En español | SIOUX CITY, IA —Questions about increasing services to combat elder abuse, ensuring that preexisting conditions remain covered by health insurance and lowering prescription drug prices were front and center at an AARP forum here on Friday that featured four Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), author Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang fielded questions from moderators from the Des Moines Register and Radio Iowa and from AARP members. The two-hour event was the fourth in a series of five presidential candidate forums that AARP is sponsoring with the Register across Iowa this week. Saturday’s final session will be in Council Bluffs.
Public opinion surveys consistently show that health care is the top issue on the minds of voters — especially older adults. A 2018 AARP survey found that 84 percent of voters over 50 think it’s unfair to force Americans with preexisting conditions to pay more for their health care.
Tom Carroll, a 68-year-old retired pathologist and medical examiner from Sioux City, asked O’Rourke how he’d protect people with serious medical issues from runaway health costs.
“Cancer patients and survivors can't go back to the days before the ACA [Affordable Care Act], when insurers would not pay above a certain amount, or charged outrageous premiums that were many times higher than a healthy person would pay,” Carroll told O’Rourke. “What would you do to make sure people with preexisting conditions like cancer will have access to the coverage they need at a price they can afford?”
“I’m going to sign into law ‘Medicare for America,’” O’Rourke said. “This is going to guarantee universal high-quality coverage and care for every single American without exception.”
O’Rourke said his plan would allow Americans to buy into Medicare while letting people keep private, employer-based or union-negotiated health insurance if they have it.
The other candidates at Friday’s forum also addressed this issue. Warren’s “Medicare for All” plan would eliminate private insurance, and Williamson and Yang support combining a public option with preserving private health insurance coverage.
Affording prescription drugs
The inability of so many Americans, particularly older adults, to afford the prescription drugs they need to remain healthy was on the minds of hundreds of AARP members who attended this week’s forums.
Doug Lehman, a 66-year-old retired real estate agent from Sioux City, said he grapples every day with the high cost of insulin. “Ten years ago,” Lehman told Yang, “I became insulin dependent after a kidney transplant. I need seven shots a day and 32 pills.”
The price for his medications has increased steadily over the past five years, with a recent jump of $500 a month. “At 66 years old, I’ve had to seek another part-time job to cover that cost,” Lehman said. “If I wasn’t able to work, I couldn’t get the anti-rejection drugs necessary to keep my kidney functioning.”
“What will you do,” he asked Yang,” to reduce the cost of prescriptions and lifesaving meds?”
“These companies only know one language,” Yang replied. “It’s dollars and cents. We have to hit them where it hurts.” Yang would do that by allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription prices with drugmakers and telling pharmaceutical companies that if they continue to charge Americans much more than they charge consumers in other countries, the U.S. government will license and manufacture those medicines.
Every candidate who has participated in this week’s forums has expressed support for allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies — and allowing drugs to be imported from Canada and other countries as long as those medicines are safe.
Confronting Elder Abuse
Aubury Krueger attended Friday’s forum so she could ask Warren about what she would do to combat elder abuse.
“I’ve witnessed the heartbreak of a mother whose adult son beat her, belittled her and took all of her money so she couldn’t pay rent,” said Krueger, 45, of Council Bluffs, who has worked for her area aging agency for more than 15 years. “Millions of older Americans fall victim to abuse, including neglect and financial exploitation, every year.
“As Americans live longer and our population ages, what will you do to increase elder supportive and protective services,” she asked Warren, “so people can get the help they need, when they need it?”
Warren pointed to her fight to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). “That little bureau has been out there on behalf of vulnerable seniors,” the Massachusetts senator said, adding that the CFPB has “an office that is explicitly on this question of targeting and exploiting seniors financially.”
Warren tied the issue of elder abuse to the need to shore up Social Security. “When people can be financially independent it gives them a little more protection,” she said.
Warren favors eliminating the cap on Social Security payroll taxes. In 2019, employees and employers pay Social Security taxes only on the first $133,000 of income. Williamson said she would “scrap the cap,” while O’Rourke said he would lift it, without specifying whether he would eliminate it altogether. Yang’s retirement security plan centers on providing what he calls a $12,000-a-year freedom dividend for all American adults.
Lifelong educator Jean Carlson questioned Williamson about the federal government’s role in education. “I am a mom, a grandmother and a lifelong Iowa resident,” said the 70-year-old retired teacher and elementary school principal from Sioux City. “How are you planning to improve public education … will you provide our students with needed mental health services such as nurses and counselors?”
“If I’m president we must have mandated high-quality education for every child in America, wherever they live,” Williamson said, criticizing the system of funding schools through local property taxes, which she said creates inequality. “Every school in America should be a palace of learning and a palace of the arts because we say so.”