(SEATTLE, WA) – Today U.S. Senator Patty Murray spoke to more than 150 retirees at the second annual convention of the Washington State Alliance for Retired Americans. In her speech, Murray addressed the new Medicare prescription drug law and ongoing threats to Social Security.
Her full remarks follow:
Good morning, and thank you, Will, for that introduction. I want to thank Art Bolton for his leadership along with Mark Blondin, Ed Coyle and Al Link. But most of all, I want to thank all of you for working so hard to protect our state's seniors.
There are so many people in our state who can't come to a convention like this, who can't go to Congress or the state legislature and they rely on you to be their voice. They rely on you to make sure there is a safety net that keeps them out of poverty.
So I want thank you for your advocacy, and I'm honored to be here at your second annual convention to talk about keeping our commitment to Washington's seniors. And the truth is we need your leadership more than ever. In Washington, D.C., we're seeing one attack after another on Social Security, Medicare and other critical programs.
Today I want to update you on our fight to protect Social Security and Medicare. When I think of Medicare, I don’t just think of a government program. I think of my parents. They worked hard all their lives, and they never had much. My dad was a World War II veteran. He earned a Purple Heart for his service in Okinawa. Later, he was disabled by multiple sclerosis.
My mom took care of him. She also worked, went to school, and raised 7 children. She never complained or let us know how much she sacrificed for us. But I do know that when my parents were in their 60s their medical bills where massive. Before they were eligible for Medicare, they faced real financial strains. They literally “limped onto Medicare.”
When my father was diagnosed with M.S., my parents saw their insurance premiums increase to $2,000 a piece overnight. And their premiums increased dramatically every year. My parents were stuck because no other insurance plans would cover my father. And they struggled.
My father was desperate to turn 65, because he was not sure how much longer he could afford insurance or how much longer they would cover him. There were times when my parents feared going to the doctor because of the impact on their deductible and premiums.
And I say thank goodness for Medicare!
My parents knew that once they reached 65 they would have some guarantee of affordable, quality health insurance. I’ll never forget how much they needed Medicare. I’ll never forget how they relied on the protection and the piece of mind it provided them.
When I came to the Senate, I promised myself that I would make sure Medicare was there for the people I represent just as it was there for my parents. And it’s a promise that I keep.
Back in 1997, many in Congress wanted to make seniors wait until they were 67 before they could get Medicare coverage. I know that if my father had been forced to wait another 2 years until he turned 67 to get Medicare, it would have financially devastated my parents. So in 1997, I stood on the Senate floor and fought that proposal with everything I had and we won.
Whenever I see something in Congress that’s bad for seniors, I don’t hesitate to stand up and speak out. For me, protecting Medicare means keeping a promise – keeping a promise to seniors who have worked their whole lives, keeping a promise that medical bills will not force you into poverty, and keeping a promise that you can count on Medicare when you need it.
Unfortunately, the new prescription drug law breaks that promise and that’s why I voted against it. I know that some seniors are better-off than my parents were, and some seniors are worse-off. But they all deserve the protection and piece of mind that Medicare offers today.
When I look at what Congress and the President created, I know that seniors deserve better. In Congress, there are really two views about Medicare. I see Medicare as a success. It’s a solid foundation to protect seniors.
Coupled with Social Security, Medicare is the most important anti-poverty program ever. Before Medicare – 44 % of seniors were uninsured. Today it’s just 1 %. Before Medicare -29 % of seniors lived in poverty. Today it’s down to about 10 %. To me, Medicare is a success story.
But others in Congress see Medicare as a problem, as an outdated social program whose work would be better done by private, for-profit companies. They want to replace it with private plans. But I think that history has proven that view to be incorrect. After all, just look back to why we created Medicare in the first place.
We created Medicare because the private insurance market was failing seniors. It wasn’t protecting them, so we created a program to put seniors first. But today, too many have forgotten that history and are running right back to the same private sector that failed seniors for decades. So this drug plan doesn’t put seniors first and that’s something we’ve got to fix.
I want to make a few comments about the law and then talk about what we can do to fix it. Medicare has always been designed to be fair, but the new law makes three big changes that make it unfair to many seniors. Until now, Medicare has always treated seniors the same no matter how rich or poor they are, no matter how sick they are, and no matter where they live.
But this law changes that. Now seniors will pay different amounts and get different benefits depending on how sick they are and where they live. So we’ve given up the fair and equal benefit, and we haven’t gotten a lot in return.
Second, for the first time Medicare will now be means-tested. Depending on your income and your assets, you might not get the same benefits as other seniors.
Finally, and this is a big change, Medicare won’t administer this drug benefit. Instead it will be run by for-profit companies that are primarily concerned with their bottom line.
There are many problems with this bill, and I just want to highlight a few. As you know, there is a huge coverage gap or doughnut hole that leaves many seniors without help. If your annual drug costs are from $2,250 to $5,100, then you won't get any help from this plan even though you still have to pay premiums. And under the new law, you cannot buy any supplemental coverage to protect you from this big gap. So you get stuck with the bills, and you can’t even protect yourself. I think that’s wrong, and I know seniors deserve better.
Another problem with the law is that it limits Medicare's ability to lower drug costs by negotiating savings. Congress could have allowed Medicare to make negotiate directly to lower costs, but this law prohibits it. That’s wrong, and you deserve better.
All of these problems will end up hurting seniors in our state. Let me share with you some statistics that show what this bad drug law means for Washington seniors. 47,250 seniors could lose their retiree health benefits in Washington state. 91,900 poor seniors will pay more for drugs. These are people who today are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid. 33,360 will pay more for Medicare Part B.
Rural seniors will likely pay more for less coverage. It will be similar to how Medicare + Choice works today in Washington. Seniors in urban areas get benefits that seniors in rural areas don’t get.
Seniors with chronic, deadly diseases are not guaranteed the drugs they need. That’s because HMO’s only have to cover 1 drug in each class. And the HMO gets to decide which drugs are in that class.
Finally, it’s a bad deal for Washington’s seniors because many will be forced into HMO’s with restrictive networks and limits. If the drug-only plan is too expensive, and your private retirement plan drops your coverage-the only way to get drug coverage will be to join an HMO.
But I don't want to just talk about what's wrong with the law. I want to talk about how we can fix it. Here’s what we can do: First, we’ve got to make sure that every senior knows what this law means to them. That’s why I’m speaking out at events like this. And it’s why I’ve put a lot of information on my website about the new law. The address is Murray dot Senate dot Gov slash RX. I've also got an email newsletter you can sign up for on my website. Page 3 of your handout has that web address on it.
I want to encourage you to share what you’ve learned today with your friends and neighbors. Tell them about my website. Show them your handout. Write a letter to editor. And speak out at seniors meetings.
Once we’ve got a large group of seniors who can talk about the bill, it’s time to raise our voices and that’s the second step. After all, we got where we are today because seniors spoke out, and we can do it again. We’ve got to get the White House and Congress to see that this bill has problems. Right now they think it’s perfect. They’re traveling around the country telling you how great it is. They won’t admit that this bill will hurt our seniors and undermine the protection that Medicare guarantees. So we’ve got to make sure every senior understands what it means and then we’ve got to tell the White House and Congress that it needs to be fixed.
The third step is in Congress and I’ll be leading that fight. I’m going to use my committee positions to fight for the changes we need. I’m going to call for Congressional hearings. And I’m going to support legislation to fix the drug program. Let me mention a few examples: I’m going to support efforts to make sure the premium doesn’t skyrocket on seniors. I’m going to work to limit out-of-pocket expenses. I’m going to keep fighting to help retirees keep their current coverage. I’m going to work to close that huge benefit gap and to make sure all seniors are treated fairly, no matter how sick they are and where they live. And I’ll continue to protect the rights of those seniors who enroll in PPO’s and HMO’s.
In addition, as a member of the Labor, HHS and Education Appropriations Subcommittee; I’m going to ensure that HHS has the resources to provide accurate information to seniors and the disabled so you can make informed decisions.
There is time to make improvements, but it won’t be easy. A lot of people want to keep the benefit exactly as it is. They are very powerful forces in Washington, D.C. But I know that we can stand up to them.
I’m going to be your partner in that fight every step of the way. It’s going to be tough fight, but I know we can do it.
After all, in 1988 Congress passed a bill to change Medicare and provide some catastrophic coverage. When seniors saw what it meant, they spoke up. A year later, that same Congress voted to repeal the law because seniors told them it wasn’t a good deal. I know that if we work together, we can make it better.
Before I close, I'd like to talk about Social Security because there are ongoing attempts in Washington, D.C. to undermine and privatize Social Security. And that's just plain wrong.
Social Security Works
We can all be proud that Social Security has been so effective over the years. Today, more than 50% of all retirees would be living in poverty without Social Security and Medicare. We haven’t heard a lot about Social Security lately, but I’m very concerned about its future for two reasons.
First, there is an effort in Washington, D.C. to privatize Social Security. You would think that after Enron they would have given up on privatizing Social Security, but they haven’t. As you know, the President has wanted to privatize Social Security for years.
As you may remember, just after taking office, the President created his Social Security Advisory Commission. It issued three recommendations. Two of these proposals called for privatization or private accounts.
Since then, we've heard less about privatization from the White House, but there are still some in Congress who are pushing the idea. For so many seniors, Social Security is all that’s keeping them afloat each month.
Even people who expect to have other retirement income have found out the hard way that Social Security must be rock sold. Look at all the people who worked for Enron, who saw their great retirement plans disappear, virtually overnight. Thank goodness they have Social Security. If Social Security was at the whim of the stock market, we’d all be in trouble. So I will continue to oppose any attempt to privatize Social Security. But that’s not the only danger facing the program.
The biggest threat to Social Security and Medicare today is that the President has stood for massive tax cuts that have pushed us back into deficit spending.
We’ve gone from a record surplus to record deficits and that threatens the future of both Social Security and Medicare. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 15 years Social Security will begin paying more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes. And Social Security is expected to become insolvent in 2052 unless we take steps to strengthen it. The real way to save Social Security is NOT to dismantle it or privatize it. The real way to save it is to get back to responsible budgets that meet our obligations to Social Security and Medicare.
Regardless of what the President or others do, I will not privatize Social Security. I will not dismantle it. And I will fight to do the right thing and keep my promise to you.
Finally, we cannot forget the importance of Social Security for women. Women are twice as likely as men to live in poverty after the age of 65. Women take an average of 11 years out of the work place to care for family members. Women still earn only 77 cents for every $1.00 earned by men. And finally, women live longer.
Despite these realities, Social Security guarantees women that they will receive benefits under their own or their spouse’s contribution record. They will not out live their benefit. They will not see a lower monthly benefit simply because they do live longer. Their benefit is also protected against inflation. We’ve worked hard to make sure that Social Security works for women. We can’t let changes to Social Security roll back those protections.
I've worked with the other women senators to develop a six-point check list for Social Security reform. These are six questions that I ask of any reform proposal. I'm not going to go thru them now, but they are listed on the last page of your handout.
So when it comes to Social Security, we’re facing several dangers. First, politicians who want to privatize it. And second, a budget deficit that threatens to undermine Social Security. Some want to create a crisis atmosphere so they can privatize Social Security, but I’ll never go along with that. I’ll fight to protect everyone who relies on Social Security.
So I want to thank you for leading that charge here in Washington. Seniors are counting on you and they really need your leadership today. Together, we can tell Congress and the White House that seniors deserve better than the bad drug law they created. And we can send a strong message that we need to protect and strengthen Social Security and Medicare.
So thank again for being here and for your leadership. I'm proud to stand up for you – and to be your partner – in the United States Senate. Together we can make sure that we do right for our seniors.