At a time when political extremists want to cut social safety nets to shreds, ordinary Americans are stepping up to defend Medicare, one of the nation's most successful programs.
NYSUT members, leaders and their supporters this summer participated in a statewide caravan to confront politicians who want to gut the federal health care program. They joined other advocates at rallies at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Museum in Hyde Park, Dutchess County, and in Albany.
"We cannot reduce programs like Medicare and make the most vulnerable suffer while most of America's wealth is in the hands of just a few," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta.
Many newly elected members of Congress saw the debt-ceiling crisis as an opportunity to dismantle key federal programs. While they didn't succeed in their long-term goal, they created enough instability to devise a settlement that will weaken Medicare in New York.
Doctors serving Medicare patients face a 2 percent cut in reimbursements. The move will likely make it harder for those who rely on Medicare to gain access to care. When reimbursements were last cut in the mid-1990s after the passage of the Balanced Budget Amendment, thousands of NYSUT members lost access to their doctors.
The federal health insurance program serves people 65 and older, but it also serves younger Americans and their families, and people coping with certain conditions.
"This is another important government program that's under attack and we must defend it. If we don't, who will?" said Jack Mayer, a retired member of the Albany Public School Teachers Association.
Anna Boughtwood, a NYSUT intern, has been researching Medicare and worries about the impact it will have on her generation should it be dismantled.
"It's important that all of us come together to support the Medicare program and see that it is never cut," she said. Boughtwood was among more than 100 advocates who gathered in Albany last month to mark Medicare's 46th anniversary.
One of the greatest threats to Medicare's future is contained in the House Republican budget plan, authored by Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and passed by the Republican House majority.
His controversial proposal to provide seniors with vouchers to spend with private insurance companies created a huge political stir, including the recent Republican loss in New York's 26th Congressional District race, which many national analysts saw as a referendum on Ryan's plan to gut Medicare.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reports that, if adopted, the Ryan plan would cover only 35 percent of a recipient's health care costs, and the average recipient would have to pay $6,500 a year in out-of-pocket expenses.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, said the voucher plan "would end traditional Medicare and most of Medicaid" and said the vouchers "would erode over time" and buy "fewer health care services."
"No matter how they disguise their plan, it's an attack on a major benefit Americans have paid into and earned," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue.
"It's another reason for all of us to be involved in the 2012 elections. This is a right we must defend," she said.