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Social Security, health care bottom line for older voters

Alta Shockley loves to talk with her neighbors in Spring Hill, with her friends in the Art League, with her husband, Richard. Most are retired, drawn to this community in western Hernando County by the dream: live well, live inexpensively.

But in this presidential election year, Mrs. Shockley, 65, and her friends are wondering, even worrying, for the first time in years.

In their conversations, they are saying: How far will my money go, with interest rates on vital savings accounts between 3 percent and 5 percent?

What will happen if I get sick? Will Medicare pay enough, or will I get sicker and lose my nest egg paying for long-term care?

How secure is my Social Security check?

As she and other older Americans look to candidates George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot for answers, many say they are disappointed.

"Most of the people I talk to in my circle seem to be waiting," said Mrs. Shockley, a retired schoolteacher from Michigan who has supported Bush in the past. "They are undecided, like me. But I have definitely heard more people say they would like to vote them out, that it is time for a change."

Older people are reacting to the same clouds that have covered the political landscape this year. Discontent with politicians. Concerns about the economy. A sense that the United States needs a true leader to handle massive problems at home, like the deficit.

But the over-60 crowd has particular concerns about health care, Medicare, Social Security, pensions and veterans benefits. And because senior citizens traditionally vote in larger numbers than other generations, politicians often play on their hopes and their fears, trying to woo them or scare them into backing their candidacy.

"Older Americans are victims of a lot of rhetoric in this campaign," said Samuel J. Simmons, head of the National Caucus and Center for Black Aged in Washington. "We have several major problems and no one is saying exactly how we're going to face these problems."

Simmons and other aging services leaders say older people have been coddled in the campaign. They are promised reform in health care, security for their entitlements, vision for a better future for their children and grandchildren.

But when details are marched out, it is not enough, many say.

"The economy is eating up our savings and we hate to dip into it, because it could get worse next year," Mrs. Shockley said. "This is something of major concern for most people our age, who rely on pensions, our savings, Social Security."

Says Lloyd Duxsbury, an official with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, "All this talk of cutting back on entitlements is worrisome."

Social Security

It's easy to see why Social Security often is a hands-off issue, seen as a sure road to losing an election when suggestions are made to curb it. This is especially true in Florida, where a 1990 study says Social Security is the main source of income for 44 percent of the state's 3-million people over age 60.

Yet Social Security, which represents about one-fifth of federal spending and goes to about 40-million people nationally, inevitably draws attention as a possible way to control government spending in coming years.

In 1993, Social Security payments are expected to be $302-billion and surpass defense as the largest single item in the U.S. budget.

The program, for at least another two decades, is scheduled to bring in more money from workers than it pays out to retirees.

Hinting that the other guy really plans to cut it, or trim cost-of-living increases to save money, is a sure way to whip up anxiety _ a tactic Bush accused Clinton of using in September. (Clinton referred to cuts that had been proposed to Bush, but Bush has not accepted them.)

But Bush and Clinton say Social Security is sacred: no cuts and no caps on annual cost-of-living increases. Each has even talked of allowing people to make more money before taxing the benefits.

"I'm not going to touch Social Security or the trust fund that keeps it solvent," Bush vowed in a question-and-answer videotape from the American Association of Retired Persons, an influential group representing 32-million people over age 50.

Clinton makes the same promise, evoking similar language.

"A Clinton-Gore administration will protect the integrity of the Social Security system and ensure it remains solvent for years to come," according to a campaign issues report to older Americans from the Arkansas governor.

Perot, whose independent campaign re-started recently, is a different story. With his ambitious plan to close the deficit, he has the hardest-hitting plan to change the way Social Security is taxed.

Now, the benefits are not taxed until income from all sources exceeds $25,000 for a single person or $32,000 for a couple. Then, only 50 percent is taxed.

Perot has talked of increasing that amount to 85 percent. That's the same percentage of tax as on private pensions, which are not taxed until they are received. His plan would affect about half the Social Security recipients and raise about $30-billion, he says.

"If we get the economy back in shape, with this and other programs, this wouldn't have as much effect as it seems," said Ralph Winters, a campaign spokesman in the Pinellas area. "Everyone would be better off."

Health care

But as important as Social Security is, as income and as a symbol of trust between the individual and government, observers say older people have other important concerns about the economic bottom line.

Those include medical expenses and concerns about paying for nursing home or other advanced long-term care if the need arises.

"They need to do something about health care," said Mario Granata, 68, of St. Petersburg. "We're spending too much money."

Clinton and Bush have championed their plans to reform health care, which each says would increase access and more importantly lower cost.

People over age 65 qualify for Medicare, the nation's $146-billion health insurance program that is financed with payroll deductions and premiums that users pay.

If they also are poor, or become poor because health care expenses eat away savings, they also might qualify for Medicaid, a program paid for with state and federal funds.

The candidates' discussion of health care starts with the same themes: Lower costs, increase access and cut the red tape.

But on the pocketbook issues of health care for seniors, the candidates diverge.

Bush would increase taxes for Medicare for people making more than $100,000. Clinton has a similar proposal but pegs the level at $125,000.

Perot's plan also would require high-income workers to pay full Medicare taxes on their income, not just the first $130,000 as is now the law.

Those proposals wouldn't hurt many older people, because only about 5 percent of them make more than $100,000 a year.

But Perot's plan, announced after he dropped out of the race in the summer, would go further. It would raise the premiums that older people pay to get full Medicare benefits.

Some economists say it is fair to tax wealthier old people.

"If you talk of imposing pain on those most capable of bearing that pain, or distributing the sacrifice more equitably, I think you can make a fairly strong case that the upper-income elderly should bear a portion of that sacrifice," Robert D. Reischauer of the Congressional Budget Office told the New York Times in August.

But there are two concerns: Most old people aren't wealthy, so any tinkering with premiums or growth in benefits could hit them hard.

Also, there is fear no candidate's plan will bring about the fundamental change needed to improve health care and lessen the financial burden.

Most especially, older Americans _ and their children who often must step in _ are worried about the cost for long-term care, for specialized treatment or nursing homes.

Few government programs and only the most expensive private insurance policies provide assistance for it.

"None of them has really addressed themselves to long-term care issues," said Simmons of the Black Aged center, who added that at least Clinton has mentioned it. "How is it going to fold into health-care reform? No one has thought through a national strategy that makes sense for Americans."

Candidates' appeal

So, who gets the vote?

"I think Clinton brings new views, new approaches, not just for the elderly, but for everyone," said Roland Manteiga, owner of La Gaceta, an English/Spanish/Italian weekly newspaper in Tampa.

The leader of Florida's Seniors for Bush concedes his candidate has some trouble.

"Bush has problems because of the economy and a general concern about overall government," said Charles W. Kane, a 69-year-old retired lawyer in Stuart. "People are considering change. But I hope they consider what the change would be. Then I think they'll stay with Bush."

And even though some see Perot's proposals as hard on seniors, his local spokesman sees it differently.

"We've got tons of our volunteers who are older," Ralph Winters said. "They are willing to pay, if the burden is shared, if it will do some good."

E. Bentley Lipscomb, secretary of the state Department of Elder Affairs, says old people aren't hearing enough about the issues.

"They are hearing the buzz words, like health-care reform, protecting entitlements," Lipscomb said. "But older people would like more specifics."

As for Mrs. Shockley, the Spring Hill retiree, she said she plans to make up her mind soon.

"I'm looking forward to the debates to see what comes out," she said recently. "Then, I'll make my decision."

Older Americans and the campaign

George Bush and Bill Clinton each have made swings through Florida recently, touting among other things their appeal to older voters. The candidates as well as Ross Perot each say their plans will benefit elders best. Although older voters have many similar concerns as others about the economy, foreign affairs and leadership, there are some specific issues they are examining. Bush


Social Security

No cuts, caps on benefits. "The last thing we need to do is mess with Social Security, " he said in his 1990 State of the Union speech. Talks of raising earning limit.


Medicare, Medicaid, health issues

Talks of overall cuts in some entitlement programns but he doesn't offer specifics on how Medicare/Medicaid would be affected. Would limit growth to inflation plus new beneficiaries


Veterans benefits

Cap on entitlement programs like VA benefits would limit growth to inflation plus new beneficiaries.


Why do older people like him? What people are saying

Bush has experience. "He's the devil you know over the one you don't. Not another tax-and-spend liberal."



Social Security

Talks of raising earnings test threshold to $100,000. Now 50 percent of benefits are taxed for single person with over $25,000 income or couple over $32,000. Over $100,000, a higher tax rate.


Medicare, Medicaid, health issues

Flirted with Medicare cuts for wealthiest old people. Talks generally of expanding home care options for the elderly, but not how Medicare/Medicaid would pay. Supports plan to take away tax breaks for companies that overcharge on drugs.


Veterans benefits

General talk of improving veterans hospitals, cutting VA bureaucracy, preserving benefits.


Why do older people like him? What people are saying.

Won't simply favor the rich. Give new blood a chance. Bush hasn't done enough.



Talks of raising amount of benefits that could be taxed from 50 to 85 percent, and keeping income levels the same. For those making $100,000-plus, voluntary program to give up benefits.


Medicare, Medicaid, health issues.

Higher premiums on Medicare for most, taxes on Medicare for rich. Medicare Supplement B portion f rom 25 to 35 percent of cost to person.


Veterans benefits

Limit veterans benefits to two-thirds of inflation.

Why do older people like him? What people are saying.

Blunt-talking style connects with older people. See as a doer, not a politician.