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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: Missouri residents want to protect federal aid programs

September 23, 2011 | 6:35 p.m. CDT

Throughout July and August, Grass Roots Organizing, its staff and 74 volunteers traveled to 11 county fairs, including the Missouri State Fair, and talked to thousands of Missouri residents.

We engaged families and asked the mostly rural Missouri residents to sign a strong message of "People Before Profits — No cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security now and for future generations."

Hundreds of hours of travel and talk netted 5,326 signed postcards from every part of the state.

Some of the 5,326 cards were mailed, but GRO delegations went directly to the offices of Missouri's senators and representatives on 10 occasions to pile up the postcards, emphasizing that people expected a response.

The conversations and signed postcards indisputably reflect what polls in Missouri and the U.S. have reported all along: Missouri residents highly value Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and are against any cuts to these essential programs.

Missouri residents we met were confused and told us: "We paid for these programs, and we ought to be able to have them."

They also consider senators and representatives so "out of touch" that they "just don’t seem to get it."

A common reaction was: "I know (grandmother, aunt, sister, brother, cousin, neighbor) needs this, and I don’t know what they would do without it."

Way too often, we also heard, in an angry tone: "Shouldn't the president and members of Congress cut their own benefits and salaries before denying them to us?"

Probably the saddest response came from the minority of Missouri non-signers who flatly stated that "it won't do any good" to communicate concerns to elected officials.

Missouri residents are fearful that current officeholders will "cut the legs out from under them," and that their promised benefits will diminish or vanish.

Unfortunately, citizens have not heard a clear commitment from any of Missouri’s U.S. senators or representatives that they will defend and improve the programs, and that they will not vote for any changes that would deteriorate or destroy them.

Missouri residents are right to be concerned. Attacks against our programs during 2011 have been stronger than any we’ve ever seen. Probably the most drastic proposal was in the GOP budget drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that threatened to turn Medicare into a voucher (coupon) program, which would pay only part of the costs and compel recipients to find their own private insurance.

Based on data from the 2011 Congressional Budget Office and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, this plan would force seniors to pay at least twice as much as they currently pay.

How could our seniors afford that?

According to "The Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid Research" conducted by Anzalone Liszt Research in June 2011, the Ryan budget, by using block grants, would "cut $750 billion from Medicaid, including funding for 80 percent of nursing home residents, forcing many seniors to be kicked out."

The Ryan budget was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, and it is public record that all Republican representatives in Missouri voted for these drastic cuts.

Fortunately, the Senate didn’t pass the Ryan budget, but again, it’s a matter of record that Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt voted for these cuts while Sen. Claire McCaskill did not.

Other deteriorating proposals are being considered. These include "means testing," changing the cost of living formula, privatization of Social Security, lowering the percentage of the population considered living at poverty level and raising the age of eligibility.

The fight to protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security is far from being won, and we may need more revenue to save them.

Puzzling to many Missouri residents is the unwillingness of elected officials to do what all the postcard messages suggested: "Raise revenue by making big banks, huge corporations, oil companies, millionaires and billionaires with record incomes pay their fair share."

It can also be argued that the sooner we disengage our troops from Afghanistan, the sooner the $2 billion a week being spent there could be infused into our heath care system and make any Medicare or Medicaid cuts totally unnecessary.

This summer marked the 46th birthday of Medicare and Medicaid and the 76th birthday of Social Security. These programs were all developed, improved and protected by citizens and elected officials of past generations.

Our current elected officials, including the "Super-Congress" of 12 senators and representatives now trying to make a deal to address our country’s financial woes, should live up to their oaths to promote democracy and represent majority rule.

Their job is, by popular demand, to seek the resources needed to fully fund our tried-and-true Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs.

Mary Hussmann is with Grass Roots Organizing in Columbia.