Thursday December 29, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal touted the need to defend social safety-net programs for seniors on Wednesday as he began his introduction to a city that will be crucial to his re-election.

Neal, a Springfield Democrat, started his Pittsfield visit at Berkshire Elder Services on Wendell Avenue, speaking with local medical professionals and advocates for Social Security and Medicare.

"[These advocates] want to make sure that people continue to receive the services that they vitally need," Neal said. "Making sure that they receive those services should be a full-frontal effort on the part of all of us to continue their integrity."

Neal said changes can be made to Medicare to bring down costs, however, including asking wealthy seniors to pay higher co-pays or increasing efforts to root out the more than $50 billion each year that is siphoned off from the program through fraud.

He also called the argument that Social Security is going broke "specious," and said Medicare and Medicaid would be in much better shape if unemployment was below 5 percent (the national rate is 8.6 percent).

Next fall, Springfield will be absorbed into Massachusetts' 1st Congressional District because of national population shifts accounted for in the 2010 U.S. census. John Olver, the current representative for the district, has announced he will retire when his term expires in January 2013.

Berkshire County belongs to the 1st District.

Neal, who currently represents the 2nd District, already has announced his intention to seek another term, but he will face a primary fight with Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. -- Register of Deeds in the Berkshire Middle District -- before the November 2012 general election.

Neal said many issues facing Berkshire County are similar to those being faced nationally. He also noted the common interests between the county and areas he represents in the Pioneer Valley.

"We have a very similar outlook," Neal said. "We have all felt a degree of alienation from the state capital."

Neal also visited Berkshire Medical Center, General Dynamics and the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction during his time in Pittsfield on Wednesday. He said there were "feel-good" stories at each stop, as he praised the efforts of each organization. He also noted the challenges facing officials at the jail and at BMC, from drug- and alcohol-related crime issues to health-care costs for Medicare-dependent institutions.

Members of the Berkshire delegation in attendance at the Elder Services discussion said it's too soon to endorse Neal for 2012, but they applauded his willingness to reach out to the county.

"It's very important to get to know your district, and Congressman Neal has done a great job of getting out here to Berkshire County," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.

Others said there will be challenges before the election, but voters likely will be pleased with what they see.

"What he'll find and what many people here in the Berkshires will find is that a lot of what Richie Neal has been fighting for in the last 20 years is what matters to this region," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield. "He's been on the right side of a lot of issues."

Neal is expected to return to the county next week for another tour of the area.

To reach Trevor Jones:
tjones@berkshireeagle.com,
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On Twitter: @BE_TrevorJones.