Elderly worry about cost of Medicare


If Congress increases his Medicare charges, says 75-year-old Herbert Schulman, he may have to find a job to make ends meet. And that's not all.

"Instead of going to the movies once a week, maybe go once a month," said the Randallstown man. "Instead of a medium-priced restaurant, maybe I'll have to eat in McDonald's."

Schulman is one of many senior citizens who are upset with the deficit-reduction plan developed by the Bush administration and congressional leaders. A key part of the plan would raise $30 billion over five years by increasing fees for beneficiaries of Medicare, the federal health-insurance program for the aged.

The monthly premium would rise from $28.60 to about $34 Jan. 1 and to roughly $55 in 1995. The deductible for doctors' services would go up from $75 to $150. In addition, seniors would be required to pay 20 percent of laboratory costs, now paid entirely by Medicare.

Many senior citizens have called Congress to complain, congressional offices report. Some members are considering making changes in the budget plan tentatively agreed on Sunday, although President Bush last night urged support for it in a televised address.

Rep. Fortney H. "Pete" Stark, D-Calif., chairman of the health subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, is spearheading subcommittee discussions of possible changes to ease the impact on Medicare beneficiaries.

For example, Stark's group is discussing raising the deductible to $100 instead of $150, said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, a subcommittee member.

To offset the loss of revenue, the lawmakers would apply a Medicare tax of 1.45 percent on income of up to $150,000, instead of $73,000, as the plan now provides, he said. Currently workers pay a Medicare tax, as part of their Social Security taxes, on income of up to $51,300.

Cardin said the changes considered by Stark's group would shift more of the budget burden to the well off.

Administration officials defend the Medicare changes as a fair response to the rising cost of the $100 billion-a-year program. But seniors such as Schulman disagree.

"It's unfair to put it on the backs of seniors, many of whom don't have any other income other than the Social Security check," said Schulman, who retired 12 years ago after running a liquor store. "Rich people are affected very little."

Some people buy so-called "Medigap" insurance policies to supplement Medicare and pay for some costs the program won't cover. But Schulman does not have such a policy. "I wish I could afford it."

Outside the Forest Park Senior Center on Liberty Heights Avenue in Baltimore, Cornelia Wicks, 69, said if she could talk with lawmakers she would tell them: "Leave the senior citizens alone and that taxes are high enough already."

Wicks and Rosa L. Branch, 75, had just participated in a fund-raiser to buy an air conditioner for some of the 1,500 seniors who have trouble breathing in the center during the summer's heat.

"I think it's terrible," Branch said of the proposed increases. "I know I can't pay for it."

She said she lives alone in northwest Baltimore on a fixed income, paying rent, insurance and other bills. She said her life insurance premium recently increased.

"When you are on a fixed-income, you only have one check a month," she said. Branch said she spends $100 monthly for Medicare and a supplemental Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan.

The director of the senior center, C. Josephine E. Lythcott, said the Medicare increases would force seniors on fixed incomes "to make life or death choices."

"What do they do, do they pay for milk or for medication?" Lythcott said.

The director of the state Office on Aging, Rosalie S. Abrams, said the proposed increases would create a "very significant impact" on older people. "It seems like not much money, but . . . a lot of people can't afford it."

Although the state pays the premiums of impoverished Medicare beneficiaries, many needy people don't qualify, Abrams suggested. Like Schulman, she noted that Medicare charges are the same regardless of a person's income.

Upset senior citizens have been calling members of Congress and organizations like the American Association of Retired Persons.

"Lots and lots of calls," said Pat Wait, aide to Rep. Helen D. Bentley, R-2nd.

Bruce Frame, a spokesman for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., said the senator's offices in Maryland "have been getting a good number of calls from people distressed about what they're hearing."

Schulman said he planned to go to a Reisterstown Road senior center at lunchtime today to urge people to contact their representatives. He followed his own advice, he said, and called the offices of Cardin, Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.

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