OHIO VALLEY — When Bidwell resident Pamela Riley was tapped to serve as the Congressional District Coordinator for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, she saw it as a challenge and an honor. As part of her duties, Riley represented the Ohio Valley in a national summit in Washington D.C. this summer, and she meets regularly with a local subcommittee of fellow residents that care deeply about the issue.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is a grassroots citizens’ advocacy and education organization founded in 1982, with millions of members and supporters dedicated to protecting and fighting for financial and health security in retirement.
“Basically the position of the National Committee [to Preserve Social Security and Medicare] is that Social Security and Medicare are the two most successful programs in U.S. history to decrease poverty, to make sure people have a decent quality of life when they retire, and they also save money because Medicare and Social Security both have an operating cost far below private insurance and other private investments,” said Ohio State Field Director Shawn Phetteplace. “And they are there as a social insurance to make sure that no matter what you have at least a basic level of income and access to health care.
“Right now these programs are under attack. In terms of Social Security, there have been attempts to privatize it in the past. It was part of what was called the ‘Path to Prosperity’ bill, but it got taken out because it was so deeply unpopular — but that could come back.
“In terms of Medicare, there is a plan to turn it into private insurance. It eliminates Medicare. They might still call it Medicare, but it’s not Medicare. Basically you would get a check from the federal government each year — a voucher — to pay for private insurance. The problem with that is that it is estimate between six- and 9,000 dollars per year. Try getting health insurance for that much money as an 85-year-old with diabetes. It doesn’t happen. So, it would be an incredible rationing of care.
“For folks who are against the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which actually helps to strengthen Medicare — for them to say that it rations care when, in fact, this is actually rationing care, I think it is sort of unbelievable at times,” added Phetteplace.
The committee said they were extremely pleased that the ACA was upheld in its entirety earlier this summer because the ACA protects Medicare. The group said the ACA will take the money that was padding the pockets of private insurance companies and instead puts it back into the traditional Medicare system to make sure that it’s more fiscally solvent for the future. It also provides for the coverage of preventive screenings like mammograms.
There is a claim that the ACA will cut $500 billion from Medicare, but according to the National Committee, that’s just not true.
“A lot of folks who don’t want to help pay for insurance for the 50 million people who are currently uninsured in this country make that accusation — it’s not true,” said Phetteplace.
The National Committee claim the ACA cuts waste, fraud and abuse. They say there are a lot of organizations that falsely bill Medicare and Medicaid, and the ACA helps to crack down on that. It also redirects money from Medicare Advantage and put it back to Medicare.
“There are no benefit cuts in the ACA,” said Phetteplace.
The group recently went to Washington D.C. in an effort to shine a light on these issues in meetings with legislators. During the visit, the Committee visited with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, Rep. Bill Johnson’s staffers, as well as representatives from a number of committees and organizations, including health care.
“There were also approximately 100 seniors there from all across the country,” said Riley.
Riley was able to put a human face to the issue when she talked about her brother.
“My brother is in a nursing home,” said Riley. “When we spoke to Rep. Johnson’s staffer Patrick, he told us that the [Paul] Ryan Bill wouldn’t impact anyone over the age of 55. My concern is for those who are not above the age of 55 but are on Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. My brother had an aneurysm at the age of 28, and he’s been in a nursing home ever since. Where would he fall in all of this? Who’s going to insure him with a voucher program? He may be one that, if this occurs, might fall through the cracks.
“This really hits home for me because my mother tried to take care of my brother, but he required 24-hour, round-the-clock care, and my mom died doing it,” said Riley. “It was just too much physically for her to be able to do. I didn’t understand that concept until I had a son — and then I understood what my mother was doing, and I would do the same thing.”
Riley said she worries about this issue on a number of fronts, including from her husband’s perspective.
“He has paid into Social Security and Medicare, and the truth of the matter is Social Security and Medicare are not a contributor to any of our deficit, and I don’t feel like they should be allowed to take it to pay off the deficit,” Riley said.
She also said that since her husband is nowhere near the age 55, they are worried that he may never see the benefits from a system he has paid into his whole working life.
“It’s like he’s seeing the finish line, but he’s not sure he’s going to be there,” said Riley.
Floyd Wright spoke about his aging parents. He said that his dad is a veteran and receives VA benefits, but his mom depends on Medicare. He said that he is concerned that if the elderly get a lump sum annual voucher that they won’t be able to make up the difference.
“I’d like our government to tell us how they are going to treat our elderly,” said Wright. “It starts feeling like rationing care. My parents are my concern — that they have dignity and respect in their last years on this earth.”
James and Shirley Doss, who also attend the local committee meetings and made the trip to Washington D.C., brought yet another perspective to the table regarding the issue of Social Security and Medicare.
“Well, I’ve already got my Medicare,” said James Doss, “and I’m covered under Shirley’s insurance. I worked 40 years as a construction electrician, and I had insurance for 40 years, but once I retired, we no longer have our insurance through the IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers]. If it hadn’t been for Medicare, with a triple bypass, I would have probably been hurting.”
Some opponents of the ACA argue that Social Security and Medicare are broken systems that are losing money and are in danger of defaulting on benefit payouts to seniors and other customers. Peter Coy economics editor of Bloomberg Business Week tried to argue this point in a notable interview with C-Span’s Susan Swain in 2011.
Coy referred to the Social Security and Medicare programs as entitlements and drew contrasts between two ways to measure program health — national debt versus fiscal gap. He said that while national debt looks backward at obligations already accumulated, fiscal gap measures the difference between everything we as a country expect to receive (tax revenue) and everything we expect to spend.
Coy said in the interview that these programs were unsustainable, but he was caught off guard when Swain pointed out a surprising fact on his chart.
“It shows social security in a surplus. Right? In what it receives … 132 in versus 110 trillion? Am I reading that correctly? [Coy responds, “Yeah.”] So, people might … who argue Social Security should be set aside … we’ve paid into it; it’s really solvent for right now. Why should that be part of the discussion?” asked Swain.
Riley’s passion represented the entire committee when she spoke to this point.
“They are trying to say that Social Security is broken. It’s not broken; it doesn’t need fixed,” said Riley. “And again, this money that I’ve paid into — that we’ve paid into — did not cause the deficit. It has nothing to do with this deficit, and as I paid into it, I was told that I would be able to receive that back. It was a place that I’ve put money into out of my check all of this time. Why would they want to take money that I’ve paid into this, if it didn’t cause a deficit, and turn around and use it to pay the deficit off? That’s not what was intended from the beginning.”