Public Supports Continued Strong Senior Benefits

Despite healthcare and deficit concerns, public support for Social Security and Medicare remain strong.

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While President Obama's State of the Union message was not directly about senior issues, it's clear that the major domestic challenges facing the new Congress—healthcare and deficit reduction—have enormous implications for older Americans.

In particular, Obama said Social Security needed to be strengthened, but he made it clear that he would oppose the degree of cuts that have been included in several deficit-reduction proposals. "We must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market."

In a telling poll released in advance of the President's address, Americans again revealed no dominant public sentiment about healthcare reform and ominously, little public support for serious spending cuts to help close the huge federal deficit.

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While healthcare has seemingly dominated government for the past two years, the Republican effort to reverse the measure enacted last year has not struck Americans as a misguided political effort. "A surprisingly large proportion of Americans seem to be up for more discussion and action on health reform in the coming year," said the report on the poll, which was jointly sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. "In an open-ended question, healthcare and the economy were the top two issues Americans say they want to see Congress and the president address this year."

However, the poll found that the nation continues to be split over what to do about reform. About 28 percent of those surveyed want to repeal the law and replace it with a Republican program; 20 percent favor repeal and a return to prior rules; 28 percent want to expand the law that was enacted last year; and 19 percent want to just call it a day by accepting the law as enacted.

[See Social Security, Medicare a Bargain for Many.]

Opposition to the law has been on the rise since Republicans won a majority of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in November's elections. Even so, the report said most of the law's provisions affecting Medicare enjoy strong public support:

"Over three-quarters of the public feel favorably towards requiring drug makers to offer a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs for people in the Medicare doughnut hole (85 percent), providing subsidies for low and moderate income Americans to buy health insurance (79 percent), and establishing a voluntary insurance program for long-term care services (76 percent) also known as the CLASS act. About two-thirds like that the law expands the Medicaid program, requires insurance companies that spend too little on health care services to give customers a rebate, and eliminates cost sharing for preventative services for Medicare enrollees, and about six in ten look favorably on provisions that provide bonuses to physicians providing primary care to Medicare recipients and reduce payments to Medicare Advantage plans."

Although people want the government to deal with budget deficits, there is little support for spending cuts on specific programs. The survey sought public attitudes on cutbacks in 12 broad areas of government. In only one of the 12—foreign aid—were people behind major spending cuts.

In the three programs with the most direct impact on older citizens—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—there was little support for major spending cuts among Americans ages 18 and older who were polled. Yet these spending programs are the ones most experts say cannot be sustained in their current form.

For Social Security, only 8 percent favored major cuts, 27 percent favored minor spending reductions, and 64 percent wanted no cuts at all. For Medicare, the numbers were 8 percent (major cuts), 35 percent (minor), and 56 percent (no spending reductions). Finally, for Medicaid, 13 percent of those surveyed said they would support major spending reductions, 39 percent favored minor cuts, and 47 percent wanted no spending changes.

[See 2011 Tax Outlook for Seniors.]

"The idea of an intergenerational war over Social Security and Medicare is not borne out by the survey findings," the report said. "In fact, majorities across the age spectrum are unwilling to see cuts in either program."

Some senior groups have been alarmed at the prospect that Social Security reductions are even included in the deficit reduction debate. They note that the program is self-supporting and shouldn't even be part of the deficit discussion. Right now, Social Security has trillions of dollars in surplus funds and projects it can pay all benefits until the year 2037, even if no changes are made to the program.

While healthcare and the economy were the top two issues the public wants the government to address, Social Security was at the bottom of the public's priority list. It was a top issue for only 3 percent of the public.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller