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Published October 15 2012

Berg, Heitkamp clash on health care issues in 2nd of 3 debates

FARGO – Stark differences between North Dakota’s U.S. Senate candidates when it comes to Medicare and the nation’s health care law stood out during their second televised debate Monday.

Former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp and U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., also sparred over the stalled farm bill, with Berg saying “I’m doing everything I can” to get a farm bill passed and Heitkamp claiming her opponent can’t claim “any amount of legitimate effort.”

The debate at Prairie Public’s studio in Fargo was the last in a series co-sponsored by the AARP, and one of the most spirited exchanges followed a question from the association about what Medicare and Social Security proposals were most concerning to the candidates.

Heitkamp said Republicans’ so-called “premium support” proposal, which would provide a voucher for beneficiaries under age 55 to shop around for health coverage, would create “real problems in making sure that that system is solvent” if only the elderly who are the sickest remain on traditional Medicare.

She said her solutions for keeping Medicare solvent include negotiating prescription drug prices, reducing fraud and waste and promoting wellness.

Berg championed the proposal as giving Americans an option to choose a better policy, but he focused most of his comments on the effects of the Affordable Care Act. He challenged Heitkamp’s on how long it would take Medicare to go bankrupt under Obamacare and said the law would raid Medicare of $716 billion and “people are going to quit taking Medicare patients.”

“It cuts money from hospitals and physicians in North Dakota. It cuts hospice. These are real cuts,” Berg said.

Heitkamp called Berg’s $716 billion-cut claim “the biggest fib in this whole campaign,” noting Berg voted for such a cut under vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s budget plan.

Asked how they would address Obamacare, Berg said he would repeal the law, calling it “the one clear distinction in this race.” He said his wife, a physician, said it would put the government between her and her patients, and he referred to recent reports that Olive Garden and Red Lobster are putting more workers on part-time status to see if it will limit costs from Obamacare.

“This bill creates a cloud of uncertainty, and it’s hurting our whole economy,” Berg said.

Heitkamp, whose husband is a family doctor, said she supports keeping the act’s provision for people with preexisting conditions and retaining the “frontier states” amendment, which outgoing U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has said would address inequities in Medicare funding to states and boost payments to North Dakota hospitals and doctors more than $650 million over 10 years.

Heitkamp said there is good and bad in the act, and “there is absolutely no reason not to amend the law as it currently exists.”

Berg agreed that “we need to deal with that” frontier amendment, explaining afterward that he would reintroduce the provision in the Senate if elected. Heitkamp countered afterward that Conrad and former Sen. Byron Dorgan tried for 20 years to pass the amendment.

After the roughly 26-minute debate, Heitkamp voiced frustration about the short time frame, which she had sought to have extended to an hour, and reiterated that she wanted seven debates but Berg would only agree to three.

Berg said afterward, “I love the debates,” and that Heitkamp’s complaints were “a diversion from the key issues.”

Berg and Heitkamp are slated for a third and final debate on Oct. 25.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528