Area seniors don’t trust changes
Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino, Staff Writer
Posted: 06/04/2011 09:50:12 PM PDT

Hunkering under a $14 trillion debt ceiling, Congress and the Obama administration are negotiating possible changes to Medicare and other benefits programs as part of a deal to increase the government’s ability to borrow.

But local seniors want lawmakers to keep their paws off the federally-sponsored health insurance program for the elderly.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you need to help your seniors,” said Ruthie Estes of Fontana while waiting in the lunch line last week at the Fontana Community Senior Center.

“They get senior votes, so they need to think about it. They can cut other things, like welfare, services to illegals. Our seniors need to be taken care of.”

That sentiment seems to be echoed throughout the country.

Last month, Democrat Kathleen C. Hochul won a special House election in a heavily Republican district in upstate New York after accusing the GOP of wanting to kill Medicare. The race had been called a referendum on the public’s attitudes toward the Republican congressional leadership’s plans to cut Medicare costs.

Off-year elections tend to draw an older group of voters, and the New York district has more elderly residents than the average Congressional district, said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

“The rule of thumb in upstate New York is that everybody my age and younger has left,” said Pitney, who is from upstate New York.

The Republican budget plan – which was authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. – calls for Medicare to stay the same for people 55 and older.

But, starting in 2022, new beneficiaries would get their health insurance from competing private insurers instead of the government.

The government would offer subsidies to pay for the coverage and set standards that insurers must follow.

According to the plan, one condition calls for participating insurers to “agree to offer insurance to all Medicare beneficiaries, to avoid cherry-picking and ensure that Medicare’s sickest and highest-cost beneficiaries receive coverage.”

The subsidies would go to the plan selected by the beneficiary.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Ryan’s plan would not let insurers charge more to sick people. Premiums would be the same for everyone of the same age.

Although Ryan’s plan would leave Medicare intact for anyone already 55 or older, Pitney said older voters don’t believe that.

“Anytime you say, `But this doesn’t affect current senior citizens,’ they think it’s going to affect them,” he said. “Seniors are very, very sophisticated when it comes to these programs. They figure any change could have a loophole or an exception or a provision that could end up hurting them after all. They’re very zealous about safeguarding the programs from which they benefit.”

Fontana resident Denise Stanton, who is confined to a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis, said she plans to use Medicare as soon as she becomes eligible.

“Medicare is not the only place that can be cut,” said Stanton, 55. “I’m part of the baby boomer generation who have paid into the fund and we should not suffer for the misappropriation of that money.

“Private insurance costs more. It may start low, but it will go up, and provision of services will be restricted.”

Jose Costa of Fontana said he is also concerned about changes to his medical insurance benefits.

“If they change Medicare to private, they’ll go to hell,” Costa said. “And for a simple reason – people in the private industry want to make money, they don’t want to lose a penny.”

Congress needs to make sure Medicare is sustainable for senior citizens and for all taxpayers moving forward, said Rep. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino.

“As we continue our long- term budget debate, it is important we begin to lower our national deficit with intelligent spending cuts,” Baca said.

“But it is wrong to balance our budget on the backs of America’s seniors and other vulnerable citizens. Unfortunately, by ending Medicare and drastically cutting numerous other services – the Republican budget takes us down a road to ruin.”

Whichever road legislators decide to take, something must be done, and soon, according to an annual report by the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees.

Medicare is projected to run out of money in 2024 – five years earlier than an estimate compiled in 2010.

The program has been hit by a double whammy: the long-anticipated wave of retiring baby boomers and weaker-than-expected tax receipts.

But even after the economy comes back, Medicare will still be in trouble, experts said.

Part of the reason is the cost of modern, high-tech medicine. More than 46 million people are covered by Medicare – and they are living longer, and having complicated procedures such as bypass surgery and hip replacements later in life.

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