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Where They Stand: Santorum, Casey on Social Security and Medicare

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Posted on Sat, Sep. 23, 2006

Where They Stand: Santorum, Casey on Social Security and Medicare

KIMBERLY HEFLING
Associated Press

The nation's Social Security system, which currently provides benefits to about one out of every five Pennsylvanians, is expected in 10 years to begin paying out more in benefits than it takes in through taxes.

Republican Sen. Rick Santorum and his Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Bob Casey, have staked out different positions on the extent of the problems facing the system and how to deal with them.

Here, they discuss their views, in excerpts from answers to written questions.

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AP: Soon, the nation's Social Security system will begin paying out more in benefits than it takes in through taxes. Eventually, by 2041, the government projects the trust fund for the program will be broke. What would you do to keep this program around for future generations?

CASEY: First, stop the Santorum-Bush plan to dismantle Social Security through privatization. That's the real crisis that threatens Social Security today. Not 35 years from now - today. Because it would drain $1 trillion out of the Social Security trust fund, and replace guaranteed benefits for seniors with guaranteed fees for Wall Street.

Second, we have to get our fiscal house in order. Stop raiding the Social Security surplus to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. (The late Pennsylvania senator) John Heinz called it "thievery" - and he was right. We can make that up by ending the tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.

Finally, the real key to the long-term health of Social Security is to improve the long-term health of the American economy. The 2041 estimate assumes an unrealistically low growth rate. Over the last 40 years, GDP (gross domestic product) growth has averaged annual average growth of 3.2 percent. However, the Trustees Report only projects GDP growth of under 2 percent.

SANTORUM: Pennsylvania is home to more senior citizens than any other state except Florida, and I know the critical importance of ensuring that Social Security is there for current and future generations. Some, like my opponent, are choosing to ignore Social Security's volatility, instead putting the burden on our children and grandchildren to find a solution after we are too far in the red.

I believe in a two-prong approach to addressing the Social Security solvency issue. ... We must first take fear off the table so that senior citizens know that their benefits will never be reduced. That's why I introduced the Social Security Guarantee Act, which would guarantee that seniors will receive their full Social Security benefits as promised to them. This bill requires the secretary of the treasury to issue a guarantee to each Social Security recipient, stating their monthly benefit along with a guaranteed annual cost-of-living increase. This guarantee would provide the much-needed security that many seniors want while the discussion of Social Security reform continues.

However, we must be realistic about the future of this program. By 2016, the Social Security trust fund is expected to start paying out more in annual benefits than the system collects in payroll and income taxes. Just like anyone's checkbook, if you spend more than what you are bringing into your bank account, you are going to have a problem. Part of this impending problem can be attributed to the fact that there are fewer workers per retiree. In 1950, 16 workers supported each Social Security recipient - now it's barely three workers per recipient. By 2030, it is expected that only two workers per beneficiary will be paying into the system.

In order to avoid raising taxes or cutting benefits, I believe that younger workers should have the option to voluntarily put a portion of their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts. Regardless of whether a younger worker chooses to create a personal retirement account, Social Security must remain a safety net to make certain that everyone's hard-earned benefits are protected in their retirement years.

My opponent has been insulting Pennsylvanians for 18 months by refusing to admit that there is a looming crisis, and failing to lay out any alternatives to ensure that Social Security is around for future generations.

AP: Do you support the creation of private accounts? Please explain your answer.

SANTORUM: As stated above, I support allowing younger workers to voluntarily choose to invest a portion of their payroll tax into a personal retirement account.

CASEY: Absolutely not. My opponent is the biggest supporter of private accounts other than George Bush. His scheme will drain a trillion dollars from the Social Security trust fund and make Social Security go insolvent faster. A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial called Santorum's bill to cover up his privatization intentions "snake oil."

AP: Some people call the Medicare prescription drug program a disaster. Others say it's a blessing. Please explain your position. If changes are needed, please specify what they are.

CASEY: The Medicare Part D program is fundamentally flawed and is in clear need of a complete overhaul. It provides too much benefit to the HMOs while the law's "doughnut holes" in coverage require many seniors to pay for all drug costs out of their own pockets.

The Part D legislation currently prohibits Medicare officials from negotiating lower bulk prices with drug companies. It also continues to block the reimportation of safe, FDA-approved prescription drugs at lower prices from Canada. At the same time, the legislation lavishes extravagant taxpayer-financed incentives on the HMOs.

Rick Santorum has opposed allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices, opposes reimportation of safe prescription drugs, and has voted for Medicare funding cuts. I support the reimportation of FDA-approved prescription drugs and allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prices.

SANTORUM: I was a strong supporter of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act. This law, for the first time ever, provides Medicare beneficiaries with a voluntary prescription drug benefit and expanded health plan options to help them meet their specific medical needs. This legislation also reduces the cost of prescription drugs for America's seniors, while integrating prevention into the Medicare program to improve the quality of care for seniors and the overall program's solvency. These are critical steps toward preserving the program for future generations.

The Medicare bill also included a much-needed expansion of "health savings accounts," which allow people to set up tax-deferred savings accounts and take more responsibility and control over their health care expenditures. My opponent, on the other hand, supports government-run, one-size-fits-all health care that takes away an individual's ability to make their own health care decisions.

Because the Medicare Act is so complex and includes many new, complicated provisions, I have been working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that seniors are able to take full advantage of the benefits of this program.

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania rolled out PACE Plus Medicare coverage, which provides the best from Medicare and Pennsylvania's health insurance programs to ensure that seniors have comprehensive prescription drug coverage, without any coverage gaps or spending in the so-called doughnut hole. My support for the Medicare prescription drug benefit was contingent upon this new benefit complementing and enhancing prescription drug coverage for seniors enrolled in the PACE and PACENET programs.

I will continue to closely monitor these programs in the years ahead to ensure that they are doing what we intended them to do - provide seniors and low-income Americans with quality, affordable health care.

AP: There has been discussion about overhauling the government programs Medicare and Social Security. Which program would you try to make changes to first? Please explain.

SANTORUM: I support overall entitlement reform. Earlier this year, I supported the Deficit Reduction Act as an important first step in reforming our entitlement programs. This act will save taxpayers billions of dollars by rooting our wasteful and abusive spending in the Medicaid and Medicare programs, ensuring that we are spending our hard-earned dollars to care for those most in need.

We cannot continue on our current path if we want these programs to be sustainable for decades to come. It is easy to pass the buck like my opponent has been doing and ignore the need to reform these entitlement programs. However, I believe we must tackle both of these programs in a bipartisan way, but that Social Security should be at the top of the priority list before we move to reform the Medicare program, which is why I have been so outspoken about finding a solution to reform Social Security.

CASEY: Rick Santorum proposed raising the Social Security retirement age past 70. He said: "It is ridiculous that we have a retirement age in this country at age 65. ... At least age 70. ... I'd go even farther if I could." I disagree. He also has voted 14 times to cut billions from Medicare. I also disagree.

Medicare is the immediate crisis. And the Medicare crisis is part of the larger health care crisis. We must address the larger problem of rising health care costs, make Medicare more performance-based by providing incentives to medical providers to provide preventive coverage, tackle the chronic diseases that drive up medical costs, and explore new options like modernizing health care records if we are to reduce the exploding costs in the Medicare program. We can also save billions in Medicare by eliminating insurance company middlemen from the prescription drug program and negotiating for lower prices the way the VA (Veterans Affairs) does.

http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/politics/15592771.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp

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