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Congressman’s view: Social Security and Medicare: Earned benefits we need to protect

By U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan on Aug 1, 2015 at 11:58 p.m.

As America celebrates the 80th anniversary of Social Security and the 50th anniversary of Medicare, we need to remind ourselves of the great benefits that have flowed from these two enormously successful programs. And as we reflect on this tremendous progress, we must rededicate ourselves to protecting these programs that have done so much to extend and improve life for so many Americans.

Let’s be clear. Social Security and Medicare are not entitlements; they’re earned benefits people start paying for the first day and the first hour they ever go to work. These programs never have missed a payment and never fail to yield a profit. They operate at an incredibly low administrative cost. Through wars, depressions and downturns, nothing in our history has done more to lift people out of poverty, build the middle class, raise life expectancies and enhance the quality of our lives than Social Security and Medicare. While the life expectancy of our grandparents’ generation barely reached 47 years, this generation can enjoy a life expectancy of 80 healthy, productive years — thanks in part to the life-changing benefits provided by Social Security and Medicare.

This year, some 59 million Americans will collect $863 billion in Social Security benefits, and Medicare will pay $565 billion to help provide health care for 52 million seniors. More than 50 percent of Americans lack any significant retirement savings except their Social Security and Medicare to help pay for expenses, including health care.
Now we need to ask ourselves: As beneficiaries of the success of Social Security and Medicare, do we want to protect them? Do we want to pay it forward? Or do we want to turn progress back?
Do we really want to turn these programs over to the billionaires on Wall Street who have made their fortunes playing fast and loose with other people’s money? The simple truth is there’s a powerful, determined Wall Street effort to privatize Social Security and Medicare. These unnecessary privatization schemes would turn Social Security over to Wall Street bankers and Medicare over to the for-profit insurance industry. Wall Street would love to get its hands on the trillions of dollars in the Social Security Trust Fund. Just the thought of what would have happened to all that money if it had been tied up in stocks when markets collapsed and companies went bankrupt in 2008 — instead of being locked into secure U.S. government bonds — is devastating. Tens of millions of Americans would have faced retirement virtually broke.
And the for-profit health care industry surely would embrace the notion of replacing Medicare as we know it with a “voucher” system, forcing seniors to shop for their care on the open market. Soon, the health care system would be flooded with high copay, low-benefit plans that would grow progressively more expensive in order to protect industry profits and multimillion-dollar executive salaries.
While privatization is not a viable option for Social Security and Medicare, there is always room for improvement and reform. And we have plenty of time to make good and necessary changes in a bipartisan way. There is nothing wrong with either program that can’t be fixed without cutting benefits or resorting to unnecessary privatization schemes. In fact, Social Security and Medicare are financially sound for the foreseeable future. Social Security has a $2.8 trillion surplus, enough today to pay benefits for the next 20 years. And thanks to the lowest rate of health care cost increases in 50 years, the life of the Medicare Trust Fund now extends to 2030.
So how do we pay it forward and protect Social Security and Medicare?
First and foremost, we need to grow our economy, rebuild and reinvest in America and create the millions of new jobs necessary to keep building surpluses in the trust funds. The experts tell us that today we should be investing at least $1 trillion into our crumbling transportation infrastructure — our roads, bridges, airports, rail lines, ports and pipelines. An investment of that scale would create about 13 million new jobs, with every worker paying into Social Security and Medicare.
The best way to protect Social Security for the next 50 years is to raise the cap on taxable earnings from $118,500 to $250,000. That fair and modest step would affect just a little over 1 percent of wage earners who would pay a little more. More importantly, it would shore up the fund for future generations.
As for Medicare, the Social Security and Medicare trustees recently reported that health care reform is continuing to put Medicare on a more stable footing by combating fraud, eliminating waste, cutting patient costs and reshaping patient models toward quality of care — not quantity of care. We need to continue down that promising, common-sense road to Medicare progress and reform.
The simple truth is nothing has done more than these two programs to extend and improve our lives in America. So let’s set partisanship aside, and let’s do what’s right for a generation which has given us so much — and for future generations to come — by committing ourselves to preserving Social Security and Medicare.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan represents Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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