CTNJ file photos
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty and Republican Mark Greenberg (CTNJ file photos)

Litchfield County has the oldest population in Connecticut, and more than 130,000 people in Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District receive Social Security benefits. That represents more than half the number of ballots cast in the district in the last non-presidential year.

Democrat Elizabeth Esty won the seat narrowly two years ago by criticizing her opponent’s stance on Social Security, and is following the same playbook against Republican challenger Mark Greenberg as she seeks to win a second term this year.

They swapped accusations about about who has more respect for older residents in a telephone debate Wednesday morning hosted by the Connecticut chapter of the AARP.

Esty accused Greenberg of wanting to privatize Social Security. Greenberg denied it, and accused Esty of telling seniors in Cheshire 12 years ago that they could “move to another town” if they couldn’t afford to pay higher taxes.

They differed on raising the retirement age for Social Security, and on whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The forum came a day after Greenberg surprised many by announcing Tuesday that he was changing his position on Esty’s plan to increase the cap on income that is subject to Social Security taxes. He had unveiled a new TV ad the day before attacking her for that stance.

Greenberg said that he feels strongly that Congress must do something to stave off an impending “insolvency” of the Social Security system and is willing to “compromise.” He supports a plan that would gradually increase the retirement age from 67 to 70, affecting people who are currently under the age of 52.

“We have to be real. The Social Security system is going to fail if we don’t have a discussion and debate about it,” he said. “We should ask some young people to work a little bit longer to make sure the system is strong for them when they retire.”

Greenberg said at the Waterbury debate that former 5th District Congresswoman Nancy Johnson convinced him that raising the income cap on Social Security taxes should also be part of that discussion.

Esty called raising the retirement age “moving the goalposts” and said that it was inappropriate for blue collar workers doing demanding physical labor.

“People who work with physical labor, a jackhammer, can’t afford to work until they’re 70,” she said.

Esty said that Social Security could be protected if Congress would stop “raiding” the Social Security trust fund and raise the income cap.

“If we were to raise that cap, we could extend the life of the Social Security system for 75 years. It would only affect 6 percent of all American workers, the wealthiest,” she said. “Mr. Greenberg has criticized me on this, disagreed with me, until yesterday.”

After Esty said Greenberg would privatize Social Security, Greenberg called it “another falsehood” and cited a Hartford Courant analysis that determined an Esty attack ad on Social Security to be “false.”

“I’m for preserving Social Security long into the future,” he said.

Esty and Greenberg are both opposed to “means testing,” a move that would cut off Social Security benefits for seniors who are independently wealthy.

They disagreed on Obamacare. Greenberg described it as “terrible” and “horrible” and called for it to be “repealed and replaced” with “market reforms.”

Greenberg said that Obamacare is increasing the cost of health insurance for many, and threatens to degrade access and quality of care for seniors who are on Medicare.

“The first thing we do to preserve medicare is to repeal and replace Obamacare,” he said. “Medicare is going to look more and more like Medicaid. Reimbursements to hospitals are going to be reduced . . . the choice you are going to have with doctors is going to be reduced.”

Esty said she voted for “a budget that protected the Medicare guarantee” and against measures that would make seniors pay more out of pocket.

She says Obamacare’s push for greater efficiency, the use of electronic medical records, more efficiency, using the breadth of Medicare to negotiate better rates and addressing “waste, fraud and abuse” will lower costs and preserve the program.

“It’s a big complicated law and it’s making a lot of changes,” she said of Obamacare. “It isn’t perfect, and that’s why I’ve been working to change it.”

Matt DeRienzo is the editor of the Center for Public Integrity.

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