Berkeley / East Bay
Gray Panthers Newsletter
6501 Telegraph Ave.- Oakland CA 94609
The September membership meeting will be on
Wednesday, September 23, 2015 at 1:30pm
at North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst, Berkeley.
All Panthers and community members welcome.
Eleanor Walden will report on her trip to the HUD meeting in Washington DC with the other persons from the Bay Area. The four people we we heard during the June 24 membership meeting may add to the report.
Get this newsletter in the mail! Become a member of Gray Panthers!
Dues: $35/year ($15 low income)
Send a check with your name and mailing address to Gray Panthers of the East Bay, 6501 Telegraph Ave.- Oakland CA 94609.
NOTE -- Traffic Tickets can also be worked off by volunteer work for Gray Panthers
The Solano Stroll festival will be on Sunday September 13.
The Gray Panther table will be in front of Berkeley Hills Realty, 1714 Solano (south side, between Ensenada and Tulare).
Please drop in, talk with visitors and help out 10am to 6pm.
Third Mondays, Noon - 1:00 pm. date subject to change –– check www.epicalc.org
Oakland Federal Building, 1301 Clay Street (two blocks from 12th Street BART)
People lie down in front of the Federal Building, covered with sheets to represent the dead. Names of some Californians who have died in Iraq and the names of some Iraqi dead are read during the event. A gong is sounded after each name.
Please bring a white sheet. A pad to lie on is recommended.
Info: Ecumenical Peace Institute, www.epicalc.org (510)990-0374.
TAX THE RICH RALLY meets every Monday 5-6 pm at the top of Solano Ave in Berkeley (rain cancels) to protest the inequality of taxes in our country. We hold signs saying “Tax the Rich” and “Tax the Big Corporations.”
Every 3rd Friday, Gray Panthers and Strawberry Creek Lodge sponsor a Peace rally,
at Acton and University in Berkeley.
Next rally will be on Friday September 18, 2-3 pm.
Come sing, wave signs, listen to approving honks from passing cars and trucks. For more info, Call Fran Rachel at 841-4143
The 2211 Harold Way project won an important permit Thursday August 13 after a 6-3 vote from Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The commission had been tasked with deciding whether to grant 2211 Harold Way a structural alteration permit, which it needs to carry out excavations on the project site. The 18-story building is set to include 302 residential units, 177 underground parking spots and more than 10,000 square feet of commercial space.
The project would remove Habitot and the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas. More than 60 people turned out to Thursday night’s meeting, including more than 50 local residents who spoke forcefully against the project, and about six who spoke in favor.
The project is being challenged by a petition to people who live and work within 300 feet of the contested block to stop them: They are worried, besides the construction ruining their businesses and quality of life, about the bad construction policies by this administration. Also, Strawberry Creek flows in the area.
The developer of 2211 Harold Way and Landmark Theatres are nearing a deal to increase the number of movie theaters in the 302-unit building to 10 — but detractors say the changes do not go far enough.
The July 22, 2015 East Bay Gray Panther membership meeting had two speakers to celebrate Social Security and the 50th anniversity of Medicare. (An expanded version of this report, with links to other websites, is available at http://www.berkeleygraypanthers.mysite.com/ss_07_2015.html)
Teri Gerritz spoke first, about Social Security. She is president of the California Retired Teachers Association, Berkeley Division.
She began by asking whether anyone thought that Social Security benefits are a greater percentage of contributed wages for low income people. Some did, but the fact is that for most people, retirement benefits depend on how much one has paid into the system over a working life. Higher wages lead to higher benefits. Congress enacted the COLA (Cost of Living Allowance) as part of the 1972 Social Security Amendments, and automatic annual COLAs began in 1975. Before that, benefits were increased only when Congress enacted special legislation. COLA depends on the CPI (Consumer Price Index). Teri reminded us that the CPI doesn’t take into account things like housing costs.
There are some inequities. Someone who receives a pension from a government job and who did not pay Social Security taxes, will have any Social Security benefits from a covered spouse “offset” (i.e. reduced) by the amount of the government pension. This offset is referred to as the Government Pension Offset, or GPO.
Since retired teachers didn’t pay into Social Security, the GPO applies to them. Teri said she cannot get full spousal benefits because while teaching, she paid into the pension fund of California Retired Teachers; that pension offsets her spousal benefits. She added that if she had been under PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) rather than CalSTRS (California State Teachers Retirement System) she would not now have the problem.
People who don’t get Social Security can still get Medicare after age 65, if they paid into Medicare when it came out, or were married to someone who paid in.
In addition to GPO, Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) reduces the primary insurance amount of a person's retirement insurance benefits or disability insurance benefits when that person is eligible or entitled to a pension based on a job which did not contribute to the Social Security Trust Fund. It also affects the benefits of others claiming on the same social security record. WEP, passed in 1983, primarily hurts those who have changed careers midway through their lives. Those workers may have earned a pension, but only a small Social Security check when they retire.
The GPO and WEP penalties were introduced during the Reagan administration, to cut down on “double-dipping” and “freeloading.” A group has been formed to call for the repeal of GPO and WEP. It's called the Committee for Social Security Fairness. They are writing letters to legislators. The committee has a website http://www.ssfairness.com/.
Social Security is funded by the FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) deduction of 6.2% of gross salary, There is a cap. Year-to-date gross above a certain maximum are not subject to the deduction. Before 2015, the “FICA cap” was $117,000. Starting January 1, 2015 it was increased to $118,500.
The cap benefits high wage earners. It works out that 80% of all gross compensation is not subject to the FICA deduction.
Terri noted that if those 80% of wages above the cap were subject to the FICA deduction, Social Security would be secure for a long time, and there would also be enough money to fund universal medical care for everyone in the US. Senator Boxer favors raising the cap. Senator Feinstein appears to be dodgy on this issue.
The deduction for Medicare is 1.45% (plus an additional 1.45% employer contribution). There is no Medicare cap, but starting in 2013, there was an additional Medicare tax applied to employees whose Medicare annual wages exceed $200,000. This is an employee-only tax; no additional Medicare tax is imposed on the employer.
From the audience, Margot Smith asked about past discrimination in wages, especially for women. Teri said there’s a proposal to replace WEP with a fairer formula. The Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act.
The idea is for everyone to have enough for a decent retirement, but Teri said that many of her retired friends don’t have much left over after paying rent and buying food. She said the average retirement income for members of California Retired Teachers Association is about $30,000/yr, but that average includes the $150K-200K salaries of administrators.
For middle class retirees, Social Security payments are typically $22,000/year or $1800/month, but the average is more like $871/month.
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are available to some people, based on age, work history, and medical conditions.
SSI is a Federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not Social Security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind, and disabled people, who have little or no income; it provides cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Typical payments are $771/mo for an individual ($1000 for blind). A couple gets $1200/mo (not two times 771).
Somebody in the audience pointed out that people who live in HUD housing must declare their HUD subsidy as taxable income.
One can apply for SSI at any age; Teri said she has students who are on SSI. She herself got $100/mo back when she was going to college.
The local Social Security office (on Alston Street in Berkeley) can provide information on eligibility, but Teri advised not to wait in line there, but to speak to someone on the phone (800-772-1213). If you get someone who doesn’t seem well-informed, ask to talk to a supervisor.
For a long time, Social Security has been under attack from Tea Party Republicans, who don’t think the government should be involved in big expensive social problems. They’d like to take the money and privatize it (pay big fees to Wall Street brokers) or spend it on helping workers displaced by the Trans Pacific Partnership. Social Security contributions are invested in government bonds; “privatizing” it would just give money to Wall Street hedge fund managers, who already get a huge tax break. There’s nothing new here, Teri said. Social Security had plenty of opposition when it was originally enacted. FDR is said to have defiantly welcomed the hatred from “economic royalists” who obstructed his progressive programs.
There’s a lot of scare talk about Social Security running out of money. There a great book to rebut the scare talk: “Social Security Works! – Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All” by Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson. Teri said: “It’s not that we don’t have money. It’s how we’re choosing to spend it.”
Teri emphasized that senior citizens need to get active to stop attacks on Social Security and Medicare. We should write letters to legislators (yes, they do count the letters). We have the right of free speech, the right to have grievances redressed. She said when her group visited Congressman Eric Swalwell, he gave them advice to use social media. Twitter is one of the simplest and easiest social media tools. Messages, called “tweets”, are limited to 140 characters. Twitter members “follow” each other. Steve Geller (stgeller4) follows 124 people and 210 people follow Steve. The White House follows 205 people and there are 6.6 million people following the White House)
Swalwell had his aide grab a packet of letters the office had received; they took a picture and attached the result to a tweet about their lobbying visit.
And we should vote! Republicans want us to believe that our individual vote doesn’t matter, hoping we’ll stay home on Election Day. But voting is a group activity; politicians should be aware that seniors vote. She said that in 1980, only 22% of eligible voters cast a ballot.
The second speaker was Jodi Reid, Executive Director for Northern California of CARA (California Association of Retired Americans). She also runs a local CARA Community Action Team (CAT).
Jodi asked how many of the audience were on Medicare – a forest of hands went up.
The original idea was to provide health care to seniors and disabled people, who were “falling through the cracks” because health care was so expensive. eople were going bankrupt, becoming homeless and even dying because they couldn’t afford proper care. Having covered the sickest group, the idea was to eventually cover everyone.
Because Medicare was proposed to be so expensive, there were plenty of nay-sayers. To this day, Republicans argue that Medicare can’t last, and that it is not a program the government should be supporting. But every year, Medicare continues to prove the nay-sayers wrong. By covering the sickest population at 2% overhead (private insurance overhead can be as much as 30%). Medicare holds down costs by being a bulk plan which has leverage to negotiate. Unfortunately, they can’t negotiate prescription drug prices. In the law that created Medicare Part D, Medicare was forbidden to negotiate lower prices. This is no accident -- Big Pharma lobbied very hard to keep their huge profits. The same prohibition on negotiation is in the Affordable Care Act. Even some Republican House members (this was a GOP sponsored bill), including Rep. Walter Jones from North Carolina and Rep. Dan Burton from Indiana, were aghast at the whole process.
The drug companies say they must have high prices in the U.S. (drug prices are lower in Canada, Mexico, England and many other countries), to pay for research that enables them to innovate and develop new drugs that save our lives. According to the organization Healthcare for America Now (HCAN), that’s not true. Half of the scientifically innovative drugs approved in the U.S. from 1998 to 2007 resulted from research at universities and biotech firms, not big drug companies. And despite their rhetoric, drug companies spend 19 times more on marketing than they do on research and development.
Jodi reported a visit to a CARA board meeting from someone at UC Berkeley who participated in a labor studies program, evaluating employment of and discrimination against older workers.
This person told the CARA board that one of the biggest issues for the older work force is that, employers tend to discourage older workers from working up to their final ages, because benefits pile up. Employers want to bring in younger workers who haven’t amassed as many benefits.
Also, many older workers postpone dealing with some health conditions. Even though the employer pays health care costs, there are often huge co-payments and deductibles that come out of the worker’s pocket. So many people wait until they turn 65 for complicated procedures that they should have had done when younger, to be covered under Medicare. Jodi gave the example of a grocery checker who postponed hand surgery, because the cost out of pocket would have been such a prohibitive burden on his family. By the time he became eligible for Medicare, one hand became so arthritic as to be unusable, and surgery could not fix the whole problem.
Medicare covers what should be covered; private insurance often does not. Yes, sometimes one must buy supplemental coverage to Medicare. Because Medicare is basically a hospital plan, if you need hospitalization for a particular problem, Medicare is by far the most comprehensive hospital benefit of any benefit plan, private or public – maybe excepting the one run by the Veterans Administration. In addition, low income people can qualify for additional benefits from Medicaid. California has put in additional money to expand the number of people eligible for Medicaid (called MediCal in California).
But Medicare and Medicaid have a political problem. The Republicans still don’t think the government should be providing health care, and they keep looking for ways to undermine the program so that public confidence is lost. This is in spite of the fact that Medicare remains the most popular government program – people on Medicare or who have family members on Medicare appreciate the protection from today’s high health care costs. Major surgery, which can cost $200,000 and up (plus rehab) can bankrupt most members of the middle class.
Jodi told us that now is the time for senior groups like Gray Panthers to get active to support these very critical benefits. We have to stand up and put our feet to the street. Unlike other time in history, the threats to this program are mounting, especially now that the party in power in Congress is ideologically dedicated to dismantling the program – they have the votes to do it.
There are proposals to set a yearly cap on hospital coverage, just like private insurance does. Republicans want to change the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67; of course this will result in more delayed surgeries, like in the grocery clerk example. We can’t let big PHARMA set our health care agenda.
The ideal for Medicare is lifelong coverage for everyone, rich or poor, healthy or sick. At the Medicare anniversary celebration on July 30, formersupervisor Tom Ammiano called it “sperm to worm” or “womb to tomb”. It shouldn’t matter what your documentation status is. If you live in this country, health care should be a right, not a commodity, and we should all have access to it. If we take all the dollars that are being spent on Medicare, Medicaid and other public health programs combine them, then people won’t have to buy supplemental coverage and pay out of pocket, everybody will pay something like a 2% tax on income, up to a certain point, so if you’re under $50K/year (or whatever cap we determine after figuring out the finances) you don’t have to pay anything. If you make over a certain amount, you pay a very small percentage, with no co-pays, no deductibles, no premiums. You have your one card that looks like the Medicare card. Everybody gets the same benefit package. So we negotiate for what we want covered, how much we pay for services, pay for drugs. Everybody is in; nobody is out. In this way, everyone will be much healthier.
There’s a bill in process to cover undocumented children, up to a certain income level. Covering undocumented adults is still thought to be too expensive.
Jodi said that Medicaid is a critical part of our health care puzzle, because it’s the way to get coverage for many people who don’t make a lot of money, especially minimum wage workers, who don’t have access to employer-based health care. The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide health insurance to their workers, but only if the company employs a minimum number of workers. And they have to be full-time, 30 hours/week or more. Employers have been avoiding providing insurance by cutting workers’ hours.
Medicaid is the safety net for people who don’t have access or resources to buy health care. Medicaid is a much smaller fund than Medicare.
Medicaid is the major payer for nursing homes, which are are very expensive. Even if a person has some money to start, ; in a year or two savings can be spent and the person becomes eligible for Medicaid, which picks up the nursing home tab – which ends up costing the State/Feds way more money than if the person had been able to stay at home and have some care brought into the home.
Both Medicare and Medicaid should be part of the single pot for all dollars which pay for health care, to ensure that everybody gets the care they need. If we eliminate insurance companies, and put all our resources into single-payer, we could make sure that everyone was covered.
Someone in the audience pointed out that Medicare and especially Medicaid do not reimburse doctors and hospitals as much as private insurance. Teri agreed. She said that there are fewer health care providers interested in taking Medicaid patients, because they often can’t cover their costs.
Hospitals love Medicare, because it pays negotiated rates. So, having single-payer and allowing negotiated rates would solve the reimbursement problem. If providers knew they’d get the same reimbursement for everybody and wherever the service was delivered, they’d be much more willing to take anybody as a patient. Right now, lower income people on Medicaid have a hard time finding care, a situation which undermines the whole system.
The biggest reimbursements are for some specialty services, so young medical students, graduating with unpaid huge student loans, are motivated to become medical specialists, rather than general practitioners (GP). There is a shortage of GPs to deal with families and older folks.