Q: Five years ago, I was teaching school and happily married. Then I was diagnosed with a neurological disease. My husband left me, and I am now disabled. I moved in with my parents, thinking that I would get my bearings and then start some semblance of a life. Now, nearly four years later, I have become not only my parents' caregiver (they are in their early 80s; he has dementia and she has severe osteoporosis), but also manage their benefits and finances along with my own.
With them going downhill mentally and physically, and my condition tenuous, we are finding it much more difficult to make ends meet. The only household income is from their Social Security, my Social Security disability and my small retirement disability. We all receive Medicare. My parents' home, purchased for $25,000, is now valued at more than $100,000 by the tax assessor. They have $35,000 in the bank, and I have $15,000. That's it - except for furniture that is worthless to anyone but us. With medical and prescription costs for the three of us going up, increased gasoline prices, increased property taxes and the like, we are dipping into savings each month to make ends meet.
We went to a lawyer a couple of years ago to get powers of attorney, etc., and it was my understanding that if dad or mom had to go into a nursing home, some of their resources could be saved and I would be safe in their home. We have now received a letter that everything is in limbo because Congress is trying to reduce the budget at the expense of the elderly and disabled. I used to worry about my children's future, but now I am frightened about the future for my parents and me. Why do the rules keep changing, and why does it seem that everyone is picking on the helpless elderly and disabled?
A: You, your parents and others like you are the easiest marks for politicians because you can't afford lobbyists to promote your causes, and because you don't scream loudly enough.
While Social Security payments have risen each year by law based on cost-of-living increases (2.5 percent in 2000; 3.5 percent in 2001; 2.6 percent in 2002; 1.4 percent in 2003; 2.1 percent in 2004; and 2.7 percent in 2005), Medicare Part B premiums and deductibles have more than eaten up those increases. And it was just announced that Part B premiums will increase by 13.2 percent for 2006, a $10.30 per month rise to $88.50. That premium was $66.60 in 2004 and $58.70 in 2003. That's right, there has been a nearly $30 per month increase between 2003 and 2006. In addition, the Part B deductible will increase from $110 this year to $124 in 2006, and the deductible for a hospital stay of 60 days or less will increase $40 to $952 in 2006.
Because Congress has raided the Social Security trust coffers and has blown the money "off budget," everyone is now in a fire-drill mentality to get enough money to pay Social Security obligations. Some suggestions include an immediate increase of 15 percent in the amount of payroll taxes, an immediate reduction in benefits of 13 percent - or some combination of the two. To add insult to injury, Congress began allowing Social Security to be taxed in 1983, and the taxation rates have increased since that time.
Congress and the Bush administration are willing to extract trillions from revenues by cutting or eliminating the estate tax for fewer than 1 percent of Americans (yes, that's been put on the back burner because of Hurricane Katrina, but it's still very much alive) while, at the same time, state and federal governments are continuing to restrict Medicaid eligibility rules and curtail planning opportunities used to help elderly and disabled persons live without fear and die with some sense of dignity.
The government obviously can't manage its programs. For example, although Medicare fraud is running rampant, Congress has reduced the number of investigators and auditors in this area, stifling the ability to recover fraudulent payments made to health-care providers. At the same time, Congress continues to raise Medicare premiums, reduce benefits and increase co-insurance payments. Because of our government's fiscal irresponsibility, you will continue to see reduced benefits and higher premiums, which will mean financial devastation to many elderly Americans. As to "why Congress keeps picking on the elderly," the answer is because they can. Call your senators and representatives on the state and federal levels and let them know that you may not have much else, but you do have a vote.
- Jan Warner is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and has been practicing law for more than 30 years. Jan Collins is editor of the Business and Economic Review published by the University of South Carolina and a special correspondent for The Economist.