THE BLOG

Don't Let America's Seniors Go Bankrupt

02/19/2015 11:37 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

In 1958, Congress established the White House Conference on Aging, calling on the executive branch to bring together the public and experts to discuss the state of seniors in this country. The gathering now takes place every ten years, and this week the 2015 White House Conference on Aging kicks off a set of regional fact finding events in Tampa.

The timing is auspicious because just one month into the new Congress 20 bills have already been introduced in the House and Senate that would threaten the stability and viability of Social Security and Medicare and reduce retirement security for current and future retirees.

The Obama Administration and policy experts participating in the Tampa event would do well to listen carefully to the story of Bob Meeks of Brandon, Florida, who will be attending the conference.

A member of the Alliance for Retired Americans, Bob has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and relies on Medicare Part D to cover the cost of his prescription drugs. But each year, he exhausts the benefits available by April or May and he must pay for these life-saving drugs out of pocket. As a result his health care costs dramatically increase and endanger he and his wife's financial security.

While the Affordable Care Act will fix this common problem (called the "doughnut hole") by 2020 it may be too late for the Meeks. To ensure they don't lose their home the Meeks are exploring the possibility declaring personal bankruptcy. Medical costs are by far the biggest factor behind their situation and something that they never would have considered during his working years.

Thus although Medicare and Medicaid have expanded access to health care for seniors, today's elders remain very much at risk because of uncovered health and long-term care expenses. At the same time, Social Security, which is the primary source of retirement income for most seniors is also under attack.

It is worth remembering that nearly 2 out of 3 seniors depend on Social Security for most of their income , and in fact Social Security provides 90% or more of income for 1 in 3 seniors. While the average benefit amounts are modest -- averaging $15,640/year (Social Security Administration, Monthly Statistical Snapshot, October 2014) - it is enough to keep 22.2 million Americans out of poverty.

Legislation is expected soon to create a Social Security Commission, which would come up with recommendations to extract cuts to the program. Instead, we should expand benefits.

With traditional pensions disappearing, 401(k)s and IRAs only partially filling the gap, and median wages stagnant, we expect that Social Security will be more important to ensuring retirement security, not less. There are numerous proposals in Congress that would allow Social Security benefits to increase simply by asking affluent individuals to pay Social Security contributions on more of their earnings, not just the first $118,500, as is the case today.

The Alliance for Retired Americans is here to make sure that our elected officials hear the stories of seniors like Bob Meeks. Our message: hands off our earned Social Security and Medicare benefits. Seniors shouldn't face bankruptcy in order to pay their medical bills.