A sampling of the nation's elderly and disabled, their stories as tortured as their bodies, yesterday told Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) they can't afford President Reagan's proposal to increase patient costs for Medicare health insurance coverage.
"I would like the president to know he's wasting his time trying to squeeze the old folks," said Virginia Ravenel, a 76-year-old widow living in the District of Columbia on $10,000 a year. A retired federal worker, Ravenel has been hospitalized twice, once for open-heart surgery, and relies on Medicare to help pay her mounting medical bills.
Reagan's FY 1984 budget proposes a $1.7 billion cut in Medicare and increases in out-of-pocket costs to hospitalized patients, except in cases of catastrophic illnesses. Kennedy opposes the proposal, calling it an unfair burden on the elderly, and expects this week to offer his own legislation for curbing spiraling health care costs.
At a Medicare forum called by Kennedy, several witnesses, including four from the Washington area, said they could barely meet their living and medical expenses now.
In the face of personal out-of-pocket costs that have climbed from an average of $331 in 1965 to $1,430 currently, they talked of what Kennedy characterized as "harsh and cruel choices" in making ends meet.
"There are times when you don't get too much sleep," said one woman who said she has lain awake nights worrying.
Testifying from a wheel chair, Gerry Sherline, 34, of Clinton, said she faces enormous medical costs after being paralyzed during radiation treatment for a spinal tumor. Under a nurse's care, she is trying to bring up two young children on $1,700 a month in Social Security and disability payments.
Loda Hawkins, 78, has not faced expensive hospital costs. But the District resident has high blood pressure and must buy $50 to $60 worth of drugs each month control it. That, she said, is a sizeable chunk of her $389 a month Social Security check.
Medical care for the elderly and disabled, particularly hospitalization, can become such a financial burden, testified Lou Minafra of Pittsfield, Mass., that he would just as soon stay home and die rather than burden his family with the expense. The 66-year-old small businessman said he has mortgaged his house and borrowed against his business to help pay for a gall bladder operation and the removal of two tumors.
"Aren't we entitled to live our remaining years in comfort and dignity, and not desperation and want?" one elderly woman asked Kennedy, who called yesterday's testimony "a fearful indictment of our society."
Other witnesses told Kennedy they feared ailing elderly men and women would refuse treatment and die under Reagan's proposal. And they complained that the president's plan would impose increased costs on patients without addressing the causes of the Medicare financing problem.
"The growing elderly population is not the major cause," said William R. Hutton, executive director of the National Council of Senior Citizens. "Most of it is due to uncontrolled medical inflation, Medicare's imbalanced benefit structure and its reimbursement methods."
If Congress adopts the president's budget proposals, Hutton said, "it will create new problems and perpetuate existing ones."