Blumenthal, McMahon and Medicare: Profiles in caution

On the politically dangerous question of how to corral spending on Social Security and Medicare, U.S. Senate candidates Richard Blumenthal and Linda McMahon offer voters a choice of positions: safe or vague.

In senior centers, Blumenthal reassures the elderly that he will oppose any effort to cut benefits on which they rely for income and health care, leaving unsaid how those programs can be saved from insolvency. McMahon refuses any substantive discussion cutting federal entitlements.

But now, in the last weeks of the campaign to succeed five-term Democrat Christopher J. Dodd, the candidates differ on aspects of Medicare policy that could save hundreds of billions of dollars over 10 years, enough to push back the insolvency of the retiree health program.

While declaring Social Security and Medicare off limits as campaign issues, McMahon has gone on the record on one Medicare issue: She told The Mirror she opposes allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.

Blumenthal favors that cost-saving measure, which has been debated along partisan lines since the passage in 2003 of the Medicare D program to cover prescriptions for seniors. He says it could save $200 billion over 10 years.

McMahon also favors repealing the new health-care reform law, which is expected to generate savings of $390 billion to $500 billion over 10 years. Blumenthal favors maintaining the law and the savings, which could extend Medicare solvency for another decade to 2029.

Private insurers and one major government consumer of health care, the Veterans Administration, already use their purchasing power to negotiate lower prices. One study says the VA pays 48 percent less than Medicare for many drugs.

But drug companies successfully lobbied for an explicit prohibition of negotiated prices by Medicare, arguing that the program would drive down prices and profits, bleeding pharmaceutical research budgets.

“My position really is that I do believe in the free-market, free-enterprise system, and I think we should not have government negotiating the price of drugs,” said McMahon, the Republican nominee.

Proponents say that negotiation is an element of the free market, but McMahon said that an entity as large as Medicare might have the power to effectively set price controls.

“I think we should be reasonable, but we should let the market determine that,” McMahon said. “I just don’t think the government should be doing it.”

Blumenthal, the Democratic nominee, said negotiating prices is hardy new or anti-competitive.

“The VA does it. Big corporations do it,” Blumenthal said. “The federal government should be taking advantage of the size of its purchases to encourage competition and lower prices that would save taxpayers billions of dollars.”

As is the case with most major-party candidates, Blumenthal and McMahon either oppose or shy from any discussion of any reforms to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid that would raise costs or diminish services.

McMahon’s position that the entitlements, which consume 40 percent of federal spending, are too controversial to discuss during a campaign has provoked ridicule.

But President Obama and the Congress in the past have tried to depoliticize some issues, including deficit reduction, by commissioning bipartisan studies. McMahon says the reform of Social Security and Medicare should be approached on a bipartisan basis.

Blumenthal has taken advantage of McMahon’s silence, especially on Social Security and Medicare, unequivocally promising seniors that he is opposed to raising retirement age for Social Security, applying a means test for retirement benefits or reducing Medicare coverage.

“My opponent says we shouldn’t be talking about this issue during the campaign,” Blumenthal said. “I say, what’s more important?”

Blumenthal said he has staked positions on Medicare issues that go beyond negotiated drug prices and health-care reform.

“I’m also in favor of cutting waste and fraud,” Blumenthal said.

He acknowledged that opposing waste and fraud is not ground-breaking – or politically daring.  In fact, McMahon previously has staked out her opposition to duplicative services, a proposal guaranteed to offend no one.

“Waste and fraud is real,” Blumenthal said. “I know people generally talk about waste and fraud, and I believe it is a real and profoundly significant target for savings.”