Poll: Baby boomers fear outliving Medicare

Wednesday, December 29, 2010 | 5:12 p.m. CST; updated 7:39 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 29, 2010

WASHINGTON — The first baby boomers will be old enough to qualify for Medicare on Jan. 1, and many fear the program's obituary will be written before their own.

A new Associated Press-GfK poll finds that baby boomers believe by a ratio of 2-to-1 they won't be able to rely on the giant health insurance plan throughout their retirement.

How the poll was conducted

  • The Associated Press-GfK Poll on the Medicare and the baby boom generation was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Nov. 18 to 22. It is based on landline and cell phone telephone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,000 adults. Interviews were conducted with 700 respondents on landline telephones and 300 on cellular phones.
  • Digits in the phone numbers dialed were generated randomly to reach households with unlisted and listed landline and cell phone numbers.
  • Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.
  • As is done routinely in surveys, results were weighted, or adjusted, to ensure that responses accurately reflect the population's makeup by factors such as age, sex, education and race. In addition, the weighting took into account patterns of phone use — landline only, cell only and both types — by region.
  • No more than one time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 4.3 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all adults in the U.S. were polled.
  • There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.
  • The questions and results will be available at

The boomers took a running dive into adolescence and went on to redefine work and family, but getting old is making them nervous.

Now, 43 percent say they don't expect to be able to depend on Medicare forever, while only 20 percent think their Medicare is secure. The rest have mixed feelings.

Yet the survey also shows a surprising willingness among adults of all ages to sacrifice to preserve Medicare benefits that most Americans say they deserve after years of paying taxes into the system at work.

Take the contentious issue of Medicare's eligibility age, fixed at 65, while the qualifying age for Social Security is rising gradually to 67.

Initially, 63 percent of boomers in the poll dismissed the idea of raising the eligibility age to keep Medicare afloat financially. But when the survey forced them to choose between raising the age or cutting benefits, 59 percent said raise the age and keep the benefits.

"I don't mind the fact that people may have to work a little longer," said Lynn Barlow, 60, a real estate agent who lives outside Atlanta. Especially if there's time to plan, laboring a few extra years allows people to save more for retirement.

Bring up benefit cuts and Barlow isn't nearly as accommodating. "I started working when I was 16 and I expect a benefit after putting into it for so many years," she said.

As Medicare reaches a historic threshold, the poll also found differences by age, gender and income among baby boomers. For example, baby boom women, who can expect to live longer than both their mothers and their husbands, are much more pessimistic than men about the program's future.

Medicare is a middle-class bulwark against the ravages of illness in old age. It covers 46 million elderly and disabled people at an annual cost of about $500 billion. But the high price of American-style medicine, stressing intensive treatment and the latest innovations, is already straining program finances. Add the number of baby boomers, more than 70 million born between 1946 and 1964, and Medicare's fiscal foundation starts to shake.

Here's the math: When the last of the boomers reaches age 65 in about two decades, Medicare will be covering more than 80 million people. At the same time, the ratio of workers paying taxes to support the program will have plunged from 3.5 for each person receiving benefits currently to 2.3.

"The 800-pound gorilla is eating like mad and growing to 1,200 pounds," said economist Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute, warning about the imbalance. "The switch from worker to retiree status has implications for everything."

The government can't balance its books without dealing with health care costs, and Medicare is in the middle. Some leading Republicans and a few Democrats have called for phasing out the program and instead giving each retiree a fixed payment — or voucher — to help them buy private medical insurance of their choice. The poll found doubts about the idea and a generational debate.

Overall, a narrow majority (51 percent) of Americans opposed the voucher plan. But those born after 1980 favored it by 47 percent to 41 percent, while seniors opposed it 4-to-1. A majority of boomers were also opposed, with 43 percent strongly objecting.

However, younger boomers like RoxAnne Christley of Roanoke, Va., were more likely to be favorable.

"I think that's a possibility if it brings choices and competition," Christley, 47, said. "We don't need to stimulate the government; we need to stimulate the economy. A lot of people have different choices when it comes to medical coverage, and I see nothing wrong with that at all." Christley is self-employed, counseling new mothers on breast feeding.

Changes that don't involve a full-scale re-engineering of Medicare tended to draw more support in the poll, especially when the survey forced people to choose between giving up benefits or making some other kind of sacrifice.

For example, 61 percent of Americans overall favored raising Medicare taxes to avoid a cut in benefits. The current payroll tax is 2.9 percent on wages, evenly divided between workers and their employers. The new health care law added a surcharge of 0.9 percent on earnings over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples filing jointly.

When forced to choose, even a majority of Republicans said they would rather pay higher taxes (53 percent) than cut benefits (38 percent). Among adults in their 20s, who'd face a whole career paying higher taxes, 61 percent said they would be willing to pay more to preserve benefits. Only 29 percent of boomers said keep taxes the same but cut benefits.

"If people are forced to the wall and something has to be done about the financial shape of the program, they would rather take their medicine by raising taxes and moving the eligibility age than having the benefits cut when they retire," said polling analyst Robert Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health.

A narrower majority of Americans — 54 percent — also favored requiring people on Medicare to pay higher copayments and deductibles so that payments to doctors don't have to be cut.

Support was surprisingly strong among seniors, 62 percent of whom said they'd be willing to pay more so that doctors' fees don't have to be cut and more doctors keep accepting Medicare payments.

"In its present form, Medicare will be insolvent before my grandkids get there," said Fred Wemer, 73, a retired dentist from Seattle. He says Medicare's biggest problem is that it rewards inefficiency by not paying doctors enough to keep people healthy and then paying for just about everything — even botched procedures — when patients get into trouble.

"We've got a discrepancy in how doctors are paid," Wemer said. "Primary care doctors, the ones who listen to you, they're underpaid. But specialists get paid way over what they're worth."

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Yves Montclear December 29, 2010 | 6:54 p.m.

I'm not sure to laugh or cry at the headline.

--Baby boomers fear outliving Medicare--

Ironically, I guess they won't outlive it for long if they get sick once it is gone.

(Report Comment)
James Krewson December 29, 2010 | 7:11 p.m.

The baby-boom generation caused this financial mess we are in. Instead of worrying about Medicare, they should be more concerned about what their actions have done to ensure financial ruin for the United States and what impact that will have on their children as well as future generations to come. They will be dead, and we will be left to foot the bill.

(Report Comment)
david smith December 29, 2010 | 7:27 p.m.

Sorry James, you are wrong. Barney frank and the dems caused this financial mess we are in by giving mortgages to people who could not afford them, and wall street also caused the mess by packaging the bad loans into mortgage-backed securities. As far as Medicare and social security, the dems who started these entitlement programs were too stupid to realize that they eventually couldn't be paid for, thanks dems! and now we have obamacare!

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 29, 2010 | 9:36 p.m.

Hey David, what about all those Republicans who voted for Medicare Part D and Bush the Younger who signed it? That's right folks, both the Republicans and Democrats at the national level only want to play to your fear and pocketbook. They don't care about you, only getting reelected. Vote Libertarian if you're tired of the lies.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 29, 2010 | 11:20 p.m.

The seeds of "this mess" - the financial collapse and anemic recovery - were sown by the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley (GLB) Act . That legislation basically un-did the Glass-Steagall Act which was put in place after the Great Depression to regulate banking.

The GLB Act included many of the ruinous, very liberal expansions to the CRA that most people wrongly assign to the original, rather limited Frank-Dodd CRA legislation. Along with continued subsequent expansions to tha CRA, to the point of ridiculousness, Fannie and Freddie were also tasked with pushing as many mortgages as possible. Now, those mortgages could be packaged and handed over to investment banks as apparent capital. Before the GLB Act, there was no reason to push for these changes in the CRA or give the new mandate to Fannie and Freddie. Both Pubs and Dems were in on this together, BTW.

The resultant mass real estate / mortgage psychosis that gripped the entire nation was fostered and driven by the above chain of events. But almost all of us bought into it. Mortgage debt nearly doubled in the space of 7 years (2000-2007), and at the same time consumer debt (plastic and autos) rose another 30%. Government debt rose 60%.

Wall Street investment banks, no longer segregated from regular lending institutions that used to carry those mortgages, sucked up all that debt in the form of securities that looked like real money they could play with. And play with it, in derivatives and oil futures, they most certainly did.

The financial collapse was nothing more than the realization that all the consumer and mortgage debt was not real money, and "we" weren't good for the IOU's. There's plenty of financial analysis that shows we still aren't good for what debt is still out there, either. Without jobs, our debt is nearly worthless.

What perplexes me is why the same realization didn't (and mostly still doesn't, from Wall Street's perspective) apply to government debt as well. We pay that bill, too. But financial institutions were, and still are, delighted to switch to sucking up government debt, instead of consumer and mortgage debt, to sustain the gambling addiction.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire December 29, 2010 | 11:49 p.m.

Oh hell, some of you all had it partly right and some of you had it fairly right. Even a few of you had it mostly right. But that isn't good enough.

Because I'm the only one who has it really right.

You know good and damn well just as I do that it was ALL of your all's fault. And don't none of you all try to worm your way out of it. Why I say you can all go straight to IRAQ!!!

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush December 30, 2010 | 9:20 a.m.

"Barney frank and the dems caused this financial mess we are in by giving mortgages to people who could not afford them."
Phony culpability.
The financial crisis is world-wide. Institutions that are transnational are responsible - international banks run by criminal banksters.

Show a failed mortgage loan signed by a politician - otherwise, your parroted indictment is empty slander.

(Report Comment)

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