Reflecting on the Presidential Debates and What Lies Ahead

During the recent televised right-wing free-for-all -- also known as the Republican presidential debates -- we witnessed a heavy dose of mud-slinging, mainly directed at women -- female Fox News host Megyn Kelly, in particular -- and immigrants. Substantive discussion on real issues, however, was MIA. It was a national embarrassment. On the other hand, it was refreshing to see the Democratic debate offer serious discussions on a wide range of issues, with rapidly fired questions coming from Anderson Cooper on CNN and equally quick and authoritative answers -- particularly from Bernie and Hillary -- for the benefit of the 15 million plus who tuned in.

Up until then, Hillary had been lackluster on the campaign trail, with her poll numbers sinking like a rock, with her teeny-weeny focus groups were ineffective in building support for her flagging candidacy. Her trustworthiness and honesty remain a question, and the e-mail issue and Benghazi have been major distractions for her. She did, however, perform well in front of the GOP-manufactured Benghazi hearing last week, showing what a political pro she is as she came completely prepared to counter any mud thrown her way. She essentially exited unscathed.

The first debate was definitely a good night for the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, as the core values we have not seen featured in quite some time came front and center in the debate. Bernie Sanders dominated on the issues, especially about the millionaire and billionaire class controlling our government. The message he has taken across the country to rallies attended by thousands is succinct and effective, and it set the tone for the evening: "Congress doesn't regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress." Meanwhile, Hillary has called on Wall Street to "cut it out." Surely she jests, with the big-bucks, bankster donors pouring money into her campaign.

Some good news is that campaign finance reform is actually being discussed in the debates, as well as nationally. Until this is addressed we can expect only more of the same old moribund and corrupt Congress we have now, where nothing is accomplished -- except the destruction and elimination of major safety net programs we cherish and need. Bernie ignited the debate with his reference to Hillary's "damn e-mails" and the nation's weariness on that subject, when serious discussion on the issues is so desperately needed. She laughed and thanked him for no doubt letting her off the hook on that one, but in no time she attacked him on guns. Bernie does need to step up and clarify his position on this issue. It is understood that he comes from a rural, hunting state, but he still must take a strong stand in protecting people against the rampant gun violence, which took over 33,000 lives in 2013 and over 10,000 already this year. Sane, sensible legislation is needed, and the NRA is on notice. The Dems appear to be uniting for this battle, and much of the country is demanding legislative action on guns and the mentally ill, who have access to these deadly weapons. Here is a bi-partisan issue that most can agree on.

I almost missed the Dem debate because I don't have cable -- and frankly, as one on food stamps receiving an inadequate Social Security benefit of $754 per month, I do have to think long and hard on where I spend my limited dollars. Bernie expressed wonder during the debate on how seniors living on $11,000, $12,000 or $13,000 per year can do it, as "Social Security is the primary source of retirement income for middle and lower income Americans." He wants to expand Social Security, while the GOP thinks it is already too generous and should be cut. Hillary has suggested an "enhanced" Social Security for women and the very needy. Is that lawyer-speak or what? What does "enhanced" even mean?

There is a growing movement in the country to expand Social Security, yet we know what the right wing would do with that successful, time-tested program -- as well as Medicare -- if they had their way. For most seniors, Social Security is their only source of retirement income, which already means they have a substandard living, with an average benefit of just under $15,000 per year, putting me well within range of the poverty line. Fortunately, with a modest bit of savings, I am surviving, but I sure didn't expect when I retired five years ago to become a ward of my state. We really must be grateful and do everything we can to preserve and expand these safety net programs that speak so well of our nation and our humanity to each other.

The right wing's mission and obsession is to bring down these programs that exemplify the role of and need for government. When I retired at age 80, I expected to enjoy some golden years, not brass-tinged ones. Social Security payments have been stagnant for the past four years, and next year there will be no increase in the "COLA" (cost of living adjustment), as the "experts" in DC have decided that inflation is low -- mainly based on the low cost of gas - and therefore an increase is unwarranted. Clearly the formula for COLA has to change, reflecting what seniors really spend money on, like healthcare, prescription drugs -- which will see a 13% hike in costs next year -- housing and food. How many of them even have cars or drive any longer?

Thanks to a neighbor, I sat glued to the TV and enjoyed some good wine, which was needed, especially when Hillary emphasized her "progressive" chops. I almost spilled my wine when she added, "I don't take a back seat to anyone when it comes to progressive experience and progressive commitment. I am a Progressive that knows how to get things done." What does that mean? Is this the same "progressive" who has waffled on major issues like the TPP trade deal and the Keystone XL pipeline, and has yet to endorse a 21st Century Glass -Steagall bill that would break up the mega-banks and remove their casino-style derivatives and other shady deal-making? Is this the same "progressive" who received $250,000 for a speech delivered to Goldman Sachs? It is doubtful that the GOP would not accept a Clinton administration if she was to prevail and win the nomination. Her friendliness to Wall Street is not unknown. On the other side, Bernie and Elizabeth Warren strongly propose breaking up the banks that are "too big to fail," which are even bigger now than before they crashed the economy in '08. These issues should all be a part of the debates, which should appear on PBS and cleansed of the corporate backing of a CNN, Fox, etc. Why are we paying for what should be an imperative public service that should be offered on free, public television? Wouldn't it be wonderful to see someone like Bill Moyers question candidates of both parties.

The other issue that must come up in future debates is what we call our "healthcare system." President Obama got a pass on his signature achievement, and Democrats are reluctant to be critical of the ACA. Hillary says she will tinker around the edges as a means of "improving" the ACA. Two days after the Democratic debate, the open enrollment period to join or change from Medicare or Medicare Advantage healthcare plans kicked in on October 15th and runs until December 7th. Shortly after that, open enrollment for the ACA (a/k/a Obamacare) begins on the exchanges, which expects to only enroll 900,000 new customers next year, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who acknowledged it will be a tough sell. I spent two weeks on the phone calling insurance companies for information on their numerous Medicare Advantage Plans. Some offer a few additional benefits above traditional, stand-alone Medicare, and out-of-pocket costs such as co-pays and deductibles do vary. Some offer no premiums, which is a big selling point. It takes quite a bit of patience and research to even understand what is available from the many booklets that insurance companies send out to prospective "customers" -- for that is what we are in this market-driven healthcare delivery "system." The out-of-pocket maximum responsibility for seniors for their healthcare will be in the range of $6,700 for next year, and prescription costs could reach $4,800, both costing considerably more from just two years ago. So who named these things Advantage Plans, anyway?

There appears to be no end in sight for the outrageous gouging in this system. You can bet if we save a little money up front with one plan, they will get you on the deductibles and co-insurance costs at the back end. And more cost shifting is on the horizon. The insurers insist competition brings down prices, so where are they? Healthcare is growing faster than other sectors of the economy, and is almost at 20% of our country's GDP. Insurance company mergers are also reducing options and choices. This year I have already been shocked to receive a bill from a hospital for out-patent service and doctors visit, something I have never paid for before. Right now I am in conversation with BC/BS, who has not paid the Montefiore Health System one dime for a CT Scan I had the end of July. They billed out over $3,200 for the procedure, and BC/BS hit me with a co-insurance payment of $141.43 which represents the entire payment for the service, with the insurer picking up nothing. Medicare, I found out, only allows the $141.43 charge for this procedure. When calling the insurer I was told that as a diagnostic test I should have been billed $45, and in a follow up call the insurer now tells me I am on the hook for the larger amount. I am in a daze with the endless calls and wading through insurance phone menus, none of which mentions speaking to an operator or representative.

In desperation, I contacted CEO and President of the Montefiore Health System, M.D. Steven M. Safyer, who responded immediately. Within hours, I received a call from his V.P. of Finance Drew Swiss assuring me that he would address the bill issue and get back to me. This was a very kind and amazing intervention from one of the largest health delivery and medical education systems in the country, which includes the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. A system of health delivery with every possible healthcare specialty and service one could imagine at its hundreds of locations serving four million ambulatory patients a year in the Bronx, Westchester, Rockland and the Hudson Valley, plus 150,000 hospital admissions and 30,000 employees. Is this the model of healthcare of the future -a one-stop shop in which all of our medical needs will be housed under one medical system, with all of our medical visits and tests be seen with the tap of a few fingers on computers and accessible to each and every doctor one sees in that system? This may just make the individual primary and specialist private practice an endangered species.

Meanwhile, there are other serious concerns for seniors, including the looming 52% increase Medicare is planning for its Part B premium for doctors' services for 8 million of its 54 million enrollees next year. This will translate to an increase to $159 per month, along with raising its deductible to $223. In the coming months and years we can expect to see unprecedented cost shifting from insurers to the "insured" under the current system, with reduced services, plans eliminated in certain unprofitable areas in the country, doctors dropping out of plans -- as they are being nickel-and-dimed by a rapacious industry on reimbursements from an industry that deals in greed instead of health. High costs will also bring on more self-induced medical rationing, a dangerous side effect of this mess that likely will cost lives and lower the nation's overall health. Around 48,000 lives are lost every year due to an inability to pay for needed healthcare. Too many already cannot afford to buy into this overpriced, inadequate system, and bankruptcies still exist due to high medical bills and cost. Healthcare should not be a luxury item. It is a human right, as most of us know.

Bernie Sanders is a strong advocate for Expanded and Improved Medicare For All. A bill is not only sitting in the House -- H.R. 676 -- but Bernie has a companion bill in the Senate. This is the in-depth discussion we need to hear in these debates and beyond and with the next President and Congress. With a President Bernie Sanders leading the way, we could have a real national health plan, delivered by a single payer. The evidence is overwhelming that we must move to this solution. Professor Gerald Friedman, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has completed a six-state financial analysis of the benefits and risks of going to single payer, and he has concluded we could cut the fat -- as in, remove the insurers -- and save $592 billion, delivering better healthcare at lower costs for all Americans. Of course, a President Sanders would need a different kind of Congress to finally implement this so-called "radical" idea, which has actually been dangling in the wind since 1912, when Republican President Teddy Roosevelt supported a single payer health program.

What we have is totally unsustainable and rapidly arriving at unaffordable. We must be able to negotiate drug prices and bring such negotiations into the Medicare program, and we must also allow folks to buy their medication from Canada, which is considerably cheaper. Bernie has such a bill. Coverage must also include hearing, vision and dental care. I recently got nailed with over $2,200 in such costs and had sought quotes from dentists in Manhattan and the Bronx. Consistently I was quoted $2,500 for whatever the dental need. For a replacement of a broken crown, I recently went to the NYU College of Dentistry and paid $745, which would have cost me between $1,500 and $2,500 at a private office. My young student dentist at NYU was from Saudi Arabia and has a practice at home and is at NYU for a one-year international post-graduate program. The major work was done by a faculty member, so it was a very good experience. Dental costs are huge and must be included in health coverage -- and not the skimpy offerings in some plans that already exist, which are almost worthless.

So, these are just a few of the issues among the many that, as a country, we must address. We are getting caught up in the daily campaign poll numbers and "who's raising what" games. We must get beyond that. Hillary was right about one thing -- we can't have a Republican elected President this time. But we also cannot go with another centrist like Obama or her. The days for the glass-half-full acceptance on issues must end. We must demand more. Times have changed and we need a far-reaching alternative, with bold, Progressive ideas and action, and that starts with removing the corrupt money from a small cabal of millionaires and billionaires who have bought out our government. To do this, we must go to public funding of all campaigns. We also need to vote out the spineless, bought-off members of Congress who are little more than shills for that millionaire and billionaire class after all. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the Publisher and editor of The Nation magazine, said recently on This Week that 158 families are funding half of the campaigns in the country.

We are seeing with Bernie's campaign the effectiveness of small donations from the grassroots of concerned Americans and a template for campaign finance moving forward. Over 680,000 supporters have joined the Bernie Revolution. We must keep on building it until millions become a part of this historic people's movement to take back our government and country. Special interest money must be removed from our politics if a President Bernie Sanders is to have any chance of implementing his far-reaching proposals to return our country to the People. To emphasize what has happened to our country in the past several years under the control of the extreme right wing in Congress, here are some stunning statistics just released in a report from the Social Security Administration that should serve as quite a wake-up call:

  • 38% of all American workers made less than20,000 last year (yet we can't raise the minimum wage to15.00 per hour by this Congress?)

  • 51% of all American workers made less than30,000 last year
  • 62% of all American workers made less than40,000 last year
  • 71% of all American workers made less than50,000 last year
  • In our race to the bottom we have succeeded in decimating the middle class, while the poor have become ever poorer due to the dysfunctional, reactionary self-serving Conservatives running our country. Bernie noted in a recent letter to supporters that it is unacceptable that "we have over 45 million living in poverty, with the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major nation on earth." We can continue this race to oblivion, or we can work to change our politics and elect Progressive leaders on a federal and state level.

    This is just a handful of issues that need our immediate attention. The list is a long one, from climate change to student debt, to the TPP trade agreement that will cost us even more jobs at home, while ceding more power and control to international mega-corporations. And what of our crumbling infrastructure needs? Addressing those alone would create 13 million jobs in a plan that Bernie Sanders has proposed. Meanwhile, I have yet to hear any thoughts from Hillary on this topic.

    As Mrs. Clinton is now suddenly cutting her teeth on Progressive politics, one has to wonder if she would actually deliver on anything she is promising on the campaign trail once unpacked and in the White House. With a President Sanders, such questions would be unnecessary, as his integrity and honesty are never in question.

    So I say, "Keep rocking, Bernie." Your country needs you.

    - with Jonathan Stone