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Janet Patterson of Burlington, left, holds a sign during a rally at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday to support Social Security and Medicare.
Photo: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo

Retiree group rallies for entitlements

MONTPELIER — Marguerite Desany, a 75-year-old Burlington resident, has been retired and enrolled in Medicare for more than a decade.

But only in the past year has she started worrying that the government-run health insurance program could face cuts.

“I’m a little worried,” Desany said, as she sat in a chair under a tree in the Statehouse lawn. “I’d hate to see people go without.”

Desany was one of about 40 people who attended a rally on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier on Thursday in support of Social Security and Medicare, two programs that many people fear could be cut or altered in a way that harms the people enrolled in the programs.

Those fears have been amplified in recent months as Congress made budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and established a 12-member “super committee” to find at least $1.2 trillion in new savings. Medicare and Social Security have so far been spared, but that hasn’t eased everyone’s mind, because some politicians and members of the public continue calling for reforming the programs.

President Barack Obama says changes to Medicare need to be considered to address the nation’s debt, something many other Democrats fiercely oppose.

Janet Patterson, 73, of Burlington, doesn’t fear major immediate changes to the programs, but she is worried they will be diminished over time to the detriment of the next generation — including her nieces and nephews.

“I’m concerned that what they’re going to do is take away little bits at a time,” Patterson said.

Vermont politicians spoke at the rally, which was organized by the Vermont Chapter of the Alliance of Retired Americans along with the AFL-CIO, a labor federation.

Gov. Peter Shumlin addressed the crowd and said the approach federal elected officials are taking to addressing the nation’s problems is wrong.

“You know, I never thought I would be living in a time when our nation is on its back, when we ask the people who have the least to make the greatest sacrifice and we ask the people who have the most to make no sacrifice at all,” Shumlin said. “What has happened to America?”

But Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Washington County Democrat, said that has been the attitude in Montpelier as well.

In a booming speech that echoed through downtown Montpelier, Pollina took a shot at the Vermont Legislature for passing a budget this year that failed to raise income taxes on wealthy Vermonters and made cuts to programs that serve Vermont residents.

“We have to do better in this Legislature to have a budget that’s not balanced on the backs of working families and the vulnerable, which we did do this year, let’s not kid ourselves,” he said.

Shumlin, who proposed the initial budget and resisted income tax hikes this year, said he disagrees with Pollina’s assessment.

“I respectfully disagree,” Shumlin said, acknowledging there were about $40 million in human services cuts this year. “I think we passed a budget that was compassionate and smart without hurting the most vulnerable.”

During his speech, Shumlin said the nation’s debt problems are largely due to rising health care costs and promoted his attempt to reform health care, which he argues will save Vermont money.

“So the questions for us as a nation is how do we start addressing the real problems and not ask the most vulnerable, our seniors and our poorest to pay the price but actually have the courage to take on the special interests, the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, the folks who are wasting so much in our health care system and do what Vermont’s trying to do: make health care a right, not a privilege,” Shumli said.

Pollina said Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are not the country’s problems.

“These things are reasonable supports for people who live and work in the most powerful and richest nation on the face of the planet,” he said. “These are things we can afford.”

The real problem, Pollina said, is “the extreme overabundance of greed, greed that is dominating this country, greed that dominates this Congress, greed that allows Congress to be bought and sold by big money.”

Vermont’s congressional delegation did not attend the rally, but their representatives spoke and reiterated their support for Medicare and Social Security.

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