Seniors brace for loss of Social Security COLA

Jim Winslow's Social Security check each month is about $1,000, which he stretches to cover utility bills, food, medical needs and gas. Without a cost-of-living adjustment for the next two years, Winslow may have a harder time making ends meet.

“The government says you'll get so much and that's what you're going to get,” Winslow, 93, said as he ate lunch at the Medford Senior Center Monday.

“It works pretty good till your taxes come around,” he said.

Winslow said his money doesn't go far. His utility bill runs about $200 a month, and “you try not to buy any more gas than you have to.”

“He's lucky he don't take any medicine,” said his housemate, Dottie Birkett, 80.

Birkett said Winslow spends about $300 to $400 a year on prescriptions while she spends about $3,000 to $4,000. Birkett has prescription drug insurance through Aetna.

“Premiums on medical cost the most,” she said.

For the first time since 1975, Social Security trustees are projecting there won't be a COLA included in the next two years' benefits because of this year's negative inflation.
Although the law prevents Social Security benefits from dropping, the monthly check may be less for those with Medicare Part B coverage for doctor's visits or Part D coverage for prescription drugs. Both Part B and Part D coverage premiums are expected to rise.

The Part D premiums are expected to increase from $28 to $30 a month depending on the plan and, like Part B, they are often deducted directly from the Social Security payments.

A few dollars a month isn't much for most people, but for many senior citizens it will be a stretch to make ends meet, and it reminds them who controls the purse strings.

“It has an emotional and psychological impact that feels like you're losing ground,” said Don Bruland, director of Senior and Disability Services for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments. “Some people don't realize that for one-third of seniors, it's their only source of income; and for two-thirds, it's a major source of income.”

According to the most recent Social Security statistics available, there were more than 40,300 Social Security beneficiaries living in Jackson County in 2004. The average Social Security check is a little more than $1,100 a month, but some get as little as $650, Bruland said.

For people over 65 years old, about 14 percent of their check is used for health costs, he said.

“The general inflation hasn't gone up, but health-care inflation has gone up,” he said.

Many senior citizens' outside income is from savings or stocks, which also have dropped, Bruland said.

“It looks as if senior citizens will be at the bottom of the totem pole,” said 87-year-old Mary E. Campbell, who volunteers at the Medford Senior Center.

Campbell said she is fortunate she doesn't have to rely solely on her Social Security check, which is more than $1,200 a month. Campbell's husband died in 2003 and she relies mostly on his pension.

“It will affect some people very badly,” she said. “For myself, I think I will just be a little more careful.”

Don Haag, 77, an IBM retiree, said the key is to live within your means. His Social Security check makes up about half of his monthly income.

“There is a lot of radical things with the economy and this is one of them,” said Haag.

“I'm more worried about the next generation,” Winslow said. “A lot of $10 and $20 (an hour) jobs — that ain't going to cut it.”

Reach intern Teresa Thomas at 776-4464 or e-mail
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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