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Medicare Turns 52: A Time for Cake, Candles, and Continued Vigilance

Medicare turns 52 years old this weekend.  It’s an occasion for both celebration and vigilance.  Surely the anniversary of a federal program that has provided quality healthcare for millions of seniors since 1965 is a happy moment.  But the fact that this highly successful, highly efficient program is under threat from the right after more than half a century of proven results tempers the celebration – and reminds us all that programs we all rely upon can be snatched away if we don’t protect them.

President Harry Truman first proposed a national healthcare system, but it took a Democratic supermajority in Congress and the relentless advocacy of President Lyndon Johnson to make Medicare a reality in 1965. (Fittingly, Harry Truman received the first-ever Medicare card.)  

If it were up to some Republicans, there would be no Medicare in the first place. In 1964. then-Senate candidate George H.W. Bush described Medicare as “socialized medicine.”  Republican Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater likened Medicare to giving seniors “vacation resorts” for free.  Former Senator Bob Dole bragged that he was there in 1965 “fighting the fight, voting against Medicare.”  And then there was this whopper from future President Ronald Reagan in 1961: 

“If you don’t [stop Medicare], one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” – Ronald Reagan (1961)  

Fast forward to the 1990’s, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich endorsed privatization, with the intended result that traditional Medicare would “wither on the vine.” Destroying traditional Medicare has been a long-held dream of the right for five decades now.  Unfortunately, with Republicans controlling all three branches of government, this is their best opportunity to make that nightmare a reality. 

As we commemorate Medicare’s anniversary, budget hawks in Congress are actively scheming to privatize the program through the budget process.  The House Budget Committee’s spending plan turns Medicare into a voucher system and cuts some $500 billion from the program. The budget resolution also raises the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, a huge benefit cut itself. It’s another step toward a long-held goal of the right to destroy Medicare as an earned benefit. And it truly is an earned benefit. Americans pay into Medicare during their working lives, knowing they can depend on it for healthcare in their senior years. 

Medicare covers some 58 million American seniors and people with disabilities.  Almost every American will need Medicare in their older years. Many literally could not live without it, which is why efforts to turn it into a voucher system and raise the eligibility age are particularly cruel. Listening to the stories of members of our online community, we are reminded that Medicare has a very human face. 

Pam Ruigh (Newport, VT):  I love Medicare. It has made it possible for me to see again. I had cataracts on both eyes removed, Without these surgeries, I was slowly going blind. - Pam Ruigh, Newport, VT
In 2014, I had aortic valve replacement surgery. That's a $170,000 operation. All I had was Medicare. I could never have had the procedure without it. - Ron Moore, Utica, NY
Without Medicare and my supplemental insurance, I'd be dead or dying right now. I have multiple but manageable health issues. If this is taken away, I'm a dead woman walking. - Kate Reed
My late wife passed away from complications of Parkinson's Disease. After her last hospital stay, I received a copy of her bill, showing what we would have been responsible for had we not been under Medicare. It amounted to over $200,000.00. I only had to pay $700.00 out of pocket. - George Betram Lane (Jacksonville, FL) 

There are millions of stories just like these, and we know that Medicare beneficiaries around the country share our enthusiasm that Medicare has reached another anniversary. 

Yesterday, our president, Max Richtman, and a group of senior volunteers from our Capital Action Team participated in an anniversary celebration on Capitol Hill yesterday with several sister organizations and members of Congress.  

There was “Medicare birthday” cake for all, and impassioned remarks from the podium.  The main message was:  we need to protect and expand – not slash and burn – Medicare. 

Representative Lois Frankl (D-FL) reminded the crowd of seniors and advocates that we will fight to keep traditional Medicare intact and thriving. “This is Medicare’s 52nd anniversary,” she began. “And next year, there will be another.  And another.  And another.  I promise you that.”

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Social Security and Medicare are Financially Sound, Not “Going Bankrupt,” says Trustees Report

The 2017 OASDI Trustees Report confirms that the Social Security Trust fund is stable and healthy for now, but faces challenges in the future if corrective action is not taken.  The most important figures remain consistent with last year’s report:  The combined OASDI (Old-age, Survivor, and Disability Insurance) trust funds will remain fully solvent until 2034, after which Social Security can pay 77% of benefits if there are no changes to the program. The Trustees report there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year --- and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund's assets.  

This reassuring report will not stop Social Security’s opponents from seeing the glass half-empty and claiming that the program is in dire financial trouble.  Expect to hear more false cries about Social Security (and Medicare) going “bankrupt” in the coming months. 

“Opponents of Social Security may once again try to use this report as an excuse to cut benefits, including raising the retirement age.  We must, instead, look to modest and manageable solutions that will keep Social Security solvent well into the future without punishing seniors and disabled Americans.” - Max Richtman, NCPSSM president and CEO

The National Committee endorses bills introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and others, which keep the Social Security trust fund solvent while boosting benefits and cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).  The bills achieve this mainly by phasing out the payroll tax income cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share into Social Security.

Forty percent of seniors (and 90% of unmarried seniors) rely on Social Security for all or most of their income.  The average monthly retirement benefit of $1,355 is barely enough to meet basic needs, and the Trustees’ latest projected cost-of-living increase of 2.2% will not keep pace with seniors’ true expenses. 

The news media touted the 2.2% bump for 2018 as “the largest in several years.” While it’s true that next year’s COLA is far superior to this year’s 0.3% increase, it is still woefully inadequate.  What the media don’t always explain is that a 2.2% increase translates into an extra $28 per month – hardly a fortune for seniors struggling to meet rising expenses on fixed incomes. A single co-pay for a prescription or a trip in a wheelchair van could easily gobble up $28, if not more.

Currently, Social Security cost of living increases are pegged to the Consumer Price Index for Wage Earners or CPI-W.  This index does not reflect seniors’ true expenses.  Older Americans pay a disproportionate share of their limited incomes for items like housing and medical care compared to younger wage earners.  The National Committee advocates the adoption of the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), which tracks rising costs for the goods and services seniors actually spend their money on.  The leading categories are Housing, Transportation, Food and Medical Care.  As the National Committee’s Webster Phillips told CBS Radio News: 

“The consumer price index for the elderly (CPI-E), which is focused on the spending patterns of seniors, is a better measure of inflation as it affects older people’s consumption patterns.” – Webster Phillips, NCPSSM Senior Policy Analyst, 7/13/17

On Medicare, the Trustees report shows that the Part A Trust Fund will be able to pay full benefits until 2029, and 88% thereafter if nothing is done to bolster the system’s finances.  Depending on what the final version looks like, the Republican healthcare plan could reduce the solvency of Medicare by two years. The National Committee opposes the GOP health plan and rejects efforts to privatize Medicare – which Speaker Ryan and the House Republicans have promised to undertake during the budget resolution process for 2018.

Instead of privatization, the National Committee champions innovation and continuing efficiencies in the delivery of care, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies used to pay the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid) – in order to keep Medicare in sound financial health.

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Social Security and Medicare are Financially Sound, Not “Going Bankrupt,” says Trustees Report

The 2017 OASDI Trustees Report confirms that the Social Security Trust fund is stable and healthy for now, but faces challenges in the future if corrective action is not taken.  The most important figures remain consistent with last year’s report:  The combined OASDI (Old-age, Survivor, and Disability Insurance) trust funds will remain fully solvent until 2034, after which Social Security can pay 77% of benefits if there are no changes to the program. The Trustees report there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year --- and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund's assets.  

This reassuring report will not stop Social Security’s opponents from seeing the glass half-empty and claiming that the program is in dire financial trouble.  Expect to hear more false cries about Social Security (and Medicare) going “bankrupt” in the coming months. 

“Opponents of Social Security may once again try to use this report as an excuse to cut benefits, including raising the retirement age.  We must, instead, look to modest and manageable solutions that will keep Social Security solvent well into the future without punishing seniors and disabled Americans.” - Max Richtman, NCPSSM president and CEO

The National Committee endorses bills introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and others, which keep the Social Security trust fund solvent while boosting benefits and cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).  The bills achieve this mainly by phasing out the payroll tax income cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share into Social Security.

Forty percent of seniors (and 90% of unmarried seniors) rely on Social Security for all or most of their income.  The average monthly retirement benefit of $1,355 is barely enough to meet basic needs, and the Trustees’ latest projected cost-of-living increase of 2.2% will not keep pace with seniors’ true expenses. 

The news media touted the 2.2% bump for 2018 as “the largest in several years.” While it’s true that next year’s COLA is far superior to this year’s 0.3% increase, it is still woefully inadequate.  What the media don’t always explain is that a 2.2% increase translates into an extra $28 per month – hardly a fortune for seniors struggling to meet rising expenses on fixed incomes. A single co-pay for a prescription or a trip in a wheelchair van could easily gobble up $28, if not more.

Currently, Social Security cost of living increases are pegged to the Consumer Price Index for Wage Earners or CPI-W.  This index does not reflect seniors’ true expenses.  Older Americans pay a disproportionate share of their limited incomes for items like housing and medical care compared to younger wage earners.  The National Committee advocates the adoption of the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), which tracks rising costs for the goods and services seniors actually spend their money on.  The leading categories are Housing, Transportation, Food and Medical Care.  As the National Committee’s Webster Phillips told CBS Radio News: 

“The consumer price index for the elderly (CPI-E), which is focused on the spending patterns of seniors, is a better measure of inflation as it affects older people’s consumption patterns.” – Webster Phillips, NCPSSM Senior Policy Analyst, 7/13/17

On Medicare, the Trustees report shows that the Part A Trust Fund will be able to pay full benefits until 2029, and 88% thereafter if nothing is done to bolster the system’s finances.  Depending on what the final version looks like, the Republican healthcare plan could reduce the solvency of Medicare by two years. The National Committee opposes the GOP health plan and rejects efforts to privatize Medicare – which Speaker Ryan and the House Republicans have promised to undertake during the budget resolution process for 2018.

Instead of privatization, the National Committee champions innovation and continuing efficiencies in the delivery of care, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies used to pay the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid) – in order to keep Medicare in sound financial health.

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Massachusetts Congressman is an Unassuming, Unrelenting Champion of Social Security

This morning National Committee President Max Richtman interviewed a real fighter for Social Security and Medicare on Facebook Live from Capitol Hill – Congressman Richard Neal (D-MA-1). 

The Congressman, who the Boston Globe called “an unassuming everyday guy from Western Massachusetts,” has a unique vantage point on seniors’ issues.  He is the ranking member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees (among other things) Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and taxes.  He assumed the post just before President Trump arrived in Washington, and has become a key point person against a Republican assault on these programs.

Neal is a true believer in Social Security, partly because he grew up with it.  He and his sisters were raised by an aunt in Springfield, MA after their parents died, and relied on Social Security survivors’ benefits to make ends meet and remain under one roof.  “Social Security allowed us to live as a family, and I’ve never forgotten that,” Neal told Max Richtman.

The Congressman is determined that Social Security be preserved for future generations – without benefit cuts – as a singular form of retirement insurance.  “You can outlive an annuity.  You cannot outlive Social Security,” he said on Facebook Live.  “That’s the guarantee.  That’s the genius of Mr. Roosevelt’s program.”  (Social Security was signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, father of National Committee founder James Roosevelt, Sr.)

Social Security, Neal says, gives American families a modicum of financial predictability for their senior years.  He told the Globe that Social Security “is the reason Mom and Dad aren’t living in your attic.”

Neal is co-sponsoring Connecticut Rep. John Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act – one of the Democrats’ resounding replies to Republican schemes to shrink the program.  Larson’s bill keeps Social Security solvent for decades without cutting benefits.  In fact, The Social Security 2100 Act modestly increases benefits.  Rep. Neal admits that the bill probably won’t go very far while Republicans control Congress.  But he says the legislation “invites fresh thinking about how to encourage growth in Social Security.”

Meanwhile, the Congressman vehemently opposes a bill from House Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) that would do the opposite of Larson’s – reducing cost-of-living adjustments, raising the retirement age to 69 and cutting the benefit-computation formula. All of this, Neal says, would amount to a 30% cut in benefits for middle-class retirees.

Neal shoots down conservative arguments that Americans’ increasing longevity justifies raising the retirement age.  Without Social Security, nearly half of our nation’s seniors would live in poverty – all the more reason, Neal says, not to pull the rug from under retirees by delaying eligibility for benefits.  “We applaud each other regularly for increases in life expectancy in America,” says Neal.  “But all that means is that we have to reinforce the guarantees that Social Security provides.”

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Paul Ryan's Medicare Privatization Scheme Edging Closer to Reality

Paul Ryan’s dystopian dream of privatizing Medicare may soon come true.  At least he seems to think so.  In an interview with right-wing Wisconsin radio host Vicki McKenna, the House Speaker said that Medicare “reform” is coming to the Capitol this Spring.  “I’m pretty sure the budget committee in the House will pass that on in the House Republican budget,” Ryan said.  In fact, House Budget Committee Chair Diane Black (R-TN) has already promised to include Medicare privatization in the budget resolution next month.  This is scary news for millions of current and future retirees.

To justify his Scrooge-like assault on Medicare, Ryan continues to perpetuate the myth that Medicare is an “entitlement.”  In fact, it is a remarkably efficient social insurance program.  Having paid into it their entire working lives, Americans are counting on having affordable health care coverage to protect them upon retirement.  Why does Paul Ryan want to take that away, effectively reneging on the nation's commitment to current and future retirees? 

In the past, President Obama stood as an impenetrable barrier between Ryan and his privatization scheme.  Though candidate Trump promised “not to touch” Medicare, the President has already broken that pledge by supporting the GOP healthcare plan, which shortens the solvency of the program.   Despite Trump’s campaign promises, his budget director refused to publicly discourage Congress from privatizing Medicare.  In fact, Speaker Ryan said in his radio interview that he and the Trump administration are having “an ongoing conversation” about it. Current and future retirees clearly cannot trust this White House to protect their Medicare benefits, which they have paid for during their entire working lives.

As we discussed on our "Behind the Headlines" Facebook Live broadcast Thursday, here is what Ryan’s insidious “reform” would do:  Instead of receiving guaranteed benefits, all Medicare participants would be given vouchers to help pay premiums for traditional Medicare or private health insurance.   In either case, the vouchers would not be able to keep up with rising health care costs, leaving seniors to cover the difference out of their own pockets.  That’s why we call the voucher program “coupon care.” 

Ryan's plan would likely drive healthier, younger and wealthier seniors toward private insurance. Poorer and sicker seniors would remain in traditional Medicare, driving up costs until the program collapsed under its own weight.  But that’s not all.  Ryan also wants to hike the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.  This in itself is a massive benefit cut, as 65 and 66 year olds would have to buy private insurance on their own dime. Those who couldn’t afford it might go without health insurance entirely. In a recent National Committee poll, 65% of likely voters opposed raising the eligibility age.  Among younger voters, the opposition was even stronger.

As Ryan predicts, Medicare privatization will likely pass the House as part of the Republican budget resolution.  Its future in the Senate is less certain, but too close for comfort.  Senate Republican leaders need only 50 votes to wreck Medicare.  The National Committee is building a “firewall” of moderate GOP Senators who we believe can be convinced to protect Medicare.  With an unpredictable President in the White House, that is the best way – along with vocal grassroots activism – to defend current and future retirees against the destruction of a program that has worked effectively for more than 50 years, and enjoys enduring public support.

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