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Rep. Owens talks Syria, Social Security and health care at Watertown AARP luncheon


Though retirement benefits were the main topic of discussion during U.S. Rep. William L. Owens’s visit to an AARP-sponsored luncheon Wednesday in Watertown, the escalating civil war in Syria refused to be ignored.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said President Barack Obama’s administration was actively consulting with members of Congress about how to proceed in Syria, where American officials have accused the regime of Bashar Assad of using chemical weapons.

Asked by a lunch guest what advice he would offer the president, Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said he adamantly opposes putting American forces on the ground in Syria.

Instead, Mr. Owens said, he favors a strategy similar to the one the U.S. adopted in Libya more than two years ago, when dictator Moammar Gadhafi was ousted from power.

Mr. Owens said that by acting in concert with the United Nations, the U.S. was able to institute a no-fly zone and use targeted airstrikes to bring down Gaddafi forces.

He told reporters that a key concern of any U.S. policy would be to limit the Syrian government’s ability to deploy chemical weapons.

In July, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote that preventing the use of chemical weapons in Syria would require a no-fly zone, ground troops and “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers” — at a cost of more than $1 billion per month.

Before American foreign policy was introduced, Mr. Owens opened the discussion by highlighting the need for compromise in Washington.

“No one of us has all the answers,” he said.

However, there were two things Mr. Owens said he would not compromise on: changing the cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients or increasing copayments, deductibles or age requirements for Medicare.

Mr. Owens prefaced his remarks by justifying his decision to vote for the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare.”

People without health care often end up in the emergency room after ignoring their ailments for too long; they are charged more because emergency care is more expensive and they are sicker when they enter the hospital; and they can also bog down the system with routine procedures, preventing patients who need immediate attention from receiving it, Mr. Owens said.

When patients without health care can’t afford to pay their medical bills, it results in more than $75 billion worth of uncompensated care costs that result in increased health insurance premiums and increased Medicare and Medicaid costs for those who are covered. Insuring more people and making health care more affordable through online exchanges will cut down on the amount of taxpayer money spent on Medicare, Mr, Owens said.

Mr. Owens also was asked about improving the economy of the north country, which he said could be done by encouraging more Canadian citizens to shop and conduct business here; and about the closing of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, which he said he opposes.

Picking up on the theme of compromise, Norman R. Oatman, Adams Center, who is a retiree but not an AARP member, asked Mr. Owens how members of Congress would feel about voting for a bill if they didn’t know which party had sponsored it.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Mr. Owens said.

“It’s an idea I’ve had all my life,” Mr. Oatman said after the lunch. “There are a lot of good ideas coming out and the other party blocking it because it’s too beneficial for the other party. It’s not good for the people.”

Karen R. Norton, AARP local advocacy chairwoman, said she felt the event went well and that guests left “happy and upbeat.”

She said she had hope that members of Congress could work through their differences during the coming legislative session.

“You’ve got to have hope,” she said. “If you don’t have hope, you’re not going to work for change, work for growth, work for betterment.”

Mr. Owens will be at Hospice of Jefferson County from 1:30 to 2 p.m. Friday. He will meet with staff, a resident and the resident’s family.

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