En español | COUNCIL BLUFFS, IA–Protecting Social Security and Medicare, providing access to affordable prescription drugs and creating opportunities for people with disabilities dominated an AARP presidential candidate forum here on Saturday that capped a week of five such sit-downs with Democratic White House hopefuls in Iowa.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) answered questions from Des Moines Register and Radio Iowa moderators as well as from AARP members. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was scheduled to attend, but the intense heat in his city necessitated his remaining at home, he said in a video played at the forum.
The Council Bluffs event was part of a weeklong series of forums that AARP hosted with the Register. The sessions were in cities across Iowa, which will be the scene of the first-in-the-nation 2020 presidential election caucuses in February.
Questions about the escalating costs of prescription drugs dominated the forums. On Saturday, Bill Grove, a 76-year-old retired public school teacher and principal from Council Bluffs, wanted to know how Sanders would make sure Americans have access to affordable prescription drugs.
“My prescription drug costs have doubled in the last few years,” Grove said. “Fortunately, that increase has been manageable for me, but that is not the case for other older Iowans. Too many make tough choices like filling a prescription or buying food for the week.”
Sanders said that on his first day as president he would tell drug companies that “they are going to stop ripping off the American people and stop charging the highest prices in the world for drugs.” The second-time candidate outlined several steps he’d take to lower the cost of prescription drugs, including allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with drug manufacturers, barring drugmakers from charging more than the average price in other industrialized countries, and allowing drugs to be imported from Canada and other countries.
Under Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan, consumers’ out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs would be capped at $200 a year.
Bullock and Buttigieg also weighed in on the issue. Like all the participants in this week’s AARP forums, they said they’d allow Medicare to negotiate the price of drugs with manufacturers and support importing medicines from Canada and other countries, as long as it could be done safely.
Bullock said drugmakers should no longer be able to get tax breaks for money spent on advertising drugs on television. Buttigieg said he would support a cap on out-of-pocket drug expenses and would ask the federal government to look at how much drug companies invest in research compared to their profits.
Future of Social Security
Seeking an answer from Buttigieg about how he’d protect Social Security and Medicare was what brought Nancy Wright to Saturday’s forum.
“I’m an educator at a public school, nearing retirement,” Wright, 63, from Glenwood, Iowa, told him. “My husband and I both have preexisting health conditions and want to make sure Medicare and Social Security will be there for us and others when we retire.”
Buttigieg told Wright he believes “there’s a little bit of scare tactics going on by those who say
we have no choice but to trim benefits” to save Social Security.
“If we just elevated the cap on the level of income eligible for payroll taxes from $135,000 to $250,000,” he said, “that would go a long way towards sustainability on the Social Security side.” This year, the cap on payroll tax contributions is $133,000.
Sanders told the audience of AARP members that he would “scrap the cap” on Social Security payroll taxes. Under his plan, earnings above $250,000 a year would also be subject to those deductions. Bullock said he would have to “take a look” at whether raising the cap would help increase the solvency of the program. Most of the other Democratic hopefuls at this week’s forums also favor removing or raising the tax cap.
On Medicare, Buttigieg said he wants to stress dealing with public health issues before they drive people to a doctor’s office and “make sure people have access to health coverage to begin with.”
In his video, de Blasio said he wants to “protect Medicare, and I want to make sure that folks who can afford to contribute more do, for the good of everyone else.”
Holly Schwietz, a 55-year-old from Council Bluffs, told Bullock that although the overall unemployment rate in Iowa is low — 2.4 percent — only 19.1 percent of people with disabilities have jobs.
“There are limited opportunities for training for people with disabilities to engage them in work experiences and encourage independence rather than dependence on public assistance,” said Schwietz, who works with families on training and job opportunities. “What kind of plan do you have to increase services and programs for people with disabilities — young and old — in relation to employment and training?”
“I would do everything I can to partner with the states to provide funding,” Bullock told her, “because work provides dignity and opportunity.”