Led by National Nurses United and aided by 250,000 signatures from members of the Alliance for Retired Americans, a coalition of progressive groups delivered more than a million names on petitions to Congress on Dec. 7 to save Social Security and Medicare against threatened Republican Social Security cuts and against Medicare privatization.
And they picked up support from key congressional Democrats, including incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Both warned the GOP to keep “Hands off Medicare!” as Schumer put it, lest it suffer retribution from outraged seniors and the rest of the country.
“Privatizing lets the insurance companies do what they want, and the doctors, too…without regard to what patients can afford,” Schumer said. “This is a war on seniors.”
The jam-packed press conference and the petitions may not affect Republican leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who have been campaigning for smaller increases in Social Security benefits, raising the retirement age, and turning Medicare into an ill-funded “voucher” program to force people to bargain on their own with huge, profitable health insurers.
But if they try, speakers said, the GOP leadership will run smack into their own president-elect, millionaire mogul Donald Trump, who opposed such cuts on the campaign trail. The Democrats – and the groups – intend to hold him to that promise.
They also promised to return to Capitol Hill with, as one speaker said, “two million, five million, 10 million, 30 million” signatures to save the two programs.
“Rather than destroy Medicare as we know it, threatening the health of my patients, let’s improve it by enabling it to negotiate prescription drug prices,” said NNU Vice President Sandra Falwell, RN. “Rather than waste tax dollars by subsidizing profit-making health insurance corporations, let’s cover everybody through the efficient Medicare system. 58 percent of Americans support Medicare For All.
“We must stop the looming patient care crisis of restricted access to care, overseen by insurance company bureaucrats, limited choices of doctors, runaway prescription drug costs, and huge out of pocket expenses for families.
“Nurses never give up on our patients, and we stand with seniors, millennials, and people of all ages as we protect Medicare and Heal America,” she declared.
Elements of the GOP Medicare plan, mentioned at the press conference and in prior news stories, reportedly include:
- Converting Medicare into a voucher program, with each senior getting a set amount yearly to use to buy health insurance on his or her own.
- Raising the minimum age of eligibility for Medicare, now 65. It was unclear if the increase would be retroactive, thus affecting people who turn 65 before any new law passes.
- Removing all cost controls Medicare now imposes through its payments to physicians and hospitals. Together, Medicare, Medicaid and state run exchanges under the Affordable Care Act – which the Republicans seek to repeal – cover half of U.S. health care spending.
- Eliminating minimum requirements for services insurers must pay for, such as maternal care and reproductive rights care.
- Eliminating a cap on what insurers can charge older enrollees.
The Republicans justify their Medicare schemes by claiming the program is going broke. Max Richtman of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare warned the crowd that the nation “would be bombarded with that false information.”
“Our members are irate” at the GOP proposals, said Richard Fiesta, executive director of the union-backed 3-million-member Alliance for Retired Americans. “Many issues were discussed in the campaign, but privatizing and voucherizing Medicare wasn’t one of them.
Besides the 250,000 signatures his group collected on the petitions, which were carted to the offices of Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., ARA has already hosted 100 meetings in lawmakers’ home congressional districts and plans dozens more.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., wanted to empower Medicare to set the prices it pays for prescription drugs, just as Trump also proposed. He tried to include that in legislation the Senate considered the same day, but lost. “I live 50 miles away from Canada,” Sanders said. With Canadian controls, “prices there are half” of U.S. levels, he told the crowd.
Sanders, Pelosi and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., declared that instead of cutting Social Security eligibility and converting Medicare into vouchers, lawmakers should expand both. Asked who would pay for the expansion, Sanders gave his standard answer: The top 1 percent, by lifting the cap on the amount of wages and salaries subject to Medicare and Social Security payroll taxes. The cap is now $118,500 for Social Security. There’s no cap on salary subject to payroll taxes for the part of Medicare that covers hospital care.
All speakers emphasized grass-roots mobilization would be absolutely necessary to defeat the GOP Social Security and Medicare schemes, just as a grass-roots uprising derailed GOP President George W. Bush’s 2005 plan to partially privatize Social Security.
“Nurses will make our voices heard across the country in the face of the threat of privatization and profiteering off sickness,” said NNU Co-president Jean Ross, RN.
“The Republican leadership and Mr. Trump have to listen to the American people. If we stand up and fight, we’ll win this!” Sanders declared.