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White House event highlights threats to senior healthcare

Three AFT retiree members were among more than 100 community activists from around the country who gathered at the White House July 17 for a briefing with Vice President Joe Biden on issues affecting seniors and retired Americans. The discussions gave those attending an opportunity to speak out about the future of programs that provide critical lifelines for seniors.

Carolyn Caulk-Smith, who is retired from the Baltimore City Public Schools, told her story as an illustration of the threats to healthcare for seniors currently posed by Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and by the Ryan Republican Budget, which would convert Medicare's guaranteed medical care into an inadequate health insurance voucher program.

"I think we got a lot done today," Caulk-Smith said after the event. "It made me feel good, because I know people in the White House are responsive to the issues confronting seniors."

Caulk-Smith, 68, worked for the Baltimore schools for 33 years, starting as a paraprofessional in the late 1960s and ending her career as an administrative assistant to a vice principal at her school. In retirement, she is living in senior housing and supports herself with a small pension benefit and Social Security. Medicare helps cover the medications she takes for diabetes and other conditions, and one of her sons helps her pay for a particularly expensive prescription.

During the briefing, Caulk-Smith said she did not know how she would manage without Medicare if it were to become a voucher program that would increase her out-of-pocket health expenses. "I don't even want to think about it," she said. "I really have to budget. Without Medicare, I would have to choose between paying for rent and food or my medications."

The White House event, she said, left her "feeling more optimistic, because this showed that people are thinking about these issues and trying to do something about them."

Other AFT retirees attending the briefing were Ozelle Howell, who along with Caulk-Smith is a member of the Baltimore Teachers Union, and Tom Murphy, a member of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City.

White House officials and Vice President Biden, who mentioned Caulk-Smith's experience in his remarks at the conclusion of the briefing, have pointed out that the unnecessary changes in Medicare contained in the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would put affordable healthcare out of reach for many older Americans. In addition to the shift to vouchers, the Ryan Republican budget would reopen the Medicare "doughnut hole"—making prescription drugs more expensive—and raise the eligibility age from 65 to 67, which also would increase healthcare costs for seniors.

The Ryan budget and Republican efforts to repeal and undermine the Affordable Care Act also would create intergenerational issues.

With many grandparents raising grandchildren, health coverage for children is also at stake. The healthcare reform law allows children to stay covered on their family's policy until age 26. The Republican repeal effort would kill that benefit. The Affordable Care Act also lowers the cost of prescription drugs and provides free (no co-pay or deductible) screenings and tests for serious diseases. [Tom Lansworth]

July 18, 2012