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McCaskill favors means-testing, opposes eligibility changes, for Medicare

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2011 - U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., reaffirmed her commitment today to Social Security and Medicare, saying that "slight adjustments" -- including some means-testing -- were all that were necessary to put the programs on a sound economic footing to continue helping the nation's elderly.

"I don't think there's going to be a successful attempt to change eligibility,'' the senator said, referring to some Medicare proposals to raise the eligibility age from the current 65.

But McCaskill acknowledged to reporters today that the rising costs of Medicare must be addressed. "It's going to take some means-testing,'' she said, explaining that wealthier Americans should be required to pay more for their Medicare coverage.

"Wealthier people can buy their prescription drugs,'' the senator said, referring to Medicare's costly Part D, which helps cover the costs of prescription drugs for the elderly. "The government doesn't need to be paying for (billionaire) Warren Buffett's medicines,'' she said.

The senator cited her support for the Medicare changes in the new federal health-care law, which include free health-care screenings for certain illnesses. "We need to incentivize wellness and prevention,'' she said.

McCaskill added that she has been talking more about Medicare this week because of the Senate's vote against the Republican proposal -- dubbed the Ryan plan -- that would transform Medicare into a voucher program for people now under age 55.

The most important element of the controversy, she said, is that "the single-payer system that Medicare is, is so popular."

McCaskill's comments came at a news conference at Soldier's Memorial downtown where she was joined by local leaders of veterans groups as she announced the regional findings of a customer-service survey of veterans receiving medical care through the Veterans Administration.

The survey found that the biggest concerns centered on such issues as long waits for doctors' appointments and unanswered phones. Still, more than 70 percent of the survey participants said they were treated with respect, and close to 60 percent said they would recommend St. Louis area veterans' facilities to other veterans.

With those results as a backdrop, McCaskill said she would oppose proposals by some to eliminate the VA system and give veterans vouchers to use for treatment with any private physician or medical facility. Those backing the idea include U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country, who now hopes to challenge McCaskill for the U.S. Senate in 2012.

"I fundamentally disagree that we should dismantle the veterans health care system in this country,'' she said.

McCaskill also fielded questions on a variety of other issues, including:

-- Joplin tornado: The senator plans to accompany President Barack Obama when he visits the damaged community on Sunday, a week after the devastating tornado leveled much of the city and killed at least 125 people.

McCaskill said the president's visit was important primarily so that he "can reassure people'' that the community's recovery is a top priority. While there, the president will attend a memorial service with McCaskill and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

"He will pay tribute to the people who lost their lives'' and the families who lost their homes and loved ones, McCaskill said.

-- Federal spending for disaster relief: McCaskill emphasized that while "we've got to be careful about spending every federal dime,'' helping Americans hurt by disaster is a given. "There are a lot of things we need to say 'no' to, but disaster assistance is not one of them,'' she said.

McCaskill said that she and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., share the same opinion that Joplin victims should receive as much federal assistance as possible. Blunt has proposed the federal government cover 100 percent of the cost, while McCaskill has called for 90 percent -- which she noted was in line with the federal policy regarding tornado-hit areas in Alabama.

She is deferring to Blunt in dealing with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who has called for other federal budget cuts before granting any disaster relief. McCaskill declined today to repeat the harsh criticism she directed at Cantor earlier this week.

-- Unrest in the Middle East: McCaskill said she was waiting for concrete proposals before taking a position on whether the United States should offer financial support to democracy movements underway in several countries.

McCaskill said she wanted to make sure that such money would be spent properly, but she added that such aid might well be "much less expensive than what we're doing in Afghanistan now."

"I don't want to dismiss as frivolous (any) attempts to provide support'' to fledgling pro-democracy movements, the senator said.

-- Family's private plane: McCaskill confirmed that the private plane co-owned by her family remains unsold -- "there's a lot of planes for sale right now" -- but emphasized that she is committed to no longer flying in it.

McCaskill had come under fire for using more than $75,000 of her office travel money to cover the costs of the flights on the plane since she has been in the U.S. Senate. As a result, she sent an $89,000 check to the U.S. Treasury to reimburse the government for the travel costs, including the pilots.

The biggest controversy arose, however, when McCaskill later disclosed that her family had failed to pay close to $290,000 in personal property taxes owed on the plane to St. Louis County. The family subsequently paid the county close to $330,000, including late-payment penalities.

McCaskill said it has been more difficult to fly to parts of Missouri without a private plane and that she likely will have to charter some flights. Traveling to Joplin, for example, can be problematic since the closest major airport is in Springfield, Mo.

McCaskill said she and her staff have been traveling more by car, with the senator doing paperwork and phone calls enroute.