U.S. Congressman Rush Holt (D), who represents Shrewsbury as part of District 12 in the U.S. House of Representatives, addressed questions in a packed meeting hall in South Brunswick Monday to answer questions ranging from the viability of Social Security, the Healthcare Reform Bill, his opposition to fracking, and concern over the charter school movement.
Most of the questions from the 100 citizens who attended the Nov. 28 meeting focused on Social Security and the Healthcare Reform Bill.
"Medicare and Social Security are successful programs and the stories of their imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated," Holt told his constituents. "There are concerns, but they are generally in good shape."
Holt said raising the cap on income subject to FICA taxes and changing the retirement age are two possible changes that could put Social Security on sound financial footing. "The changes we would have to make are smaller than the changes that were made [to Social Security] in 1983," Holt said.
"Under conservative estimates, everyone will get 100 percent for the next 30 years, but that's not good enough."
A proposal to convert Social Security into private accounts "where people can invest and look into their own needs" had a number of problems, Holt said. "Even if you made good investments, the market isn't always ready when you are ready to retire," he said. "We've seen some examples of that the last few years."
On healthcare reform, South Brunswick resident Bill Axelrod asked why members of Congress are exempt from the Healthcare Reform Bill, commonly referred to as "Obamacare." Holt said that information was incorrect and stated members of Congress would not be exempt.
"In the U.S. the only people who are required to get health insurance from the new healthcare plan are members of Congress," Holt said. "This idea that Congress imposed Medicare on people is so off-base. We will be in the healthcare plan."
According to Holt, the purpose of the Healthcare Reform Bill is to provide greater access to quality healthcare, but the main issue is keeping the cost down. He stated that 22 percent of the cost for health insurance premiums is not spent on healthcare by insurance companies, with that money instead going to areas like executive bonuses and marketing expenses.
"Under the new law [health insurance companies] must spend 80 to 85 percent [on healthcare]," Holt said. "It should be 90 to 95 percent, but then the companies would squawk that they can't make a profit." Holt said that the Healthcare Reform Bill doesn't deal directly with the cost of health insurance, but there are provisions in the bill that indirectly keep costs down, according to the Congressman. "Insurance companies look for any way they can to raise costs," Holt said.
Israel, and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, was brought up. Holt was asked whether he backs President Obama's policy for any peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians to be based on boundaries that existed prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Holt stated that the U.S. must play an important role in the peace process, but did not answer directly whether he supported the policy.
"I hope [President Obama] will get something going because it's important for our security, the world's security, and Israel and Palestine's security," Holt said.
Energy conservation was discussed. Holt said the U.S. has slipped behind the rest of the world in energy efficiency and new technology. He said the U.S. needs to examine many different ways of generating energy, including perfecting methods for generating solar energy. "The Chinese have invested tens of billions of dollars in solar collectors that undercut everyone else in the world," he said. "You can't compete with that."
The proposal to allow hydraulic fracturing process to extract natural gas, known as “fracking,” in the Delaware River Basin, was rejected by Holt in the meeting.
Unemployed workers were also championed. Holt said it's inaccurate to label people who have been out of work for over a year as trying to take advantage of the system, and said it's untrue that these people haven't been looking for employment. "The number of people who have been out of work for over a year is at its highest level since 1930," he said.
Holt also expressed his support for seeking out programs that would allow seniors to remain in their homes instead of transitioning to nursing homes.
The town hall meeting closed with a question on the impact of charter schools on the public school districts from which they would draw their students.
"The public has demanded, rightly, for choice in public schools and the charter school movement is an effort to provide that," he said. Holt said that charter schools generally have a 50-50 record of success, and charters that aren't performing well should be shut down. There must be a high level of transparency and accountability for charters and there should be better communication between charters and public schools, he said.
"We mustn’t let charter schools become the tail that wags the dog," he said. "They shouldn't be allowed to dominate or drain resources from the public school system."
School vouchers, and the competition they create, got Holt's approval as "a good thing." But he cautioned that resources should not be taken away from failing school systems. "We need to try to improve under performing schools, but taking resources away from them is not the way to do it," he said.