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

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Medicare, the popular safety net program that provides health care to Americans over the age of 65, 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 might already be contained in President Obama’s health-care overhaul, 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-Wisc. The Ryan budget, as it’s often called, is now in 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 he’s not sure whether the Affordable Care Act will do enough to bring down costs, but before cutting benefits or asking seniors to pay more now, the government should wait and see what shakes out of the law.
The law requires health-insurance companies to require 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 is currently 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 retirement 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 on 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 would also gradually 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, he said. It does so to help more people get insurance.
And Mr. Ryan’s own plan keeps those “cuts” — Mr. Owens’ word when talking about the reduction within Mr. Ryan’s plan, but not the same one within Mr. Obama's.
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.
The debate might well be one that Republican challengers — running for Congress amid high unemployment and a sluggish economy — would rather not have.
“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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