Congressional Contenders Give Tips to Keep Social Security and Medicare Afloat

          Published June 1, 2012, Pawtucket Times

         When the creation of Social Security was debated by Congress in the 1930’s, this newly legislation was referred to as ‘socialism’ one of the many charges leveled against the program.  In 1935 this program became law.

          Over the program’s 77 years of existence, critics have continued to take political “pop at Social Security, now the nation’s largest domestic program.  Some have even charged that the program discriminated against the poor and middle class by redistributing wealth to the wealthy.  Others have even claimed that beneficiaries were getting the short end of the stick by receiving a low rate of return from their investment when compared to what they might have gotten through private retirement accounts. Over the last decade, some have even called Social Security a legalized Ponzi scheme where the money collected from payroll taxes of young workers is used to pay retirement benefits of older works who retire and file to collect Social Security, with the younger generation always picking up the tab for those ahead of them.    

          Even with the criticism leveled at the nation’s Social Security Program, aging baby boomers who are now reaching the eligible retirement age of 65 at a rate of 10,000 a day, and many of the 56 million beneficiaries receiving their monthly Social Security check, will tell you that their monthly check might mean the difference between their ability to pay their bills or sliding into poverty.\

An Ailing Social Security Programs

          With Congress and Presidential elections looming, the Social Security Trustees’ annual report was released on April 23, 2012.  The 242 page report detailed the fragile financial health of the Medicare and Social Security Trust Fund, this was not the news politicians wanted to hear as the November elections approach.  

         The nation’s media outlets churned out thousands of articles, ultimately picked up by television and cable news, reporting that the combined assets of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, and Disability Trust will be exhausted in 2033, three years sooner than projected last year. Meanwhile, the Program’s Disability Trust Fund will be exhausted in 2016, two years earlier than last year’s estimate.  

        The Trustee’s 2012 Report also predicted that the Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance Trust Funds) would be exhausted by 2024, forcing the program to only cover about 87 percent of anticipated Part A Medicare expenses.    

         With the release of the 2012 Social Security Trustee Report, press releases were being generated by Administration officials and Congressional Democrats and Republicans to quickly score their political points.

          Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, one of the seven Social Security Trustees, called the recently released assessment of America’s most popular benefit program “somewhat more pessimistic than last year’s report,” warning of “the importance of building a consensus on reforms that will put these programs on a sounder financial footing.” 

         Another Social Security Trustee, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, noted that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, had “added another 8 years to the life of Medicare”. She estimated that these reforms would save the Medicare program more than $200 billion by 2016 while lowering costs for those who have traditional Medicare by nearly $60 billion.             

          In a press release, Republican Congressman John Fleming, a medical doctor who is a member of the GOP Doctors Caucus, countered the HHS Secretary’s assessment of the effectiveness of President Obama’s health care law.  “The idea that Obamacare will save Medicare would be laughable if the health care of millions of seniors was not at stake,” he said, alleging that the President used Medicare savings to foot some of the bill for Obamacare. 

 Keeping Social Security and Medicare Solvent      

         With the backdrop of a Congressional election that can either tilt the Senate to the Republicans or continue that party’s rule of the House, orRhode Islandpolitical candidates in Congressional District 1 gear up for a political fight.   Who can go to inside the Beltway to fix an Ailing Social Security System?

       When asked to comment on the recently released 2012 Social Security Trustee’s Report, Congressman David Cicilline, representingRhode Island’s Congressional District 1 that covers northern and easternRhode Island, acknowledges the accuracy of the report’s projection that full benefits can be paid to Social Security recipients for the next two decades.  However, “we have work to do to make sure that it, along with Medicare, will be their for all future generations of Americans,” he says.

         According to the Democratic Congressman, recent studies suggest that there is no need to fundamentally revamp these programs to strengthen them and ensure their sustainability.  “Modest changes, such as lifting or eliminating the $110,100 wage cap, which would affect only the top 6% wealthiest wage earners, would be enough to keep Social Security solvent for decades to come”, he says, stressing that he has already cosponsored legislation to accomplish just that.

          Working with the other side of the aisle, Congressman Cicilline has joined his GOP colleagues to support legislation that would allow the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of Medicare helping to lower the cost of prescription drugs for seniors. 

           As the Congressional elections draw near, Congressman Cicilline warns that some of the Tea-Party backed Republicans in Congress are proposing radical plans that would end the Medicare guarantee, privatize Social Security, or raise the retirement age. “Instead of playing politics with these important programs, we need to commit to protect and strengthen both Social Security and Medicare now and for all future generations,” he says.

            Anthony Gemma, Democratic challenger to Congressman Cicilline, has read the 2012 Social Security Trustees’ Report, too. He gives his prescription for fixing the impending insolvency in Social Security and Medicare.  “The only reasonable way to reverse this trend is to drive more money into the Trust Fund,” he tells the Pawtucket Times. 

          Gemma, who ran for this Congressional seat in 2010, had initially called for the privatization of Social Security but changed his mind after researching the issue.  Today, he calls for the creation of more jobs to fixAmerica’s ailing Social Security Program and Medicare to keep those programs solvent.  He boasts that he is the only candidate for the Congressional District 1 seat that has a plan to create jobs — one that presumes and will succeed in spite of gridlock in Congress. “Its general model is applicable to all 50 states,” he says, predicting the creation of 10,000 new jobs in theOceanStatein five years.  “New jobs equal new cash flow into the Trust Fund,” he says.

            Like Congressman Cicilline, Gemma also calls for raising the $110,100 wage cap. “to increase funding of the Trust Fund, we must raise this cap,” he says.

         “Social Security was created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the centerpiece of his New Deal.  Then as now, Social Security is a reflection of Democratic Party values,” adds Gemma. In his last race for Congress in 2010, Gemma claims he was the only candidate who put forth a plan to increase COLAs for Social Security recipients.  “As a member of Congress, I shall take a back seat to no one as a defender of Social Security – not just for current recipients, but also for their children and grandchildren, and for theirs.”

             On his website, Republican challenger and political newcomer Brendan Doherty  states he will commit his congressional vote to opposing any attempts to privatize Social Security or Medicare, that he will work in a bipartisan fashion to protect these programs. He will consider the recommendations set forth in theSimpson-Bowles Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, and believes that the key to fixing Medicare is addressing health care reform in a way that results in lower costs to the overall health care system.

          Ensuring the longevity of Social Security and Medicare, Doherty pledges he will root out the inefficiency, waste, and fraud in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income Programs (SSDI).  With limited checks and balances for theses programs, some “may game the system at the expense of those who are truly in need,” he says. 

           As to ensuring the survival of Medicare, Doherty looks to using global health care reform to contain spiraling health care costs and rooting out Medicare fraud by the sharing of information, stiffer sentences, and increasing the number of investigators to find and prosecute those financially abusing the program.

          Doherty has put one fix on the table not offered by either of his Democratic challengers. On March 9, 2012, on Channel 12 Newsmakers, the Republican candidate came out in support of Social Security reform and said he favored establishing a “cut-off point” for future beneficiaries. “Let’s come up with a cut-off point, like 1960 or 1959,” he said. “Those people would only… It would take them another couple of weeks to get that benefit and then it’s just graduated. So it would be a few weeks, by birth date. So, when you say ‘10 years out,’ it could affect people 10 years out.”

        Doherty’s leaning to embrace Simpson-Bowles Commission-like recommendations to keep Social Security a float would be opposed by Democrats including groups like Strengthen Social Security a coalition of 300 state-level and national groups, representing unions, health care and senior groups.  The Washington-based coalition charges that this plan would “end Social Security as we know it” by reducing COLAs, raising the retirement age to 69 and earliest eligibility to 64, and even ending the link between benefits and earnings.

 Wait and See…

             Fixing Social Security is a high priority for aging baby boomers and seniors and will be a key domestic issue to be discussed by Congressional candidates looking for votes to put them into office inWashington,DCnext November.   According to an AARP survey, taken in January 2012, of respondents age 50 and over, Social Security and Medicare ranked three out of 13 issues, with job growth and rising health care costs being number one and two respectively.

          AARP Rhode Island, the Ocean State’s Rhode Island’s largest aging advocacy group, is gearing up to gather grassroots feedback from “Outside the Beltway” to bring to Congress as the lawmakers begin their debates as to how to bolster the solvency of Social Security.  

             “’You’ve Earned a Say’ is giving the American people a strong and visible voice in the Social Security and Medicare discussion,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen S. Connell. “We are reaching out to our 130,000Rhode Islandmembers and nationally to nearly 40 million members. In June, we will advance the discussion by giving everyone access to clear, non-partisan explanations of all the options that are on the table.

             “AARP is exercising its power to move this critical discussion from behind closed doors in Washingtonout into mainstream America,” Connell added. “People who have paid into Social Security represent a large part of the population. They and those who are working and paying into the fund today deserve – indeed, have earned – a say in how we chart the future.”  

            As noted, while both Democratic and Republican candidates in the upcoming Congressional District 1 campaign seek common solutions to strengthening Social Security and Medicare, there are philosophical differences.  When the dust settles, whoever wins represents our interest in the upcoming, historic debates.  Partisan bickering may well be silenced by educated voters, those who take the time to understand the issues and demand both the Democratic and Republican Parties work together on their behalf.  It is as simple as that…

           Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical care issues.  His Commentaries appear in two Rhode Island Daily’s The Pawtucket Times and the Woonsocket Call.

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