Tag Archives: pensions

In a liberal pocket, assisted living residents fear Obamacare’s death

From an upscale assisted living center in Seattle, 87-year-old Brendan Wall has some advice for members of Congress eager to repeal the Affordable Care Act: Slow down.

“They haven’t said what they’re going to replace it with or how they’re going to replace it,” said Wall, who taught philosophy and religion for more than 30 years.

“I think it’s a major crisis, and I hope to God they take enough time to think about it and act on it so that the thing will work.”

Wall lives at Merrill Gardens, a complex near downtown Seattle where anxiety runs high over the transition to a new administration in Washington, D.C. And while the evolving drama may not affect him directly, he and other seniors here fret about the Donald Trump administration’s vow to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and what it will mean for their children and grandchildren.

Wall and five other residents responded to a Kaiser Health News request for area seniors willing to share their views about health care as Trump takes over and pressure mounts on Capitol Hill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In a news conference, Trump again called the health law “a complete and total disaster,” and said he intends to move quickly to replace it with something “far less expensive and far better,” though he offered no specifics.

The view from Merrill Gardens offers a snapshot of a larger national debate about the successes and failures of President Barack Obama’s signature legislation. Its residents live in liberal King County, where less than 22 percent of voters chose Trump. But only 125 miles away, in a rural district that voted for Trump, Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler says seniors’ anxieties over repeal of the Affordable Care Act are misplaced.

“Seniors are right to be concerned about the future of ACA, but not because of congressional Republicans’ plans,” spokeswoman Amy Pennington said in an email. “The law’s fundamental flaws, phony finances and broken promises will cause it to collapse on its own — Medicaid expansion, exchanges and all.”

At Merrill Gardens, residents are more politically engaged than in many parts of the country. They avidly follow the news through local newspapers, TV, the internet and radio.

The group that showed up for an open meeting in the complex’s private dining room ranged in age from early 70s to late-80s. They included retired education, business and health professionals. Loree Wagner, a center spokeswoman, said the organizers did not ask for political affiliation.

“I find this moment especially challenging,” said Dick Kirkendall, 88, a retired University of Washington history professor who specialized in the presidency of Harry S. Truman. “I have a hard time seeing what’s ahead, a harder time than I’ve ever had. I have a harder time knowing what my president is going to do.”

Everyone in the room said they had few complaints about their existing health insurance coverage through Medicare, Medicare supplements, private pensions and Veterans Affairs programs.

But they said they fear that proposed changes — including plans to privatize Medicare and revamp Medicaid and Social Security — will mean less care for their families and the poor.

“My opinion is not to touch Medicare or Medicaid,” said Terry Doucette, 76, a former admitting department manager for a local hospital. “I mean, people are dependent upon it and there needs to be a warning time and coming together in a real thoughtful way, making everything work together, especially for the least fortunate.”

Herrera Beutler said she supports plans to protect Medicare and Social Security for seniors in the future.

In addition to Wall, Kirkendall and Doucette, the group included John Ball, 73, a former developer, Sandra Wiatr, 80, a former school nurse in the Chicago public school system and Dr. Harold Ellner, 89, a retired urologist.

Overall, they sympathized with the frustrations of those who criticized the ACA, which created online health exchanges that expanded coverage to millions, but also saw sharp rises in costs and, in some cases, limited coverage choices.

“The Obama thing had been moving out of control, particularly for middle-class people whose insurance premiums have gone up and their deductibles are unbelievable,” Wall said. “They’re out of this world. I think they had to do something.”

But they also echoed the views of a recent Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll that found that while one in five Americans support repeal alone, three-quarters either oppose repeal entirely or want to wait until details of a replacement plan are complete. (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

The answer is not to scrap the plan that expanded insurance to 20 million people while offering no alternative, said Ball, who only obtained regular insurance when he qualified for Medicare eight years ago. He still lives with consequences of untreated injuries, including a broken clavicle that healed badly after a rugby injury years ago.

“I’m distressed at the proposal that we chuck out the baby with the bath water,” he said. “I’ve seen the backside of no insurance and living with something you hoped wouldn’t be considered a pre-existing condition. I have a pretty strong identification with those people who didn’t have insurance and were suddenly brought into the fold of Obamacare.”

In her work as a school nurse, Wiatr saw many students with asthma whose families couldn’t afford medication inhalers to control the potentially life-threatening disease. When she managed a family practice clinic, she saw people try to cut medical costs at the expense of health.

“There were people who didn’t do lab tests, who took only half of their medication because they couldn’t afford it,” she said. “I am very upset because I think our politicians don’t have a clue how difficult it is for people to receive medication and adequate health care.”

Ellner, the urologist, worked for a local Planned Parenthood clinic after he retired and flatly said he supports a universal, single-payer health system.

“Obamacare seems to have been a way station on the way to universal health care and now it’s not only being challenged, it’s being threatened,” he said.

The situation now calls for compromise and compassion from political leaders, said Doucette. “What I want to do is simply get the hard-headed guys from both parties to meet and really want to do this instead of wanting to win,” she said. “Now, we’ll see what Trump does. He has all these ideas and he thinks everyone else is on a lower level. I would like to see them work together.”

KHN’s coverage related to aging & improving care of older adults is supported by The John A. Hartford Foundation.  This report is made available by Kaiser Health News under a Creative Commons License.

Not so golden: Wealth gap lasting into retirement

William Kistler views retirement like someone tied to the tracks and watching a train coming. It’s looming and threatening, but there’s little he can do.

Kistler, a 63-year-old resident of Golden, Colorado, has been unable to build up a nest egg for himself and his wife with his modest salary at a nonprofit. He has saved little in a 401(k) over the past decade, after spending most of his working life self-employed. That puts him far behind many wealthier Americans approaching retirement.

“There is not enough to retire with,” he said. “It’s completely frightening, to tell you the truth. And I, like a lot of people, try not to think about it too much, which is actually a problem.”

With traditional pensions becoming rarer in the private sector, and lower-paid workers less likely to have access to an employer-provided retirement plan, there is a growing gulf in the retirement savings of the wealthy and people with lower incomes. That, experts say, could exacerbate an already widening wealth gap across America, as more than 70 million baby boomers head into retirement — many of them with skimpy reserves.

Because retirement savings are ever more closely tied to income, the widening gulf between the rich and those with less promises to continue — and perhaps worsen — after workers reach retirement age. That is likely to put pressure on government services and lead even more Americans to work well into what is supposed to be their golden years.

Increasingly, financial security for retirees reflects how much they have accumulated during their working career — things like 401(k) accounts, other savings and home equity.

Highly educated, dual income couples tend to do better under this system. The future looks bleaker for people with less education, lower incomes or health issues, as well as for single parents, said Karen Smith, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

“We do find rising inequality,” said Smith, who added that it’s a problem if those at the top are seeing disproportionate gains from economic growth.

Incomes for the highest-earning 1 percent of Americans soared 31 percent from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation, according to data compiled by Emmanuel Saez, an economist at University of California, Berkeley. For everyone else, it inched up an average of 0.4 percent.

Researchers at the liberal Economic Policy Institute say households in the top fifth of income saw median retirement savings increase from $45,539 in 1989 to $160,000 in 2010 in inflation-adjusted dollars. For households in the bottom fifth, median retirement savings were down from $8,433 in 1989 to $8,000 in 2010, adjusted for inflation. The calculations did not include households without retirement savings.

Employment Benefit Research Institute research director Jack VanDerhei found that in households where annual income is less than $25,000, nine in 10 saved less than $10,000, up slightly from 2009. For households with six-figure incomes, 42 percent saved at least $250,000, up from 34 percent five years earlier.

The days of retirees being able to count on set monthly payments from pensions continue to fade among non-government workers. Only 13 percent of private-sector workers now participate in “defined benefit” plans, compared with a third of such workers in 1985. They’ve been eclipsed by “defined contribution” plans, often 401(k)s, in which employers match a portion of employee contributions.

Americans know they need to save for retirement. The trick for many is actually doing it. It’s estimated that about half of private-sector workers don’t take part in a retirement plan at their current job.

“Over the years, all I’ve been able to do, especially as a single parent, is just pay your bills every month,” said Susan McNamara, a 62-year-old adjunct professor from the Boston area. “Anything that’s left over is used up when your car breaks down or when the furnace breaks down. … There’s never anything left over, ever.”

McNamara is divorced and her son is now grown. But she has had heart issues linked to cancer in 2004 and related financial worries. She sold her home to meet expenses. McNamara has a defined contribution plan from past stints as a full-time professor, but its balance is under $50,000.

Or consider Kistler, who makes $41,000 a year working as a benefits counselor for a nonprofit health care provider. He has no substantial savings beyond the 401(k) worth roughly $19,000, and he has debt. He plans to keep working.

Kistler is philosophical about being on the short end of a retirement gap, though he wonders what will happen when boomers in his financial situation begin retiring by the millions.

“This next 10 to 15 years is going to be quite interesting,” he said.

EBRI, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group, projects that more than 55 percent of baby boomers and the generation that follows them, Generation X, will have enough money to last through retirement.

But EBRI also found the least wealthy boomer and Gen X households are far more likely to run short of money in retirement. Under some models, 43 percent of those in the lowest quarter run short of money in the first year of retirement.

VanDerhei, EBRI’s research director, said members of that group are relying mostly on Social Security and lacked consistent access to retirement plans over their careers.

Many of those retirees will find that it won’t be enough, David John of AARP’s Public Policy Institute said, noting the average monthly Social Security retiree benefit last year was about $1,300.

“In the long run, if we have significant numbers of people retiring on Social Security and very little else, there’s going to be a tremendous pressure on state and local governments for additional services, ranging from health to housing to libraries,” John said. “There’s going to be significant pressure on the national government to provide additional support.”

John said a good first step would be to ensure more workers have the ability to save through employer-sponsored retirement plans.

For many, it will mean working to a later age and cutting back.

In Brooklyn, 60-year-old Madeline Smith is already thinking about a modest future. While she has no illusions about living the “little fairy tale” of a cushy retirement, she also is confident she can get by, maybe working part-time, living simply or even renting out her house.

“Sometimes you have to learn to be a little bit more conservative,” she said. “I think a lot of people are learning that now as they get older.”

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