Connecticut AARP lobbies Capitol Hill on Medicare, Social Security

Washington — Hundreds of AARP leaders, including a group from Connecticut, hit Capitol Hill Wednesday to make sure lawmakers know how older Americans feel about proposed changes to Medicare and Social Security — and to remind them of the political clout of seniors.

The AARP has recently surveyed its members to gauge support of a basket of proposals. The preliminary results of the “You’ve Earned a Say” program, which uses questionnaires and forums to capture opinions, found that AARP members think that Medicare and Social Security are not in immediate crisis but some modifications may be needed, said Brenda Kelley, the state director of Connecticut’s AARP.

“Our members in the 50-plus population are very anxious right now about what’s going on behind closed doors in Congress,” she said.

Advocates for older Americans are nervously watching how Congress will treat Medicare, theAn federal health plan for older residents, as they negotiate a final budget deal this year.

Social Security has problems, too, although they differ.

Kelley and AARP’s Connecticut State President Laura Green, made the rounds of Connecticut’s congressional delegation offices — as hundreds of other AARP members met with their state lawmakers to remind them that Medicare and Social Security “are the pillars of retirement.” Kelley said.

The visits also reminded lawmakers of the political clout of the elder lobby. A 2010 report by the AARP on the voting habits of older Americans states, “An estimatedd 69% of those age 45 or older voted in the 2008 General Election. For those between ages 18 and 44, 57% voted.”

Pressures to cut the federal budget, and the increasing number of retirees, may make it harder this year to shield the popular program from changes.

But unless something is done, the Social Security Trust Fund — which collects all Social Security payroll taxes and pays all benefits — will begin to run out of money in 2033.

More threatening is that, should Congress fail to act to find huge budget savings by the end of the year, a series of automatic spending cuts aimed at mandatory programs like Medicare and the Pentagon’s budget will begin to take effect.

The cuts are designed to total more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years. The Pentagon says that the cuts would result in a 15 percent decrease in the nation’s defense budget.

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday, two budget experts — former Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin, who served in the Clinton administration — implored lawmakers to avoid large cuts to the popular government health care program for seniors.

If across-the-board cuts are implemented Rivlin said, Medicare would be particularly hard hit because of the number of retiring baby boomers in need of the program.

Some proposed changes to Medicare and Social Security including raising the age of retirement and making the rich pay more in Medicare premiums and Social Security taxes. Perhaps the most controversial proposal is one that would privatize Medicare by giving seniors money to buy private health insurance.

Kelley said the AARP isn’t going to weigh in on those ideas quite yet. More questionnaires need to be filled out and tabulated — and a firm proposal needs to be on the table. But AARP plans to distribute millions of voter guides that state the positions of local lawmakers on Medicare and Social Security based on what they say on their websites and in press releases and speeches.

The voter guides will also catalogue the positions of political challengers — Republicans Chris Shays and Linda McMahon, and Democrats Susan Bysiewicz and Chris Murphy — who are running for the seat of retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

There are about 600,000 AARP members in Connecticut.