Lynda Aters Towery, of Bradenton, never thought she would look forward to turning 62, much less 65. But after the economic downturn dented her savings and her former employer ended retiree health insurance, qualifying for Social Security and Medicare — eventually — never looked so good.
Still, she worries about the future of both programs, and not just for herself and her 71-year-old husband, Earl (both retired with pensions from the St. Petersburg Times). She wonders whether either program will still be around for their 39-year-old son, a freelance writer without a pension.
"If there's no Social Security or Medicare, he's really in trouble," said Towery, who turns 62 in August. "It's scary.''
The presidential candidates have offered little reassurance, Towery said. "They just won't get their heads out of the sand and deal with the problem. Everybody is blaming everybody else, and it's all hanging over our heads."
Such fear and uncertainty prompted AARP Florida to schedule public meetings across the state on the future of Social Security and Medicare. Called You've Earned a Say, the 230 community conversations are intended to give Floridians a voice, said David Bruns, AARP Florida communications manager.
"People feel they haven't had an opportunity to put their ideas forward,'' Bruns said. "They've heard the politicians' sound bites, but they don't know what to believe, and they don't know how these issues work."
People who are 50-plus "want a voice in that discussion," said A. Barry Rand, AARP chief executive officer, "and they feel like they've earned it."
Floridians particularly affected
The stakes are particularly high in Florida, which has the country's highest percentage of residents 65 or over. About 3.8 million Floridians receive Social Security, and about 3.3 million rely on Medicare. About a third of Florida's Social Security recipients have no other income, while the state's Medicare beneficiaries spend a quarter of their income on additional medical costs.
Both programs are financially stable in the near term but face long-term problems. The Social Security Administration estimates current funding is sufficient through 2033, and about three-fourths of benefits could be paid after that.
Medicare costs are increasing disproportionately and contributing to the rising federal budget deficit. In fiscal year 2010, Medicare spending reached $551 billion, or 15 percent of federal spending, behind only Social Security and defense. By 2020, Medicare spending is expected to consume 17 percent of the budget and 4 percent of the gross domestic product.
With the number of Americans 65 and older expected to increase from almost 42 million today to more than 78 million in 2033, neither program is considered sustainable in its current form.
The AARP sessions, which kicked off March 19 in Miami (in Spanish with English translation), are intended to both provide facts and generate ideas to preserve Social Security and Medicare, said Victoria Funes, associate state director for community outreach.
Information about the current state of both programs and projections for the future will be presented. People will be asked to fill out a questionnaire available at the meetings, online, through the mail or in the AARP Bulletin.
Those attending some of the larger meetings will be given wireless handsets to vote on ideas for the future. Participants will see the results immediately. "That usually sparks an interesting debate,'' Funes said.
Towery said she struggled to find private insurance to cover her for the three years until she qualifies for Medicare and hopes long-term solutions will be found.
"I just want the politicians to address the problem sooner rather than later. I would like for them to take into consideration what people have given to the system and what they expect back, what they were basically promised."
Go to earnedasay.org for more information about the meetings.
Tom Scherberger is a freelance writer in Treasure Island, Fla.
Also of interest: Myths and truths about Social Security.