Some Choice Words for Paul Ryan, The Grinch Trying to Steal Medicare

I’m Black, female and old — a trifecta of reasons to be particularly scared right now, with Trump headed for the White House.

Let’s talk about “old” this time. Somebody’d better, given that our President-Elect is reportedly about to put Georgia Rep. Tom Price in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Price is a known supporter of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, A Better Way, which, according to Forbes, aims to, “gradually increase the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to nearly 67 starting in 2020.”

What’s the big deal? Well, eventually, retirees would also be required:

“… to purchase commercial insurance. Like other consumers, they’d receive new tax credits to help subsidize the cost, though the blueprint does not specify the size of those credits. In addition, the proposal would allow insurers to charge relatively higher premiums to older consumers than they can under the Affordable Care Act.”

Still not so bad? Well, here’s what Henry Aaron, a health care economist at the Brookings Institution, told NPR:

“What you’ve got here is a group of people who are very sick, poor, and often cognitively impaired one way or the other. Tossing people like that into a health care marketplace and saying, ‘Here, go buy some insurance,’ is a recipe for problems.”

That’s bad. And here’s a cautionary tale for Ryan and those of you too young to care yet, from a woman old enough to know just how bad.

Now, according to the American Dream playbook, I did everything right. In fact, the Paul Ryan Republicans of the world would probably find me exemplary, given my race and the low economic status into which I was born back in the 50s.

I didn’t feel poor. Both my parents always worked. Hard — at two jobs if necessary. And I started working a wee bit before I was actually of legal age to be hired, and kept on working for over 40 years. In fact, I only stopped working to ensure that some younger folks would be able to continue working.

Having happily left full-time journalism to return to my first calling, I was an assistant principal in a huge, “financially-challenged” Tucson school district that was laying off hundreds of employees. My school had just pink slipped all of its newest teachers, including two who had moved across the country to work for us, families in tow. And our other assistant principal, a young guy with young children, was probably going to be sent packing as well.

My only child was in college and supporting herself by then. And I had earned enough points for a modest pension, though I wasn’t old enough to receive Social Security or Medicare yet.

But the state pension system offered health insurance and reasonably priced dental and vision care plans as well. And I had a second job as an adjunct professor which would help me make ends meet until SSI and Medicare kicked in. So I took the plunge.

And then three things almost immediately went horribly wrong. Things that happen to retirees often, unfortunately. Things Ryan’s plan doesn’t anticipate.

First, my insurance premiums skyrocketed — take note, Mr. Ryan — eventually snatching almost $800 from my pension check each month. As an early retiree, I’d been forced to use a “commercial” insurance plan offered by our state system while waiting for Medicare. Just the sort of plan Ryan wants all seniors to use. He says his plan will include tax credits for the ones who can’t afford the premiums. But he doesn’t say what will happen if those premiums rise above the tax credit limits.

As my rising premiums began to gobble up my pension payments, the college I worked for part time, financially strapped and facing lower state contributions, started laying off adjuncts.

And wait, there’s more. Adding injury to insult, I became gravely, excruciatingly ill.

Google “Stevens-Johnson Syndrome,” check out some images, and you’ll understand just how horrific it was. Briefly, it’s an often fatal allergic reaction that incinerates you from the inside out, leaving some victims scarred as if they’d been in a fire. In fact, SJS patients are often treated in burn units.

And when not one doctor in Tucson could figure out what the hell was happening to me (one said I had a “virus” as I sat there looking like an incredulous Quasimodo), I was forced to head for the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix.

My old Sun Times pal Roger Ebert, battling cancer by then, became my spiritual director, emailing timely tips to help me deal with the physical and emotional pain.

And my amazing daughter, Thandi, became my sole caretaker, with a little help from loving friends who came to do housework for her from time to time. So the burden of caring for me at home and shuttling me 180 miles from Tucson to Phoenix and back for weekly appointments fell almost entirely on her shoulders.

I truly don’t know how she did it. But she was forced to do it, because my retirement savings had been drained to the dregs while I lay frying in bed for almost a full year and my insurance did not cover things like long term or at- home skilled nursing care.

Medicare offers both, as does Medicaid, another option for seniors in need. But Ryan’s plan, even on his own Medicare reform page, doesn’t mention either. Here’s Forbes again:

While the report acknowledges the high cost of Medicaid’s long-term care benefits, it says little about what it would do about it. In general, the plan would cap the federal contribution to the joint state/federal program, and give states more flexibility in how they’d design Medicaid benefits. But the report says little about how those changes would apply to seniors or young people with disabilities, and a cap could put some Medicaid LTSS programs at risk. The blueprint says nothing about new mechanisms to finance long-term care outside of Medicaid.

Luckily for me, Mayo was covered by my insurance plan. But the co-pay for each visit to their specialist was three times the amount I paid to see my primary care physician. Lab tests and other procedures were astoundingly expensive.

Worse, due to escrow shortfalls caused by property tax hikes, my previously manageable mortgage payments started to rise each year along with those premiums and medical bills. And going back to work was out of the question.

I found ways to economize, but being unable to afford simple things, things a lot of people take for granted, like having a Starbucks or going to the movies once in a while, really dampened my spirits sometimes.

Now, I wasn’t eating cat food. And I still had benefits and a whole lot of safety nets that many folks my age don’t have. I volunteer at the Food Bank once a week, so I know I’m #blessed, to quote Bruno Mars. And I feel ridiculous fussing about those little luxuries.

But it does hurt. And the only thing that sustained me through it all was knowing that in a very few years I would qualify for SSI and then, in a few more, I would only have to pay about $200 for our state system’s Medicare Advantage plan, $600 less than I’d been paying since I retired.

But then…this year…just as I was about to reach Medicare age…yep. Trump happened. And only days later, Ryan started talking up his “better way” that experience tells me will probably raise that $200 considerably and often.

Ntozake Shange once wrote:

“bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/ i havent conquered yet”

I may have to add “bein’ old” to that list of conundrums to be conquered.

You’re a mean one, Mr. Ryan.

Congressman Paul Ryan, via Wikipedia Commons

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