In St. Pete House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer joins with congressional candidate to express support for Medicare

05/23/12 Janelle Irwin
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Democrats in Congress are worried about a Republican-led budget proposal that would cut funding to Medicare. During a roundtable discussion this morning in St. Pete, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer joined a local congressional candidate to tell a small group of Pinellas County seniors that conservative initiatives in Congress would be detrimental to retirees and their families.

After working for both a Democrat and a Republican in Washington, congressional candidate Jessica Ehrlich has seen first hand how those two parties solve problems – and she thinks the answers from the right are wrong. But it wasn’t until her father was diagnosed with and succumbed to a rare illness that she realized how much of a safety net Medicare is for not just the patient, but their caretakers as well.

“We were looking at situations where because he wasn’t working and we would have lost the private healthcare because of not being able to pay for it and how would we pay for the mortgage? How would we be able to continue going forward with his expensive treatments that he needed to be able to continue if I wasn’t able to work because I was having to care for him full time?”

Provisions in the Republicans’ budget would cut funding to Medicare and offer seniors a choice between the government-run program and a voucher system that would let them shop for private insurance. But House Democratic Whip Hoyer said even though supporters of the Republican budget say Medicare will still be available, it won’t survive long.

“So the healthy folks will take private sector insurance and pay less. But as healthier American senior citizens move into the private sector, what happens with those who are left in Medicare? They are a riskier cohort. Now, if they are a riskier cohort, what does that mean? It’s more expensive and the Medicare component will increasingly become more expensive, less healthier cohort and as Newt Gingrich said, wither on the vine.”

President Obama’a healthcare law includes an individual mandate requiring everyone to purchase health insurance. As a result, about 30 million more people might be insured. According to Hoyer, Medicare’s sustainability will improve because fewer people will rely solely on Medicare.

“So to the extent that we spread that risk much more broadly and everyone has insurance, we will all be better off. That’s the premise.”

It’s one of the reasons Republicans are arguing the healthcare law is unconstitutional. But Hoyer compared mandating health insurance to doing the same thing with auto insurance. That’s already a requirement in Florida and many other states. But the difference, Hoyer said, was that people can choose not to drive. They can’t choose to not get sick. And it’s the people who get sick and don’t have the means to pay for their treatments who drive the cost of healthcare so high.

“The average family pays $1000, not for their healthcare, but for what we call uncompensated care. People go to the hospital and they don’t have insurance, they don’t have money. Somebody’s got to turn the lights on in the hospital. Somebody’s got to pay the nurses. Somebody’s got to pay the operating room expenses so we spread it among all the rest of us.”

Gerald Goen, president of the Tarpon Springs Democrats, helped with an effort in Indiana to lower healthcare costs for a school system. The group was turned away by a private company and ended up creating their own insurance policy – and the costs went down. He said the public sector is proven to be better at managing healthcare than the private.

“To try to turn this over to the private sector is going to be more costly, it’s not going to do the job, they’re going to throw people off of the rolls – particularly if the Affordable Healthcare [sic] Act gets struck down entirely. Then those folks who are not insurable are going to be thrown off, those people who are not insurable are not going to be insured.”

The Affordable Care Act will ban insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Victoria Najjar, a member of the group Democratic Women of Upper Pinellas, said she knows two men who will benefit from that provision when it takes effect in 2014.

“They couldn’t get medical care because they have the pre-existing and they’re a risk. The one gentleman spends $25,000 a year for a very – he has a $10,000 deductible. That was the best he could do. That’s pathetic.”

But the conservative fight to overturn the healthcare law and fundamentally change Medicare isn’t the only problem these Democrats have with the Republican Party. There’s also a right-wing push to privatize Social Security.

“That’s a hugely unpopular plan – that’s why they don’t discuss it as much – but that is their eventual plan.”

Jessica Ehrlich is challenging the Republican incumbent Bill Young, who voted for the GOP budget. Young did not respond to request for an interview by deadline. Ehrlich said many politicians are worried that money that was borrowed from Social Security won’t get paid back and funds could run out.

“Basically the government decided to go in and dip in and as some people said, use social security as a piggy bank to basically leave a slip of paper saying, ok we’re going to take away a huge chunk of money because you have a lot of it and we don’t have it for other programs.”

So one possible solution is to give people control over their own funds. Individuals could decide whether to leave the investment in the hands of the Feds or to privately invest their own money. Ehrlich said the problem with that is that it takes public funds and puts it into private hands.

“Where you will have these large investment corporations who will be making money off of the fact that people have invested their tax dollars into this program and then corporations will be using that tax money to make money for themselves by getting fees and investment fees of that money. So, that’s essentially what would be happening to the program.”

And according to U.S. Representative Hoyer, there is already a plan to repay Social Security. He said last year $45 billion dollars were put back from the nation’s general funds and that amount is expected to be about the same this year. And at that rate, Hoyer added, the deficit will be paid back within 20 years.

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Member, Democratic Women of Pinellas County

Thank you so much, Ms. Irwin, for your excellent coverage of this story. You captured the significant concepts and reported well. Again, thanks. Victoria Najjar