Wilson-Whitaker described what had happened to her company benefits. “We had a good pension plan, a 401(k), the whole nine yards. Then they did away with the lifetime pension and that affected younger workers. You get a 401(k) and that’s it,” she said. She has retiree health insurance, but that has changed, too. They used to pay 100 percent of the premiums, but now she says they only cover 76 percent. “I pay close to $200 a month and I’m thankful it’s not more.” Our talk turned to Social Security and Medicare, and she had a good understanding of the possible changes to each program. “I hear they want to extend the retirement age up to seventy,” she told me, “and that won’t make me happy at all. People after me, like my grandkids, are going to be zapped. It’s almost as if the government is saying that we want you to die before you collect.”

As for Medicare, Wilson-Whitaker had heard there may be cuts in the offing. “What I haven’t heard is what those cuts are. I want to know specifically how those cuts will affect me, and I haven’t been able to find out. “What cuts are they talking about? What benefits are we not going to have anymore?”

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.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.