[Editor's Note: The article has been updated to clarify spending on Medicare under the Affordable Care Act.]
If there was one message for seniors to get out of the hour long, far-ranging discussion on Social Security and Medicare Tuesday afternoon, it was don’t believe all the campaign rhetoric circulating now about the two federal programs and that neither program is actually contributing to the federal deficit.
Congressman John Tierney paid a visit to Brooksby Village, along with national expert and advocate Max Richtman, to talk about national efforts to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for that matter, at a time when those programs are being eyed for structural changes to remain solvent and cut federal spending.
Richtman is the president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
The informal event was well attended by Brooksby residents – about 170, several of whom put some questions to Tierney and Richtman afterward. The event organizers, however, informed everyone it was not intended to be a campaign event for Tierney.
“I know we’re saying this is not a campaign issue, [but] it’s that season, so everybody seems to think that every time you open your mouth it’s all about the campaign,” Tierney said. “That’s one of the difficulties when we’re talking serious policy issues.”
Tierney said Social Security and Medicare – two vital programs for the welfare of seniors – come up repeatedly in federal budget talks and he believes there’s a lot of confusion over what exists policy-wise now and how budget proposals, particularly Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s plan, would affect either program.
Tierney said the Ryan budget would dismantle Medicare by replacing it with a private voucher system and went on to explain steps he and Democrats in Congress have taken to protect Medicare and other programs, highlighting the Affordable Care Act, which he argues has significantly extended the life of Medicare. It did that by taking $716 billion that would have been spent on Medicare providers.
Republicans have seized on that point, pushing back on criticism of Ryan’s plan, which contains a similar size cut to Medicare spending. Tierney said, however, that cut was really a savings that didn’t affect beneficiaries; it just reduced Medicare reimbursements to insurance companies, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.
Richtman said the administrative costs for Medicare are just 2 percent of its budget, far less than what many private companies would and do run up in salaries, payments to lobbyists, shareholders’ dividends and more. He said Social Security is at .9 percent for administrative costs.
The federal deficit has reached $16 trillion, but Richtman says that’s not because of Social Security, which is also being eyed for some privatization changes.
“Social Security has not added a penny to that deficit,” he said, adding that it actually has a surplus of $2.7 trillion from money paid into the system over the past three decades. “It’s a dynamic program, it has changed many times, but it should not be a [battleground] for solving a problem that it did nothing to create, absolutely nothing.”
Richtman also applauded Tierney for working to allow negotiations within Medicare for prescription drug benefits with pharmaceutical companies, a restriction that only came into affect several years ago, and for introducing a resolution in Congress that any deal on the deficit would exempt these programs from any deals on the debt.
“I think we get talking about policy down in Washington sometimes and people start thinking about the numbers and that the mission all of a sudden is that there’s a deficit,” Tierney said. “People start asking about how did the deficit arise and they start looking for ways to fix it and everything becomes fair game.”
“They lose the idea that we’re talking about human beings here,” he said – people across different ages trying to live their retirement out in decency. He said Congress needs to deal with the issue in a fair way to all.
He said Social Security gets a lot of attention because it’s a big number in the budget, but, he said, tax favors or loopholes for business corporations is also a big number, along with military spending, and his Republican colleagues are not considering significant changes in those areas.
Tierney said Congress, and the country for that matter, can deal with the deficit and these programs in a reasoned, fair and measurable way on its own timetable, the economy will grow and many of the deficit problems will shrink over time. He noted that a budget plan from Democrats didn’t make it out of the Republican-controlled House.
Several Brooksby residents posed questions to Tierney and Richtman on everything from a sequestration bill that includes a 2 percent cut in Medicare spending for providers, Medicaid and whether or not immigrant residents will receive Social Security benefits, to the Affordable Care Act, dealing with fraud and possibly advocating for a single-payer health care plan again.
“While some in Congress remain focused on their efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act and support the Republican budget that will end Medicare as we know it, I am committed to protecting Medicare and Social Security for all Americans,” Tierney said.
“I thank the men and women here today who have shared their stories and their concerns. They have every right to be concerned, for themselves, for their children and grandchildren, about the future of these critical programs and investments in our middle class families and communities,” he said.
“When the congressman goes back after the election, these issues are not going to be resolved,” Richtman said, presenting Tierney with a gift that drew laughs.
“He’s a real fighter for Social Security…he might need a little extra help fighting for you and people who are dependent on Social Security and Medicare for the future,” said Richtman as he handed Tierney a large pair of boxing gloves.