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Hochul explains Medicare pivot to seniors Williamsville visit cites vote on cost-control panel

If there were any doubts that Medicare will dominate Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul's re-election campaign this year the same way it did her special election last year, the Amherst Democrat put them to rest Tuesday.

Hochul told a meeting of senior citizens in Williamsville that she voted against creating a panel to set cost controls on certain Medicare services, acknowledging later that she had reversed the position she staked out in last year's campaign.

After embracing the concept of an Independent Payment Advisory Board as she challenged Republican Jane L. Corwin in 2011, Hochul told reporters after her stop at the Blocher Homes on Tuesday that new information she studied on the concept caused her to change her mind when voting last week.

"Once you're in Congress and you have a chance to review the data that you don't have when you're running for office, you can make a different decision," she said.

The congresswoman had just finished emphasizing to about 15 senior citizens that she is committed to preserving Medicare as it was established in 1965 and will resist any Republican efforts aimed at a drastic overhaul. After revisiting the idea of a cost-control panel on which she campaigned last year, Hochul said she now views it as a threat to Medicare beneficiaries.

"Their mission is to figure out ways to cut the cost of health care, which is good," she said of the proposed 15-member panel that would make decisions independent of Congress.

"That could end up hurting Medicare beneficiaries," she added. "That is something I wouldn't do."

Republicans Chris Collins and David Bellavia, both seeking to win the party nomination to oppose Hochul in November, have already signaled they will make a Medicare system they call "unsustainable" a major plank in their platforms.

Collins last week lauded House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., for "starting a debate." Ryan's proposed budget that was passed by the Republican-led House last week, would sharply cut spending while revising Medicare by creating a voucher program in which future senior citizens could obtain private insurance.

But Collins refused to endorse the Ryan budget plan, saying he was focused instead on getting his campaign up and running.

Bellavia said he worries that the Ryan plan would start increasing the Medicare retirement age a decade too soon by hiking it a month a year for 12 years starting in 2023. Medicare reform should come first, before the retirement age is raised, he said.

Otherwise, Bellavia backs Ryan's Medicare proposal.

"It has to be restructured or it's going to collapse," he said of traditional Medicare.

Hochul said she can support some ideas to change Medicare that will result in savings but not undermine its original goals. New attention should be focused on proposals to more cheaply purchase prescription drugs, she said, while aides said she is working on legislation to curb Medicare abuse.

But Hochul emphasized to her Williamsville audience that she will never entertain proposals to radically change the system from what was originally intended.

"I'll tell you what bugs me: when people talk about entitlement programs like they were some sort of charity," she told her audience. "You all paid into that. That's a promise our country made to senior citizens a long time ago."

She said her vote last week aimed to thwart what she sees as a "two-tier system."

"It does change Medicare as we know it, and I'm standing by that because it's true," she said.

"Even those who say: 'It's not you; it's your kids,' " she added. "I think you want that for your children, too, so they won't live a life of poverty. When they say it only affects seniors, it's not the truth."

Hochul said she appreciates discussing Medicare with senior citizens such as those she visited Tuesday.

"I take your stories with me," she told them.