May 26, 2011

Congress must keep promises to seniors

Since the start of the recession, seniors in Rhode Island have struggled to keep up with rising costs at the pharmacy, grocery store and gas pump.

Making matters worse, they haven’t seen an increase in Social Security payments since 2009 — the longest such lack in decades. Seniors all over the state have told me that their dollar simply doesn’t go as far as it used to, and many are worried about what the future will bring.

I will continue to fight for our seniors and make sure that their voices are heard in Washington. This is not the time to tamper with Medicare and Social Security, the benefits which our seniors have earned through years of hard work and which are essential in hard times. These programs each represent a solemn promise to our retirees, and while we must address our deficit problem, we must not do so by breaking that promise.

Sadly, the new majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is talking about doing just that. The budget resolution passed last month by the House would essentially end Medicare for future generations. Rhode Islanders planning to retire after 2022 would not have the benefit of Medicare and would instead be forced to buy private health insurance, which is great for insurance companies looking for more customers, but bad for Rhode Islanders who have been counting on the reliable and affordable insurance provided by Medicare.

In fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this new system would force these retirees in 2022 to pay on average $12,500 each year in out-ofpocket health costs, more than double what a senior is estimated to pay under the current system. This is wrong, and I will work to ensure that it does not pass the Senate.

The House Budget Resolution also would undo our repair of the Medicare Part D “doughnut hole” for prescription drugs, which is currently in the process of being closed.

This would take away prescription drug assistance from nearly 17,000 Rhode Island seniors, forcing them to pay an extra $9.5 million out of pocket in 2012. I fought hard last year to make sure we fixed the “doughnut hole” in the health care reform law, and I will stand strong against efforts to increase the out-ofpocket drug expenses of Rhode Island seniors.

I will also fight efforts to cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age or privatize Social Security. I have helped found the Defend Social Security Caucus. We cannot put seniors’ security at risk in the stock market, especially when Social Security has not contributed a nickel to our federal deficit and is fully solvent for at least the next quarter-century. Indeed, the solvency of the program can be extended significantly by applying the payroll taxes — currently only assessed on earnings up to $106,800 — to a greater portion of the earnings of millionaires and billionaires. The Rhode Island seniors I’ve heard from at community dinners and senior centers throughout the state don’t want their retirement security to be gambled on Wall Street, and I will fight to make sure they can continue to count on the Social Security benefits they have earned. I recently held an official Senate Aging Committee hearing in Johnston to examine these issues and give Rhode Islanders the chance to make their voices heard on the threats to these critical programs. Audrey Brett, a Middletown resident who relies on Social Security and Medicare, spoke about the importance of providing a safety net for retired seniors.

“For all those Americans who worked, paid their taxes, added to the betterment of the country, served in military and civil service — we cannot let them live and die in poverty,” Brett said. “We owe them their final days of security and dignity.”

Audrey’s right. The next generation of Rhode Island seniors — of Americans — should be able to count on Medicare and Social Security, and enjoy a stable, dignified retirement. I’ll continue fighting in the Senate to make sure that’s the case.

By: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse