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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 30, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 40
7th Congressional District candidates talk Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare
Section One
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7th Congressional District candidates talk Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Congressional candidates Pramila Jayapal and Brady Walkinshaw talked about Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) at a September 24 forum at Seattle's Labor Temple.

Jayapal and Walkinshaw, who are competing for the 7th Congressional District seat being vacated by veteran Rep. Jim McDermott, were joined by Yale professor Ted Marmor and retired UW professor Dr. David McLanahan.

Robby Stern, longtime activist and president of Puget Sound Activists for Retirement Action (PSARA), moderated the panel.

In his introductory speech, McLanahan outlined the stakes of the discussion in striking terms. 'We are in the midst of a Social Security crisis,' he said.

Marmor began with an outline of the history of US social insurance programs - Social Security and Medicare - arguing that Republican opponents of social spending have deliberately obscured how they were supposed to operate.

'The most striking fact,' Marmor said, 'is that we've lost touch with the historical premises of our social insurance programs: There would be no income criteria for eligibility, no means testing; there would be common treatment, common benefits; and funding could be derived from taxes.'

'We're in the same position as we were in the late 1950s,' when Medicare was first being debated, he continued. 'There is popular support [for expanding social programs], but legislation to do so is blocked by Republicans.'

Recounting how the landslide election of 1964 forced conservative Democrats, like then-Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills, to rethink their opposition to Medicare, Marmor concluded, 'The politics of Social Security and Medicare are not games played by children.'

Jayapal and Walkinshaw, who now aspire to play those games, spoke about their approaches to social insurance and secure retirements for their constituents.

'We have to keep promise that we will take care of you when you're no longer able to work,' Jayapal said. 'One sixth of the population - 1.2 million people in Washington - rely on Social Security, and for one-third of the people over 65, it's their only source of income.

'And not just retired people. My husband lost his father when he was still a child, and he was able to go to college on Social Security survivor benefits.'

On healthcare, Jayapal noted what she called 'medical inflation,' healthcare costs rising more rapidly than incomes.

'The cost of copays are too high, the cost of pharmaceuticals are too high, and insurance providers leave the market because it's not profitable,' she said. 'But everyone knows that Medicare is more cost effective than commercial insurance.'

'We have to ask how to build the consciousness that health care policy must be taken in the framework of social justice,' Walkinshaw added. 'That's the most important thing to get us to the point where we can do single-payer.'

Another problem, Walkinshaw said, is that 'as the structure of the labor force changes, people are more disconnected from sources of employment, there are more contract workers, and people lose their employment-based health care.'

'The most important thing to do is to stop looking for the most important thing to do,' Marmor interjected.

Instead, he argued, there are a number of practical fixes that could be implemented now - given the political will to do so. One such measure, Marmor said, would be to 'scrap the cap,' or get rid of the provision that makes the first $118,500 of income taxable for Social Security, but exempts everything over that.

When the discussion turned to the ACA, all the panelists were critical, to some degree, of how Obamacare turned out.

'I admire the intentions of the ACA, but I'm critical of its operation,' Marmor said. 'It included some indirect regulation and indirect social insurance, for example, the provision on covering preexisting conditions. However there are no cost controls.

'Advocates of the ACA treated critics like traitors,' he continued. 'I think President Obama presumed he had to include provisions to satisfy Republicans. It was the worst bargain in history.'

'The ACA left out 12 million undocumented immigrants, plus legal immigrants if they hadn't been in the county for a certain amount of time,' thus failing to provide universal coverage, Jayapal pointed out.

'It's hard to dispute the good that came from expanding coverage,' Walkinshaw said, 'but it was a mixed blessing because more costs were pushed back on the states.'

When asked about the so-called 'public option' that, in the end, was left out of the ACA, Marmor responded that 'too much faith is put in the public option.'

'It's just an effort to bring public programs into competition with commercial programs,' he continued. 'Public health insurance is a great idea. The public option is not a great idea.'

'Private companies can drive the public option out because they have more resources,' Jayapal added.

In the competition for healthy individuals who would pay premiums but not draw benefits, Jayapal explained, private companies could offer very low initial premiums to attract the most desirable subscribers and absorb any losses until the public option went bankrupt. Then, when their competition was eliminated, they could raise premiums to a profitable level.

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