Bernie Sanders: Standing up for seniors

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This Saturday, I will be holding three Senior Town Meetings: a breakfast meeting in Montpelier, a lunch meeting in Newport, and an early dinner meeting in St. Albans. I hope you can join me to get an update from Washington, and to discuss issues of importance to older Vermonters.

As I travel around the state, I often meet older Vermonters who are struggling just to get by. To my mind, no senior in the richest country on Earth should ever have to decide between buying groceries, medications or keeping their house warm. But that is the sad reality today for far too many older Americans.

The bad news is that President Trump's proposed budget would have made the situation even worse. His budget called for major cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security Disability and many other programs that help seniors stay healthy and secure. At the same time, Trump and many in Congress supported massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and the largest corporations. The good news is that Congress ignored Trump's proposed budget and moved in an entirely different direction.

At a time when the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider, we have got to get our national priorities right. We should expand programs that help older Americans, not cut them. After all, a great nation is judged not by the tax breaks it gives to the very wealthy, but by how it cares for its most vulnerable people — including its seniors.

That is why I have introduced legislation to increase Social Security benefits by about $1,300 a year for low-income seniors, increase annual cost of living adjustments, and extend the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund for the next 60 years. We can do all of this, simply by lifting the cap on taxable income and requiring individuals who make more than $250,000 a year to pay their fair share of Social Security taxes.

We must also make sure Social Security beneficiaries receive their benefits in a timely manner. Over the previous eight years, Congress has cut Social Security's operations budget by 16 percent. That means it takes longer to get an appointment at the local field office, to get through to the toll-free helpline, or to get a disability claim processed. Here in Vermont, two of our three Social Security offices have seen an almost 30 percent reduction in staffing. This not only causes frustration for Vermonters, but often, it also creates serious financial hardship.

I am happy to report that the recent budget passed by Congress includes a $480 million funding boost for Social Security operations — something I fought very hard to make happen. This is a victory for older Vermonters, persons with disabilities and Social Security employees who are often overworked and underpaid.

The budget also increases funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) by $2 billion. As the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, I am fighting to make certain that veterans in Vermont get the highest quality care at the White River Junction VA Medical Center and the community based outpatient clinics in Burlington, Rutland, Bennington, Brattleboro and Newport.

Another issue I regularly hear about from seniors is the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs. Many seniors cannot afford to buy the medicines they are prescribed, or they cut their pills in half to make a prescription last longer. This is unacceptable. Every American should have access to the medicines they need to stay healthy or treat disease.

The fact is, the big pharmaceutical companies are making huge profits on the backs of seniors. Since 2014, the cost of 60 drugs commonly taken by older adults doubled, and 20 of them quadrupled in price. Meanwhile, the top five drug companies made more than $50 billion in profits last year alone. The wealth and power of the pharmaceutical industry is extraordinary, having spent billions in lobbying and campaign contributions over the last 20 years to get Congress to protect their interests.

We must act to end the absurdity of Americans paying, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. We must allow Medicare — which spends tens of billions on prescription drugs — to use its leverage to negotiate lower drug prices. Further, we can make medicines cheaper for everyone by allowing the importation of lower priced prescription drugs from Canada and other developed countries. There is no reason why the same exact medicine sells for 50 percent less in Canada or the United Kingdom than in the United States.

I hope you can join me at one of my three town meetings in Vermont this Saturday. Please call my office at 1-800-339-9834 for details and to RSVP.

Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., represents Vermont in the United States Senate. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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