She said she listens to the Nightly Business Report, CNBC, MSNBC, sometimes CNN, and always to Suze Orman. “I am very interested in what is happening. I try to listen and even listening, I don’t get enough. They give you the high-level overview but you need the guts.” We talked about Medicare, and she had heard of Paul Ryan, knew he was from Wisconsin, but couldn’t say exactly what his plan would do. I gave her a brief description. “This is the first time I have heard how it’s going to work. I don’t want that,” she said.
I told her that the voucher to buy private insurance could rise with inflation. At that point, she said she really didn’t like the proposal: “They are never going to give you enough money to pay for decent insurance. There’s no way the government is going to give me a voucher that will cover everything.” She equated the voucher with the cost-of-living raises for Social Security, which seniors have not received lately because inflation is officially low. “Those seniors’ costs have gone up. I don’t know how they figured the numbers, but I figure they were doing it to balance the budget,” she said. “It’s going to do one thing. Those who can’t afford to pay for good insurance won’t get medical care.”
Wilson-Whitaker had one more question—the same one Sue Paton asked. “How does the voucher affect pre-existing conditions? No insurer wants to deal with us.”
A postal worker named Charles (he wouldn’t give his last name) was delivering mail. He was in a hurry and didn’t have much to say. “They want to take benefits away from people,” he said. “I really don’t pay attention to Medicare. It comes out of my paycheck, but I don’t pay attention to it.” He knew the sound bites about Social Security. “Eventually you’ll have to work longer to collect,” he said. “If it’s going to be around, they say it’s going to run out of money.” Charles is fifty-three, and could be affected by some of the changes the pols have in mind. He had never heard of Paul Ryan.
I stopped at a hoagie restaurant where a small white-haired woman with sparkling blue eyes sat down and started to talk. Elizabeth Rose, she said, was her name. At ninety, she helps out wiping up tables and doing jobs in the kitchen. It gives her a break from staying at home watching the soaps. Her niece works at the restaurant. What do you hear about Medicare, I asked? “Not too much,” she replied. “Because I am not around too much.” Besides, her niece who lives with her takes care of the paperwork.
Social Security was a different story. “That’s what I have to live on. It has to pay most of my bills,” she said. She gets about $1000 a month, and she thinks the benefit is based on her husband’s income. They were married for fifty-six years. He was a factory worker and died four years at age ninety-three. The daughter of a coal miner, Rose said she worked doing housework for others, but said she “never made big money. It wasn’t easy.”
“If I didn’t have Social Security, they would have to keep me,” she said referring to her niece and her niece’s father. Rose got up and wiped a few tables. She came back and looked me squarely in the eye. “I hope they don’t take Social Security away. That’s all I have to live on. It’s hard. Everything costs so much.” Dry cleaning bills in particular, she said.
Janet Spencer, age seventy-five, was munching a Philly cheesesteak on a street corner when I asked her to talk. She was from Lexington, Kentucky, and visiting the city with her daughter, who was attending a conference. She had worked twenty-seven years as an administrator in a school system and had a pension from the school district. She did not pay into Social Security, which some public employees did not do, so the program was irrelevant to her, financially speaking.
At first Spencer claimed not to worry about Medicare. “I don’t know if these changes will affect me or not,” she said. But the more we talked, the more I learned that she did have some concerns. She told me she “had heard all kinds of things that they are going to privatize medicine. That’s the most scary one,” she said. “If you have a heart attack but are too old, you won’t get a procedure. They will have a priority, and if you’re too old, you won’t get it.”