President Bush and Sen. John Kerry sparred Wednesday over the role the federal government should play in expanding access to health coverage and protecting Americans’ retirement income.[@@]

The candidates faced off on national television in Tempe, Ariz., during the third presidential debate.

Bush talked once again about his belief that the government should strengthen the health and retirement systems by giving more control to citizens, by encouraging use of the new health savings accounts and creating a system of personal Social Security investment accounts.

Bush hastened to reassure the senior citizens who already collect Social Security checks. Despite predictions made when Bush was elected in 2000 that he would destroy the Social Security system “people get their checks and will continue to get their checks,” Bush said.

But the government should let younger workers increase the rate of return on their earnings by adding individually managed accounts to the Social Security program, Bush said.

“The cost of doing nothing far exceeds the cost of saving the Social Security program,” Bush said.

In the area of health care, costs are skyrocketing partly because “most health care costs are covered by third-party payers,” Bush said.

Simply improving information technology could cut 20% of the health care system’s costs, and the new HSAs could help cut costs even more by reminding patients of the true cost of health care, Bush said.

Kerry argued against the idea of privatizing any of Social Security’s assets.

“That’s an invitation to disaster,” Kerry said.

Privatizing some of the assets could lead to a sharp reduction in guaranteed benefits, Kerry said.

To strengthen the Social Security system, a Kerry administration would start by strenghthening the economy, Kerry said.

“We’re going to restore the fiscal discipline we had in the 1990s,” Kerry said. One step he suggested would be raising the taxes of the “1% of Americans” who “last year got an $89 billion tax cut.” He said repealing the cut and putting the increased revenue in the Social Security trust fund would keep the fund solvent until 2075.

A Kerry administration also would focus on building the tax base for Social Security by increasing the number of good jobs, Kerry said.

To improve health finance, a Kerry administration would start by using tax credits to help employers and giving American individuals and employers the right to buy into the same multicarrier health program that covers members of Congress, Kerry said.

“You choose your doctor,” Kerry said. “You can choose your plan.”

Kerry noted that his own coverage comes from a Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan.