Paul O'Neill, 66, of Fairfax County, watched his job and health benefits evaporate when his employer went bankrupt two years ago.
Insurance companies wouldn't even consider O'Neill for coverage because of his age and weight. So when O'Neill hears talk of changes to Social Security and Medicare, he gets nervous because he relies on them.
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"I think there are solutions less drastic than [what] politicians are talking about," he said as he headed in to one of the first AARP Virginia You've Earned a Say town hall meetings in March. "I've heard so much about different solutions. I want to try to get something unfiltered."
He was one of about 75 people attending the session in Leesburg that day. It and similar sessions throughout Virginia are part of a national AARP effort to hold forums on Social Security and Medicare.
Bruce and Rosanna Hoverman, of Chantilly, attended the Leesburg forum just days before she joined her husband in retirement.
"We're not real activists," said Bruce Hoverman, 65. "But this is basically our future. We need to have a say on something as important as this."
Bill Kallio, AARP Virginia state director, said many people don't think anyone is listening to them about the programs. "They are concerned decisions will be made behind closed doors," he said.
Kallio said forum attendees are asked: "If you could deliver one message to Washington on how to protect Social Security and Medicare, what would it be?"
AARP will collect the answers from forums and from a questionnaire and deliver them to candidates and officeholders.
Both programs have long-term financial issues driven by greater longevity and by the size of the retiring boomer generation. Action is unlikely this year, but the future of the programs will be an issue after the elections in November.
Medicare's Part A trust fund will run short of money to pay hospital costs within 12 years. After 2033, Social Security will be able to afford to pay about 75 percent of benefits unless something is changed.
Proposals include raising the age to collect full benefits, lowering Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, reducing benefits for the wealthy, increasing the payroll tax and charging wealthier retirees more for Medicare coverage.
Satkuna Mathur, 58, of Ashburn, said Social Security is the foundation of her eventual retirement. "There's a lot of danger right now," she said, especially about proposals to allow individual Social Security accounts that could be invested in the stock market.
In Virginia, Social Security is the only source of income for 28 percent of people 65 and older. Social Security pumps nearly $17 billion a year into the state's economy, with benefits for nearly 1.3 million residents. About 1.1 million Virginians are covered by Medicare.
"Not to sound like an old codger, but I worked for it, and it's mine," said Rosanna Hoverman, 62, who was an administrative assistant before she retired.
Concern for younger people
But Karen Hendershot, 65, of Taylorstown, a retired macroeconomist, urged the crowd in Leesburg to think about younger generations.
"We can't expect the younger generation to shoulder the entire burden of keeping Social Security solvent," Hendershot said after the forum.
"We cannot be the gimme, gimme, gimme generation."
William Schillig, 65, a retired teacher who lives in Reston, said the programs are crucial, and creative solutions should be considered instead of wholesale changes.
Without Medicare, Schillig said, he would have faced $165,000 in medical bills during his wife's battle with ovarian cancer.
Visit the AARP Virginia website for a schedule of forums. If you can't attend a session, you can fill out a You've Earned a Say questionnaire about the programs online.
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Tamara Lytle is a Washington, D.C.-area writer who covers politics and government.
AARP is bringing the debate about Medicare and Social Security out from behind closed doors in Washington.