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Congress and the President: Just Because You Were Bullied, Don’t Take It Out on Our Seniors

Karen Higgins

Let’s try to remember a lesson we all should have learned as kids. Just because you were picked on by the neighborhood bully is no excuse to go home and kick the dog or punch your little brother.

Maybe some inside the Beltway need a refresher course. Just because a handful on the right have shut down government and threatened default on the debt that’s no excuse to embrace proposals to slash Medicare and Social Security.

But that is exactly what is on the agenda, the “compromise” reward for those who engineered the lunacy of the last two weeks with the attempt to reverse the results of last November’s election by refusing to fund government services or pay the debt unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded or repealed.

At its centerpiece is a “grand bargain” that would impose additional deep cuts in public spending beyond the budget plan already approved by the Senate that was premised on a floor established by the much detested sequester cuts earlier this year, a budget that the House Speaker had already said was his price for avoiding a shutdown until he reversed course and decided to up the ante with the ACA demands.

Perhaps you might detect a trend here. All the compromises seem to be coming from the liberal side of the ledger. Taking a beating at the polls and unease from some of their Wall Street funders, the ideologues who created the crisis have concluded that the compromisers will let them off the hook by giving up far more.

The next target is two of the most important social reforms in U.S. history, Social Security and Medicare.

For Medicare proposals include raising the eligibility age to 67, “means testing” and other higher out of pocket costs for those with middle to upper incomes to pay more for care. Similar slashes are envisioned for Social Security, adopting the so-called “chained” CPI – a reconfiguration of how cost of living increases are determined to reduce benefits, cutting benefits for middle and upper income seniors, and raising the eligibility age to qualify for Social Security to 68 or higher.

The other not so bright idea, pushed by Wall Street, is to lower the corporate tax rate, already at a historically low rate and avoided altogether by some of the wealthiest corporations in the U.S.

The only thing worse than these proposals is the willingness of too many of the compromisers in the White House and Congress to jump on board.

A stellar list of progressive legislators and some constituency groups are actively fighting it, with good reason.

On Medicare, means testing would fundamentally transform the program into one whose primarily beneficiaries are the poor and the least healthy, making it even more politically vulnerable for additional cuts by those politicians who have repeatedly demonstrated their complete lack of sympathy for the poor and most vulnerable. It would also undermine the concept of the risk pool which works by including the more healthy who need fewer health services with the less healthy who require more care, meaning total Medicare costs would actually increase.

Nurses in particular live by the ethos that no one should be denied care, or be penalized in access to care based on their income. As nurses we already see people of many incomes struggling to get the healthcare they need in a persistent recession and the decades long widening of income disparity.

Social Security too should be off the chopping block. Among other reasons, Social Security contributes nothing to the deficit, its Trust Fund has a huge surplus and is fully funded through 2033 and can easily be strengthened for an even longer term by raising the income ceiling on payroll taxes above the current limit of $110,000.

Cuts to either Social Security or Medicare could not come at a worse time when seniors have been steadily losing ground to the economic disparities so rampant in our economic system today.

With the gaps in Medicare only paying about 60 percent of average medical costs for seniors today, the real poverty rate for seniors is at least 15 percent even with these signature programs, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported earlier this year. Senior Security and Medicare both need to be strengthened and benefits expanded, not cut.

Finally, Medicare and Social Security retain their enormous, broad popularity precisely because they are broad based, available to everyone without differentiation in services – even among those in the Tea Party and others who say they hate government (except when they need it).

Instead of implementing any cuts to programs so essential to a civil society, we ought to be expanding the economic pie. The best way, as nurses have said for some time, is by taxing those who created the current crisis with the Robin Hood tax on financial speculation as embodied in HR 1579. That would be giving the dog a bone, not kicking it.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Karen Higgins

Karen Higgins is a registered nurse and co-president of National Nurses United.

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