Medicare crisis: ‘Greedy geezers’ or just ‘pigs in the python’?

It didn’t take me long, a few weeks ago, to dismiss the e-mail from my oldest friend with a wisecrack reply. As the New Year gets under way, I’m thinking it would have been wiser to pay a bit more attention.

Paul and I have been friends since before I was born. Our parents lived in the same building down by 8th and Main when Joe and Billee Abell welcomed their firstborn into the world about eight months before Jake and Helen Spehar did the same.

Today young parents play soothing music to comfort the developing little life inside the womb. My prenatal serenades from the apartment downstairs were likely a little louder.

We’ve shared a lot since our births in January and August of 1946. Grade school at the old St. Joe’s. Later, classroom space at the old Grand Junction Junior High School and GJHS, basketball and baseball, fishing and skiing trips. Paul has hauled me to the emergency room at St. Mary’s after a late night scuffle behind Dave Perry’s old Smoke Shack and helped me find my mother’s car after I lost it in the course of an evening readying myself for the SAT tests. He was part of our wedding and honored us with being the godparents of his beautiful daughter.

That was then. This is now.

Now, of course, being 2011, the year those of us on the leading edge of the Baby Boom turn 65. Per Paul’s pre-Christmas e-mail, let’s call it our “Medicare Year.” A quarter million of those post-war gleams in the eyes of our parents will have become eligible for that medical safety net by the time Paul joins them late this month.

Math wasn’t my best subject en route to my bachelor’s degree, so I’ll leave it to others more skilled with numbers to figure out how many of my fellow boomers will be on the Medicare rolls by the time I join them Aug. 20.  The scary thought, for us and our kids, is that 10,000 of us will be jumping aboard each day for the next 19 years.  That’s 79 million boomers born between 1946 and 1964.

We’ve been described as “the pig in the python” as our population bulge moved through society. Music, politics, automobiles, classroom sizes, housing bubbles and much more have been driven by our attitudes and appetites.

“Forever Young” isn’t just a Bob Dylan song to us. It’s been an expectation. Perhaps not a realistic one, as some of us are beginning to find out. And that spells trouble.

CBS News reported a few days before Christmas that Medicare could be bankrupt by 2017, that recipients will almost double from 46 million to 80 million and costs will jump from $500 billion a year today to $929 billion by 2020. Also, Medicare is already underfunded by at least $23 trillion (the difference between benefits promised and taxes paid into Medicare), and the number of workers supporting all that will decline.

It’s not just that folks former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming has dubbed the “greedy geezers,” adopt the “What, me worry?” attitude attributed to Alfred E. Neuman in that early baby boomer bible, “Mad” magazine. According to a recent Associated Press/GfK poll, Americans don’t want to raise the age for Medicare eligibility. Young and old, Republican and Democrat, they favor raising taxes to avoid cutting benefits.

Something’s obviously got to give. Somebody (most likely us newly-knighted geezers) has got to give in and accept higher age thresholds, means-tested benefits, or other Medicare modifications.

Surveys already show us boomers are recognizing a new reality. A survey by the Pew Research Center shows the number of us expecting to retire by age 65 is down by a third, from 75 percent to 50 percent. Of those turning 65 this year and still working, 40 percent say they will never retire. The survey also found that 45 percent of us risk running out of money in retirement, primarily because of health care costs.

I remember saying during one of my past political campaigns that “I grew up in Grand Junction when Main Street was straight and there wasn’t a four lane highway in all of Mesa County.”  To that, I’ll now add “and before Medicare.”

All of this started way back then in those simpler days. Now it’s time to figure out how to pay the piper.

Jim Spehar still hopes his share of baby boom benefits doesn’t go bust. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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