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Highlights From the Seniors Decide 2016 Forum

Sanders and a Kasich proxy spoke on issues for older voters

Part of the Election 2016 Special Report

Where do the presidential candidates stand on key issues affecting older Americans and which issues do older voters care most about? The Seniors Decide 2016 forum on Wednesday, Feb. 17 — the nation’s only presidential candidate forum focused on issues important to the nation’s older adults — offered some answers.

The live-streamed forum held at George Mason University was run by the nonprofit Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO) —a coalition including AARP, the Alzheimer’s Foundation, the American Society on Aging, LeadingAge, National Alliance on Caregiving and Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement — with Next Avenue as media partner. Viewers at 202 watch parties in 141 cities in all 50 states tuned in.

Sanders and a Kasich Proxy Appeared

Although all the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates were invited, only Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders and a proxy for Republican Gov. John Kasich — former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis — appeared.

“One of the disappointments in the campaign, for whatever reason, is that issues pertaining to seniors are not getting the attention they should,” said Sanders. “It pains me that these are not issues we are discussing anywhere near the degree to which we should.”

One of the disappointments in the campaign, for whatever reason, is that issues pertaining to seniors are not getting the attention they should.

— Sen. Bernie Sanders at Seniors Decide 2016

Echoing that, Republican pollster Bob Carpenter of Chesapeake Beach Consulting noted that most of the candidates don’t have a “senior tab” or an “older Americans tab” on their websites.

“They have an obligation to tell you where they stand,” said Carpenter. “Medicare and Social Security reform or maintenance are important and need to be talked about.”

Said LCAO chair and forum moderator Max Richtman: “When they talk about Medicare or Social Security reform, they don’t explain what that means. Is it about raising the retirement age? Reducing benefits to bring in more revenue?”

Polling Data on Older Voters

Next Avenue’s Managing Director Susan Donley, Carpenter and Democratic pollster Jonathan Voss of Lake Research Partners presented research about key election issues for older Americans.

Donley cited a January 2016 online survey of 3,400 Next Avenue readers in which 98 percent said they plan to vote; 73 percent felt the candidates weren’t paying enough attention to issues facing older Americans and 67 percent said issues of aging, caregiving and long-term care will be a factor in how they’ll vote.

Voss said that “seniors are more tax-sensitive than other voters,” since many are on fixed incomes, but don’t perceive that Social Security was “under attack” in the election. He also cited polling saying that seniors are more likely than other voters to want the Affordable Care Act either repealed or changed.

Sanders on Key Issues

Sanders presented his policy positions on an assortment of issues affecting older Americans:

Social Security  “We have to be very aggressive not only about continuing the effort to stop Republicans from cutting Social Security, but to talk about expanding Social Security benefits,” he said.

Sanders opposed the proposal to switch the Social Security cost-of-living formula to “the chained CPI,” calling it “the most absurd idea I ever heard of” because, he said, it would likely lower benefits.

To help keep Social Security solvent, Sanders called to lift the cap on taxable income subject to Social Security payroll taxes — from today’s $118,000 to $250,000. That, he said, would extend the life of the Social Security trust fund (to pay full benefits) from the current 19 years to 58 years and would expand benefits by $1,300 a year for “folks trying to get by on $16,000 a year or less.”

Medicare  “I vigorously opposed Republican efforts to voucherize or privatize Medicare benefits,” Sanders said. “Not only should we not privatize Medicare, we should be expanding it and provide Medicare for all in a single-payer system.” Sanders also favored adding vision, dental and hearing benefits to Medicare’s coverage. And he said he wants Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, the way the Veterans Administration does, to lower costs for beneficiaries.

Caregiving  “We need to provide more protection and support to Alzheimer’s caregivers,” Sanders said, although he didn’t offer specifics.

Aging in Place  “This is a no-brainer. People would prefer to stay in their own homes rather than be forced to go to an institution,” said Sanders. “We should respect that. It’s a civil rights issue.” Allowing more older Americans to age in place “can save substantial sums of Medicaid money,” he added.

Aid in Dying  Noting that his state, Vermont, has been “a leader in end-of-life care,” Sanders said: “We have to be extremely careful how these decisions are made. If a human is in a situation where the person is going to see life end in a short period of time and where they are suffering and choose no longer to be alive, they have the right to make that decision for themselves.”

Kasich’s Views on Key Issues

Speaking on behalf of Kasich, Davis discussed a few topics:

Medicaid  He noted that the Ohio governor took Obamacare’s Medicaid money for the state and used it to, among other things, “open nursing home beds for people who wouldn’t otherwise qualify” and toward long-term care for home care.

Medicare  Davis said: “Medicare is going to have to change. It’s not sustainable to continue growing by 7 percent a year. We’re going to have to make some tough changes.”

Social Security  Solvency issues are “easily fixable if we act now,” Davis said. “The later we wait, the harder it gets.” Davis said Kasich was not in favor of privatizing Social Security and opposed taxing Social Security benefits when he was in Congress.

Alzheimer’s  Kasich “favors more money for Alzheimer’s research,” Davis noted.

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