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Your Chance to Weigh In on Safety Net

Forums seek ideas, opinions about Social Security and Medicare

Gerontologist Helen "Mack" Mack of Clemmons hears a lot of stories from older adults in classes she teaches and in community gatherings about how important Medicare and Social Security are to them.

"We don't expect it to be a full income, but for some of them, it is," said Mack, 69.

But that's not their only concern.

See also: Understanding what's at stake.

"What I hear is: 'What is there going to be for the future?' Their concern, even if they have it themselves, is what's going to happen for the next generation," she said.

Mack is among the volunteers helping AARP North Carolina organize large and small gatherings around the state to collect ideas for strengthening Social Security and Medicare.

The You've Earned a Say forums are designed to collect suggestions and concerns about the retirement safety net from a broad range of people across the state. The information will be given to candidates and elected officials.

"Although Congress is unlikely to consider serious changes until after the congressional and presidential elections in November, it's important to have the conversations now," said James A. Wall Sr. president of AARP North Carolina.

Medicare will run short of money to pay hospital costs within 12 years. Social Security can pay promised benefits through 2033. After that, about 75 percent of benefits can be paid unless something is changed.

Suggestions from policymakers, political candidates and others include raising the age of eligibility for full Social Security benefits, changing the cost-of-living adjustment and increasing the amount of income that's subject to payroll taxes. Other ideas include enrolling new state and government employees into the system and reducing benefits for wealthy people.

"This country has a history of helping people who have been taking care of themselves," Mack said. "It's an earned benefit."

A. Barry Rand, AARP chief executive officer, said AARP will "make sure that politicians understand that the decisions they make about Social Security and Medicare affect real people — that they're not just numbers on a budget ledger."

In North Carolina, 93 percent of people 65 and older receive Social Security benefits; more than 1.5 million are covered by Medicare.

The average annual Social Security benefit in North Carolina is $13,600. Without it, some 484,000 people would fall into poverty. Lower- and middle-income seniors here typically rely on Social Security for three-fourths of their income.

In addition, Social Security contributes more than $21 billion to North Carolina's economy.

'I depend on that check'

Gretchen Fracher Hardage, 67, a widow who retired last year, relies on Social Security to have enough income to pay her bills.

"I depend on that check every month. I cannot imagine if I did not have Social Security how I would make it," the Raleigh resident said.

While Medicare provides health coverage, out-of-pocket costs are high. A typical beneficiary in North Carolina pays $5,700 in out-of-pocket health care costs, nearly a quarter of his or her income.

AARP North Carolina volunteers are conducting You've Earned a Say sessions at service clubs, book groups, churches, bridge clubs and other venues through October.

Graham West, 69, a Raleigh retiree, said he welcomes the opportunity to "have input from everyone and, if at all possible, in a nonpartisan way.

"One of the problems I think our country's in now is we're so divided — just inflammatory rhetoric on both sides," he said.

Visit the AARP North Carolina website to find or schedule a forum. If you're unable to attend a session, you can fill out the You've Earned a Say questionnaire online.

You may also like: AARP leader says You've Earned a Say.

Sue Price Johnson is a writer living in Raleigh, N.C.