Politics & Government

How to handle benefits for seniors? NC voters get choice in Senate race

FILE – Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, Deborah Ross of Raleigh, N.C.
FILE – Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, Deborah Ross of Raleigh, N.C. AP

Social Security and Medicare have surged as talking points in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race.

In recent weeks, the issues led Democratic Party-organized protesters to the office of North Carolina’s incumbent senior senator, have been fodder for a TV attack ad and prompted a national conservative group to spend $1.5 million on the race.

Senior voters, and other adults close to reaching Social Security and Medicare eligibility, wield powerful influence at the polls. In North Carolina, seniors have posted one of the highest turnout rates in the past two presidential election cycles and the state’s elderly population is growing faster than in most other places in the nation.

Polls show support almost evenly split between U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, a former legislator from Raleigh. Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh of Durham is also in the race.

Burr advocates giving seniors the choice of spending their government benefit money on private insurance. Ross says more checks and balances are needed to hold down traditional Medicare costs. Haugh favors a long-term plan to eliminate Medicare alongside tax cuts for the youngest generation of workers to save for their own retirement and health care.

The two programs, which make up about 40 percent of federal spending, face an uncertain future as baby boomers turn 65 at the rate of about 10,000 per day. An aging population leaves fewer workers paying for the benefits of more retirees. Medicare’s trust fund is due to run out in 2028 and Social Security’s in 2034.

Here’s more on the candidates’ views:

We made a promise to our seniors that Medicare will be there when they need it most, but the program as it currently stands is broken. We have a moral obligation to our parents, children and all Americans to take steps now to save Medicare.

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr on Feb. 16, 2012

Burr prefers a premium support system allowing private insurers to compete with traditional Medicare.

In 2012, he and former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., promoted the “Seniors’ Choice Act.” Coburn retired last year. Their plan wasn’t introduced as legislation and Burr’s office has said he won’t introduce it as a bill. But Burr has said he stands by the ideas in the proposal and has argued that such changes are needed to keep Medicare solvent.

Neither his campaign nor Senate office would make Burr available for an interview on the topic.

Ross has knocked the plan as a move to “privatize” Medicare. She argues it would benefit health insurance firms – an industry that has donated to Burr’s campaigns – more than seniors.

Such a proposal would likely operate similar to Medicare Advantage – an option growing in popularity. In North Carolina, about 30 percent of seniors use Medicare Advantage. Nationally, the number of seniors on private Medicare plans has tripled since 2004, according to the Kaiser Foundation, a nonprofit group that studies health care policy.

Medicare Advantage is good for consumer choice but she doesn’t support using Medicare dollars to put toward private insurer profits, Ross said in a recent interview. Leaving Medicare beneficiaries in the hands of private industry, Ross says, could jeopardize the quality of care and subject seniors to premium spikes with little government control.

Policies Burr supports include:

▪ Prohibiting “Medigap” supplemental coverage plans from paying for the first $500 in beneficiary out-of-pocket obligations, in the interest of lowering program costs. He favors limiting Medigap coverage to paying half of the first $5,000 in patient co-pays above the initial $500.

▪ Gradually raising the age of Medicare eligibility to 67.

▪ Capping Medicare seniors’ out-of-pocket annual expenses based on income.

▪ Repealing the Affordable Care Act, also called “Obamacare.”

Senior advocacy groups have praised Burr’s work on the bipartisan Older Americans Act – a federal law that grants money to states and localities for a range of programs like in-home meal delivery, transportation services, caregiver support and senior community centers.

Burr has also pushed for bipartisan updates to Medicare coverage to include disposable home health products. And he’s opposed to funding cuts to Medicare Advantage.

On Social Security, Burr’s office has batted down claims from the Ross campaign that he voted to cut funding. Ross’ representatives point to party-line procedural Senate votes in recent years as the basis for the claims. Burr’s office counters none of those votes affected the bottom line of Social Security benefits.

Burr has said he favors a new way of calculating annual cost-of-living adjustments for entitlements by using a method known as “chained CPI” (consumer price index). Proponents of chained CPI say it’s a more accurate way to measure inflation because the formula takes into account consumers who choose cheaper alternatives when prices spike in certain sectors. Groups like the AARP have opposed chained CPI for determining the Social Security increases, arguing it would lower benefit payments.

My plan represents a sound approach to making sure all Americans pay their fair share, weeds out waste and puts North Carolina first.

Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate Deborah Ross, on Aug. 8, 2016

Policies Ross supports include:

▪ Paying doctors for quality of care provided, not the number of tests ordered – a method known as the Medicare quality payment program.

▪ Doing more to stop Medicare fraud.

▪ Providing health-care decision guides to reduce unnecessary medical costs.

▪ Reducing Federal Drug Administration backlogs to allow generics to be approved more quickly.

Ross supports the Affordable Care Act and says expanded health insurance helps aging adults be as healthy as possible before becoming Medicare-eligible. She opposes raising the age of eligibility.

On Social Security, Ross favors increasing the cap on high-income taxpayers contributing to the program. Currently, Social Security tax is not paid on earned income above $118,500. It’s wrong, Ross says, that millionaires and others who have means to provide for their own retirement security and who draw from Social Security aren’t contributing more.

Women, in particular, Ross says, are shortchanged.

“My mother’s generation and older – they stayed home and took care of the kids, which was a huge contribution,” she said.

Older women, she said, often don’t have the personal retirement savings of most men – likely because they earned less or were not in the workforce. She supports expanding benefits for the nation’s poorest seniors.

Ross favors an annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustment based on factoring in the kinds of unique expenses seniors incur. This is sometimes called the “CPI elderly.”

I really do support government eventually getting out of these types of issues. . . . It’s the nature of bureaucracy to grow out of control. And it’s our job to prune it.

Liberterian nominee for U.S. Senate Sean Haugh, on Sept. 16, 2016

Haugh wants the federal government to phase out Medicare and Social Security, while ensuring that those already paying in or drawing benefits are taken care of. He’s against Affordable Care Act mandates and opposes both raising the age of Medicare eligibility and income-based premiums.

Young workers and those not yet in the workforce could be exempted from paying taxes toward Social Security and Medicare, Haugh said, with the understanding that they cannot draw future benefits. Federal assistance programs should be limited in scope, he said, to include older Americans and people with disabilities.

“I’m against the general approach of trying to deny benefits to people,” Haugh said in a recent interview.

To reduce program costs while some seniors stay on Medicare, Haugh proposes eliminating inefficiencies and bureaucratic bloat. He thinks Medicare administrators should be able to directly negotiate drug prices, as private insurers do.

To address Social Security, Haugh proposes that the federal government sell off some of its assets, such as land in the Western United States.

“I don’t think Social Security is a sustainable program. . . . I don’t support collecting more taxes as a solution,” he said, mentioning that high-income workers of any age should be able to opt out of Social Security taxes in favor of taking care of their own retirement.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews