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Few Support Immediate Changes for Medicare, Social Security

Thousands weigh in on future of safety net programs

Tom Beisner preparing his pill organizer, Beisner participated in You Earned A Say

Jennifer Silverberg

Tom Beisner, 74, of Joplin, favors immediate action to stabilize Social Security and Medicare. But two-thirds of Missourians who filled out a questionnaire say changes should be gradual.

A strong majority of Missouri residents who weighed in on the future of Medicare and Social Security say some changes to benefits and revenue are needed so the programs will be available to their children and grandchildren.

"I don't think the country can keep going on the way it is from a financial standpoint," said Joplin resident Tom Beisner, 74. "Something has to be done."

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No major changes now

Beisner's support for immediate action isn't widely shared among those who completed AARP-sponsored questionnaires about the programs. Two-thirds don't want any major changes to Medicare or Social Security immediately.

"So many people are afraid [the Medicare eligibility age] is going to be raised or benefits cut," said Hannibal resident Marge Capp, 78, an AARP Missouri volunteer who coordinates the state chapters.

"There are a lot of people who are very concerned about whether the prices are going to be raised," she said.

Beisner and Capp were among the roughly 51,000 Missourians who filled out questionnaires about Medicare. Nearly 22,000 responded to the Social Security questionnaire.

The responses were collected at AARP Missouri events, on a website, by phone and from questionnaires printed in the AARP Bulletin.

The results were provided to Missouri congressional candidates. The responses from across the country will inform AARP's advocacy next year as policymakers consider the future of Medicare and Social Security.

Medicare trustees say the hospital fund will be exhausted in 12 years. Social Security trustees project that the program can pay full benefits only through 2033. After that, payments to beneficiaries would drop to about 75 percent.

When the new Congress convenes next month, policymakers are likely to consider changes to the programs, including an increase in the amount of income subject to the payroll tax that finances most of Social Security and some of Medicare, benefit reductions, an increase in the eligibility age for both programs, a curb in the cost-of-living increases for Social Security beneficiaries and higher Medicare premiums for higher-income enrollees.

No consensus on funding

Among Missouri residents who filled out the questionnaires, none of those options was fully embraced.

In fact, 40 percent said "none of the above" was the best source for additional Medicare funding when asked to choose among general federal revenues (24 percent), higher payroll taxes (26 percent) and higher Medicare premiums (9 percent).

Next page: More findings from the survey. »

Among the other findings:

  • Eighty percent said all future retirees should get the same guaranteed insurance coverage and care that current Medicare enrollees receive. Twenty percent said future retirees should receive a set amount of money to buy their own insurance plan.
  • Fifty-five percent said it's OK for upper-income workers to get higher Social Security benefits because they paid more into the system. Forty-five percent said wealthier people have other sources of retirement income, so they should get less — and maybe nothing — from Social Security.
  • Few people said they think the programs are in such disarray that they should be completely overhauled for future Social Security recipients (8 percent) and future Medicare enrollees (5 percent).
  • Four of 10 said the rising cost of health care is the most significant challenge facing Medicare. Other issues identified as Medicare's biggest challenge include the growing population of older people and longer retirement (17 percent) and that premiums and out-of-pocket expenses are too high (14 percent).
  • About half said the biggest challenge facing Social Security is the lack of people paying into the program: Thirty-one percent said higher-paid workers aren't contributing enough; 20 percent said fewer workers are paying into the program.

"I think the survey results are pretty reflective of where people are in their lives," said Craig Eichelman, AARP Missouri state director.

"The older members seem to think there are less problems with Medicare. And younger members are kind of split on how much Medicare is really in crisis and how much of it can be changed to keep it stronger for current and future generations."

Capp said older people "don't want a free ride. We want our money spent wisely."

DeAnn Smith is a writer living in Independence, Mo.

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