Election 2012: Don’t Stand on the Sidelines


By: Linda F. Fitzgerald

Election season is upon us. And, this year, for older Americans and our families, the ballot on Nov. 6 is more important than ever. After all, the next President and Congress may well determine the future of Medicare and Social Security.

Yet, so far, the debate about these crucial programs has centered behind closed doors in Washington, DC. The very people who know the most about Medicare and Social Security — those who count on these benefits each and every month — have not been part of the discussion.

That’s why AARP launched “You’ve Earned a Say” back in March. This national conversation about the future of Medicare and Social Security has taken us throughout the country — and across the commonwealth — to hear from Americans of all ages, to make sure they have a say in the debate.

Nearly 14,000 Massachusetts residents recently completed a “You’ve Earned a Say” questionnaire — and 91 percent want to make their voices heard about changes to Medicare and Social Security. However, too many — 46 percent — do not think their voice will make a difference: a sad commentary on the state of political discourse.

More than half of those answering AARP’s questionnaire believe Medicare (58 percent) and Social Security (52 percent) need changes to be strong for their children and grandchildren, while about a quarter say the programs are okay as is (Social Security, 29 percent; Medicare, 26 percent).

Perhaps more telling, 34 percent believe more funding will be needed to maintain the same benefits while 13 percent say benefits will need to be reduced. Nearly 40 percent say one or the other will need to occur.

AARP believes any reforms to Medicare and Social Security should be part of a broad effort to bolster retirement security for hard-working Americans, not a stampede for a budget deal or to promote anyone’s partisan agenda.

Today, 89 percent of older Massachusetts residents rely on Social Security — that’s 819,775 seniors. The average annual benefit is only $14,200, and for one out of three older Americans, Social Security lifts them above the poverty line (315,000 residents in the commonwealth), including those who worked all their lives for a middle class standard of living. Meanwhile, more than 879,000 Bay State seniors are enrolled in Medicare, and pay an estimated $5,300 on out-of-pocket health care costs.

At a time when employer pensions and retiree health benefits grow scarce, savings rate remain meager, and home values stay low, Social Security and Medicare remain the bedrock of retirement security.

For nearly 50 years, AARP has worked to protect and strengthen Social Security, so its’ vital benefits will always be there. In the still emerging political debate, we remain committed to clear-cut principles that have made Social Security effective for so long, including:

•Social Security must continue to provide benefits to everyone who works and pays into the system. These benefits must continue to be linked to what an individual earned and contributed to the system through payroll deductions;

•Benefits must keep up with inflation and continue to last a lifetime.

•Any changes to Social Security should be modest, phased in gradually, and should not harm retirees or workers approaching retirement.

•Benefits must be protected for the low-income individuals who need them most, including retirees, spouses and other dependent family members, and individuals with disabilities.

•Social Security should be financially sound, so future generations are confident they will enjoy its protections.

•Keep in mind: Social Security can pay full benefits for the next 21 years, and 75 percent of promised benefits after that, without changes, according to the official forecast. That’s not good enough, but it’s not a crisis either. Medicare, however, faces a bigger challenge because its cost increases are linked to the broader health care system.

•AARP is fighting to make sure Medicare never abandons its guarantee of affordable health care for seniors, along with choice of doctors and access to quality care. These protections will be just as important for tomorrow’s seniors as they are today.

A meaningful discussion about Medicare must also bust some myths, such as the notion that Medicare is some sort of free-wheeling program. In reality, Medicare provides limited benefits and does so in a relatively efficient manner. While there is waste — and we must do a better job of targeting it — overall, Medicare’s costs have grown more slowly than those of private insurers.

Yes, the debate is just beginning, and the stakes are high. Now is the time for you to learn more and weigh in. I urge you: Don’t stand on the sidelines while decisions are made that affect your future. Visit earnedasay.org for more.

Linda F. Fitzgerald is the volunteer state president of AARP Massachusetts, which represents more than 800,000 members age 50 and older in the Bay State. Connect with AARP Massachusetts online at www.aarp.org/ma, www.facebook.com/AARPMA and www.twitter.com/AARPMA