Finding myself in Philadelphia recently, I decided to stroll along Market Street and see which of the day’s big political issues ordinary people had on their minds. Medicare topped the list, followed by Social Security and job security. The day of my interviews, the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner released results showing that two thirds of respondents had serious doubts about cutting Medicare; forty percent had very serious doubts. A New York Times/CBS News poll released a week later showed that “more than 6 in 10 of those surveyed said they believed Medicare was worth the costs.” Respondents said they would rather see higher taxes than a reduction in services available for Medicare, if they had to choose between the two. A Washington Post/ABC News poll indicated that sixty-five percent opposed the proposal of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, which changes Medicare from a social insurance program into a voucher system with beneficiaries buying their coverage from private insurance companies.
I approached sixty-one-year old Sue Paton from Acworth, New Hampshire, who was visiting Philly with her husband, Bill. “You probably won’t like what I have to say,” she said when I asked about Paul Ryan’s plan. “I have read all of Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity, and the CBO appraisal of it. I believe he’s trying to eliminate the safety nets of Medicare and Medicaid. It appears he is not going to have a balanced budget until 2040, and by that time seniors will be paying sixty-eight percent of medical costs themselves.” Politically, Paton said she was an independent, “not far left and pretty middle of the road.” She did not support Ryan’s proposal.
Paton continued, with her husband chiming in. She believed “vouchers are a way to get rid of Medicare,” but she did acknowledge that we have a problem with doctors who charged fees for their services and too many people going to doctors. “The biggest question I have about the vouchers,” Paton said, “is what insurance company wants to take on insuring people age sixty-five and older?” She raised a crucial point, and one that the media has failed to ask in reporting on the Ryan proposal. Bill, also an independent, wanted to chat about Social Security. Now sixty-four, he retired two years ago and told me he did not favor raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits. “There are an awful lot of jobs people can’t keep and there’s a need to move people out of the workforce to create jobs for young people,” he said. His wife said she hadn’t decided whether to take her benefits early, at sixty-two.
Clearly, the Patons were up on the issues, but both said that the news media was not particularly helpful in furthering their understanding. “There are too many generalities,” Paton said. “Like saying ‘Obamacare.’ Nobody has the time to explain things to people. People hear only sound bites and what we want to hear.”
Barbara Wilson-Whitaker was also in the mood to talk. At fifty-nine, she is one of those people who had good, stable employment but was displaced from the work force in 2008 when the recession hit. She had worked thirty-one years for Verizon in its various incarnations, starting as an installer-repair technician when the company was AT&T and working herself up to a manager in customer support. “The company thought it was a good time to get rid of even more people,” she said.
Wilson-Whitaker described what had happened to her company benefits. “We had a good pension plan, a 401(k), the whole nine yards. Then they did away with the lifetime pension and that affected younger workers. You get a 401(k) and that’s it,” she said. She has retiree health insurance, but that has changed, too. They used to pay 100 percent of the premiums, but now she says they only cover 76 percent. “I pay close to $200 a month and I’m thankful it’s not more.” Our talk turned to Social Security and Medicare, and she had a good understanding of the possible changes to each program. “I hear they want to extend the retirement age up to seventy,” she told me, “and that won’t make me happy at all. People after me, like my grandkids, are going to be zapped. It’s almost as if the government is saying that we want you to die before you collect.”
As for Medicare, Wilson-Whitaker had heard there may be cuts in the offing. “What I haven’t heard is what those cuts are. I want to know specifically how those cuts will affect me, and I haven’t been able to find out. “What cuts are they talking about? What benefits are we not going to have anymore?”