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Post: Retire Better: Food or medications? The terrible senior dilemma

“To go hungry or get my medications is a choice I have had to make this year,” writes “R.M.” from South Carolina, a Social Security recipient who is being hammered by soaring food and drug prices. There’s not enough money for both.

“R.M.” — who was responding to a survey by the Senior Citizens League (SCL), a nonprofit advocacy group — is hardly alone. With inflation running at its highest levels since the Reagan era—40 years ago—seniors are having to make difficult, and dangerous, choices each day, as the price for both of these essentials jumps. 

Read: Retirees: This is why you need to care about inflation

Here’s the state of things. According to a survey by the SCL, inflation has caused half of seniors to burn through emergency savings. Nearly half—48%—have had to visit a food pantry or apply for food stamps. More than two-in-five—44%—have run up credit card debt to get by, trading rip-off interest rate payments tomorrow so they can have food and meds today. And 23% need help with their energy bills. 

It is a very painful time. 

“I was shocked at the rise in numbers of people reporting they had applied for SNAP (the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or visited a food pantry,” SCL policy analyst Mary Johnson tells me. “The percentage reporting they have done so doubled from our October survey.”

The latest survey included some 1,800 Social Security recipients, most of whom said food was the fastest-rising category over the past 12 months.

“This should not be happening,” Johnson says. “It’s a terrible thing to watch those numbers tick upward, knowing this big jump in food insecurity occurred during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.” 

Social Security recipients got a 5.9% cost-of-living adjustment this year, but the Labor Department said last week that the closely watched Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose at a 7.5% pace in January. Which means Social Security recipients, despite that 5.9% bump, are already losing ground. 

Many economists think that until the global pandemic is brought under control, supply chains in the United States and abroad will continue to be stressed. It’s Econ 101: Not enough goods are reaching the market; when demand tops supply, prices rise.  

It’s difficult to overstate just how important food stamps are to tens of millions of Americans. Dating back to 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched what is today known as the SNAP program, which helps keep nearly 41 million Americans fed.    

But SNAP is just one federal program that’s available to help hungry seniors. Here are some others:

The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks for adults over the age of 60 or living with a disability and enrolled in daycare facilities. 

The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) is designed to provide low-income seniors with access to locally grown fruits, vegetables, honey and herbs; increase the domestic consumption of agricultural commodities through farmers markets, roadside stands, and community supported agricultural programs; 

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) works to improve the health of low-income persons at least 60 years of age by supplementing their diets with nutritious USDA Foods.   

In terms of private sector assistance, I’m sure you know about Meals-on-Wheels. There’s a box where you enter your ZIP Code, which will take you to a local provider. 

For any older American reading this article who worries about getting enough to eat, please look into these programs, and share them with friends and neighbors. In the United States—the so-called “land of plenty”—it is outrageous that anyone has to worry about something as basic and essential as food. 

Meanwhile, what about drug prices? Pharmaceutical companies raised wholesale prices on more than 450 prescription medicines by a median 4.9% to start the year, reports Kaiser Health News. Median, of course, means that half of those increases were more than that, half less. That 4.9% is about what price hikes have been for the past several years, Kaiser adds. 

One drug alone tells the painful story here: Insulin. Last year, diabetes deaths topped 100,000 in the U.S. for the second year in a row, a number likely to soar in the years ahead, given that more than 100 million Americans are either diabetic or prediabetic.  

Insulin is a life saver—for those who can afford it. Introducing President Biden at a drug price event in Virginia last week, a 12-year old boy, Joshua Davis, said he has diabetes, as does his father. Even though the Davis family has insurance, it still spends between $6,000 and $7,000 per year on insulin. To save money, the family sometimes uses expired insulin.

Got that kind of money lying around? Millions of seniors, heavily if not utterly dependent on Social Security, certainly don’t. Food or insulin? Why, in America, are people forced to make such choices? 

At that Virginia event, Biden repeated one of his goals: To cap insulin costs at $35 per month, per person. That would lower the Davis family’s annual insulin spend to $840, a huge savings. But the insulin cap is part of the president’s giant “Build Back Better” legislation (BBB) that, after passing the House, has gone nowhere in the Senate. 

The White House is weighing breaking up BBB into smaller parts. A cap on insulin prices is such an urgent—and literally lifesaving—matter, that it should be a stand-alone piece of legislation. The drug lobby would fight it, as they do every cost-cutting measure. I say create a separate bill, and let’s force members of Congress vote, on the record, for whom they support: Constituents who need cheaper, lifesaving drugs, or pharmaceutical companies, who contribute millions to keep those lawmakers in power. 

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