It was only weeks ago that municipal retirees won a battle against the city in a plan to kick a quarter-million of them off their long standing Medicare insurance and on to the Aetna Medicare Advantage plan. But one win doesn’t guarantee they won’t be at risk of losing it again, especially with the city appealing.
As a result, U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres has announced the Right to Medicare Act.
Torres was joined Aug. 24 by local healthcare advocates, public sector retirees, and seniors at the Riverdale Y, where he spoke about his newly introduced legislation that has the goal of protecting seniors rights to access traditional medical coverage.
“There is no topic that is more important to me than the defense of Medicare,” Torres said. “There is no set of people to whom we owe a greater debt than our senior citizens. And the two programs that enable our seniors to lead decent and dignified lives, the two programs that reflect the debt that we owe to each and every one of you, are Medicare and Social Security, both of which must be protected at all cost.”
Sue Dodell, political action director for the New York City Organization of Public Service Retirees, joined Torres to discuss Medicare. She spoke about New York State Supreme Court Justice Lyle Frank’s decision to bar the city from removing retirees from their insurance and forcing them onto the advantage plan.
“No one should be forced into health plans provided by private companies that maximize their profits by eliminating the choice of doctors and imposing pre-approval requirements,” Dodell said.
Arnold Gottfried, a Riverdale resident and retired high school English teacher of 31 years, spoke about how his comfort in retiring was shattered when he learned that his Medicare coverage was going to be replaced by an advantage plan. With it came the potential that his doctor would not accept the new coverage or that procedures would be delayed or denied through pre-authorization.
There was a fear by many that they would have to wait months to have doctors get permission to treat them for a life threatening condition.
“All through my career I was promised by the city and the UFT that when I retired I would have Medicare and Medigap coverage that would cover medical costs,” Gottfired said. “I was promised that I would have the freedom of choice if I wanted to switch to another plan. This was the promise, the covenant given to myself and to 250,000 city workers by our unions and the city. To no longer fulfill that promise would be a betrayal.”
Another speaker at the Aug. 24 press conference, Jose Figueroa, a veteran and former New York City government employee, joined Torres alongside his wife, Betty Figueroa, a former city civil service employee, to share his support.
“I spent a lifetime working in and for the city of New York and because of my experiences I know that we do not have to be an expert in the field of healthcare in order to understand that healthcare is a human right,” Jose said. “I have seen with my own eyes the difference it makes to have a good insurance coverage when medical needs arise, and what can happen when a person has inadequate coverage and gets entangled in approval requirement procedures or delays of treatment caused by denials of plans that medical professionals may not accept.”
Jose spoke about serving in the navy for six years in Vietnam. Betty was a student volunteer at Howard University and was part of the voter registration drive to ensure African Americans could exercise their rights to vote in the face of voter suppression.
“Like Betty and I, there are many thousands of retirees for whom serving their communities, their city, or their country is something they do as an expression of responsibility and a sense of duty,” Jose said. “We do these things using our powers of youthful energy to assist and protect what we believe in. We are not suckers, or losers. We are Americans who give a damn.”
Torres emphasized that the United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world, and that with “great wealth comes great responsibility.”
That responsibility includes Medicare, where Torres says there is on a frontal assault not only in the city but in other areas of the country.
“There are large employers, and large insurers who are brokering backe-nd deals that are depriving senior citizens of their rights to traditional Medicare,” Torres said. “Now historically seniors have had the power to choose between traditional Medicare and Medicare advantage. But increasingly large employers like the city of New York are depriving seniors of the power to choose.”
Torres said in seven years 60 percent of Medicare will be in the hands of private insurers. This is not a good thing, he says, because for profit insurers the organizing principle is not to help or care but to profit and make money. Rather than let Medicare as a public good become an “endangered species,” he says they will refuse to stand idly and let the program become privatized.
The congressman implores the city to think twice before going the route of privatization. His introduced legislation would establish in federal law that senior citizens have a legal right to Medicare. It would prohibit both public and private employers from invol untarily shifting senior citizens from to Medicare advantage.
Jose Figueroa also spoke about how the introduction of the Medicare advantage plan has established a vehicle for the eventual program’s privatization.
Torres said they are sending a message that this kind of privatization must be resisted, in the same way privatization of social security has been. He mentioned how Social Security is a promise that dates back to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and Medicare from Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s.
“There are not our promises to break,” Torres said. “These are promises that have to be passed to the next generation of senior citizens. There is nothing more important than keeping your word.”
Torres told The Riverdale Press he is not advocating for the abolition of Medicare Advantage, but for the restoration of choice, saying “senior citizens should have the power to choose the version of Medicare that best serves their needs rather than have medicare advantage imposed upon them.”
Sharon Asherman, director of New Beginnings Center for Contemporary Adults at The Riverdale Y, said she was proud to see seniors rally together for something they’re passionate about.
The center provides educational, recreational, social activities, social services, and lunches to the community who are over 60. But it also provides seniors the opportunity to make their voices heard as they did last Thursday.
“In society, people often think that older adults are either disengaged or too demanding,” Asherman said. “Today showed they’re an active participant in the choices that affect their lives.
“They can be very vocal and dynamic in changing policy. Older adults are our past, but this also proves they are also our future too because they’re setting the pavement for the next generation.”