I'm committed to keeping the promises made to and paid for by our seniors. I believe in protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare and honoring the benefits that seniors earned during a lifetime of hard work.
More than 580,000 South Carolinians over the age of 65 are Medicare beneficiaries, and more than 620,000 seniors benefit from Social Security. Without these programs, millions of America's elderly would live in poverty. By one estimate, Social Security alone lifts more than 14 million older Americans out of poverty.
I do not believe that Social Security is a "ponzi scheme," as some have called it, and I do not support proposals that would privatize it. The program is safe for more than the next 20 years. We should use that time to consider modest changes that will extend its life for another generation of Americans. I would start by looking at changes that would not affect our seniors or those nearing retirement today, but in the long term would adjust Social Security contributions and benefits for the wealthiest Americans.
I oppose proposals that privatize Medicare, replace it with a voucher system, or simply shift costs onto seniors. Our first priority should be to maintain benefits and cut costs.
We can start by rooting out waste and fraud, promoting preventative care, and using electronic records to cut red tape. One appalling example of waste can be found in how our Medicare program purchases prescription drugs. Today, Medicare is prohibited from negotiating lower prices from drug companies.
Why? Because in 2003 the drug companies lobbied Congress to enact a law that prohibits Medicare from negotiating lower prices, and it did. It costs us $24 billion every year. The drug companies and their lobbyists won and seniors and the taxpayers lost. The benefits aren't better; they're just more expensive.
And we can find more savings. The Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan agency that serves as the government's internal watchdog, estimates that the Medicare program makes $44 billion in improper payments each year, most of which are overpayments. Every dollar we save is one more dollar toward quality care and financial solvency.
In the long term, we need an open discussion of tax and entitlement reform and Medicare must be part of that discussion. Unfortunately, the discourse in Washington right now is all politics with little hope of compromise and consensus. I will work to change that, focusing first on savings and then on long-term financial solvency.
I'm also concerned about elder abuse and consumer fraud. The National Center on Elder Abuse reports that thousands of older Americans suffer physical, emotional and financial abuse at the hands of their family and caretakers. Sadly, many victims are reluctant to report abuse, leaving them vulnerable and alone.
The FBI and the National Crime Prevention Council report that seniors are more at risk to be targeted by telemarketing and other consumer scams. The Council estimates that fraudulent telemarketers direct up to 56 to 80 percent of their calls at older Americans. I will work with law enforcement, health care providers and senior groups to find better ways to identify, stop and punish these crimes.