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Learning from the Past for Social Security & Medicare's Future

April 25. 2011

SEATTLE - Members of Washington's congressional delegation are getting an earful during this recess about proposed changes to Medicare and Social Security. In the debate about the futures of these programs, some want Congress to look back at what the country was like without them.

Mark Schmitt, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, is a former editor of The American Prospect magazine and also a staff member of former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ). Schmitt estimates that Social Security lifts half of all seniors out of poverty, where most of them were before it started. He says both programs have worked to transform and stabilize the lives of the elderly.

"Medicare provides that guarantee that we're going to have some kind of health care in old age, which people didn't have at all before 1965. And Social Security does a lot of things for all of our families."

Republicans have suggested cutting Social Security benefits or raising the retirement age and, in the U.S. House, have proposed turning Medicare into a private voucher program. But the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities predicts that under a voucher system, seniors could end up paying twice as much for half the coverage.

For older Americans, says Schmitt, private health insurance has never really worked.

"What was there before there was Medicare? Well, basically there was nothing. It was a very, very expensive proposition to buy any kind of health insurance for people who were over 65, and you were probably better off just bearing whatever costs you were going to bear on your own."

Schmitt calls the programs "social insurance." Since so many people collect benefits, he says, private insurance companies can't afford to cover them. In his view, the programs have to be administered by the government.

"We are all going to retire, we are all going to have greater costs in our old age. Only by sharing those across all of society, sharing that risk across all of us, is it possible to create an insurance system against that."

More than one million people in Washington state receive Social Security, and about 954,000 use Medicare benefits.

The Alliance for Retired Americans (www.retiredamericans.org) has declared this (Apr. 25-30) a national week of action, protesting the proposed changes with a theme of "Don't Make Us Work 'Til We Die."

Social Security and Medicare will be major parts of the budget debate when Congress returns from its break on May 2.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA