Washington – Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, and her Republican rival Mark Greenberg, addressed issues important to aging Americans Wednesday, agreeing that Social Security needs to be strengthened but clashing over Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.

Greenberg’s opening statements at an AARP candidate debate, conducted by tele-conference, emphasized his support for Social Security and his belief that all who pay into the system are entitled to its benefits.

The Esty campaign has hit Greenberg on the issue of Social Security — saying he would end guaranteed benefits for seniors — because of comments he made when he ran for the 5th District seat two years ago.

Greenberg called the accusations false.

When he ran for office two years ago, Greenberg proposed an alternative for younger people that would allow them to invest money they’ve paid in Social Security taxes into an IRA or Keogh so they could manage their own retirement funds.

On  Wednesday,  Greenberg said, “I have not supported the privatization of Social Security.” He also said he’d consider a proposal Esty supports to shore up the financial health of the program, even as he is attacking the Democrat over the proposal in his latest television ad.

Greenberg said former 5th District Rep. Nancy Johnson, a Republican who campaigned with him recently at a senior center, persuaded him to consider the change, which would raise the cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes. Currently, only the first $117,000 earned annually is subject to the Social Security tax.

Greenberg also said he supports a gradual rise in the age at which people are eligible for Social Security.

“We should ask some young people to work a little bit longer to make sure the system is strong for them when they retire,” he said.

Esty rejected that idea, saying it amounted to “moving the goal post.”

She stressed her position as an incumbent in the debate, often referring to her voting record, sponsorship of legislation and constituent services when answering questions from a moderator and from people who called in.

When “Carol,” a 64-year-old from Plymouth complained about a $500-a-month spike in her health care premiums after implementation of the ACA, Esty said “call Jodi in my office” to get help in finding a more affordable plan.

Esty defended the ACA, disputing Greenberg’s assertion that $718 million that was shifted out of Medicare to help fund the ACA would weaken Medicare. Most of the Medicare cuts would come from reducing government payments to popular Medicare Advantage plans that have proved to be more expensive than expected.

Yet Esty’s defense of the ACA was less vigorous than Greenberg’s condemnation of the health care act.

“It’s a big complicated law and it’s making a lot of changes,” she said. “It isn’t perfect, and that’s why I’ve been working to change it.”

Greenberg said Medicare is in peril because of the ACA. He said the program “will look more like Medicaid” because hospital fees will shrink and physicians will no longer want to offer Medicare services.

Greenberg said the Obama administration had “sold us a bill of goods” with the ACA. He proposed replacing it with “something that’s more market-based,” along with tort reform and medical savings accounts.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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