Having their say AARP meeting attendees discuss Medicare, Social Security

When it comes to the future of Medicare and Social Security, Kona resident Nancy Callahan fears more benefits will be slashed, and more funding will be needed to keep what few benefits remain.

When it comes to the future of Medicare and Social Security, Kona resident Nancy Callahan fears more benefits will be slashed, and more funding will be needed to keep what few benefits remain.

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Callahan was among the roughly 20 Big Island residents who on Tuesday were at West Hawaii Civic Center for an AARP “You’ve Earned a Say” event. It was part of a national series of such events to let the AARP’s more than 30 million members and others share concerns about Social Security and Medicare — complex programs that are the foundation of income and health security in retirement for most Americans, said Gerry Silva, AARP Hawaii volunteer and executive council member.

AARP is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, nonpartisan advocate for people age 50 and over. It has approximately 150,000 members in Hawaii, Silva said.

During a series of such listening events, attendees will learn about the program basics, potential changes, as well as the pros and cons of various options outlined by liberal and conservative think tanks. The goal is to give every American the opportunity to voice concerns, provide input on the programs’ future and find solutions, Silva said.

“Social Security and Medicare are the safety nets that just about every American does or will depend on at some time, so this needs to be an intergenerational debate and everyone of any age has the right to say what happens,” he said.

Asked Tuesday whether it’s important to strengthen Medicare and Social Security, Jeff Turner, a certified public accountant in Kona, responded, “Absolutely. Corporate America in control of the political establishment has been relentlessly decimating the middle class for 30 years. Accordingly, it is more important than ever to ensure that Social Security and Medicaid are strengthened to ensure an adequate safety net for the elderly and the infirm.”

Kona resident Mami Bramlett agrees with protecting and strengthening Medicare and Social Security because “these programs are the only way some people can survive.”

Nationwide, the number of Medicare beneficiaries is expected to double from 40 million to 80 million people between 2000 and 2030. Medicare spending by the federal government is projected to increase from $471 billion this year to $818 billion in 2021. Meanwhile, health care costs continue to climb at a rapid rate. Hawaii beneficiaries alone spend $4,800 a year, or approximately 15.5 percent of their income, on health care, Silva said.

One in six Hawaii residents receive Social Security benefits, with 94 percent saying their checks are important to their monthly budget and nearly one-quarter saying it’s their only source of income. Without Social Security, about 28 percent of Hawaii’s seniors would have incomes below the federal poverty line, Silva said.

AARP plans to bring all comments to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., where “Social Security and Medicare have been talked about as line items,” as well as discussed behind closed doors. With the upcoming elections this fall, AARP hopes to influence the debates, help the candidates understand what their charge is from the public and get some priorities resolved, Silva said.

Dr. Jeff McDevitt has “lost faith” in Congress’ ability to manage or strengthen Social Security and Medicare. He thinks AARP is “one of the few that can hold politicians accountable.” McDevitt said Medicare needs major changes because it’s “not funded as well as Social Security,” evident by the funding shortfall expected within 12 years that prevents payment of full benefits in the Medicare Part A Trust Fund, which covers hospital costs.

“Medicare is going to go bankrupt and the shortfalls will continue to accumulate unless something is done soon,” he said.

Big Island resident Robert Scampoli wanted more than just his voice being heard: “I want action. I want a revolution.”

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James Wahinekapu feels like his opinions don’t matter because “our voice is never heard.” The 63-year-old Kona resident said many in Congress have made their decisions and will make cuts without second thoughts or regard to those most affected. He thinks the government does not operate as intended.

Two more listening events will be held today from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. at Tutu’s House in the Kamuela Business Center in Waimea and from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Lanakila Congregational Church in Kealakekua. For more information or to participate online, visit earnedasay.org.