By JOHN FLESHER
TRAVERSE CITY — Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Republican challenger Pete Hoekstra swapped accusations Monday of favoring policies that would undermine Medicare, the health care program for seniors that has become a focal point of congressional and presidential campaigns.
Hoekstra, the acknowledged underdog trying to unseat a two-term incumbent, made Medicare the subject of his first post-nomination television ad. It features video footage of Stabenow purportedly acknowledging that she voted to cut the program's spending as part of President Barack Obama's health care plan, although her campaign says that remark was taken out of context.
Stabenow fired back with a commercial that claims Hoekstra wants to convert Medicare into a voucher program that would boost premiums for seniors, which a Hoekstra spokesman denied.
The exchange highlights the political importance of Medicare, which serves nearly 50 million seniors and disabled people. Experts agree that reining in costs is necessary to keep the program affordable and solvent as aging baby boomers retire in greater numbers, but opinions differ over how to do it.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has criticized Obama's health plan for diverting $716 billion from Medicare to cover other costs.
The Obama plan's reductions would take place over a decade and would come from payments to health care providers, although Republicans say that would result in less generous benefits for individuals. The president generally favors keeping Medicare as it is, but would phase in new fees and higher premiums for retirees making $85,000 or more.
Romney calls for keeping current beneficiaries and people nearing retirement in traditional Medicare, while shifting people now age 54 and younger into a different system. Once eligible, they would get a fixed payment from government to pay for private insurance or a government plan modeled on the existing Medicare program. Obama says that approach would "end Medicare as we know it."
Hoekstra and Stabenow clashed over the issue with dueling ads and crossfire of memos and statistics.
Hoekstra's ad, airing statewide beginning Tuesday, shows footage of Stabenow holding a microphone during an appearance last month. "Here's Debbie Stabenow, caught admitting to cutting seniors' Medicare by $716 billion," an announcer says.
It then shows Stabenow saying, "And they say to us, 'Well, you have cut spending in health care reform for Medicare.' Yes, we did."
Stabenow campaign spokesman Cullen Schwarz said independent fact checkers have found Hoekstra's claims to be false.
"Debbie is fighting to protect Medicare and eliminated overpayments to insurance companies, while Pete Hoekstra's plan would turn Medicare into a voucher program and make seniors pay $6,400 more for their health care each year," Schwarz said.
The $6,400 figure is based on a budget plan crafted by GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, which the Stabenow campaign says Hokestra has publicly endorsed. Hoekstra spokesman Greg VanWoerkom said Stabenow's claim was based on "an incomplete report from an outdated version that Pete never voted for."
Hokestra retired from the House in 2010, before votes were taken on the Ryan budget.
In her ad, Stabenow — sitting alone at a kitchen table with a coffee mug — looks into the camera and says: "Some people in Washington think we should gut Medicare to pay for more tax breaks for millionaires. Are they crazy?" She adds that "if anyone wants to eliminate Medicare, they're going to have to go through me."