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With the next budget fight looming, tell Congress don’t push Grandma off the cliff

Karen Higgins, RN, NNU Co-president, 10/21/13

Karen Higgins, RN

By Karen Higgins, RN, NNU Co-president

Now that the debate over keeping the lights on in the federal government and the debt ceiling in abeyance, until (fittingly, as one columnist has noted) right before next Groundhog Day, it’s time to step up attention to the next cyclical crisis in Washington.

With a budget conference committee convening whose charge will presumably include deep cuts beyond the much detested sequester cuts negotiated late last year, many are already speculating that a central target will be two of the most important social reforms in U.S. history, Social Security and Medicare.

Rather than change the tone of these budget battles – and talk about ways to increase revenues especially with the Robin Hood tax on Wall Street speculation, rather than make more cuts that harm our patients and our families – too many in Congress and the White House seem more willing to just throw Grandma off the cliff.

Perhaps you might detect a trend here. Rather than take on Wall Street and the 1 percent, also known as their funding base and their peers – those very people who are responsible for the most vast income inequality in a century and the current, lingering economic crisis facing Main Street communities across America – the White House and Congress are going after Grandma and Grandpa.

We’ve seen the outline of the goals advanced, and they are not pretty.

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, http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-mh-chained-20131004,0,4565719.story

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. http://www.salon.com/2013/10/10/looming_victory_for_gop_social_security_cuts/

A stellar list of progressive legislators and some constituency groups are actively fighting it, with good reason.   http://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/government-shutdown-democrats-entitlements-97797.html#ixzz2gg3CWbh5

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. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/05/20/senior-poverty-is-much-worse-than-you-think/

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 http://robinhoodtax.org/ as embodied in HR 1579. That would mean helping Grandma and her children and grandchildren, not pushing her off the cliff.

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


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