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Owens says Affordable Care Act, drug change could be enough to save Medicare


Medicare, the popular safety net program that provides health care to Americans 65 and older, could go bankrupt in 2024, according to its trustees’ annual report.

But Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said that much of what needs to be done to keep the risk of financial ruin at bay already is contained in President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul, which passed with his support in 2010.

The looming crisis, only a dozen years in the future, was the impetus behind the ideas put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The Ryan budget, as it’s often called, is now at the forefront of contested congressional races after presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney picked Mr. Ryan to be his running mate. But Mr. Owens said that Mr. Ryan’s ideas were an overreach and would leave seniors paying more.

The answer to many Medicare cost-saving questions, Mr. Owens said, lies within the Affordable Care Act. The preventive care provisions of the law are still unfolding.

“It’s going to be a question of how it’s implemented,” Mr. Owens said. “It needs to be implemented aggressively.”

Mr. Owens, whose opponent, Republican Matthew A. Doheny, wants to repeal the law, said that while the Affordable Care Act will bring down costs, he’s not sure it will be enough to entirely stave off insolvency. But he would prefer at least to see what the law has in store before a plan like Mr. Ryan’s is put into effect.

The health-care act requires health-insurance companies to cover certain types of screenings, some free of charge. Catching a disease earlier could reduce health-care costs.

“You’d be clearly doing it for less money,” Mr. Owens said. “That’s the direction I think we should be going in.”

Mr. Owens also wants Medicare to be able to negotiate drug prices, which it now is not allowed to do. That would help bring down prescription drug prices and save the program billions, he said.

But reducing benefits, asking beneficiaries to pay more or raising the eligibility age, Mr. Owens said, are off the table until the full effects of the Affordable Care Act are known.

Republicans have pounced on some of the effects of the Affordable Care Act, which has led to something of a back-and-forth in the north country’s congressional race.

On Tuesday, the back-and-forth was somewhat one-sided. The campaign arm of the House Democrats announced that it would send automated calls to north country residents about Mr. Ryan’s budget. Mr. Doheny wasn’t available for an interview Tuesday, and an emailed statement to the Times did not address the question of whether Mr. Doheny supports Mr. Ryan’s proposal. The campaign also declined to comment on whether Medicare should be able to negotiate for lower drug prices.

Under Mr. Ryan’s plan, new Medicare enrollees would have the choice — starting in 10 years — between the current government-run Medicare program or a premium-support plan. The government would help seniors pay their private health insurance premiums. Companies would offer health plans to seniors on a government-regulated exchange. The plan would not affect current beneficiaries or anyone approaching the eligibility age of 65. It also gradually would raise the eligibility age to 67.

Mr. Doheny’s spokesman, Jude R. Seymour, said in an email of the Ryan plan: “Matt believes in keeping our promise to current beneficiaries and soon-to-be recipients while working toward a strong, secure future for Medicare.”

Mr. Seymour also accused Mr. Owens of supporting $741 billion in cuts to Medicare by virtue of his vote for Mr. Obama’s health-care law.

That’s not true, Mr. Owens said. The plan doesn’t cut Medicare, but rather reduces future spending on Medicare Advantage plans, which are run by private insurance companies approved for the program. It helps more people get insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s many other provisions, such as increased subsidies to buy it.

Mr. Ryan’s own plan keeps those “cuts” — Mr. Owens’s word for them when talking about Mr. Ryan’s plan.

Both sides, including Republicans like Mr. Ryan and Democrats like Mr. Owens, say that their own Medicare Advantage spending reductions will help save the program. Both sides say the other is wrong.

“Democrats know they cannot defend Bill Owens’ lousy job creation record — in which this district has lost 5,200 jobs under his watch — so they’ve decided to scare seniors about what Matt Doheny will or will not do,” said Mr. Seymour, Mr. Doheny’s spokesman.

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