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October 1, 2014

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Ask the right questions on Social Security, health care

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As Las Vegas kicks off AARP’s Life@50+ national event this week at the Las Vegas Convention Center, we are celebrating with you this city’s resilience as it emerges from the recession.

Thousands of our members are taking advantage of Las Vegas hospitality, enjoying fabulous food, wonderful sights, and great entertainment.

In addition to the festivities, this is also an opportunity to focus on AARP’s most important mission: making sure that more than 100 million Americans age 50 and older are able to live a vibrant life, with dignity and purpose.

Many older Nevadans continue to find this a challenge, as they feel their financial and health security in jeopardy. Nevada has one of the highest senior poverty rates in the country, and with the senior population increasing at a rate nearly four times the national average, this is a deep concern.

While Nevada and the nation search for answers, it’s especially important that we begin with the right questions. For us, everything starts with: “What kind of society do we want?” “What kind of world will we be able to leave to our children and grandchildren?”

These fundamental questions often get drowned out in the policy debates in Washington by the shouting over numbers. The people those numbers represent seem to sink without a trace.

Take the ill-advised plan called “chained CPI,” referring to the consumer price index. It is sometimes discussed as a minor adjustment to the cost-of-living index. In fact, it’s a recalculation that would cut hard-earned Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

If the question is, “Can we save some money by taking away hard-earned Social Security benefits?” then perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. So the question should be, “How can we provide adequate financial security for seniors and veterans?” The answer: “Not with chained CPI.”

Just look at what it does to veterans. Nevada is home to the fastest- growing veterans’ population in the country. Under chained CPI, a 30-year-old veteran with severe disabilities would have his or her Veterans Administration benefits cut by more than $3,200 a year at age 65, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In Nevada, chained CPI would translate to a loss of more than $167 million for 231,000 veterans over the next decade.

Even by the elastic standards of politics, that is a strange way to say thank you for your service.

Or take the misguided idea to raise the eligibility age for Medicare. To do the important job of strengthening and improving Medicare, we have to look at a bigger question: How do we get a handle on runaway health care costs? Those costs are the root cause of Medicare’s challenges and they hurt employers, and people of all ages, and from every walk of life.

Our health care system is punishingly expensive, scores relatively mediocre in outcomes, and is downright tragic for the 100,000 people who die from medical errors annually. The U.S. health care system is, in fact, the most expensive in the world. The World Health Organization ranks it 37th in health outcomes — just above Slovenia and Cuba.

If we ask the right question, how do we rein in health costs, we can focus on some responsible, common-sense solutions.

• Stop drug companies from gaming the system: Some drug companies pay generic manufacturers to delay bringing a generic product to the market. The result: You, your family, and businesses spend more on brand-name drugs and health care costs keep rising.

• Let Medicare negotiate lower drug prices. Medicare is not allowed to use the bargaining power of its 49 million beneficiaries to secure lower drug prices like private insurers can. Consequently you and your family pay higher prices for prescriptions.

• Reduce waste and inefficiency in the system. The Institute of Medicine reports that the U.S. health system wastes as much as one-third of all spending on overpriced, and often unneeded, tests and procedures; cumbersome paperwork; and inefficient delivery.

Until we address the right questions — adequacy of financial security and reining in health care costs — we are just shifting the risk and the problem from one set of people to another. If we ask the right questions, life at 50-plus can truly be about dignity and purpose.

Rob Romasco is the president of AARP.

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  1. Would the AARP, with it's now links to United Healtcare, support a real reform to healthcare costs by supporting a single payer healthcare system?