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Threats to Medicare, Social Security in the spotlight ahead of midterm elections

Editor’s Note: Journalist Philip Moeller is here to provide the answers you need on aging and retirement. His weekly column, “Ask Phil,” aims to help older Americans and their families by answering their health care and financial questions. Phil is the author of “Get What’s Yours for Medicare,” and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Send your questions to Phil; he will answer as many as he can.

The threat of future cuts to Medicare and Social Security is being highlighted by senior advocacy groups as a defining issue in November’s midterm elections, which are now less than six weeks away.

More likely to vote than younger age groups, nearly 40 percent of the voters in the 2014 midterms were aged 60 or older, according to Democrat pollster Celinda Lake. And for many years, the leading issues for those older voters in both parties have included protecting Social Security and Medicare.

John Hishta, AARP senior vice president of campaigns, said in a statement that “AARP is mobilizing older voters and making sure they know where candidates stand on issues like Social Security, Medicare, financial security and prescription drug prices.”

While each party tries to position itself as the defender of these core issues, what stands out in 2018 is that Democrats are successfully casting Republicans — who control both the White House and Congress — as supporting program cuts.

Republican support for cuts to the Affordable Care Act, for example, is being portrayed as an attack on Medicare as well. Senior advocates have also pointed out the support by some Republican leaders for changing Medicare to a voucher program, which would limit spending for future benefits.

The nonprofit Center for Medicare Advocacy yesterday launched a Save Medicare Now initiative out of concern that “the future of Medicare is in jeopardy,” the group’s founder Judith Stein said.

A second powerful wedge issue is the large tax cut pushed through Congress by Republicans. While voters like tax cuts, the Republican cuts are widely viewed as decidedly favoring wealthier Americans. This has erased the cuts as a Republican election strength. It also may favor Democrats by raising concerns that rising budget deficits would make the current level of senior benefits unaffordable.

Already, higher deficits are seen as causing financial problems for Social Security that are considerably larger than official forecasts, according to the nonpartisan Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania.

The reason, according to program director Kent Smetters, is that higher federal borrowing to finance the deficits will crowd out private investments and thus reduce economic growth. This, in turn, will reduce the level of Social Security payroll taxes available to pay for program benefits.

Senior advocates quickly pounced on recent comments by White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow that rising federal deficits would lead to efforts next year to cut spending on entitlement programs as further proof of Republican intent.

At least one poll shows these concerns are adding up.

According to Lake, who participated in the Save Medicare Now launch, older voters historically have favored Republican candidates, but the 2018 elections are showing a shift toward Democrats. While Republicans had a 7-point edge in 2016, that is changing in this election season, she said, with seniors now favoring Democrats overall by 6 points and, among older women, preferring Democrats by an enormous 25-percentage point margin.

“Health care is the number one issue dominating the [midterm] election,” she said. This includes protecting Medicare and guaranteeing access to health care for people with preexisting health conditions. It also includes lowering prescription drug prices, a platform so strongly supported by all voters that she says it is no longer an issue with the public but a “core value.”

AARP, with 38 million members aged 50 and older, has been doing extensive issues polling in advance of the midterm votes, and its election content gave this bleak current assessment of Washington:

“Government is broken. Politicians don’t seek common ground, arguing rather than creating results. But critical issues like Social Security, Medicare and prescription drug costs are all on the line.”

Among its political litmus tests are the detailed voting results of the House of Representatives’ 217-213 vote in early May that would have dismantled the Affordable Care Act.

While the bill was not passed by the Senate, AARP nonetheless wants to draw seniors’ attention to the House members who opposed the ACA ahead of the election.