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SENIORS MUST DRINK
A DIFFERENT COLA
by Frank Kaiser
Wonder why your Social Security increase is so cheesy this year? Here's how Congress is screwing us seniors once again, this time by not measuring our Social Security inflation index by realistic senior expenses.

My bonanza, while less than the average increase of $13, still gave me pause. To paraphrase my dear departed mother, those extra four bucks didn't grow on trees.

Compounding my dilemma, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan made me feel downright guilty when he informed Congress that my annual cost-of-living adjustment — and yours — was creating a Social Security crisis. He favors a new, improved price index that would trim payments by billions of dollars annually.

Alan, I never imagined my four bucks a month could bring down the entire system. Geez! Had I known, I'd have refused my windfall. Please forgive me!

Greenspan claims that the annual CPI is wrong. He says it overstates inflation, something this two-gun inflation-fighter should know about. To tame last year's raging 1.4 percent inflation, he favors higher unemployment and an end to minimum-wage laws. (Whatever he's doing is working: The economy lost 308,000 jobs in February alone.) And in the name of "economic stimulus," he pushed hard for Bush's recent trillion-dollar tax break for the wealthiest Americans.

A Fairer Measure

Seems to me, Alan, those trillions might well offset my four bucks in restoring Social Security's fiscal foundations.

Actually, according to Rep. Bernie Sanders — lone Congressman from Vermont and champion of seniors everywhere — Greenspan's right. Turns out the established Consumer Price Index is calculated on the expenses of urban wage earners. Seniors' expenses are significantly higher.

Another official measure, the CPI-E [Elderly], more realistically addresses senior costs. It accounts for our dramatically increasing outlays for pharmaceuticals, supplemental health-care premiums, phone bills, auto fuel and insurance, and residential rent, which slam seniors hardest as we struggle to make ends meet.

Even our Medicare payments increased 8.7 percent for 2003, a far cry from the CPI's 1.4 percent.

Sanders and others introduced legislation to adapt a seniors' CPI for Social Security recipients. It met the fate of most other bills favoring needy seniors, like those supporting a fair Medicare drug benefit: death, by George.

With both Social Security and Medicare under stress, President Bush and his GOP (Get Old People!) ideologues now plan to force us to quit Medicare and join HMOs. Only then will they agree to a half-decent drug benefit.

As we all know, Medicare works, managed care doesn't. Medicare's administrative expenses are very low while the HMOs' average 18 percent. Medicare's available everywhere while HMOs don't exist in many rural areas. And where they are available, HMOs come and go — I've had several cancel, leaving me scrambling for coverage.

This, Bush says, gives us a choice. It's the American way.

A choice of HMO plans, yes. But I can guarantee you they'll all be more expensive and more restrictive than Medicare. They'll have to be, or they can't make a profit. That's something Medicare isn't concerned with.

And say good-bye to your trusted physician. Under Bush's plan, the HMO picks your doctors, hospitals, procedures and drugs.

The private plans will attempt to cherry-pick the healthy elderly. Opportunities for mischief already abound. As one Suddenly Senior reader wrote me after studying Bush's plan, "Is this what I fought for in W.W.II?"

Who could have known my $4 increase would lead to all of this?

    Suddenly Trivia: How much do S&P 500 corporations owe in retirement benefits for which they have set aside no funds? a. $200,000,000 b. $27,000,000,000 c. $458,000,000,000

I wish I could share with you the dozens of e-mails I receive every week from angry readers, outraged that they can't afford both medicine and food. They are stunned that lawmakers at every level have betrayed them, outraged that trillions of dollars are directed to enrich private and corporate wealth while we are left with empty promises.*

To those of you tempted to howl that I should stick to penning humor columns and "stay the hell out of politics," consider the following: If you want to write someone, write Washington. It's never unpatriotic to disagree with your government. It's our right and responsibility.

That is what the American way is really all about.

    Suddenly Trivia answer: c. $458,000,000,000, according to Harper's. Just think how important our Social Security system will be to future retirees with continued unfulfilled pension promises.

* A relatively new study [03/03], carried out by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, estimates the present value of the revenue that will be lost because of the Bush tax cuts — those that have already taken place, together with those that have been proposed — using the same economic assumptions that underlie those Medicare and Social Security projections. The total comes to $12 trillion to $14 trillion — more than the Social Security and Medicare shortfalls combined. What this means is that the revenue that will be sacrificed because of those tax cuts is not a minor concern. On the contrary, that revenue would have been more than enough to "top up" Social Security and Medicare, allowing them to operate without benefit cuts for the next 75 years.

© 2003 — Frank Kaiser


Check out what inflation really does to your dollar at http://www.bls.gov/cpi


Check out the current 2003 CPI-E Bill in Congress. CLICK HERE.


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Read last week's column:

CATARACT SURGERY
A REAL EYE OPENER

Instead of a nightmare with knives in my eyes, cataract surgery is the most painlessly effective medical procedure this side of childhood inoculations. Best of all, it scares the grandkids!

CLICK HERE FOR FRANK'S CATARACT OPERATION STORY

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