Even though other issues were discussed, the candidates offered the sharpest contrast on the issues affecting seniors. Right from the start, Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Republican Mark Kennedy differed on the Medicare prescription drug benefit that passed in 2003.
Kennedy defended his vote for the program as a bill that was good for seniors. He says it has its flaws but is helping the low income. One of those flaws is a gap some call a doughnut hole. That's when out of pocket drug costs fall between $2,250 and $5,100 a year for eligible seniors. Kennedy says the plan is better than nothing.
"Let's be clear, we'd have a lot bigger doughnut hole if we had Amy Klobuchar there because we wouldn't have a prescription drug plan. You need people who are willing to be reasonable, to work on a bipartisan basis to get it done," Kennedy said.
Kennedy also accused Klobuchar of supporting a plan that would ration drugs to seniors. That was in response to Klobuchar's proposal to allow the federal government to negotiate prices with drug companies.
Klobuchar shot back that Kennedy was using scare tactics to garner votes. She said she would not have supported the current drug benefit because it was a giveaway to pharmaceutical companies. Klobuchar accused Kennedy of misleading the public.
"You need to start telling the truth," she told Kennedy. "You have been there for six years. You have voted for these budgets. You voted against reimportation of drugs from Canada. You have voted for Medicare Part D and not filling the doughnut and not allowing for the negotiation of prescription drug companies."
Kennedy said he would have supported the reimportation of prescription drugs if the Food and Drug Administration could assure him that it could be safely done.
Robert Fitzgerald with the Independence Party sided with Klobuchar and called the drug benefit "a giveaway to the drug companies." He also supports reimportation. Fitzgerald said he would not support spending any more money on the drug benefit because the federal budget deficit is already too big. He took both Klobuchar and Kennedy to task for being in parties that don't take the federal deficit seriously enough.
"We have a $9 trillion national debt. I don't think that either of these two can come here with bragging rights of their party's fiscal responsibility when we are passing a burden onto future generations," Fitzgerald said.
Klobuchar says she supports a budget-balancing plan that would close offshore corporate tax loopholes and raising taxes on the wealthiest one percent of Americans. Kennedy said he opposes the tax increase because it would be harmful to the nation's economy.
On the issue of Social Security, Klobuchar accused Kennedy of supporting a plan that would allow younger workers to direct a portion of their Social Security taxes into private accounts. She opposes that option and called it "reckless."
"In 2001 you wrote a letter urging the Bush Commission to transform Social Security into a system based on private accounts. You've written to the Cato Institute on how you wanted to have private accounts. I know you had a transformation here today but basically you have in other writings advocated for private accounts," Klobuchar said.
Kennedy says there hasn't been a transformation. He says Klobuchar is using terms like "privatization" to scare seniors. Kennedy says he's been willing to look at all options to ensure that Social Security is available for all workers.
"We ought to look at options for young people who want them to get more out of their investments. To capture what Albert Einstein called 'the best invention by mankind,' the magic of compound interest. We ought to look at options. I never insisted that we have them," Kennedy said.
Klobuchar says paying down the national debt is the best way to ensure that Social Security is available to future generations.
Fitzgerald says he supports raising the age when seniors can take the entitlement and also supports means testing the program based on wealth.
There are five more debates scheduled between now and election day.
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