By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
“Teetering on the edge” is how Jane Wemhoener, 62, of Columbus, described her financial situation Monday afternoon.
“It’s going to be devastating to people like me — truly devastating,” she said, if Medicare and Social Security are negatively affected by the “fiscal cliff” negotiations under way in Washington, D.C.
Wemhoener was among a group of Southeast Kansas residents who gathered at the Pittsburg office of U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., to share their opinions on how the impending fiscal cliff might affect each of them personally.
Jenkins was touring small businesses in Topeka, Leavenworth and Ottawa at the time in an effort to learn how the fiscal cliff might affect employers and employees, according to her press secretary, Annie Dwyer.
“She is really focused on trying to understand what that would mean for the workers, and for employers how this is going to affect their ability to hire new people, wages and benefits,” Dwyer said.
In Jenkins’ absence, aide Jake LaTurner listened to the concerns of the Southeast Kansas residents. He said Jenkins has received at least 10 letters about the topic in the past few days — a lot of constituent feedback for this area, he said.
Some estimates say nearly 78 million baby boomers on the brink of expensive health problems could bankrupt the nation through Medicare. A congressional report on the solvency of Medicare puts the time frame at 12 years.
“With my medical bills, if Social Security or Medicare is cut, I’m going to have no option but to file bankruptcy,” said Wemhoener, who is disabled.
Dwyer said Medicare is “a big priority for the congresswoman,” and has been a topic of discussion for Jenkins at numerous recent town halls and with senior citizens throughout the 2nd District.
“Her plan that she supports would have no changes for current seniors or anyone 55 or older, and includes means testing for those in higher income brackets,” Dwyer said. “It also would eventually raise the eligibility age, but over a long period of time.”
Several in the group who spoke at Jenkins’ Pittsburg office are retired teachers. They are angry, they said, that they worked hard to serve their communities, invested in their own futures and might have little to show for it financially.
Lowell Alexander, 70, of Frontenac, retired after working for 49 years.
“I started paying into it in about 1959,” he said of Social Security. “We all paid into it, and if we had just left it alone ... .”
The same was true of John Robb, of Pittsburg, a retiree and Vietnam-era veteran.
“I’ve been paying into it since 1959, too,” he said. He told LaTurner, who was elected to the state Senate in November, that Congress should “slay the sacred cow of militarism and change it into the Department of Peace” before making changes to Social Security or Medicare.
LaTurner told the group that Jenkins “doesn’t want to take away Social Security or existing benefits,” and that she won’t support anything that takes such benefits away from the age group using it now.
“But she does believe that it could be done for the group of people that has time to plan ahead,” he said.
Others, like Joy Leeper, of Pittsburg, said they resent the term “entitlement program” being used by some to describe Medicare and Social Security.
“It’s not an entitlement program,” said Leeper, who said she is over 70 and a retiree. “I paid into it all my life. The little I get enables me to stay in my home.”
“You need to increase revenue, not cut programs to the poor,” she said. “One in four corporations don’t pay taxes in this country.”
It was a sentiment echoed several times by those present, who also said employers must increase wages or employees will have nothing to spend.
“We’re all connected,” Leeper said. “I don’t think a lot of people consider that, but if people on the lower end can’t afford to buy anything, the corporations aren’t going to sell anything.”
LaTurner said Jenkins signed a pledge when she was elected that she would not raise taxes on anyone, and contended that the country’s problem is not a lack of revenue but a problem with spending.
“Any plan that does not address the root of the problem — this nation’s out-of-control spending habit — is not a real solution,” Jenkins wrote in her weekly update to the 2nd District.
DURING U.S. REP. LYNN JENKINS’ tour Monday, she heard from employers and employees at each stop that their biggest concern is uncertainty over what will happen. “They said, ‘We need to know the rules so that we can plan,’” said Annie Dwyer, Jenkins’ press secretary. “Both employers and employees are vulnerable right now until they know the plan.”