En español | This summer we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Social Security and the 50th anniversary of Medicare. These two essential programs are the bedrock of financial and health security for all Americans as they get older. We pay tribute to the long-term success of these programs because they have kept millions of older people and their families out of poverty, and they help all people age with independence and dignity.
Today 59 million Americans receive Social Security benefits, and 55 million are covered by Medicare. These are benefits that workers have earned by paying into the programs throughout their working lives. Yet with 11,000 people turning 65 each day for the next 15 years, while people continue to live longer and health care costs continue to rise, these programs face challenges in the future. As the 2014 report from the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees concluded, "Lawmakers should address the financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare as soon as possible. Taking action sooner rather than later will leave more options and more time available to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare."
One of the most important questions is, how should these programs be addressed? The answer affects how much people will pay into these programs while they are working and how much they will receive when they begin to draw benefits. As we ponder the answer to this important question, we must recognize two fundamental tenets.
1. We must protect the benefits that today's beneficiaries (and those nearing eligibility) receive. Current beneficiaries must know that the benefits they rely on every day will not be reduced or taken away, and those nearing eligibility must know that the promise of benefits based on what they have paid into these programs will be kept.
2. We must also recognize that aging today is different from what it was a generation ago. And, it will be different a generation from now. So, as we consider the future of Social Security and Medicare, we must do so in the context of how society is changing — not just how to make them solvent and adequate for the near term but how to make them work better for the long term. While this demands a vigorous national discussion, we do have some basic principles that should guide that conversation.
Social Security should continue to ensure that people who work hard and pay into the system receive the benefits they've earned when they retire. Any workers who get hurt or sick and can no longer work should have the security of knowing they'll get the benefits they've been promised. Any changes should be discussed as part of a broader conversation about how to help Americans prepare for a secure retirement.
For Medicare, we need sensible solutions that improve care, reduce health care costs and create real savings for taxpayers without reducing their benefits or their access to care. These include reducing prescription drug costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices and by improving access to lower-cost biologic drugs; improving care coordination; cracking down on waste and fraud; and eliminating inefficient payment systems, uncoordinated care, mistakes, duplication and unnecessary paperwork.
As we celebrate the history of Social Security and Medicare, let's recognize that we must do more than protect and defend these programs. We must also improve them so they are more in sync with how people live today and provide a solid foundation that enables people to age on their own terms.
Jo Ann Jenkins is the CEO of AARP.