By DAVID M. JOHNSON
WASHINGTON (Sept. 30, 2009)—When Esther Lennette retired at age 65, she felt secure enough with her Social Security income and savings to take a much anticipated trip to Europe. That was 1983.
Today, each month's Social Security check cannot arrive soon enough for the 91-year-old Bethesda resident, who faces rising co-payments for medicine and high supplemental insurance costs.
On Wednesday, she joined Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., in backing a bill to issue a one-time $250 payment to help more than 50 million senior citizens keep up with rising medical costs.
The lump sum is designed to compensate for the fact that there will be no cost-of-living adjustment next year for senior citizens on Social Security. It will be the first time in 35 years a COLA has not been awarded.
"Based on the formula that, by law, they are obliged to use, they came to the conclusion that there is no inflation this year for seniors. In fact, their understanding is the cost of living for seniors has declined," Sanders said. "Seniors right now, I know this will come as a great shock, are not rushing out to discount stores to buy laptop computers or iPods."
The outcome of the formula was affected in part by the recent economic downturn.
Seniors spend a disproportionate percentage of their incomes on health care and prescription drugs, two areas that are actually increasing in price, according to Sanders.
"My monthly Social Security income is $1,117 a month," Lennette said. "From that I have to pay monthly prescriptions, the premium for my Medicare supplemental policy, groceries and gasoline for my car. Yes, I have an old car and I still drive to the food store."
With more than 20 years experience in the Social Security system, Lennette was chosen to speak for the 20 or so seniors who attended in support of the proposed bill. There were also more than 120,000 petitions in favor of the legislation presented by Barbara B. Kennelly, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
"I'm active for my age and would like to work and earn a little extra money but there aren't many jobs out there," Lennette said. "Especially not for seniors my age."
"Pharmaceuticals continue to escalate, medical care costs continue to escalate, rents and mortgages have not gone down and utilities have likely gone up," DeFazio said. "This modest, $250, one-time payment to seniors would basically be equivalent to a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment."
The proposed bill would pay for the COLA with a Social Security payroll tax on household incomes above $250,000 and below $359,000. Under the current law, only the first $106,800 of a household's income is subject to the payroll tax, according to Sanders and DeFazio.
Sanders was so impressed with Lennette's speaking abilities, he recommended a potential job for her.
"She's announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Congress," Sanders said. "If she doesn't get that COLA, she's going to need a congressional salary."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.