Hands Off Social Security & Medicare!

Chris Lowe

A national coalition has organized today as a national call-in day to tell Congress not to cut or privatize Social Security or Medicare. Phone numbers for Oregon Congressional offices are listed at the end of this post.

Much of the coalition is organized under the auspices of Strengthen Social Security, composed largely of groups that first came together to oppose the G. W. Bush administration's effort to privatize Social Security. It is a pity, if not a disgrace, that the same forces must come together again under President Obama.

Because of this history, some groups are focusing more or less exclusively on current threats to Social Security. Others, however, including Healthcare NOW! and Progressive Democrats of America are including Medicare in their messaging too. I think this is necessary, because of the risk that Medicare may be turned into a sacrificial lamb in a phony so-called compromise, by an administration too eager for compromise. Yet if Medicare is undermined, it attacks the general principle of basic social insurance for elders, ultimately weakening Social Security too.

Pressure for Social Security and Medicare cuts, along with cuts to Medicaid, failure to extend unemployment benefits and so on, comes from various quarters. Most notably it comes from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform appointed by President Obama. Although nominally bipartisan, the Commission was stacked with leadership and members known to favor such cuts. Some people call it the Cat Food Commission, since its recommendations threaten to return us to the anecdotal situation where elders impoverished by medical bills often got by by eating cat food, before the passage of Medicare in 1965.

The Commission is due to issue its report tomorrow, December 1, but has been signaling its recommendations for weeks, which is why the call-in day is today. We need to make the proposals to cut social insurance and the social safety net dead on arrival in Washington.

The pressure for these cuts is driven by a shell game involving public concern with current large deficits. However, Social Security and Medicare bring in more revenue than they spend. Meanwhile failure to extend unemployment benefits and to create meaningful jobs programs throw more and more people into increasingly desperate situations.

The deficits are caused primarily by the jobs crisis, meaning lower revenues and more need for services, by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other bloated military spending, by the Bush-era tax cuts, and by the bail-outs for Wall Street and the big banks.

What is needed actually is more short term spending for economic stimulus that specifically creates jobs, to get the economy going, raise revenue and and lower need for unemployment benefits, TANF, Medicaid and other social services.

A minimal financial transactions tax would also be a good idea, in the middle term if not immediately. Such a tax might not redress the structural skewing of the U.S. economy toward financial speculation that contributes to the jobs crisis and the polarization of wealth. But it would at least have the financial sector making more of a contribution to resources needed to compensate for the problems it has caused, and will continue to cause without major reforms.

The proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, as enunciated recently by the National Commission co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, for example, would phase in over an extended time. They would not help with current deficits at all.

That is the shell game.

Long time opponents of these basic social insurance programs, that limit poverty and provide crucial care for elders, are using concerns over the deficit, and people's understandable desire not to saddle our children and grandchildren with huge debts, to attack programs that are not relevant to the current deficits.

According to polls, the public by large majorities does not want Social Security or Medicare benefits cut.

There are real problems with rapidly rising medical costs, problems that the recent PPACA health care reform does not sufficiently resolve. These costs will threaten Medicare in a few years. But the way to solve the problem of rising medical costs is not to cut Medicare (or Medicaid) benefits and shift the costs onto families and individuals who can't afford them. That might or might not eventually reduce the rise in potential government spending, but it wouldn't actually address health care costs at all.

Cutting Medicare benefits is the equivalent of the increasing prevalence in private health insurance of huge deductibles and co-pays, which also will characterize the "inexpensive" insurance options to be offered as part of mandatory insurance under PPACA.

Shifting medical costs from the government will only lead to more self-rationing of medical costs to meet immediate survival needs. Such self-rationing creates greater costs in the long run as chronic diseases develop to more expensive stages, which is why Medicare cuts might not even save the government money. It leads to medical bankruptcies, to more reduced quality of life, and more premature deaths.

The real answer to getting hold of such costs is a system of national health insurance, single-payer Improved and Expanded Medicare for All. That would support elders better by putting them in a bigger, more secure risk pool. It would eliminate gross levels of private insurance bureaucracy and related hospital and doctors' bureaucracy. It would allow reorganization of medical priorities to favor primary care, prevention, and lower cost early stage disease management. Such an approach would lower costs, improve quality of life, extend lives, and remove the threat of medical bankruptcy posed to insured and uninsured alike.

Of course, such reforms are not on the cards politically in the near term. But cutting Medicare would only make achieving them more difficult.

Regarding the national call-in day: Some groups are focusing on Senate calls, but I plan to call my House representative too. If you can't call today, do it tomorrow.

Here are the phone numbers, Washington DC numbers in bold, plus district office numbers:

Earl Blumenauer DC: (202) 225-4811
Portland: (503) 231-2300

Peter DeFazio DC: (202) 225-6416
Coos Bay: (541) 269.2609
Eugene: (541) 465.6732
Roseburg: (541) 440.3523

Kurt Schrader DC: 202) 225-5711
Oregon City: (503) 557-1324
Salem: (503) 588-9100

Greg Walden DC: (202) 225-6730
Bend: 541) 389-4408
La Grande: (541) 624-2400
Medford: (541) 776-4646

David Wu DC: (202) 225-0855
Portland: (503) 326-2901
Portland toll free: (800) 422-4003

Jeff Merkley DC: (202) 224-3753
Bend: (541) 318-1298
Eugene: (541) 465-6750
Medford: (541) 608-9102
Pendleton: (541) 278-1129
Portland: (503) 326-3386
Salem: (503) 362-8102

Ron Wyden DC: (202) 224-5244
Bend: (541) 330-9142
Eugene: (541) 431-0229
La Grande: (541) 962-7691
Medford: (541) 858-5122
Portland: (503) 326-7525
Salem: (503) 589-4555

General Capitol switchboard: 866-220-0044
Senate switchboard: 866-529-7630

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    I heard an Illinois Rep., Jan Shakowsky (I can't spell her name) on PBS- she was dead-on right on this. Her points were the same as Chris Lowe's.

    There are lots of great elected Dems, but for some reason none are in the leadership.

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    Do we really have to urge Dem. Senators and Reps to stand firm on Soc. Sec. and Medicare?? We just had an election where they all swore to their constituents and on their grandmother's grave that protecting Social Security and Medicare were top priority. The privatizers and barbarians are all in the GOP camp.

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      Sadly, we do. Democrats at the national level are hearing the siren calls of "deficit reduction" and if they don't hear a counter voice they will start to think those calls are correct.

      Never assume that the people who should know the right thing to do actually do know the right thing to do.

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    I would just add that there is no way that the Catfood Commission is going to get the 14 votes to send their draft proposal to the Congress.It's DOA as it should be.

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    Wrong on all counts. Social Security and Medicare need substantive changes in order to remain viable and stable. The Trust funds are projected to run out of cash and it is due to rising legacy costs.

    The US is no longer an agrarian or even manufacturing economy. Gradual proposed changes in raising the age of full retirement are in line with projected rises in longevity. they also reflect that the bulk of US jobs are now in the service, retail and information sectors. The body does not take the wear-and-tear of farming or heavy labor.

    Medicare/Medicaid is an empty suit to begin with and is underfuned. Congress has long delayed proposed cuts to provider reimbursement because they know more providers will opt out. Cuts to service are naturally ocurring when compensation goes down. Remeber back 10 years ago when Oregon providers began opting out of OHP?

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      Wong again, Kurt. First and foremost, Soc. Security is not responsible for the deficit, a fact admitted by the Deficit Commission. Secondly, the trust fund is not going to run out of cash. In 2037 it is projected to have a shortfall if nothing is done between now and then, but even still 78% of all obligations would still be met. That's far from running out of cash. There is an easy fix for Social Security, to raise the tax limit for FICA contributions.

      As for Medicare, already seniors are paying more and more out of pocket. Any politician who wants to take more money out of the pockets of seniors runs the immediate risk of unemployment in the next election from the demographic that votes the most.

      The real answer to the deficit is the downsizing of a bloated military with bases all over the world, and the restoration of our tax rates to the Clinton era when we were running surpluses, before George Bush started the giveaway to the wealthy.

      There is no political support whatsoever for cutting social security or Medicare/Medicaid. (And be informed that the poor are not the easy target on Medicaid as most Medicaid dollars go to pay for nursing care for middle class elders in the last phases of life.)

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        Bill, I stated in the similar thread that neither SS or Medicare/Medicaid contribute to the overall deficit. They both, however are structurally unsound and will collapse under their legacy costs without reforms.

        I certainly agree that there are huge cost savings to be found by decreasing our military presence in Germany, Japan, Okinawa and the Middle East. also, cut the political pork weapons systems that even the military doesn't want. Start with the Osprey V-22 program. The VTOL aircraft is a non-starter from a logistic and defensive standpoint and has already killed more peacetime service members than any other program. Neither the Marines or the Air Force want this albatross, yet congress keeps authorizing funds.

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    Medicare is a huge and growing budget and deficit problem, as this morning's NPR report confirms.


    You acknowledge that there is a problem with "rapidly rising medical costs" and that it is "not on the cards politically in the near term" to address it. In my view this is exactly where Obama screwed the pooch in rushing through a bad "reform" when the policy victories slipped out of his grip and he opted for a pure political one instead.

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      With your party insisting on the Bush tax cuts they can't really taken seriously about the deficit. They took us from a record surplus, gave away the store to the wealthy, started two bloody wars, and an expensive Medicare drug program, and put it all on the credit card. So let them tell the seniors that gave them their new majority in the House they they are going to have Medicare cuts and no longer have a drug program. What a bunch of utter phonies, lacking in any iota of integrity!

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