(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
Senior citizens clad in flapping hospital johnnies and hoisting signs reading “Keep seniors covered” took the streets of downtown Boston to protest the proposed increase in the eligibility age for Medicare.
“Nobody’s giving us anything,” said Ann Stewart, 87, a Medicare recipient and president of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council. “This is our money.” Stewart and other speakers said seniors have already paid for access to the federal health insurance program throughout their working lives.
The protest on Tuesday was led by a consortium of senior advocacy groups and health care providers who gathered outside the Arch Street building where the Massachusetts Hospital Association has offices. The protesters said the statewide association, which represents hospitals and health care systems, has joined with the American Hospital Association to advocate raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 to help reduce the federal budget.
But the hospital association says it has not advocated any specific proposals before the congressional super committee examining the budget cuts and that Massachusetts hospitals have already accepted lower Medicare reimbursements as part of the federal Affordable Care Act of 2010 as well as losing funds redirected to insurance programs for uninsured residents under the state's 2006 health care overhaul.
“While we advocate that Medicare and Medicaid stay strong and secure, we are concerned that deficit reduction efforts will disproportionately target provider payments,” Catherine Bromberg, a spokeswoman for the association, wrote in an e-mail. “Hospitals are already contributing to the deficit reduction effort.”
At Tuesday's protest, Paula Ryan, a local bargaining unit chair for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said the age increase “could be felt in millions of our most vulnerable seniors losing access to their health care.”
“Under the current system in place, nurses already see seniors struggling to access the care they need,” Ryan said. “And when patients receive care, they are often receiving substandard care, as hospitals have refused to provide the staff and resources needed to keep our seniors safe.”
Ryan said that while some Massachusetts hospitals are in genuine financial distress, across the state the industry continues to post multimillion-dollar profits. She said the greed of the Massachusetts Hospital Association was comparable to the greed of Wall Street speculators that led to the worldwide Occupy movement in recent weeks.
“If you want to know why this city and this country is being occupied and is ringing with the sound of outraged voices of protest, this is why,” Ryan said.
Al Norman, executive director of Mass Home Care, said the choice in balancing the federal budget wasn’t between seniors and hospitals but between spending on things taxpayers want, such as health care, and spending on things they don’t want, such as wars.
“The Mass Hospital Association is following the lead of the American Hospital Association in trying to make you and I believe that it’s the patients’ fault, it’s the elders’ fault for getting sick, so we have to pass costs on to them,” Norman said. He advocated lowering the age threshold for Medicare to 55 so that more Americans would be covered.
Jeff Cruz, executive director of Latinos for a Secure Retirement, said removing seniors, who have higher health care costs, from the federal program would increase the cost of private health insurance premiums by an average of $141 per year. The increase would be greater for younger subscribers, Cruz said, so that people in their 30s would pay an average of $235 more each year.
He said the number of seniors ages 65 and 66 who would remain in employer-based insurance programs and retiree health plans because they couldn’t access Medicare would cost employers nationwide $4.5 billion, with $113 million of that bill going to Massachusetts employers. And because the plan would remove the youngest and healthiest Medicare recipients, Cruz said, premiums for those still in the program would rise by $46 per year.
Other organizations participating in the protest included the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and the Massachusetts Association of Older Americans.
The demonstration on Arch Street concluded with the signing of a letter to the hospital association by representatives from each of the organizations present. A delegation of those representatives then entered the building with the intent of delivering the letter, guided by security guards and a man who declined to identify himself to a reporter but appeared to represent the building’s management.
Once inside, the delegation was told that no one would answer the phone at the hospital association’s offices, and the letter was left at the security desk for later delivery. From there, protesters marched through downtown in their johnnies to deliver copies of the letter to the offices of US Senators Scott Brown and John Kerry.
At the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Federal Building at Government Center, protesters chanted, “Hands off Medicare. Keep seniors covered,” as they awaited the appearance of someone from Brown’s office. After a short delay, Jerry McDermott, state director for Brown, and Lydia Goldblatt, deputy state director, appeared.
“I promise you that we’ll get this message to Washington today,” McDermott told the seniors. “Within the next 10 minutes. He’ll get this letter.”
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)