By Lisa Bertagnoli
On Nov. 8 voters face a choice for the U.S. Senate: incumbent Mark Kirk, a Republican, or Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who represents a suburban Chicago district.
For AARP, a top priority in the race is the candidates’ stance on Social Security. Beginning in 2034, the program will begin paying out more than it takes in. If no action is taken, it will be able to pay only about 75 percent of promised benefits.
Social Security “is what our members care about,” said Ryan Gruenenfelder, manager of advocacy and outreach for AARP Illinois. “We want to make sure every person running for Congress understands the importance of Social Security and making sure it’s there for future generations.”
AARP’s Take a Stand campaign offers information on where presidential and congressional candidates stand on Social Security. To learn more, go to 2016takeastand.org.
The Bulletin asked both Senate candidates to weigh in on Social Security and Medicare. Both responded to questions through email.
Kirk favors bolstering the program by reducing fraud in Social Security Disability Insurance payments, then redirecting penalty funds into the Social Security trust fund. Kirk also supports working on pension reforms, including creating new options for employers and workers, so future retirees don’t have to depend so heavily on Social Security.
Duckworth is open to lifting the cap on the Social Security tax, which this year taxes earnings up to $118,500. “If we went back to the way the law was in the 1980s and adjusted the cap accordingly, we could protect the solvency of this essential program for decades to come,” she wrote.
Duckworth opposes cutting benefits and would explore increasing them through the Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act, which would give a onetime payment of about $580 to 70 million beneficiaries. The increase would be funded by ending a provision in the tax code that allows corporations to write off bonuses paid in the form of stock options to top executives.
Kirk said he favors expanding benefits once the trust fund has long-term security.
Duckworth said that combating fraud; allowing negotiations over prescription drug prices; and offering incentives to boost quality, rather than quantity, of care would improve Medicare. She said she has “worked across the aisle” to enact stronger penalties for Medicare and Medicaid fraud. Her campaign pointed out that Kirk has twice voted to turn Medicare into a voucher program, though he opposed it in 2013.
Kirk said reform efforts “must involve the best solutions from both sides of the aisle.” Lowering health care costs, he said, is important because older people spend heavily on medications. He introduced a bill in 2013 that would force insurance companies to cover chemotherapy, so patients would not have to pay high out-of-pocket costs for medication that treats chronic conditions or cancer. No action was taken on the bill.
“My job is to fight for Illinois seniors and make sure that Social Security and Medicare are solvent and healthy for generations to come,” Kirk wrote.
Duckworth said that “no matter who wins the White House, I will be prepared to protect Social Security and prevent Republicans from privatizing Medicare and turning it into a voucher system.”
Lisa Bertagnoli is a writer living in Chicago.