on a whole host of issues."
Smith's campaign said Thursday that he would let a temporary reduction in the Social Security payroll tax expire in January, a cut that Casey championed as a way to provide middle-class tax relief in 2011 and 2012.
Letting the rate return to 6.2 percent from the current 4.2 percent would help stabilize the Social Security trust fund, said Smith's campaign manager, Jim Conroy.
"They are already borrowing from a fund that can't sustain them," Conroy said in an email.
Casey's campaign manager later said letting the tax cut expire would hurt middle-class families and the economy.
Smith also supports raising the retirement age to get Social Security and Medicare benefits, as well as giving taxpayers the option of diverting Social Security taxes into private investment accounts, a step that Democrats call "privatization."
Democrats previously beat back a similar plan by former President George W. Bush. Casey described that proposal on Thursday as a "colossally bad idea" that became a worse idea when the stock market collapsed in 2008 and 2009.