Over the weekend, I visited an Italian festival in Scranton, PA, where the crowd, mostly older and white, had gathered in the town square to hear music and eat cannolis. But when I brought up politics, especially Medicare and Social Security, the mood got dark. People worried about making ends meet. They were not much interested in Vouchercare—the Medicare fix advocated by the GOP. But they seemed mostly disillusioned with the Democrats, too. “I would like someone as president who is a patriot and dedicated to the people. I feel like a subject in a kingdom,” one woman said. “You know a kingdom with royalty and the subjects.”
This is another in CJR’s ongoing series of CJR Town Halls—conversations with citizens about the issues they are following in the press, and the second in several Town Halls focused on Medicare. We hope journalists everywhere will get out and talk to ordinary people and hear what they have to say about Medicare, Social Security, and other pocketbook issues that will help decide this upcoming presidential election.
Fifty-seven-year old Paul Noreika has three years to go until he retires from the railroad, with 40 years of service. He worked his way up the ranks with New Jersey Transit—from trackman to machine operator to foreman. He lives north of Scranton in rural Pennsylvania and commutes 100 miles each way, every day, to his job. He hopes he has bought his last car, a Honda Civic that gets 40 miles to the gallon. Still, rising gasoline prices are a concern. “They blame it on the weather,” he said, skeptically.
Noreika will have a good pension from the Railway Retirement System, but he worried that “they would like to get their hands on the railway pension.” “They passed something that took money out of it,” he told me. The conversation turned to Medicare, and the second I mentioned Paul Ryan and his voucher plan, Noreika said, “Don’t mess with it.” We talked a bit more about how such a plan would work. “He’s going to take care of the rich and eliminate the middle class.” Without overtime, he earns a median income—around $50,000. Who do you trust more to take care of your financial concerns, I asked. “I know what I have now. I like what I have now. I will vote for Obama.”
Phyllis Rieger was munching an Italian sandwich when I stopped to chat. At 61, she has another year to become be eligible for a state pension, earned as a special education teacher in New Jersey public schools. Rieger was eager to tell me about Medicare and Social Security. She said she reads a lot of newspapers—The New York Times, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and the Newark Star-Ledger—and often reads them online. “I hear Social Security is going bankrupt,” she said. “That upsets me because I have put my time in and will have to depend on it when I retire.”
Rieger formerly worked in financial services in New York City and contributed to Social Security through those jobs. She didn’t know how large a benefit she would get because the Social Security Administration no longer sends out yearly benefit statements. The government makes a computer tool available if people want to calculate their own benefits. “I read online that this was supposed to save a lot of money,” she said. “But a lot of people don’t know how to use the computer and a lot of disabled people can’t get out to go to a library to use one.”
What do you know about Paul Ryan’s plan, I asked? “He wants to cut Medicare,” she said. She found it puzzling, though, that “he didn’t mention Medicare cuts in his Republican convention speech. He brings his own mother to show he cares about you.” That didn’t sit well with her. Still, she found Ryan’s “youth and energy appealing” and said a voucher plan was also appealing. But Rieger is 90 percent sure she will not vote for the Romney-Ryan ticket. Although she is a Democrat, Rieger says she votes for the best candidate. “But any more, it comes down to the lesser of two evils. Romney doesn’t represent the common man,” she believes.
What does she like about Obama? “He has a lot of good ideas and four years isn’t enough time to implement them. He more likely understands the average citizen. He comes from a more working man’s background.”
Ron Sampson, a retired schoolteacher, was killing some time at the festival. He lives 40 miles north of Scranton, in Montrose, Pa., a rural area where he taught high school government and American history classes. His state pension and Social Security give him a monthly income of about $3,900. His wife works as a nurse in Florida, and he says he is a snowbird in the winter. Sampson is 68 and on Medicare, with a Medigap policy from AARP. We talked about which supplement he has, and whether he knew that the health reform law makes people who have two particular Medigap policies, Plans F and C, pay more out of pocket for their care.
How did he feel about having more skin in the game—that is paying more out-of-pocket and getting less coverage from his insurance. “I’d love to review what’s coming. I don’t trust the alternative to what we have now.” Then he said: “No voucher. I don’t believe in that. I don’t trust the voucher. How are they going to protect the poor and the elderly? They are the most vulnerable.” He told me most people in the town where he lived voted Republican, and “they hated Obama from the start. As soon as someone says ‘scrap Obamacare,’ they applaud.”
Sampson said his grandmother first got him interested in the Democratic Party, but he almost voted for John McCain last time. “As soon as Sarah Palin came in, I changed my mind.” What will swing your vote this time? “What has soured me,” he said, “is the Republicans’ lack of flexibility. ‘Let’s get Obama.’ They keep saying ‘no, no we have to cut this stuff.’” Sampson said he had seen ‘Mr. No Tax Pledge, Grover Norquist,’ on TV that morning. “That really got me started,” he said. “I hope the younger people realize what they are going to face.” Sampson will vote for Obama.
Carol and Karyl
Carol, from Susquehanna, PA, a town of about 43,000, and her friend, Karyl, were not eager to give their last names, and at first they didn’t want to talk. But after a few minutes it was obvious that both women—both on Social Security and Medicare—actually welcomed the chance to talk about these programs and the nation’s politics. Carol, who was a homemaker and stay-at-home mom, receives a Social Security benefit that is one-half of what her late husband got.
She has other income from savings and investments. Still, she is worried about Medicare and knows what it meant to her family during her husband’s serious illness. “They say changes are not going to affect people 55 and older. But then there’s the other side of the coin,” she said. “You can’t believe anyone.”
Carol had heard the argument about Obama cutting Medicare. “They took money from old Medicare and put it toward the new program,” she said. She also understood the arguments for reducing reimbursements to sellers of Medicare Advantage plans. “It is very wasteful,” she told me. “But why do they let a program like that exist?” she asked. A good question!
“I understand that traditional Medicare is preferred when you have a serious illness,” Carol said. “A lot of people are enticed to take Advantage plans [which may not cover certain services.] People don’t realize how expensive an illness can be and are lured in by cheap eyeglasses” [an extra benefit the plans sometimes offer], which pale in importance when a serious illness strikes, she explained. “My husband and I were very satisfied with Medicare the way it was.”
Karyl, age 69, had been a high school math teacher in New Jersey for 22 years. She left her job in 1995 when she became disabled so her state pension is much smaller than it otherwise might have been. She said that the governor and the legislature had cut cost-of-living adjustments, and she was not pleased. “I don’t like the idea they took this from us,” Karyl said. “I don’t trust them.” So when she hears the Republicans say Obama took $716 billion from Medicare, she worries. “We are concerned with the rumor Medicare might go under.”
Neither Carol nor Karyl had quite made up her mind whom to vote for. Karyl said she goes to Fox and MSNBC to get different views, and sometimes feels as though people in the country are “depressed, down, and frightened.” As a sign of that, they discussed what seemed to be a poor showing at the Italian festival. They attributed it to the high cost of gasoline and the increased price of pizza, pasta, and meatball subs. In years past, Karyl said, “there were never any empty seats at these tables.”