Politicians throw about plans for health care, Social Security, and Medicare as if they were stand-up comedians trying joke after joke to see what gets a rise out of their audience. To many of us, the effects of these plans are abstract and distant. We intellectually engage with them, thinking that our rational side is best when evaluating how our nation should take care of its old, poor, and vulnerable.
Perhaps instead, we should feel something. This week, I’m feeling anger—make that rage. Why? Allow me to introduce you to my grandpa.
My grandfather turned 87 last week, and I visited him to celebrate and take him out to dinner. Grandpa has an amazing history: Born in Marseille, France, he served in the French Merchant Marine, and then fought in the French Resistance until the liberation of France from Nazi rule in 1944. Soon after, he came to the United States, where he met and married my grandmother and became a U.S. citizen.
Grandpa worked on the docks in Brooklyn, unloading cargo ships, until his back was injured at work, forcing him to find less-physical labor. For years after that, he worked for an independent governmental agency. When he retired from that agency, he was promised a pension as well as health insurance for life (the same health care given to retirees from New York City employment).
Knowing that this was assured, he worked a series of jobs with few benefits: he managed a McDonald’s, he drove a commuter van, he managed a boutique. Then, at the age of 65, he graduated from Police Academy, becoming a special forces policeman in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. There, he was a crossing guard and worked events like parades and school dances as extra security. When he finally retired from work altogether, he was 75 years old.
In late 2010, the governmental agency he worked for was closed down by the state and city. Legislators could not reach a deal to keep the agency, which was supposed to make money, solvent. When the agency was dissolved, retirees got a letter saying that the city and state would no longer be providing them with health insurance. The courts ruled that this was legal, despite the promises that were made by generations of politicians. My grandfather’s health care was left to the whims of Medicare.
No more dental insurance, either, apparently (it was part of the package he was promised for life). For a birthday gift, my parents, brothers and I paid for my grandfather’s dental bill. One of his teeth had become infected, and the extraction and subsequent false tooth cost some $2000. Grandpa otherwise couldn’t have afforded it, and he would have lived with a big gap in the side of his mouth.
Did I mention that my grandparents live only on Social Security checks and that small pension check (thankfully, it’s against the New York State Constitution to renege on the promise of a pension)? From their less-than-$2000 a month in income, they have to pay rent, utilities, food, car insurance, gas (thankfully, they don’t drive much), doctor’s bills and medicine.
Which brings us to Medicare. My grandfather has asthma. My grandmother has high blood pressure. It’s not like they take a raft of pills every day, but those conditions require constant medication. Here in September, they find themselves in the infamous Medicare “doughnut hole.” Apparently, the asthma medication costs $400 a month, and the blood pressure medication $200.
My grandparents don’t have $600 a month to spend on medicine, but because they would die without this medication, they find a way. They beg their doctors for free samples so that they don’t have to refill their prescriptions quite as often. Grandma is currently calling the drug companies to try to qualify for discount programs. Neither of them can wait until 2014, when the Affordable Health Care Act closes that hole.
Because every spare dollar is going to pay for asthma medication, they can’t afford the health care they need, either. My grandfather’s back hurts so much (from that injury 45 years ago) that he can hardly get in and out of a car. I watched him struggle to go out to dinner with us, and I could hardly believe it. His doctor thinks that regular physical therapy would help—but he can’t afford the three-times-a-week co-pays. I’m going to be paying them for him.
Thankfully, my grandfather has a family who can help. But at 87, he doesn’t want to have to ask for it, and he knows that we have other financial considerations. My parents are retired, too, and not exactly flush with cash. My next youngest brother supports his family of 4 on his income. My youngest brother is about to start graduate school. I’ll be paying for grandpa’s physical therapy.
Which makes me mad. Our society is failing our elders. It is utterly contemptuous that someone who worked hard all of his life could be reduced to having to decide whether to seek the medical care he needs or ask his grandson for money. It is beyond the pale that my similarly hard-working grandmother (none of whose jobs left her with retirement security either) has to call the doctor and beg for another free asthma inhaler.
So the next time a politician says something about the “doughnut hole,” I want you to think of my 87 year-old grandpa. The next time a politician mentions the promises that we make to our senior citizens, think of my grandpa. The next time someone decides that cutting Medicare spending is the only way to save our nation, think of grandpa. I know I will be.