By JOE LoTEMPLIO
---- — PLATTSBURGH — As federal election campaigns swing into high gear, both Democrats and Republicans are using Medicare and Social Security as lightning-rod issues.
Each side claims the other will destroy vital programs, and they beg voters to back their candidate, who will ensure nothing but blue skies for all seniors.
The AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) is out to provide a different picture of Medicare and Social Security, and the organization is looking for help from those who matter most: the voters.
“The whole idea is to engage as many in the electorate as we can so they can have a say in the process,” John F. Hishta, a senior vice president for AARP in Washington, D.C., said during an Editorial Board meeting with the Press-Republican.
‘PEOPLE REALLY CARE’
Through a series of public forums across the country and with information on the website earnedasay.org, AARP is gathering as many viewpoints on Medicare and Social Security as possible to come up with the top concerns.
The public has been responding in droves. More than 42,000 New Yorkers have shown up at forums this year, and many more have responded online.
“We are finding that people really do care about this because they’ve been paying into the system,” Hishta said.
“I’d say out of the top 10 issues (in fall elections), these two would be in the top four because they are intertwined with everything else.”
THE NEED FOR CHANGE
While AARP has taken stances on certain plans to adjust Medicare and Social Security over the years, its mission now is mostly to provide information so voters can make up their own minds.
With 15 proposals to change Medicare and 12 to fix Social Security being considered, there are plenty of opinions to analyze.
“People want to be heard, and AARP can and will take their viewpoints back to Washington,” said Neal Lane, a member of the New York State AARP Executive Council and a volunteer with its National Policy Council.
Surveys conducted by AARP show that the majority of Americans believe that both programs need changes, either major or minor, in order for them to survive. As Congress settles in for a new session in early 2013 after the big election this November, reform for both is expected to be on the table, Lane said.
“We expect both programs will be up for heavy discussion and for legislative changes next year, and we want to have all the information,” Lane said.
In Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, about 32,000 people receive Medicare benefits and around 38,000 collect Social Security benefits.
Hishta said these programs are becoming more and more of a concern.
“There is a lot of cynicism out there, and a lot of people think they don’t have a voice,” he said.
“But these programs are now a core part of our culture, and we rely on them, and we want them to work.”
Public forums will continue to be held the rest of this year, with one planned for Plattsburgh sometime next month.
Aside from the impact these programs have on individuals, Lane pointed out that Medicare and Social Security are also major players in New York’s economy.
“Our economy in this state sees about $46 billion in Social Security economic impact and about $18 billion in Medicare,” he said.
“That’s real money, even in New York.”
Hishta acknowledges that informing the public about all the options being floated about both programs can be a challenge in the face of the enormous political rhetoric that overflows during election seasons.
“We just keep rolling the ball up the hill,” he said. “Politics is a rough sport, especially in New York, but eventually both sides have to get serious about fixing it (both programs), and in a small way, we can help move this forward down the road.”
Email Joe LoTemplio: firstname.lastname@example.org