Politics & Policy

Saving Social Security and Medicare

It’s not too late to fix the programs, if we act soon.

Last week’s trustees report on the financial health of Social Security and Medicare underscores a fact that everyone in Washington is aware of but few are willing to do anything about: Both of these crucial safety-net programs are on a path to insolvency.

According to the report, Medicare’s hospital trust fund will be exhausted by 2030. Social Security’s retirement program will remain solvent until 2034, but its disability trust fund is slated to run dry in just two years.

I am currently 43 years old. This means that if nothing changes, by the time I reach full retirement age at 67, both Social Security and Medicare will have been insolvent for years.

The good news is, if we act soon, we can make changes that will save these programs without having an impact on current seniors or those who are approaching retirement. Personally, I would never support a change that affects people who currently rely on Social Security and Medicare, like my mom.

Both of my parents were blessed to come to a country where a life of hard work meant they would be rewarded with a dignified retirement. In the last months of his life, Medicare allowed my father to receive the palliative care he needed to die with dignity surrounded by the people who loved him.

In recent years my mother’s health has declined as well. Medicare pays for the care she now receives that has not only extended her life but also preserved its quality. And Social Security continues to provide for her financial needs as she lives with my sister and her husband.

Despite the importance of Social Security and Medicare and the imminence of their financial insolvency, Washington has been unwilling and unable to put partisanship aside to address the issue. So earlier this year, I proposed a series of reforms to save these programs that I hope all Americans can unite behind. 

Our first goal of reform must be to make it easier for people to work longer. Working longer is not only financially attractive but is also a preference for many seniors. Currently, those who keep working past retirement age continue to pay Social Security taxes while receiving almost no extra benefits in return. In order to remove this disincentive to work, I proposed eliminating the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax for all individuals who have reached retirement age.

My second goal is to enact reforms that save Social Security for future generations. The first step is to gradually increase the retirement age without touching it for retired Americans and those nearing retirement. We now have a record number of Social Security beneficiaries, and they are living another five to ten years longer than Social Security’s earliest recipients. Yet in the past 80 years, Congress has increased the retirement age by only two years.

We also need to look at how we calculate initial benefits. The answer is to reduce the growth of benefits for upper-income seniors while making the program even stronger for lower-income seniors. This isn’t a cut, it’s simply a reduction in how fast the benefit will increase for wealthier retirees who rely less on Social Security.

Our third and final goal is also the most difficult, and that is saving Medicare. When it comes to a broad and comprehensive Medicare reform plan, we must dramatically expand health-care choices for seniors, spur competition in the marketplace, and extend the solvency of the Medicare trust fund — all while making sure traditional Medicare remains an option.

To do so, I propose we transition to a premium-support system like the bipartisan one proposed by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Ron Wyden, which would give seniors a generous but fixed amount of money with which to purchase health insurance from either Medicare or a private provider. The choice would be theirs to make.

All of these ideas would make meaningful strides toward saving Social Security and Medicare for future generations. If ever there was an issue worthy of both parties coming together to act for the good of the country, preserving a secure retirement for 21st-century seniors is that issue. I am eager to work with anyone — Republican or Democrat — who will work in good faith on these reforms.

As the trustees report this week has shown us, there can be no excuses for delay. The time for political games has passed. So let’s act together today to save these vital programs and ensure a secure retirement for ourselves, our children, and all the generations that follow.

— Marco Rubio, the junior U.S. senator from Florida, is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Select Intelligence Committee.

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