Social Security benefit hike won't make up for Medicare increases 

click to enlarge Retirees will see an increase in their Social Security checks, but a decrease in the amount they receive to cover doctors’ visits. (Elaine Thompson / AP) - RETIREES WILL SEE AN INCREASE IN THEIR SOCIAL SECURITY CHECKS, BUT A DECREASE IN THE AMOUNT THEY RECEIVE TO COVER DOCTORS’ VISITS. (ELAINE THOMPSON / AP)
  • Retirees will see an increase in their Social Security checks, but a decrease in the amount they receive to cover doctors’ visits. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
  • Retirees will see an increase in their Social Security checks, but a decrease in the amount they receive to cover doctors’ visits. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

The government giveth and the government taketh away.

With one hand, the Social Security Administration will provide a 3.6 percent raise to some 55 million older Americans, the first since 2009. With the other hand it will decrease the amount they receive by increasing the premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctors’ visits and other medically necessary services such as outpatient and home care costs. Part B is automatically deducted from the monthly Social Security payment.

The result will be close to a one-fourth reduction in the average monthly increase of $39, or $467 a year, expected for most Social Security recipients. Monthly benefits average $1,082 per month or about $13,000 a year, according to news reports.

Well, how easily predictable was this?

My own easy prediction was brought about by a rudimentary understanding of an entitlement system that has any number of flaws and a Congress that seems politically incapable of significantly fixing them. Medicare, for instance, is not only protected from tampering, the root cause of its difficulties, and higher and higher medical costs, but also seems impervious to economic pressures like recession.

It helped that my startling prognosticative abilities were based on having remembered that Part B premiums have been frozen at 2009 levels for three-quarters of the recipients because there have been no cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security payments. Inflationary rates were too low to trigger the COLA. That, of course, contrasts sharply with 40 years ago when Congress installed the COLA to insulate itself from having to face annual increases in benefits and raising taxes to pay for them. Shortly after the adoption of the triggering device, for those old enough to remember the late ’70s, inflation rates were in the double digits and about the only Americans keeping up were the Social Security recipients.

So because premiums for Part B must be set to cover one-quarter of the program costs, for two years the entire burden of the increase in Medicare premiums has been borne by the remaining 25 percent of the Social Security recipients including new enrollees, high-income families and low-income families whose premiums are paid by Medicaid, the federal/state program for the poor. The 2009 premium levels are $96.40 a month. The 2010 premium for most new enrollees has been $110.50 and for 2011 enrollees, $115.40.

All this merely serves to re-emphasize the voraciousness of modern medicine, which continues to outstrip the annual cost of living and consume more and more of the wherewithal of Americans despite the fact this nation ranks far below other highly developed nations in the quality of care. Still, Congress refuses to adopt any reform, no matter how small, to try to stem Medicare growth and bring down national health costs.

It would be easy to label the amounts of changes for individuals as chicken feed, but in this increasingly sour economy a few dollars makes a lot of difference. For those relying on Social Security as the foundation for putting food on the table, the difference in what they might have gotten without the premium increase could amount to several trips to the grocery store.

Still, what is the solution? One of these days, without divine intervention or a miracle, this country may founder on the rock of entitlements, unable to pay for anything else, including national defense. The dire predictions for the future already have us going out of business well before the next millennium is even contemplated. But meantime, we must eat and shelter ourselves and any nugget is welcomed, no matter how small. Blessed be the name of the government.

Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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