Pasco County seniors want elected officials to take a look at retirement benefits

04/27/12 Janelle Irwin
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A group of 50 senior citizens in the Land O’ Lakes area is worried that Medicare and Social Security benefits might be in trouble. The American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, conducted a question and answer session with them Friday morning and plan to take the results all the way to Washington D.C.

“You’ve earned a say.” That’s what AARP officials are calling a program to give seniors a voice in the political arena about their retirement benefits.

“AARP is providing to our members in the general public and voters, Florida voters, the opportunity to amplify their voices. Everyone here has a voice. They have a thought about what they want to see happen to the future of Medicare and Social Security.”

Michele Cyr, associate state director for AARP of Florida, came armed with little blue gadgets that tallied participants’ answers to questions about Medicare and Social Security. When asked if Medicare was in trouble, more than half of the group answered the program needed at least some tweaking. And as for Social Security benefits, only one person indicated they thought the program was fine just the way it is. Cyr said those results are not uncommon.

“They’re frustrated. They feel like our elected officials in Washington D.C. aren’t listening to them and that no one is really representing them. So, AARP is going across the country and, right here in the Bay area, talking to people at community conversations, town hall meetings, issue forums, really listening to what they have to say and their concerns about Medicare and Social Security.

So, in between questions seniors chimed in with what they thought was wrong and how politicians should fix it. Bob Bucklin, a retired clinical psychologist, said both systems would be fine if they had been better taken care of, but Social Security needs to be revamped to include more revenue.

“The dollars for Social Security aren’t collected on earned income above $110,000 right now which means the low income earner is carrying the rest of the country, the wealthy people, on their back. I think that Social Security should be collected on every dollar of earned income.”

Another participant lashed back saying that would be a wash because then people who had to pay more in to the system should also get that back when they retire. Nods circulated the room. Then came the claims that Medicare and Social Security benefits are handed out a little too loosely. Bucklin’s wife Mary, a retired school teacher, said it’s too easy for people to get motorized wheelchairs when they may not really need them.

“These advertisements bother me where they say ‘well, come in, we’ll guarantee to help you get one’. Well, if a person really needs a scooter, I’m all for it. But sometimes I think people are encouraged to get scooters when maybe they should get up and try to walk a little bit, reduce a little weight, be a little healthier.”

With a Latino retiree sitting within arm’s reach, Joe Fornino mused that maybe the government should stop handing out benefits to people who haven’t paid into the system.

“They’re giving away so much free medical help to ‘illegals’ and I don’t think that should be. Those that – I mean, you have to take care of people, you do – but these people should be held responsible and billed to pay back the hospitals and whoever is footing the bill for them.”

Fornino, a retiree in Lutz, continued that he doesn’t mind helping someone in need as long as it’s not a permanent hand out.

“Pay your way. Pay your way, bottom line. Pay your way. Get out and clean our streets. Paint our fire hydrants. I don’t care what you have to do. Pay your way.”

But the one thing that every single person in attendance, including the 26-year-old grandson who tagged along, agreed on was that it’s not seniors who need to worry. That’s something AARP’s Cyr said she’s been hearing more and more.

“They are very much concerned, not necessarily about their own benefits, but what’s going to happen to their children and grandchildren.”

Mary Bucklin said the possibly bleak prognosis facing Social Security in particular should be a reason for younger generations to jump into action and make sure they have a contingency plan.

“I feel the same way about retirement. Maybe we need to show them Social Security, like a said, is a safety net. It’s not what you retire on and can continue to live high on the hog.”

Cyr and other AARP staff said they are compiling the information from meetings like this one statewide as part of a national effort. Their findings will be distributed to the national board of directors and then as far up as presidential candidates. That includes President Obama.

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