The Daily Commercial-Mary Sharpe: The promise of Social Security is a safety net, not an ‘entitlement’

Mary Sharpe Guest Columnist

During Barack Obama’s campaign in 2012, I was invited to a roundtable discussion in Orlando about Social Security. During an appearance in The Villages, to great applause, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan continued to call Social Security an “entitlement and proposed that we should rely on folks to invest in the stock market to ensure their retirement. Should that plan tank, then what? Whoops! He didn’t have a plan.

I settled in the seat across from the guest of honor, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. We were asked to each tell our story about Social Security. I said because it was October — breast cancer month — I had a good story to tell.

Our daughter Georgia was a beautiful, headstrong career woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 31. She was an event planner and was married to a chef. She and her husband had just come home from a week in Montreal and she had come to our house in Florida to retrieve her 6-month-old son from the grasps of Grandma and Grandpa.

She had felt something in her breast. It was small and defined, and I said, “This is serious. You need to get to a doctor immediately, and I will follow in a few days.” I would not return for more than a year.

So began our odyssey into the medical nightmare that is breast cancer — or any other disease. We are all truly one doctor visit away from a life-changing diagnosis.

I only mention their careers so that you will know that they both were well-insured. My daughter used to say that she had it all: a beautiful home, cars, a fairy tale marriage and a career. But the one thing that she could not control was her health, and it was going to destroy it all.

During her illness, she could no longer work. Her excellent insurance plan would frequently not pay for her treatments. Sometimes we would show up at her doctor’s office for her chemotherapy and were told that she had to go downstairs to the charity ward for her treatments over unpaid bills. At night I would wake up to the sounds of her tapping on the computer trying to figure out how to pay the $1,000 deductible for her next treatment.

Two years into her illness, as they were drowning in medical bills, I begged her to apply for Social Security. She said she didn’t think that she would qualify. I said she had been working since she was 15 under the Social Security program, so let them tell you.

When she exited the local Social Security office after several hours, I helped her into the car, where she burst into tears. I said that I was sorry that they turned her down. She said, “You don’t understand. They are not only going to give me Social Security, but Medicare and I don’t have to worry about the deductibles anymore! They are also going to reach back and pay for the entire two years of my illness.”

Social Security is the safety net that we all reach for in a time of crisis. Most Americans work hard and look forward to the day that they can retire and collect on the promise of Social Security, but some among us do not get that privilege. Some need help sooner than others, but we all take comfort in it being there for us. Created by Democrats who saw a need and rose to meet it, and signed into law on Aug. 14, 1935, by President Franklin Roosevelt, it is a promise that our government made to us.

Receiving help from Social Security did not save my daughter’s life. She sadly passed away after a four-year battle against breast cancer, but Social Security made the end of her life better. And it continues to help her family.

Sebelius said that our story was like President Obama’s own mother’s, and she would relay it directly to him.

Ryan has moved on from government, but following in his footsteps is a string of Republicans who want to destroy our lifeline of Social Security. Florida’s Sen. Rick Scott is currently leading the charge. We must make our voices known. That safety net must remain intact and, instead of destroying it, we should be working on ways to strengthen it. Not just so that retirees can live out their lives in dignity, but for every one of us who are, indeed, one diagnosis away from a financial catastrophe.


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