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Merkley gets national group's backing

Democratic incumbent, GOP rival argue about record for seniors.


Armed with a re-election endorsement from a national group, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and his Republican rival have traded comments about Merkley’s record on behalf of older adults.

Merkley’s second-term bid was endorsed this week by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a group founded more than three decades ago by James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR signed the federal old-age pension into law in 1935; Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 and up, was added in 1965.

On a visit to Oregon, Max Richtman, president and chief executive of the group, praised Merkley.

“He doesn’t just talk about protecting the promise of Social Security and Medicare, he’s actively legislating for it every way he can,” Richtman says.

Richtman accompanied Merkley to five of the eight cities on a week-long tour by Merkley to promote his advocacy for older people.

Merkley has proposed legislation to give Social Security recipients an increase beyond their annual cost-of-living adjustments, and to oppose changing the eligibility age for Medicare.

Last week, he proposed changes in the Older Americans Act, the 1965 law that is the basis for many programs, to extend some of Oregon’s innovations in home and community-based care to the rest of the nation. The bill also provides for greater outreach efforts and improved coordination of services for older people and people with disabilities.

“Many of these ideas have popped up at recent town halls, and we heard them again,” Merkley says.

Wehby argument

But Republican rival Monica Wehby assails Merkley for his opposition to a constitutional requirement for a balanced federal budget and his support of the 2010 national health-care overhaul known as the Affordable Care Act. Some of the votes leading up to the 2010 law involved decisions on Medicare and Medicare Advantage, private insurance plans under which some Medicare recipients receive benefits.

Wehby, a physician from Portland who is making her first bid for public office, has the opposite stances.

“This pattern of unrestrained spending is not the solution to what ails our nation,” her campaign says in a statement. “Jeff Merkley says he’ll work to keep promises to our seniors, but at the expense of future promises. Attacking Dr. Wehby for wanting to balance the budget, while he himself has enacted policies that cut our seniors’ Medicare, is hypocritical at best.”

Merkley rebuttal

But Merkley, through campaign position papers and in an interview on a recent stop in Salem, rebuts Wehby’s accusations.

Merkley said previously that a balanced-budget constitutional amendment that Wehby advocates, and a budget put forth by House Republicans to balance federal spending within a decade, would force big cuts in Medicare spending.

Both houses of Congress rejected various balanced-budget amendments in 2011. A proposal won a majority in the House, but fell short of the two-thirds required to pass under the Constitution. The Senate rejected versions put up by both parties, the votes mostly along party lines.

The 2011 GOP budget, which passed the Republican-controlled House but died in the Democratic-controlled Senate, would have converted Medicare into a voucher program to enable seniors to obtain their own insurance coverage.

But Merkley says overall Medicare spending would be held constant under the budget championed by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who became the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee.

“The voucher would buy less and less and shortchange seniors,” Merkley says. “The strategy behind it is to have a fixed amount to seniors that would not increase as the costs of health care increased. Seniors end up not having a basic health care package as they do now.”

Merkley’s campaign has sought to tie Wehby to support of an even more austere budget proposal, which would bring spending down to 18 percent of gross domestic product, than the one voted down by the Senate in 2011.

Health care changes

Wehby, in her campaign statement, criticized Merkley’s votes to cut federal subsidies for Medicare Advantage and future projected spending on Medicare as part of the Senate debate over the Affordable Care Act.

“Merkley’s rhetoric would have you believe he would not dare touch the benefits of those who rely on them most, but the facts show something else,” the statement says.

But Merkley says many of the changes in the 2010 law actually have resulted in improvements for Medicare Advantage recipients and seniors generally.

“Medicare Advantage is thriving,” he says. “Enrollments have gone up, and programs that have done a poor job now have to do a better job.”

Among those changes, Merkley says, are:

• Requirements for coverage of preventive services, including free screenings for blood pressure, breast cancer and diabetes: “It’s really an emphasis on wellness, so you can catch things early, rather than people coming in when they are sick.”

• Elimination, by 2020, of the gap in prescription-drug coverage known as the “doughnut hole.” The 2003 law for prescription-drug coverage under Medicare required recipients to pay the full cost of medications between certain points. Last year, Merkley says, the gradual phase-out of the gap saved 45,000 Oregonians an average of $800 each in out-of-pocket costs.

• Rebates to policyholders if insurance companies fail to spend at least 80 percent of patient premiums on health care. For 2014, about 49,000 Oregonians will be rebated a total of $3 million. “It has increased the health-care bang for a buck.”

Merkley's tour took him to Astoria, Bend, Corvallis, Eugene, Hillsboro, Medford, Portland and Salem over three days.

peterwong@PortlandTribune.com

(503) 385-4899

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