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Protecting Social Security, Medicare Takes Center Stage in State of the Union Address

President also calls on Congress to expand efforts to lower prescription drug prices 

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Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Joe Biden told a joint session of Congress on March 7 that he will emphatically reject any cuts to Social Security or Medicare. In his State of the Union address, the president also urged lawmakers to expand efforts to help Americans pay less for their prescription drugs and provide needed support for family caregivers.

“If anyone here tries to cut Social Security or Medicare or raise the retirement age I will stop them,” Biden said. “I will protect and strengthen Social Security and make the wealthy pay their fair share.”

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Strengthening Social Security and protecting Medicare are two key priorities for AARP. “Americans should be able to trust that Social Security and Medicare — which they have contributed to throughout their working lives — will always be there for them,” AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said in a statement after the address. “We applaud lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for their commitment to protecting these programs and will fight to ensure promises are kept.”  

Also in his wide-ranging speech Biden focused on foreign policy flash points — the wars in Gaza and Ukraine. And he addressed the crisis on the border, women's health issues, education, the environment, gun violence, and the economy and inflation.

Lowering prescription drug costs

For older Americans, Biden highlighted the benefits of the nearly 2-year-old prescription drug law, as well as how he wants to expand efforts to help Americans better afford life-saving medications.

“Americans pay more for prescription drugs than anywhere else,” Biden said. “It’s wrong and I’m ending it.” He invited lawmakers to join him on Air Force One to visit other countries where, he said, they could get their prescriptions filled for much less than they have to pay in the U.S.

The new prescription drug law allows Medicare for the first time ever to negotiate the prices of some high-cost drugs, starting with 10 medications whose prices are being negotiated this year. Biden called on Congress to next allow Medicare to more than double the number of high-cost prescriptions drugs whose prices the government can negotiate each year.  “It’s time to go further and give Medicare the power to negotiate lower prices for 500 drugs over the next decade,” he said. 

Biden also wants to let people with private insurance benefit from the upcoming $2,000 out-of-pocket cap on Medicare-covered prescription drugs — and to force drugmakers who now have to pay a penalty when they raise prices on Medicare drugs faster than inflation to face those same penalties for such price hikes on the commercial market.

The importance the White House places on lowering prescription drug costs was underscored by the selection of a patient activist who was invited to sit in first lady Jill Biden's box during the address. Steven Hadfield, a member of Patients for Affordable Drugs, is a diabetic and cancer patient from North Carolina who has already benefited from several of the provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act and is looking forward to the rollout of additional benefits in the next few years.

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Steven Hadfield (R), prescription drug costs advocate, sits in first lady Jill Biden’s guest box during Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

New Rx Law Has Already Made a Difference for Him

As President Joe Biden described in his State of the Union address how he wants to expand the benefits in the nearly 2-year-old prescription drug law, Steven Hadfield was watching from first lady Jill Biden's box in the House chamber. Hadfield was among those invited to witness the speech because the 71-year-old has been an outspoken advocate for older Americans like him who have for years struggled to pay for the medications he needs to stay alive.

Hadfield has Waldenström macroglobulinemia, a blood cancer, as well as diabetes. Brukinsa, the medicine he takes to treat his cancer, has a $16,000-a-month price tag — and he also takes multiple prescription drugs to manage his diabetes.

“Drugs should not cost this,” Hadfield said in a telephone interview soon after he flew to the nation’s capital from his home in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina. “These people are selling these medicines that shouldn't cost that much.”

After spending his life working in retail, Hadfield says he is continuing to work at 71 because his Social Security benefits just don't stretch enough to pay for the basics and all the medicines he needs. He now works several jobs, including at the sports arena in Charlotte.

“I'm afraid if I retire, I won’t be able to afford what I need to survive,” he says, even though his daughters are concerned about the toll his continuing to work may take on his health. “No one in America should have to live this way.”

Hadfield says that since the passage of the new prescription drug law, he has already gotten some relief from his high medication bills. Beginning this year, when Medicare enrollees with high enough costs enter the catastrophic phase of Part D prescription drug coverage, they no longer will have any out-of-pocket costs for the rest of the year.

Hadfield has already reached that status, having paid more than $3,000 out-of-pocket just two months into 2024. He is also benefiting, he says, from the $ 35-a-month out-of-pocket cap on insulin. Before the new law, his insulin cost him $400 a month. And he's looking forward to the $2,000 out-of-pocket Part D prescription drug cap that will kick in next year.

The State of the Union visit was not the first time Hadfield traveled to Washington, D.C., to be part of the battle for lower prescription drug prices.

In August 2023, Hadfield introduced Biden at a White House event calling attention to the benefits of the then year-old Inflation Reduction Act.

The law, he said, has “given me an entirely new lease on life. For too long drugmakers made a fortune while patients like me live in constant fear, wondering how we pay for our medicine.”

Caregiving gets a boost

“Tonight, let’s all agree once again to stand up for seniors,” Biden said, expressing his support for caregiving and caregivers.

“Imagine a future,” Biden said, “with home care and elder care so seniors and people living with disabilities can stay in their homes and family caregivers get paid what they deserve. Imagine a future with paid leave because no one should have to choose between working and taking care of yourself or a sick family member.” 

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Supporting the nation's 48 million family caregivers is a top priority for AARP. “AARP has made investing in family caregivers a priority so that millions of older Americans can live independently in their own homes, rather than expensive nursing homes,” Jenkins said in her statement. “We call on lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to join our effort to take care of America's family caregivers.” 

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