The electronic billboard outside the Wang Theater usually advertises the holiday shows this time of year. But Wednesday, as hundreds of people swarmed beneath it, the sign lit up with a different the message: stop the cuts.
Inside the gilded hall close to 2,000 seniors and union members gathered to tell the congressional "supercommittee" not to make any changes to federal programs that affect seniors.
"We’re here today to say no cuts!" said Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman.
"We’re here to say no cuts to Social Security, no cuts to Medicare, no cuts to Medicaid, no cuts to the Postal Service, and we want it for you, we want it for us and we want it for our children and our grandchildren," Tolman said.
The supercommittee is negotiating behind closed doors, so it’s impossible to know what it will propose cutting. It’s believed to be considering changes to the way Social Security’s cost of living increase is calculated, which could save more than $100 billion. But the Massachusetts head of the AARP, Debbie Banda, said such a move would affect seniors' buying power for their basic needs.
"There are things like heat and electricity and groceries and prescription drugs and health care. How on earth do you make substitutions for those things? You can’t do it," Banda said.
Cuts to Medicare are also on the supercommittee's table. It is reportedly considering raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67 and shifting more health care costs to seniors. That worries Helen Spann, a 73-year-old retiree from Cambridge. She told the crowd she’s owed the benefits she earned.
"If you ever had while you were working, a chance to look at your check before you even had a chance to cash it, Social Security was taken out of it, Medicare A and Medicare aid (sic), now this is our money, not theirs!" Spann said.
But health care economist Stuart Altman of Brandeis University said in the long-run the entitlement programs need to be restructured, especially Medicare. Altman has decades of experience studying Medicare policy, but even Altman’s own mother used to get upset with him when he suggested there would have to be cuts in the future.
"When I tried to explain to her that she was getting far more back in benefits than she had paid in, she just beat me up and down," Altman said.
Altman said seniors are living longer and health care is more expensive, so the net result is seniors are getting back far more than they paid into the system. But that kind of thinking isn't popular with people who attended the rally Wednesday.
They were ready for action. After the speech, they were directed — either to march or take a bus caravan to the state offices of Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown.
Both Brown and Kerry were in Washington and did not have an immediate response to the rally. Nevertheless, organizers say they will keep up a telephone and writing campaign to pressure the supercommittee right up to the deadline.
This program aired on November 10, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.