Rep. Levin and Seniors Discuss Social Security, Medicare, Budget

Aug 23, 2011

Home from what he called "the difficult battles in Washington," U.S. Rep. Sander Levin stopped by the Huntington Woods Public Library on Monday to lunch with senior citizens and talk about their concerns, particularly Social Security and Medicare.

The discussion focused on federal entitlement programs and, while Levin tried to keep the tone light, several of the seniors asked pointed questions about how what's happening with the federal budget will impact them and their families in the future.

"In terms of Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare, we're having major battles," in Washington, including about whether to privatize some health care services, said Levin, D-Royal Oak.

In general terms, Medicaid is a government health care program for people with low incomes and Medicare covers the elderly and those who have disabilities.

"What seniors say most of all is, 'We like our independence. We don't want to have to depend on our children,' " Levin said.
Seniors sound off

That sentiment hit home for one of the dozens of seniors in the audience who asked Levin whether the amount of each Social Security check will increase in the near future.

"It's likely there will be a small increase," the lawmaker replied. "It's tied to the rate of inflation. This year, we don't know fully yet the rate of inflation."

But one senior was skeptical, noting that while Social Security checks haven't increased the past couple years, prices at the grocery store have.

"On Social Security, money is tight," the audience member said, prompting another to ask whether legislators in Lansing and Washington, D.C., are taking cuts like the rest of working Americans.

"Yes," Levin said. "There's been some reduction in state legislative salaries ... and we have eliminated the COLA (cost of living allowance) for us. We also are trimming the amount of money that goes into our Congressional accounts. I think we all need to share the burden.

"But, I also think we need to not take it to the degree that we can't attract strong candidates to office."

Levin added that he is concerned about the widening income gap between the middle class and the super rich. "The income for middle income families for the past 20 years has been stagnant," he said. "The total income for the upper 1 percent has tripled in the past 15 years. We're having a big fight about whether to extend (the Bush era tax breaks).

"We've got to pay attention to the distribution of income in this country," Levin warned.

One audience member argued that the real problem is that the U.S. government is spending more money than it brings in. "Simply put: We're broke," the audience member said. "You can't keep spending at the rate we're spending and have China own us. When are we going to stop out-of-control spending?"

Levin agreed that cuts to discretionary spending and entitlement programs need to be made.

Mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid consumes 41 percent of the federal budget, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, and 40 percent is discretionary spending on which legislators vote.

During the next 30 years, the number of people in retirement programs is expected to double, due to longer life spans and a declining birth rate, the Social Security Administration reports. In the past, there were enough workers to support retirees via a payroll tax, but that is changing as the number of retirees swells. Today, there are 3.1 workers to support each Social Security recipient; in 2029, there are expected to be 2.2 workers to support each recipient.

As such, Levin said he believes spending cuts must be made in tandem with the introduction of new sources of revenue. "That doesn't mean we don't address the entitlement programs at all – it means we need to be sensitive," he said, noting that approximately one-quarter of those who receive Social Security rely on it for at least half of their income. "These are not wealthy people."

Levin also suggested that addressing the increasing cost of health care delivery could help rein in the government's expenses. He suggested opting for a system in which payments are based on effectiveness of treatment, rather than the current fee-for-service model.

"Those who say (solving the federal budget problem) is only one or the other (increasing revenue or decreasing spending), I think are digging a deeper hole for this country," he said.

Another audience member suggested that too much money is spent on medical treatment and asked Levin whether the Legislature could put more emphasis on preventive care.

Levin said that under the Affordable Care Act, people who are covered by Medicare can receive preventive services without a co-pay, which drew a chorus of pleasantly surprised "ohhhs!" from the crowd.

"You are absolutely right," he said to the audience member. "But we also need to put more money into health research. There has been a concerted effort by the new majority to cut funding to the NIH (National Institutes of Health)."
Looking to the future

The debate over health care and Social Security will have a bigger impact moving forward, as the number of seniors is expected to increase.

During the past decade there already has been an uptick in the number of Oakland County residents age 67 and older, up from 120,827 in 2000 to 137,432 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

"The Affordable Care Act and the Health Care Reform Act has an initial effort to provide for issues of long-term care," Levin said when asked what resources are in place to serve the growing senior population. "But that and Medicaid, the major provider of long-term care in this country, are part of the battle (in Washington)."

Huntington Woods, which already provides leisure options and transportation assistance for seniors, is taking a pro-active approach. The city has formed a Senior Advisory Committee that will study senior housing options and send out a survey to assess the needs of residents age 55 years and older.

"There are a lot of seniors that live here by themselves," committee member Catherine Marchione said Monday. "They're very tied to the community. Some of them are not functioning by themselves and it's very sad."

She and fellow committee member Linda Bruder stressed the importance of residents filling out and returning the survey in order to make sure their needs are met. The women also encouraged senior residents to start thinking about their answers in advance.

"The hard part is, the seniors sometimes have trouble expressing themselves in a way that modern people interpret. They listen fast and we talk slower," said Mayor Ronald Gillham, who attended the luncheon Monday along with City Manager Alex Allie and Commissioners Jeffrey Jenks and Jules Olsman. "I don't think their concerns are brushed aside. I just think the young people think 'These aren't my issues.' "