Cuts to benefits pose a dilemma for seniors in GOP’s Florida primary

By Paula Bustamante, AFP

PEMBROKE PINES, Florida — Florida’s nearly 4 million retirees wield extraordinary voting power in the upcoming Republican presidential primary, but many face a dilemma with leading candidates tempted to cut their benefits. “For seniors and the organizations providing social services to this community, the greater concern is that they can reform the public benefits,” Max Rothman, president and chief executive at Alliance for Aging Miami/Fort Lauderdale Area, told AFP. Floridians over age 65 account for 17.3 percent of the state’s population of 19 million — the highest senior average in the United States, and with the demographic traditionally known for its higher voter turnout, Romney and Gingrich are treading carefully as they court elderly voters. While both support health care reform, neither has publicly spoken out much on the campaign trail in Florida about cutting benefits or other possible changes to government health insurance programs that would rein in health care costs. Such debates would risk alienating elderly voters who have a outsized say in the Republican nominating process, particularly in Florida. “I’ve always been Republican and I’ll vote on Tuesday but I’m still finding out” about the candidates, said Barbara Johnson, 71, who teaches embroidery at the SW Focal Point Community Center in Pembroke Pines, north of Miami. She did not believe the two leading Republicans in the race, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, would move to privatize Social Security and public health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid — the three biggest entitlement programs ballooning the U.S. debt. “I’m at the point of my life that I should be retired and I can’t,” Johnson said, adding that she must couple the teaching assistant wages with her social security to make ends meet. Taxes are too high, she said. Gingrich proposes that private insurers should compete with the Medicare program, while Romney advocates not touching the current system for those heading for retirement but allow younger generations to enter the private insurance market. On Social Security, Gingrich argues people should be given an option to continue with the public system or invest in private pension funds. Romney similarly proposes opting into private pension funds, but would like to see a raised age allowance to qualify for those benefits, and that these benefits are based on salaries. Despite the high percentage of elderly voters in Florida, the candidates have largely avoided discussing such programs, and have spent more time openly courting the state’s large Hispanic community than seniors. Senior citizens group AARP, with 37 million members over age 50, said that Floridians aged 50 and over had not heard much last week from either Republican presidential candidates or U.S. President Barack Obama on the two most important issues facing older Americans — how to keep Social Security and Medicare strong.

“Now is the time, and Florida is the place, to bring the debate about Social Security and Medicare out from behind closed doors in Washington and into the public,” said Jeff Johnson, AARP Florida interim state director. “It is time for older Americans to have a voice in this vital discussion. They’ve earned that right.”