Congress should keep promise, protect Medicare, Social Security

Willis Henry Farmer was born in April 1932. He died 65 years later.

He was my father and a glorious mess. When I consider proposals to cut Social Security or increase the age of eligibility for Medicare, which provides health insurance and care for retirees, I think of him and my mom.

Willis Farmer traveled the world, served in the U.S. Army in Germany, started and lost his own business, had a family and finally settled into a work-a-day existence.

When I was a boy, he owned and ran a service station, worked as a machinist and a janitor and finally went to work for the gas company, fixing furnaces, boilers and the like.

He worked in small, dirty spaces fighting off rats and snakes with a large flashlight. He worked on ladders and on roofs and in people’s kitchens, basements, crawl spaces and garages.

In the summers, some of those places became unbearably hot, and in the winter they were unbearable cold.

I used to think it was funny when he’d come home from work sometimes with his eyebrows singed from some sort of gas flare up or the unorthodox method he used to check for small gas leaks.

He worked through major surgeries and near constant pain. And he continued to work despite self-inflicted damage to his body from cigarettes and alcohol.

By the time he retired – “early at 63” – his knees and legs were used up, his health was gone and he had less than two years to live.

These are the facts of his life.

I’m not sharing them because they are unique. Instead, I’m sharing them because they are not. It’s a similar story for tens of thousands of people.

Right now in Washington, there are numerous efforts underway to change public policy in ways that would hurt people like my dad.

People who wear ties and wingtips are debating the “very serious” ideas of changing Social Security or increasing the eligibility age for Medicare, a program that provides health insurance for seniors who paid into the system for their entire working lives.

The current prize for Republicans in Washington is to raise the eligibility age for Medicare to 67. The argument: People are living longer, healthcare costs are rising, something must be done.

Raising the age to qualify for Medicare won’t reduce healthcare spending. In fact, it’ll do just the opposite. Medicare is actually very good at negotiating lower rates for health care services.

It will cost working men and women thousands in out-of-pocket expenses or lead to a new category of uninsured Americans. And any money the federal government does save will be shifted onto states, to people who buy private insurance and to the seniors themselves.

During the presidential campaign, former Gov. Mitt Romney and his surrogates made sport of attacking President Barack Obama for his alleged efforts to cut Medicare.

But the lies of the campaign season have given way to reality, and once again it is Congressional Republicans who want to fundamentally alter the promises that we have made to generations of working people.

They want to cut Medicare and Social Security.

And the folks who will shoulder the worst of their ideas are the low-income and middle-class families who spend a lifetime working and who are counting on Social Security and Medicare to keep them secure, at least at some minimum level, in their old age.

My dad played by the rules. He went to work every day, whether he felt like it or not. He worked hard. He saved his money. He bought a house and he helped his son to get an education that he hoped would give him a better life.

His hard work helped write a ticket for a better life for me and my children, whom he never had a chance to meet.

He wasn’t perfect, but he did his part for his family, his community and his country.

Changes in Medicare won’t affect my dad. Too late for that. But they would affect many others like him.

How many 55-year-old gasmen, drywall hangers, construction workers, farmers and fisherman do you know who are hanging on until they can call it a day and hopefully have a few good years to enjoy retirement, spend time with their grandkids, fish a little or just tinker around the house?

We shouldn’t tell seniors that after a lifetime of work that they owe it to the rest of us to carry on for a few more years.

They gave at the office. Everyday for 45 years or more.