BY PETE WICKLUND
BURLINGTON - The county's congressman Monday endorsed President Bush's call for an economic stimulus package and vowed to continue to push for Medicare reform now that the spotlight is starting to again shine on domestic issues.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, also touched on redistricting and senior citizen scams during a 45-minute question and answer session at Monday's meeting of the Western Racine County Committee on Aging.
Ryan, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the stimulus package is needed not so much to bolster consumer confidence -Êwhich has remained strong in areas like new home and new car purchasesÊ- but to encourage investment by the corporate sector, particularly in manufacturing.
"You have to spend a little to grow a little," Ryan said. "What we're trying to do is stimulate that part of the economy that's on its back."
Ryan noted that in the last 14 months alone, Wisconsin has lost 29,900 manufacturing jobs. Part of that is due to uncertainty following Sept. 11, but 2001's massive hikes in utility costs also played a role.
"There are a lot of things that came together that lead us to where we are today," Ryan said during the meeting at the Western Racine County Service Center.
Job layoffs also are having a rippling effect on keeping the Social Security Trust Fund solvent. Ryan estimates the trust fund is already operating at a deficit.
"Get people back to work, then we can have the kind of resources we need to fix the problems we have," Ryan said.
Also running toward depletion is the Medicare Trust Fund, which Ryan predicts will be exhausted by 2029 if not shored up. "That's because we have more seniors coming than we do today," he said.
Congress was hoping to pass a Medicare reform bill in October, Ryan said. But after a summer of concentrated work on the plan, the events of Sept. 11 and the worsening economic picture put the plan on the back burner.
"I'm still hopeful we'll get back to that this spring," Ryan said.
The program is badly in need of an update, he said,
"It gives you basically 1965 health care in the year 2002," Ryan said.
Ryan is optimistic about a Patient's Bill of Rights passing Congress in the coming months. Both branches of Congress have passed a version of such legislation, which would include such provisions as a guarantee of accessibility to health care providers.
"We're as close as we've ever been," he said.
Ryan said it looks like he will retain the core of his present congressional district, including his hometown of Janesville and Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties, as the every 10-year redistricting process is completed.
The state will lose a congressional district as a result of the last census, and with U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett, D-Milwaukee, stepping down and having the smallest district, his area will be absorbed.
Preliminary plans have Ryan taking on new territory in southern Milwaukee and Waukesha counties as U.S. Rep. Gerald Kleczka, D-Milwaukee, expands his district west and north.
Ryan warned seniors Monday to beware of organizations that solicit funds promising to lobby Congress for Social Security supplemental payments for the so-called "notch babies," those born between 1917 and 1926, and for organizations promising slavery reparations to African Americans. Ryan noted that Congress has made no such agreements for awards in either matter and congressional and Justice Department investigations are ongoing into the solicitations.
The congressman talked about new federal prescription cards that will soon be made available to Medicare recipients via an executive order from Bush. The government can charge a one-time fee that cannot exceed $25 for the card. It will provide discounts of 16 to 25 percent on medications.
Medicare patients will also be allowed to change plans every six months if they find a better prescription package or want to change back to the federal card after trying another plan.
The best part of the card, according to Ryan, is that it will provide a benchmark for measuring and comparing various prescription plans.