BOSTON (AP) - The future of Medicare is taking center stage in Massachusetts' U.S. Senate race, with both candidates saying the other would jeopardize benefits to seniors and put the long-term solvency of the health insurance program at risk.
Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown has criticized Democratic rival Elizabeth Warren in recent days, saying she supports "gutting Medicare by three quarters of a trillion dollars" by backing the federal health care law signed by President Obama.
Warren says the $716 billion in cuts, spread out over the next decade, are targeted at waste, fraud and subsidies to insurance companies and won't harm benefits to Medicare recipients.
Warren says the changes are intended to protect the Medicare program and make it more fiscally sound.
For both candidates, the fight is central to their efforts to court coveted senior voters in the final weeks of the hard-fought political contest.
Brown this week launched what he said was a three-day "Keep The Promise" tour with a visit to a nursing home in Taunton to highlight the Medicare issue.
Brown argues that the 2010 Affordable Care Act includes $14 billion in Medicare cuts to Massachusetts health care providers and nursing homes over the next decade.
"Over a third of the Medicare cuts Warren supports come from cuts to doctors, hospitals and nursing homes," Brown said ahead of his visit to the Taunton nursing home. "I am the only candidate in this race who will stand up and protect Medicare."
Warren said Brown's portrayal of the federal health care law has been debunked by independent analysts, including the AARP, a lobbying group for seniors. She said Obama's law targets Medicare fraud, waste and abuse and strengthens guaranteed benefits, while prohibiting cuts to guaranteed Medicare benefits.
"For Sen. Brown, Mitt Romney and the Republicans to claim that cutting fraud and waste out of the system hurts Medicare is just to get it all backwards, deliberately backwards," Warren said.
Warren also said that the changes would end up extending the life of Medicare, a program that covers nearly 50 million retirees and disabled people nationwide.
The wrangling between Warren and Brown mirrors the national Medicare debate between Obama and Romney.
Romney has said Obama would cut $716 billion from Medicare over the next decade to help fund the president's health care law. Romney has vowed to restore the cuts if elected.
Obama has said the changes were part of a plan to extend the life of Medicare. Obama has also argued that the changes will result in better access to preventive care and drugs that will curb more expensive hospitalizations.
Romney has proposed changing Medicare to a "premium support" system dominated by private plans that are paid a fixed amount by the government. Obama said replacing the current open-ended Medicare benefit would shift costs to seniors.
While some of the money from the $716 billion in cuts is going toward improved preventive care and other benefits under the program, the bulk is being used to expand health care coverage for the general population.
Republicans have argued that under the president's plan, fewer doctors and hospitals will accept Medicare, meaning fewer services. Obama argues that better access to preventive care and drugs will prevent more expensive hospitalizations.
The sparring between Warren and Brown on Medicare reflects a larger gulf on the issue of health care.
Brown won the 2010 special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of longtime Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy by vowing to be a key vote against the Affordable Care Act, which passed despite his opposition.
Brown supported a 2006 Massachusetts law that offered a blueprint for the federal law, but opposed Obama's proposal, arguing that the decision to expand health care services should be left up to individual states.
Warren is a vocal defender of the federal law and has vowed to work to maintain it. She argues the law has helped expand access to health care to millions of uninsured Americans and will ease the cost of prescription drugs for seniors.
The Massachusetts race is already the most expensive in state history and the costliest Senate race in the country. Both national parties are keeping a close eye on the contest as they wrestle for control of the Senate.