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How would you strengthen Social Security and Medicare?

Phil Drew, 72, has received Social Security benefits for about 10 years. He's noticed that while his cost of living keeps going up, there's been little change in the amount of the check he receives.

"We worked for them, and we paid into them, and we should get what we are supposed to get," the Clarksville resident said about Social Security and Medicare.

See also: Myths and truths about Social Security.

He registered his frustration in March as AARP Tennessee launched a series of You've Earned a Say sessions throughout the state.

The gatherings are designed to collect suggestions and concerns about the retirement programs.

As people live longer and fewer workers pay into the fund, Social Security faces a financial squeeze. After 2033, Social Security will only be able to afford to pay about 75 percent of benefits unless a change is made.

Medicare is also affected by rising health care costs. As a result, the Medicare fund that pays hospital bills will face a shortfall in 2024.

No decisions will be made until after the presidential and congressional elections. But candidates, policymakers and others have suggested a variety of approaches.

They include raising the age to collect full Social Security benefits, lowering the Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, increasing the payroll tax and changing the way Medicare pays for health care coverage.

The purpose of the You've Earned a Say sessions is to provide a way for people who rely on Social Security and Medicare — and people approaching retirement — to be part of the conversation. Comments from the forum will be shared with candidates and elected officials.

"Having a voice is empowerment, and [so is] knowing that your voice is going to be heard," said Bonnie Fertig, an AARP Tennessee volunteer who conducted the Clarksville You've Earned a Say meeting.

More than nine of 10 Tennessee residents 65 and older receive Social Security. For nearly half of them, the monthly benefit is what keeps them out of poverty.

Fertig, 64, of Gallatin, said Social Security and Medicare are lifelines for people who have worked all their lives but are unemployed in their 50s or later.

"If they are unemployed at 50, there is going to be nothing left [from their savings] when they are 62," she said. If they can't find another job, knowing they can claim reduced benefits at 62 "gives them a sense of hope."

"Just like any other investment that you have made, it is an investment that you have full faith in. Because it is through your government," Fertig said.

Don't yank safety net

As the You've Earned a Say sessions began, A. Barry Rand, AARP chief executive officer, said it's essential that people who approach retirement age don't have the safety net yanked out from under them.

"You've earned the right to have your voices heard so we can protect today's seniors and keep Social Security and Medicare strong for our kids and grandkids," he said.

"We need to make sure that people working toward retirement will be able to count on the Medicare and Social Security benefits they've earned when they are eligible to receive them," he said.

What worries Bertha Smith is whether her daughter, son and grandchildren will ever receive their own Social Security checks.

Smith, 65, of Clarksville, is a retired teacher's assistant who receives $766 a month from Social Security.

"I just hope it continues the way it is," she said. "It bothers you because you know you paid into it, and you would like to get what you paid into it. Right now I feel like I am doing that. But what is going to happen in the future?"

For a schedule of You've Earned a Say sessions, visit the AARP Tennessee website.

Tele-town halls are scheduled for 10 a.m. June 20, 11 a.m. July 20 and 6:30 pm. Aug. 20. Register online for June 20, July 20 or Aug. 20. Or call 1-877-926-8300 toll-free or visit the AARP Tennessee Facebook page.  

If you're unable to attend a session, you can fill out a You've Earned a Say questionnaire online.

You may also like: Understanding your Medicare statement.

Hollie Deese is a writer living in Gallatin, Tenn.

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