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Seniors grimly do math of living

As Social Security and Medicare changes are announced, many older people must recalculate their slim budgets.

Published October 17, 2003


PALM HARBOR - Ada Rochelle has seen friends forego prescription medication when money was short. Hearing that Medicare premiums are going up at a faster rate than Social Security cost-of-living increases only makes her worry more.

"I think it's rotten," said Rochelle, 75, of Palm Harbor. "In the long run, seniors are going downhill."

Rochelle, a retired psychologist, is fortunate and can absorb the increased costs, but she knows others who can't.

"My income is shrinking compared to the cost of living," she said. "If I'm pushed down, what happened to the rest of those people? A whole lot of the middle class has slid into poverty."

* * *

BROOKSVILLE - At the end of the month, 79-year old Rocco Santora has only a few bucks left. His Social Security and small pension from his job as a maintenance man in New York are just enough to get by.

"At my age, it's hard to look forward to the future," Santora said. "I just look to pay my bills and eat and drink and that is it."

Already worried about covering the costs of his prescriptions, Santora wasn't pleased to hear that Medicare premiums will go up sharply next year while Social Security payments will increase only modestly.

Only sad economic choices remain.

"You'll have to do away with something else like sending money to the grandkid or something," he said.

* * *

SUN CITY CENTER - Barbara Nicholson has a thyroid disorder, a neurological disease, diabetes and high cholesterol. She requires regular medical attention, and that requires Medicare.

Although the 72-year-old retired social worker has supplemental health insurance and a pension, Medicare keeps her maladies in check and her lifestyle active. So the news that Medicare premiums will rise sharply next year while Social Security benefits will increase only modestly isn't welcome news.

"What choice do we have? We can't do without it," Nicholson, 72, said. "Medicare is very important to us. I don't know what we'd do without it."

* * *

On Wednesday, the government said Medicare premiums were going up 13.5 percent, or about $7.90 for the average recipient, to $66.60 a month. On Thursday, the cost-of-living increase for Social Security benefits was announced: 2.1 percent, or $19 a month more for the average retiree. Net result for the average senior: $11.10 ahead each month.

"They give it to you and then they take it away from you," said Helen Howard, 89, of St. Petersburg.

The twin announcements about the economics of old age hit the Tampa Bay area particularly hard because of its high concentration of Medicare enrollees and Social Security recipients. About one in five area residents is on Medicare and Social Security, more than half a million people whose household incomes will change Jan. 1.

Although the average senior will see a net increase of a few dollars in income based upon the changes announced this week, the sudden jump in Medicare premiums comes at a politically sensitive time for the program.

Congress is debating a new prescription drug benefit for Medicare but has been struggling with ways to pay for it. One option that has gained currency in recent days is a once-unthinkable idea of creating a "means test" for income that would mean wealthier seniors would pay higher premiums.

The last time Congress tried raising premiums to cover a new benefit was in 1988 when it added catastrophic care and some prescription drugs. The resulting outcry by seniors led Congress to repeal the changes and roll back the rates the next year.

For Loraine Kuhlen, 88, of St. Petersburg, the question of whether a new drug benefit would be worth having higher premiums left her pondering some some grim math. No doubt, her prescriptions are expensive - she was headed to the pharmacy to refill three prescriptions that would cost $100 - but she wasn't sure if expanding Medicare to cover those drugs would end up easing her burden.

"I don't know if we'd be a little ahead or not," she said.

The latest increase in premiums did not generate outrage, but it did unsettle many local residents.

Sun City Center resident Bud Nolan, 74, who retired as a division manager at Westinghouse after 40 years, called the Medicare increase "ridiculous."

He pays his bills with income from his pension and Social Security, which he says is "just enough to live decently," as long as his costs don't keep rising.

"Every time you turn around," he said, "another premium goes up and the next thing you know it's 10 percent of your income."

But Brooksville resident Maria Lopez, 66, was more saddened than angry. She said she is struggling.

"I really don't know how I manage. I get $600 or so and after I pay bills nothing is left," she said. "We are paying bills with credit cards right now. That's the only way to survive.

"The future looks darker and darker day by day."

This year's increase was part of the yearly application of a formula. By law, Medicare premiums must cover 25 percent of the costs of doctor visits and outpatient care; the Treasury covers the other 75 percent. Costs have increased, so premiums rose.

Armando Fernandez, 72, of Tampa has about $150 a month left over for groceries, electricity, a phone bill and other expenses.

"It's hard living right now," Fernandez said. "It's getting harder and harder to live. They keep taking. What can I do?"

Some Medicare deductibles will increase in January. For the portion of Medicare that covers long hospital stays, special nursing homes and some home health care services, deductibles will rise $36 to $867 next year. Under the Medicare program, the deductible is the only cost for up to a 60-day hospital stay.

For Mary Travell, 86, of Port Richey, the details of which program changes were secondary. She said she nearly fell over when she read about Medicare costs going up. When told how much Social Security payments would rise, she was exasperated.

"Is that all?" she asked. "It's not enough. They're not giving us a damn thing. They're taking away."

To pay bills, Travell has two jobs.

"I had to," she said. "(Social Security) doesn't cover everything."

Higher premiums might mean some seniors who come to the nonprofit Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center will no longer be able to afford the center's $6 dinners, said Irene Rausch, the center's 62-year-old executive director.

"Some of them can't even afford the $4 we charged today," she said.

Tony Aulicino, 79, of Oldsmar and his wife Ann, 76, live off $1,600 per month in Social Security and said even an $8 increase hurts.

"It's a little scary," said Aulicino. "Life gets harder and harder to make ends meet. This is another nail in the coffin."

- Times staff writers Janet Zink, Jim Ross, Duane Bourne, Steve Thompson, Dong-Phuong Nguyen and Kelly Virella contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 17, 2003, 01:48:36]

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