Congressional candidates offer solutions to shore up Medicare, Social Security programs
The six candidates for local congressional seats say they want to ensure the future of Medicare and Social Security and offer different ways of accomplishing that, but the election winners better do something if elected.
No less than the trustees of the nation's two major entitlement programs say action is essential.
Neither program can sustain its current costs without "disruptive consequences for beneficiaries and taxpayers," the trustees say in their latest report, issued in April.
For Social Security, the trouble starts after 2020 when the program starts depleting its reserve fund, leaving reserves exhausted by 2033, three years earlier than projected last year.
After that, payroll taxes collected would only be enough to pay about three-quarters of scheduled benefits.
The main Medicare trust fund, which covers hospitals, will be exhausted after 2024. After that, Medicare payroll taxes would only be enough to pay about 87 percent of costs.
The candidates say they won't let any of that happen.
Tom Marino (R) vs. Phil Scollo (D)
10th Congressional District
"People are expecting us to follow through with that promise (by) the government that people have Social Security and they're right in believing that," U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, a Republican, said. "I hear from my mother every day: 'Don't touch my Medicare, don't touch my Social Security.' "
On Social Security, Marino favors increasing the retirement age, perhaps by a few months every year, smaller benefits and slower growth in benefits for wealthier beneficiaries.
"I've had numerous people say to me ... 'I don't need the Medicare, I have my own retirement plan that I put together,' " he said.
Raising the income cap on taxing Social Security should also be considered, he said. Only the first $110,100 of a person's earned income is subject to the Social Security payroll tax now.
He remains opposed to Republican proposals to allow younger people to invest a portion of their payroll tax in a private retirement account, he said.
Marino has twice voted for budgets proposed by Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan that would include giving new Medicare recipients starting in 2023 a choice of traditional Medicare or buying private health insurance paid for partly with Medicare taxes.
The Congressional Budget Office said the first Ryan budget could cost senior citizens as much as $6,400 more a year. So Ryan offered an alternative plan. CBO said "beneficiaries might face higher costs" in that, too, but did not estimate how much higher.
Though he voted for both, Marino said that when a vote on a final Medicare plan comes up, he would favor a plan that doesn't cost anyone any more than traditional Medicare.
"We need to give people two choices," he said. "So you know me, I'm a market guy. What we should be able to do is offer an alternative to people."
He said competition worked in the Medicare prescription drug program, keeping costs lower than original estimates.
Democratic insurance industry consultant Phil Scollo said he favors creating commissions to study and recommend solutions to both programs' financial woes and opposes raising the Social Security retirement age and any kind of privatization.
His main other solution is improve the economy.
"Grow the economy, create jobs, get enough people paying payroll taxes, then Social Security will continue on," he said.
He said the best way to solve the programs' problems is to defeat Marino, who in 2010 told a Sunbury radio station that "My generation and probably the generation that follows me, we're going to have to step up to the plate and say, 'We're not going to get Social Security' ... It would have to be cut for my generation to pay for it."
A day later, Marino said he only meant what might happen if Social Security were not fixed and vowed to protect it.
Scollo also criticized Marino for voting for the Ryan budgets.
"Marino has twice voted to take away the Medicare guarantee for senior citizens and replace it with a voucher system," he said. "I'm certainly not against reforms as long as they don't cut benefits that people have worked hard for all their lives."
Laureen Cummings (R) vs. Matt Cartwright (D)
17th Congressional District
Democratic attorney Matt Cartwright's first recommended solution "is don't panic."
"As long as I remember, they've been putting doomsday dates on Social Security and Medicare," Cartwright said. "Don't get too caught up in the doomsday dates."
Neither Social Security nor Medicare is going bankrupt; they only won't be able to pay full benefits if nothing is changed, he said.
His main idea for ensuring their solvency is the same as Scollo's: "Getting the American economy moving again so that more people are working and more people are paying into Social Security and Medicare."
Cartwright acknowledged that even when the economy was robust in the 1990s, the programs were in danger.
"For me, it's a question of getting the economy moving again and then re-evaluating," he said. "Get the economy moving again, extend those dates back. Don't cut people's benefits now."
Cartwright said he opposes allowing younger people to divert Social Security payroll taxes into private retirement accounts.
"If they had had people throw their Social Security contribution into the stock market, look what would have happened to Social Security in 2008 when the stock market lost half of its value," he said.
In Medicare, Cartwright said he agrees "there's a lot of waste, fraud and abuse that happens."
He criticized Ryan's plan for its potential to increase senior citizens' out-of-pocket expenses, using the $6,400 figure though the second Ryan plan was different. Ryan's "voucher plan" is "an outrage," he said.
"I intend to take a reasoned, balanced approach to saving both programs, not an extreme approach and not a panicked approach," he said.
His opponent, Republican Laureen Cummings, who owns and operates a home-health nursing company, said ensuring the programs are around requires passing a fair tax - a 23 percent national sales tax on all new goods.
The tax will produce enough revenue to eliminate income, capital gains and inheritance taxes and the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes and keep the entitlement programs solvent.
She also favors repealing President Barack Obama's health care reform law and returning $716 billion to Medicare. She has no opinion on Ryan's plan because she has not read it, she said.
Lou Barletta (R) vs. Gene Stilp (D)
11th Congressional District
Rep. Lou Barletta , a Republican, said he voted for Ryan's plans because they will not affect anyone 55 or younger today and will create a menu of competing plans similar to that of Congress that reduces costs.
Ryan's plan will gives larger subsides to help buy insurance to people who earn less, he said.
"I support the only plan on the table in Washington," he said. "The president doesn't have a plan, the Senate doesn't have a plan."
Despite the trustees' report that Medicare will still exist but will pay a smaller percentage benefits after 2024, Barletta said doing nothing means "Medicare will not be there in 12 years."
He pointed to the competition between insurers for prescription drug coverage, which is subsided by Medicare. The costs have been lower than original estimates, he said.
On Social Security, Barletta said he voted in favor of a resolution to require the president and the trustees of the program to come up with a plan if Congress can't agree on one.
"Although it doesn't solve the Social Security dilemma, it guarantees senior citizens Social Security will be there," he said.
The resolution has not passed the Senate.
"I do believe that Democrats and Republicans need to lay out all the ideas and throw out the bad ones and let's move forward with ideas that are good," he said.
He declined to rule out any form of privatization of Social Security.
"I don't know," he said. "I would say that Congress needs to come together, Democrats and Republicans, and look at all options and debate it and try to come to a consensus.
"Let's not use this as a political football to try to get ourselves elected by scaring seniors that one party is going to do what they're not going to do," he said.
Activist and consultant Gene Stilp , a Democrat, said he opposes Ryan's "voucher plan" because it will increase senior citizens' costs.
The solution to Medicare might be gradually raising the payroll tax over a long period of time, he said. To bring down the cost of Medicare, he favors incentives to provide for more care by primary care physicians, focusing on the waste and fraud in the nation's health care system estimated at $750 million a year; reducing how long before generic versions of a drug may be produced; and emphasizing preventive care.
On Social Security, Stilp said he favors considering raising or lifting the cap on income subject to the payroll tax. Perhaps a small increase in the payroll tax phased in over 20 years could work, he suggested.
He opposes raising the retirement age or privatization.
"I don't trust the vagaries of the stock market to handle that. Let's say a person does that and they lose everything. What do they have and where do they go? Those people go to the government and say, 'OK, please take care of me now.'"
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