Medicare and Social Security are among the defining issues in this year's elections -- not just at the top of the ticket but in the Congressional races as well.
Democrat Shelley Adler wants to make sure those two topics stay in the spotlight. Yesterday she picked up the endorsement of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in her quest to unseat U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan in South Jersey's 3rd District.
Medicare was one of the most often cited "extremely important" issues by New Jerseyans surveyed in the latest. It was named by 44 percent of likely voters, behind the economy, healthcare, taxes, and the budget deficit.
"When we talk to people, this is one of their primary issues," said Adler, a lawyer and former Cherry Hill councilmember who is seeking the seat held two years ago by her late husband Jon Adler. "They are concerned about this program."
Phillip Rotondi, an adviser for the 2.2 million-member nonpartisan organization, said the issue is important in the 3rd District, which includes portions of Burlington and Ocean counties, because it affects so many residents. He said that senior citizens account for more than 17 percent of the district's population, more than both the state and national averages. The 3rd has 157,000 Social Security recipients and 135,000 people receiving Medicare coverage.
"Looking at the responses Shelley Adler gave to our questions, it's obvious she gets it," Rotondi said. "These are important programs for the middle class in the 3rd District."
On the other hand, he said, Runyan voted against the NCPSSM's position on all seven key bills in Congress. Those votes include two cast to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act, which is important in helping Medicare because it would extend the program's solvency by eight years, Rotondi said. Others supported a House budget resolution that included a proposal by vice presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), to partially privatize Medicare and a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would not exempt Social Security from cuts.
"Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus that is not being used to pay any benefits owed; it's money we all paid into," said Rotondi, adding the latest estimates have the plan able to pay full benefits at least through 2033 and then about 76 percent of benefits after that.
Medicare, meanwhile, will not have any problems paying claims until 2024, Rotondi said, when payroll taxes are still estimated to be able to cover 87 percent of costs.
Adler said she supports bringing healthcare costs overall in line, which she said will help improve the solvency of the Medicare program.
"Ending tax breaks for big oil companies and tax cuts for the wealthy would provide enough money to shore up these programs," Adler said. "Congressman Runyan voted to dismantle Medicare, rather than cut subsidies for big oil companies. Senior citizens should get they benefits they have earned …. Congressman Runyan is choosing to balance the budget on the backs of seniors. That's not right."
Adler said a nonpartisan analysis found it would cost each senior $6,400 for the same benefits they do not have to subsidize today once they get on Medicare. That's about $100,000 for a senior couple to pay for a replacement voucher program for just eight years.
The solvency of Social Security is a "long-term challenge, not a short-term crisis" and so does not need a quick solution, Adler said. Even a partial privatization of Social Security, as endorsed by the Republican presidential ticket of Ryan and Mitt Romney, would be "a breach of trust" with those who paid into Social Security expecting it would help support them in retirement.
Chris Russell, a spokesman for the Runyan campaign, said Adler has been continually mischaracterizing the congressman's positions throughout the campaign and is trying to make the election "about scaring seniors." The only reforms supported by Runyan, who won his first term two years ago by narrowly defeating Jon Adler, would not impact anyone over the age of 55.
"The congressman's position is that he voted to protect current seniors," Russell said. "Adler's position is to do nothing. The only person here trying to destroy Medicare is Shelley Adler."
He said the Affordable Care Act would transfer more than $700 billion from Medicare to pay for the new program and Runyan opposed that. Rotondi said that money would not reduce any Medicare benefits. The group's website said the savings are being used to pay for preventive care, well visits, and prescription discounts.
The congressman's vote for the latest Ryan budget, which Runyan supported, "gives people the option to stay in the traditional Medicare program." Adler, on the other hand, has no plan for dealing with Medicare, Russell charged.
Social Security is going to need to be reformed, said Russell, but at the moment Runyan sees Medicare as the more pressing program and "that's where the congressman's focus has been."
Rotondi said there are ways to save both programs.
In the case of Medicare, allowing the program to negotiate drug prices, which it cannot do today, would save an estimated $24 billion annually alone. Larger savings should come from overall cost containment and moving from state-based insurance risk pools to a national pool, he said. Several studies have shown that Medicare is more efficient and more cost effective than private insurance, and private plans would likely limit a person's choice of doctors.
In terms of Social Security, removing the payroll tax cap -- no taxes are paid on income over $110,100 -- and subjecting other types of income, such as capital gains, to the tax would go a long way toward improving the health of the program.
The NCPSSM is a force in elections, according to the, which tracks federal campaign spending, political action committees, and lobbying. The group has given more than $526,000 to candidates and committees thus far in the 2011-12 election cycle and spent $700,000 so far lobbying on Medicare and Medicaid, retirement, and other issues. The committee also has spent about $15,000 independently for candidates, all of it for Democrats so far.
The 3rd is considered a swing district, with Democrats holding a slight voter registration edge over Republicans; but there is a large pool of unaffiliated voters. It is one of theacross the country, and the only one in New Jersey, that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted to try to win back control of the House of Representatives.