GAO Report Reveals Social Security Benefits Gap between Rich, Poor

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 1, 2016

We intuitively know that there is a growing income gap between America’s rich and poor. We heard it for months during the presidential democratic debates. But a newly released GAO report documents this charge, the disparities and their impact on Social Security Benefits.

Growing disparities in life expectancy between America’s rich and poor is eroding the progressive nature of Social Security. A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Shorter Life Expectancy Reduces Projected Lifetime Benefits for Lower Income,” requested by Senator Bernie Sanders, shows that low-income American men (making about $20,000 a year) will lose 11 percent to 14 percent of their lifetime Social Security benefits while high-income men (making $80,000 annually) will see a 16 percent to 18 percent benefit boost due to this growing gap.

Life Expectancy Impacts SSA Benefits

The GAO study, released on April 4, 2016, found that raising the Social Security retirement age would result in even fewer benefits for lower-income groups. Lower-income men are living between 4 and 13 fewer years than higher-income men, and lower-income women are living between 2 and 14 fewer years than higher-income women.

“Poverty should not be a death sentence,” said Sanders, who serves as ranking member on the Primary Health and Retirement Security Subcommittee. “When over half of older workers have no retirement savings, we need to expand, not cut, Social Security so that every American can retire with the benefits they’ve earned and the dignity they deserve,” he says.

According to 64 page GAO report, the wealthiest Americans are not only living longer and collecting more in Social Security benefits, they are also contributing less of their income toward Social Security. Almost all of the income gains over the past three decades have gone to those earning above the $118,500 earnings cap and have therefore been exempt from Social Security taxes, costing the Social Security Trust Fund over $1.1 trillion, says the report.

“Today, the wealthiest Americans contribute less to Social Security than at any other time in recent history. We must reject calls to raise the retirement age and instead strengthen Social Security by ensuring millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share,” Sanders said.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), says that the GAO report is especially important when you consider the push in Congress to raise Social Security’s retirement age to reduce benefits. “Forcing average Americans to delay retirement until 70, as suggested by some in Washington, would mean even smaller benefits for lower-income groups,” he says.

Richtman notes that NCPSSM has long opposed increasing the Social Security retirement age, stating that it is “nothing but a cruel cut in benefits” The GAO report shows exactly how cruel it would be, he says.

Instead of cutting Social Security, Richtman calls on Congress to boost benefits so that retirement income program can continue to fulfill its promise providing an adequate base of income for America’s seniors.

Lawmakers Push to Protect Social Security

Sanders, a presidential Democratic candidate, has introduced legislation that would ensure that Social Security would be able to pay every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 58 years. His plan would increase benefits by more than $1,300 a year for seniors with less than $16,000 in annual income. This includes boosting yearly cost-of-living adjustments by making the consumer price index better reflect seniors’ rising costs for health care and prescription medicine.

To shore up the retirement program’s trust fund, the Senator would lift the cap on taxable income so everyone who makes more than $250,000 a year would pay the same percentage of their income into Social Security as middle-class working families.

“This report reinforces the importance of strengthening Social Security and preserving the guarantee of Medicare, especially for working and middle class Rhode Islanders,” said Congressman Cicilline (D-RI), who is a co-sponsor of the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act. “After a lifetime of hard work, Rhode Islanders should be able to retire with economic security and peace of mind, he says, pledging to continue his efforts to support “commonsense” legislation that strengthen Social Security benefits.

The GAO study is a warning that proposals to raise the retirement age “would fall hardest on those who can least afford it,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). As a founding member of the Defending Social Security Caucus, Whitehouse plans to explore ways to strengthen the Social Security, “the bedrock of American retirement security.”

GAO made no recommendations in this report. However, in comments the Social Security Administration (SSA) agreed with GAO’s finding that it is important to understand how the life expectancy in different income groups may affect retirement income. The federal agency sees financial literacy as a key factor in preparing for a “secured retirement.”

According to a SSA official, “Social Security offers one of the best tools for the public to plan for their retirement and educate themselves about their benefits – a my Social Security account which is a secure, personalized online account that can be created at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount. With a my Social Security account, people can check their Social Security Statement to learn about future Social Security benefits, verify annual earnings, and plan for their financial future. More than 23 million people have already created secure, convenient accounts,” he says.

In recent years Congress has looked for ways to keep the Social Security program afloat by adjusting Social Security tax contributions, increasing retirement age, and reducing benefit amounts. Now with the release of the new report findings, the message is clear. Congress must not tinker with Social Security until it understands the unanticipated impact on those receiving the benefit checks, especially on the lower-income retirees.

For more information, contact Charles Jeszeck at (202) 512-7215 or jeszeckc@gao.gov.

The Growing Incidence of Alzheimer’s

Published in Pawtucket Times on April 26, 2016

While Congress and states are nation grappling with how to put the brakes to one of the largest public health crises in recent times, the escalating Alzheimer’s disease (AD) epidemic, the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association releases its annual snap shot detailing statistics on the impact of Alzheimer’s and dementia on caregivers and health care costs..

According to the 2016 Alzheimer’s disease Facts and Figures, released on March 30, 2016, this year nearly 16 million Alzheimer’s caregivers will provide 18 billion hours of unpaid care to 5.4 million afflicted with this devastating disorder. That care had an estimated value of $221.3 billion, says the report.

But that’s not all, this recently released report notes that two out of three people believe that Medicare will help them over costly nursing facility costs. Sorry it won’t. AD also has a direct impact on a caregiver’s pocketbook, too, the researchers found. More than one-third of those surveyed say they were forced by caregiving duties to reduce their hours at work or just quit their job entirely. As a result of these actions their income dropped by $15,000 compared to the previous year. Eleven percent of caregivers were forced to cut back on spending for their children’s education in order to provide support.

The 79 page Alzheimer’s Association report notes that both physical, emotional and financial support required by a person with AD may ultimately deprive family and friend care givers basic necessities, such as food, transportation and medical care. The Facts and Figures report reveals that these caregivers were 28 percent more likely to eat less or go hungry while contributing care to someone with AD, and one-fifth even sacrificed their own medical care by cutting back on doctor visits. Overall, nearly half of the caregivers say they cut back on their own expenses to afford dementia-related care for their family member or friend.

“The devastating emotional and physical effects of caring for a person with Alzheimer’s disease has been well-studied,” said Beth Kallmyer, MSW, Vice President of Constituent Services for the Alzheimer’s Association. “However, this new report shows, for the first time, the enormous personal financial sacrifices that millions of care contributors must make every day. These sacrifices jeopardize the financial security of individuals and families, as well as their access to basic needs and health care.”

This year’s Facts and Figures report found that 13 percent of family or friend caregivers sold personal belongings, such as a car, to help pay for costs related to dementia, while nearly half tapped into savings or retirement funds. On average, caregivers, many of whom do not live with the person they’re caring for, spent more than $5,000 a year of their own money to care for someone with AD; however, amounts varied with many spending tens of thousands of dollars per year.
Incidents of AD is Fast Growing

The Facts and Figures report says that out of the 5.4 million (of all ages) afflicted with AD, an estimated 5.2 million are age 65 and over. Yes, one in nine people having the cognitive disorder. Approximately 200,000, having early onset AD, are under age 65.

Also, the recently released Facts and Figures report warns that we are truly in the midst of an AD epidemic as the baby boomers grow older. By 2050, researchers say that someone in the United States will develop AD every 33 seconds. Without a medical breakthroughs to prevent or cure, the age 65 and over population with AD, the incidence is expected to nearly triple, from 5.2 million to a projected 13.8 million. Some say may be even as high as 16 million. It’s the only disease among the top 10 causes of death in America that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed. .

Additionally, this year’s Facts and Figure report notes that AD is officially listed as the sixth-leading cause of death in this country. It is the fifth-leading cause of death for people age 65 and older. With the graying of America, AD will become a more common cause of death. At age 70, 61 percent of those with AD are expected to die before the age of 80 compared with 30 percent of people without the cognitive disorder — a rate twice as high, says the report.

The Typical Care Giver

The Facts and Figures report puts the face on a typical caregiver. Approximately two-thirds of caregivers are women, and 34 percent are age 65 or older. Forty one percent have a household income of $50,000 or less.

AD takes a devastating toll on the health of caregivers, says the Facts and Figures report. Nearly 60 percent of those taking care of loved ones with Alzheimer’s and dementia report that their emotional stress being high or very high. About 40 percent suffer from depression. One in five care givers cut back on their own physician visits because of their caregiving responsibilities. And, among caregivers, 74 percent report they are “somewhat” to “very” concerned about maintaining their own health since becoming a caregiver.

A Huge Cost on the Health Care System

The report’s researchers warn that the AD epidemic might just bankrupt the nation’s Medicare program. In 2016, total payments for health care, long-term care and hospice are estimated to be $236 billion for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, with just under half of the costs paid by Medicare. Nearly one in every five Medicare dollars is spent on people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. In 2050, it will be one in every three dollars

Medicare and Medicaid are expected to cover $160 billion, or 68 percent, of the total health care and long-term care payments for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Seeing a huge rise in AD over the last two years, federal and state officials are gearing up to strategize a battle to fight the impending epidemic.

A Call to Action

Yes, the AD epidemic is here, right in Rhode Island. Everyone is personally touched by either caring for a family member with the cognitive disorder or knows someone who is a caregiver or afflicted.

Following the efforts of Congress to create a national strategic plan to address the rapidly escalating AD crisis and to coordinate resources across federal agencies, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a joint resolution enacted into law to direct the Lt. Governor’s Long Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC) to be the vehicle to develop a state plan to address this growing public health crisis in the Ocean State. Ultimately, for over a year former Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts along with LTCCC members, former Division of Elderly Affairs Director Catherine Taylor, the state Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, universities and health care organizations with the public input gleaned from 8 listening events hammered out the 122 page battle plan with over 30 pages of recommendations.

In 2016, Lt. Governor Daniel J. McKee has picked up the ball and convened a meeting of the Executive Board on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders, consisting of researchers, advocates, clinicians and caregivers, to begin efforts to implement recommendations from the State’s Alzheimer’s Plan. The group will determine which recommendations are outdated.

With a rising population of Rhode Islander’s with AD, state policy makers must act swiftly and lose no more time in addressing this terrible disease and public health issue.

Earth: The Gray(ing) Planet

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 17, 2016

Last month, a National Institute of Health funded U.S. Census Bureau report was released announcing that the world’s older population is growing dramatically at an unprecedented rate. According to the newly released federal report, “An Aging World: 2015,” 8.5 percent of people worldwide (617 million) are aged 65 and over. This percentage is projected to jump to nearly 17 percent of the world’s population by 2050 (1.6 billion).

The new 165 page report, released on March 28, 2016, was commissioned by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, and produced by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Older people are a rapidly growing proportion of the world’s population,” said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. “People are living longer, but that does not necessarily mean that they are living healthier. The increase in our aging population presents many opportunities and also several public health challenges that we need to prepare for. NIA has partnered with Census to provide the best possible data so that we can better understand the course and implications of population aging.”

“An Aging World: 2015” is chock full of information about life expectancy, gender balance, health, mortality, disability, health care systems, labor force participation and retirement, pensions and poverty among older people around the world.

“We are seeing population aging in every country in every part of the world,” said John Haaga, Ph.D., acting director of NIA’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research. “Many countries in Europe and Asia are further along in the process, or moving more rapidly, than we are in the United States. Since population aging affects so many aspects of public life—acute and long-term health care needs; pensions, work and retirement; transportation; housing—there is a lot of potential for learning from each other’s experience.”

A Look at Some of the Details

The report noted that America’s 65-and-over population is projected to nearly double over the next three decades, from 48 million to 88 million by 2050. By 2050, global life expectancy at birth is projected to increase by almost eight years, climbing from 68.6 years in 2015 to 76.2 years in 2050.

In addition, the global population of the “oldest old”—people aged 80 and older—is expected to more than triple between 2015 and 2050, growing from 126.5 million to 446.6 million. The oldest old population in some Asian and Latin American countries is predicted to quadruple by 2050.

The researchers say that the graying of the globe is not uniform, “a feature of global population aging is its uneven speed across world regions and development levels.” The older population in developed countries have been aging for decades, some for over a century. “In 2015, 1 in 6 people in the world live in a more developed country, but more than a third of the world population aged 65 and older and over half of the world population aged 85 and older live in these countries. The older population in more developed countries,” says the report.

Meanwhile, the researchers report that in the less developed world, “Asia stands out as the population giant, given both the size of its older population (617.1 million in 2015) and its current share of the world older population (more than half).” By 2050, almost two-thirds of the world’s older people will live in this continent, primarily located in the eastern and northern hemispheres. “Even countries experiencing slower aging will see a large increase in their older populations. Africa, for instance, is projected to still have a young population in 2050 (with those at older ages projected to be less than 7 percent of the total regional population), yet the projected 150.5 million older Africans would be almost quadruple the 40.6 million in 2015, notes the report. .

The Graying of the Ocean State, Too

AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell says that statistics gleamed from a new interactive online tool, the AARP Data Explorer, detailed by blogger Wendy Fox-Grage, a senior strategic policy advisor for AARP Policy Institute, suggests that Rhode Island for some time, has had the highest per capita 85 plus population of any state. But “Data Explorer also shows that Rhode Island was surpassed in 85 plus per capita in 2015 – second now to Florida by 1/10,000th of a percentage point. Interesting, by 1260, we are projected to rank 14th.

“Nationally, from 2010 to 2060, the 85-plus population will more than triple (260 percent), the fastest growth of any age group over that time period,” she says.

Connell says, “AARP Data Explorer clearly shows that the age 65-plus population will grow much faster than younger age groups. All three older age groups (65-74, 75-84 and 85-plus) will more than double between 2010 and 2060, while the younger age groups (0-17, 18-49, 50-64) will increase only slightly.”

“The growth of the age 85-plus population will significantly outpace all other age groups, once Boomers begin turning 85 in the 2030s,” adds Connell, noting that “This phenomenon will have significant impact on every aspect of society, ranging from our health care system to the economy.”

“People age 85-plus are the group most likely to need long-term services and supports (LTSS) to help them with everyday tasks. They not only have higher rates of disability than younger people, but they are also more likely to be living alone, without a spouse or other family member to provide them with assistance,” observes Connell.

Over the years, the Rhode Island General Assembly has enacted legislative changes in the way it delivers and funds aging services and supports for older Rhode Islanders and their family caregivers, says Connell.

According to Connell, early last year, AARP Rhode Island released, “Raising Expectations 2014: A Report Card for Rhode Island Long Term Services and Supports System Performance.” The report assessed the LTSS Scorecard and recommended policy goals.

Connell says that the results revealed that Rhode Island showed strengths. With the subsequent passage of key legislative proposals that included caregiver paid family leave and the CARE Act, the state has moved in the right direction, she says, stressing that “the policy report pointed to areas for improvement that state leaders should not ignore.”

“With the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act through 2019, and continued backing from Governor Raimondo, Rhode Island seniors and caregivers are benefitting from a host of home- and community-based programs,” says Director Charles Fogarty, of Rhode Island’s Division of Elderly Affairs. “A top priority for the agency is strengthening of those services so everyone can make it in Rhode Island. We are proud to partner with hardworking older Rhode Islanders and advocates; we are constantly listening to their suggestions which are helpful in providing direction on development of effective programming and policies,” he says.

Fogarty noted that during Governor Gina Raimondo’s first two budget cycles (FY 2016 enacted and FY 2017 proposed budgets), more than $1 million in additional general revenue funding has been allocated for programs such as Meals on Wheels, senior centers and other home and community care services. Seniors can remain in their homes with a high quality of life for as long as possible through the provision of affordable and accessible home and community-based services and living options preventing or delaying institutionalization.

Connell says a the nation’s population ages, Rhode Island now has an opportunity of showing other states, with growing age 85 plus populations what it takes to care for an aging population.

Rhode Island, too, can also teach the world community a thing or two about providing programs and services to their older citizens.

Survival Story: Former Business Owner Overcomes Devastating Setbacks 

Published in Senior Digest, April 2016

If you are in pursuit of the American Dream, you probably weren’t given a roadmap that would guarantee a successful journey. Ask the average man or woman on the street today what immediate thoughts come to mind about owning your own business, and you’ll probably hear ‘being your own boss’, and ‘working your own hours’ that top the list of perceptions. But when opening your own business becomes the alternative to unemployment in your later years, as Donald, Russell, Jr. found out, it may not be what you expected or even planned. Like millions of middle-aged workers in the early 1990s, a severe economic downturn forced this Central Falls resident to make choices that ultimately would financially hit his pocketbook as he approached retirement.

Donald Russell had worked his way up from stock boy to manager at F.W. Woolworth Co., one of the areas original five-and-dime stores. During his 33 year career with this large big-box retail company, what was at the time the fourth largest retailer in the world operating over 5,000 stores, he eventually managed seven of the retail company’s stores, one located in Providence (at Westminster and Dorrance Streets), and the others in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York.

But everything changed in the late 1990’s, and this 117 year old company struggled to compete with the growing big discount stores. F.W. Woolworth filed for bankruptcy protection, and Russell, facing unemployment, had to quickly make major career decisions. He knew that, “at age 52, big box competitors don’t want you,” or if he was offered a position, the salary would be much lower than what he was used to. “I could not take less because I had to pay for my daughter’s college education,” he added.

Russell credits “courses he took at Boston College” for teaching him valuable lessons on how to open a small business, and with knowledge in hand, he was ready to take that leap of faith and open his own business. . Russell decided to cash out his $80,000 pension (less penalties) and combined with a loan from U.S. Small Business Administration, he would have enough capital to open a small retail business.

Getting into the Pet Business

Russell spent time researching a market niche, searching for one that would not put him in direct competition with the chain store. He discovered that the pet business was not really sought after by “big box retailers” and at that time “there were only 30,000 pet stores throughout the country. Today the number has decreased to 6,000.” Now . Russell found his niche, and in 1997 opened his business “Dr. Doolittle’s Pets & More”, a small pet store in an East Providence shopping plaza. Though situated between two large Petco stores – one in Rumford, RI and the other in North Attleboro, MA., Russell did not view the large chain stores as competition, for he knew his prices were better. In 1997 when Russell opened his store, small business accounted for about 85 percent of the nation’s economy, he states, noting that today this percentage has dropped to 70 percent.

Business was strong when Dr. Doolittle’s first opened and for over 13 years, Russell employed seven full and part time employees. However, by 2004 “the economy began to take a dive” and juggling the monthly rent, utilities and employee salaries became difficult when his cash flow slowed. Russell began to loose money.
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By 2006 his revenue had dropped 30 percent from the previous year, and neighboring big stores located in the plaza, like Ocean State Job Lot, began to close. In an effort to trim expenses, Russell was able to renegotiate his rent to a lower amount, however “losing the Stop & Shop Supermarket in the next plaza, which was a main draw to the area, “was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

Taking from Peter to Pay Paul

Like thousands of small business owners in the Ocean State, Russell had to juggle each month to meet his expenses, which included his RI sales tax. Choosing to pay his monthly sales tax or paying his employees salary was not an easy choice to make, but he could not pay both. “I chose to pay my employees” first, with the plan to make up my [delinquent] sales tax later” he stated, noting however, that the “economy put the brakes to that”. “I could not even borrow a dime even with an excellent credit rating of 750,” added Russell. The poor economy had forced banks to cut off credit to small businesses – period.

In 2009, the Rhode Island Department of Taxation came knocking on his door, and the now 65-year-old pet store owner was forced to close his business because he was in arrears on his payment of sales taxes. While his business was his sole-source of income, the forced closing of the business put him in a ‘catch 22’ situation – blocking any attempt to rescue his business and pay off the remaining sales tax owed, which had now grown to thousands of dollars. Rather than padlock the door, the State did allow him access to the store to feed and maintain the animals until other arrangements were made.

Two weeks after his closing, Russell hammered out an agreeable payment plan with the State of RI for back taxes, but the economy never recovered, and by September, 2010 the doors closed for the final time. In a valiant effort, Russell paid off $18,500 of the $20,000 owed before he closed, but two years later to his surprise, he was blocked from registering his car because of the remaining taxes (and penalties) still owed. A dispute as to the amount of sales taxes (plus penalties and interest) paid ultimately ended with the state’s tax agency backing off and allowing him to register his vehicle.

Russell’s forced closing and ultimately his bankruptcy caught the eye of both statewide and national media. Two radio talk shows and television coverage brought the news of his closure to the public. Even the nation’s most popular Web site, “The Drudge Report,” posted articles. Amazingly, he says that over 100 pages of blog posting were also generated, too.

Making Ends Meet

Today, Russell, 72, is collecting Social Security supplemented by a part-time job delivering pizzas. He notes that beneficiaries will not receive cost of living this year. Like millions of Social Security beneficiaries, Russell feels the impact of inflation. “There is no extra money to buy groceries after paying my rent and utilities,” he says. Local food pantries provide additional food and the Pawtucket-based Blackstone Valley Community Action Program pays for some of his heating bills.

Reflecting on the lay off in his fifties that led to the opening of his small business and ultimately its closing as he reached his mid-sixties because of an ailing economy, Russell admits he did not have a strategy for getting through the tough times in his later years.

“I just coped,” says Russell. The former business owner has a strong opinion on opening a small business in Rhode Island. “Never,” he says. .

AOA Reauthorization Bill Goes to President Obama for Signing

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 10, 2016

The Older American’s Act (OAA) current authorization expired in fiscal year 2011 because lawmakers were unable to reach an agreement on its reauthorization. On a bipartisan basis, Congress has finally passed the long-stalled legislation reauthorizing the OAA when the Senate passed the House-amended bill on April 7. Three weeks earlier the House had passed an amended version of S. 192, the Older Americans Act Reauthorization Act of 2016, by a unanimous voice vote. This legislative proposal amended the bill passed by the Senate on July 16, 2015. Now the passed legislation goes to President Obama, once signed it becomes law.

The very bi-partisan Senate reauthorization bill was sponsored by Chairman Lamar Alexander (TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and had 27 co-sponsors from each party.

OAA Authorization Has Lots of Positives

OAA’s latest reauthorization offers new support for modernizing multipurpose senior center, highlights the importance of addressing senior’s economic needs, permanently requires health promotion and disease prevention initiatives to be evidence-based, and promotes chronic disease self-management and fall prevention.

The law also includes: stronger elder justice and legal services provisions; needed clarity for caregiver support and Aging and Disability Resource Centers; new opportunities for intergenerational shared sites, and promotes efficient and effective use of transportation services.

Legislative inertia and a general undercurrent of opposition to any government programs by some members of Congress slowed consideration of the bill , says Dan Adcock, Director of Government Relations and Policy for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM). “You need champions to break through the ‘legislative inertia’ and OAA just did not have enough,” he says.

Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) along with Reps. John Kline (R-MN) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) worked hard to finally get the Senate and House to pass this year’s OAA reauthorization, Adcock noted, stressing that there was no opposition to the bill when it passed the House and Senate on voice votes

While the passed OAA reauthorization bill has many positives, its chief weakness is that it does not raise the funding authorization level enough, says Adcock. “Unfortunately, the Older Americans Act has suffered under flat funding and sequestration cuts for several years and will need significant increases in appropriations to meet the critical demands of a senior population that will nearly double by 2030, warns Adcock, noting that that an increase of 12 percent a years is needed for the next several years to raising funding to an acceptable level.

“AARP urges President Obama to quickly sign this bill,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins. “We are appreciative of the bipartisan work to get this bill passed. Reauthorizing the OAA will help the millions of vulnerable older Americans who depend on the programs and services that the OAA helps to fund.

“Reauthorizing the OAA is as important as ever to modernizing and improving the aging services network in our country. It’s passage reflects the heroic efforts of many advocates working together to educate Congress about how programs funded by the OAA support older Americans,” observed Steven R. Counsell, MD, AGSF, American Geriatrics Society President.

Adds Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who serves on the Senate Select Committee on Aging, “I am glad we were able to reauthorize and improve the Older Americans Act. This legislation authorizes more funding for meals and social services seniors depend on. It includes new protections against elder abuse, which I’ve been fighting to pass. And it gives residents of long-term care facilities-who often can’t communicate their wishes-a stronger advocate to speak on their behalf.”

Ratchet Up AOA Funding

For more than 50 years the Administration on Aging with its National Aging Network (State Units on Aging and Area Agencies on Aging) has provided federal funding, based on the percentage of the locality’s population 60 and older, for nutrition and supportive home and community-based services, disease prevention/health promotion services, elder rights programs, the National Family Caregiver Support Program and Native American Program.

Aging advocates will tell you that Congressional funding has not kept with the rising inflation or the increased demands of an aging society. Deep Congressional budget cuts, push by the GOP, have significantly reduced OAA’s ability to provide services to those on increased waiting lists. Being “penny-wise and pound foolish” should not be the way Congress looks at future OAA reauthorizations. NCPSSM’s Adcock will tell you that programming geared to helping seniors to age in place at home in their communities can save billions by reducing costly nursing facility and hospital stays.

Hopefully, the President is expected to sign it in a week or two. Hopefully he signs this it quickly on Monday .

Defend Yourself Against IRS Scammers

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 27, 2016

With federal regulators reporting a surge in tax-related fraud schemes, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation are requiring new income tax filing requirements. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also gears up its efforts to protect consumers from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Imposter Scams.

According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), an aggressive and sophisticated phone scam targeting taxpayers, including recent immigrants, is making its rounds throughout the nation. Here’s the scam. A caller claims to be employed by the IRS, but they are not. To be seen as legitimate the con artist uses a fake names and even rattle off a bogus IRS identification badge numbers. The caller ID may even be altered to make it look like the call is coming straight from the IRS. .

Usually victims are told they owe taxes to the IRS and it must be quickly paid through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer or they will suffer the consequences. If the victim refuses to cooperate with the federal agency, then they are threatened by the con artist with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting. Victims may also be told they have a refund due to try to trick them into sharing private financial information. If the phone isn’t answered, the scammers often leave an “urgent” callback request.

Knowledge is Power over Scammers

To combat this growing problem, the AARP Fraud Watch Network gears up its educational campaign, with digital advertising featuring a new tip sheet and online video to combat the “IRS Imposter Scam.”

Our goal is to warn consumers and empower them with the knowledge they need to keep their family members from falling victim to the IRS imposters,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP. “Once they recognize certain red flags, they will be confident in resisting the aggressive bullying and scare tactics used by the scammers.”

The Fraud Watch Network campaign is advising consumers that legitimate IRS agents do not call and demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call about owed taxes without making contact by mail. The IRS will not require a taxpayer to use a specific payment method to make a tax payment, such as a prepaid debit card; or ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone. Finally, the IRS will not threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

For more information about the IRS scam and other tax-related frauds, visit http://www.aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork. Consumers who think that they are being targeted by a scammer may call the FWN helpline at 877-908-3360 and speak with a trained counselor.

Federal and State Efforts to Protect Tax Payers

The IRS, announces that many newly implemented safeguards are now in place that consumers may not even be aware of, but are invaluable in fighting against the stolen identify refund fraud. Many of these changes are designed to better authenticate the tax payer’s identity and validate the tax-return at the time of filing.

The most visible change is new password protections for private-sector ax software accounts. Newly implemented standards require a minimum 8-digit password using a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. There also will be new security questions, new lock-out features and new ways to verify emails.

IRS’s password standards are intended to help protect taxpayers from identity thieves who take over their software accounts and file fraudulent tax returns using their names and Social Security numbers.

In a January 19, 2016 Advisory for Tax Professionals, Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation is putting in processing safeguards to protect an estimated 600,000 Ocean State taxpayers. Acting Tax Administrator Neena S. Savage announced that this tax season all taxpayers and preparers who file electronically will be asked to enter a driver’s license number as part of the tax preparation process.

“This is another way to verify your identity and the validity of your return before the processing of the return is completed,” says Savage, noting that the new filing requirement for is part of a coordinated and collaborative effort among the states, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, tax software providers, and others to help protect taxpayers from identity theft that may lead to tax refund fraud.

The requiring a taxpayers driver’s license is just “another layer of protection because identity thieves may already have your name and Social Security number, but perhaps not your driver’s license number,” says Savage, adding that this will assist states in matching driver’s license information with other identifying records to help confirm the filers identity.

“Tax software will prompt you for your driver’s license number. The information will be transmitted only in electronically filed returns; it will not appear on paper returns. It will also be safeguarded along with the rest of your tax return information,” adds Savage. The return will not be rejected if a taxpayer does not have a driver’s license number, or does have one
but does not provide it, she said.

New Phone app Fights IRS Phone Scam

With the April 18th Tax Day deadline fast approaching, Whitepages, a Seattle, Washington–based company releases an update for its ID app for Android that blocks suspected IRS scammers. The new Auto-Blocker automatically stops “IRS Imposter Calls” from reaching the user.

“Fraudulent phone scams are on the rise and, while some carriers and handset makers are starting to solve this problem, consumers need ways to educate and protect themselves,” said Jan Volzke, Vice President, Reputation Services at Whitepages. “While the IRS scam is far from the only unwanted call identified by our leading technology, it’s certainly top of mind this busy tax season. We want to help ease concern by making sure a large majority of those calls never reach their intended targets.”

Whitepages says, of the 300 million incoming calls that the company scans monthly in the U.S., more than 15 million are classified as “unwanted.” Last year, Whitepages identified the IRS scam as the number one type of scam call, with more than 1.2 million of these types of calls being made per month, accounting for at least 8 percent of all calls blocked by users. In addition, comparing February data from 2014 to 2016, IRS scam calls have grown exponentially, at nearly 2,500 percent over the past two years.

The new updated Whitepages ID app automatically blocks any incoming calls that have been identified by the company’s proprietary algorithms as being a known IRS scam number. The Alto-Blocker also includes the blocking of numbers that the IRS has officially flagged as suspicious.

While the Auto-Blocker stops IRS scam calls from ringing phones, users have the option to keep this auto feature on, or adjust the protection level based on type of call including: Scam or Fraud, Suspected Spam, Hidden Numbers, or International Numbers.

As scammers switch phone numbers in an effort to avoid detection, phone users will be alerted to popular or new area codes where scam calls are originating, so they can remain on the defense against numbers that may not yet have been blocked.

Finally, users can easily report IRS specific scam numbers back to Whitepages to be put on its block list.

Whitepage’s new app is free and available on GooglePlay.

Congressional Panel Looks Over Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 20, 2016

Last Wednesday’s hearing of House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee signals the panel’s interest to bring Medicare, a federal health insurance program for people age 65 and over, into the 21st century to meet the needs of its current 55.3 million beneficiaries.

At the March 16 hearing, Chairman Pat Tiberi (R-OH), stated that “Today’s seniors [are] inundated with an array of confusing deductibles, coinsurance and copayments with no protection from high health care costs unless they enroll in a private plan. Despite major improvements and innovations in the health care sector that have transformed how care is delivered, traditional Medicare has barreled through the last 50 years on the same trajectory of increased costs and little innovation.”

In addition to the structural challenges facing the program, critical parts of Medicare are expected to run out of money by 2026. In other words, the benefits Americans were promised stand to disappear if policymakers don’t act soon, says Tiberi.

Putting the Spotlight on Medicare

Tiberi’s March 16 Health Panel hearing, entitled “Preserving and Strengthening Medicare,” held in room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building, brought together three witnesses to discuss ways to sustain the nation’s Medicare program and to keep it from going bankrupt. From both sides of the aisle and expert witnesses all agreed that the federal government’s current approach to delivering high-quality health care is not working. As a result of an outdated Medicare program and harmful Obamacare policies, today’s seniors “must navigate a disjointed program, face rising health care costs, and have fewer healthcare choices,” says the GOP panel chairman.

“Of federal entitlements, Medicare presents the most difficult challenges,” says Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Robert Moffit, warning that the Trust Fund “faces insolvency in 2026.”

At the hearing, Moffit gave his fix for revamping Medicare that have bipartisan support and promise to shore up the ailing entitlement program. He called for the Medicare program to be simplified by combining Parts A and B – including catastrophic coverage, an out-of-pocket cap, a single deductible, and uniform coinsurance in a single plan along with bringing reforms to Medigap coverage. Also, retargeting Medicare benefits to low-income enrollees can provide assistance to lower-income enrollees. Increasing Medicare’s eligibility age to 67 (the same eligibility age for Social Security) along with encouraging innovation and cultivating competition through Premium Support can put the brakes to rising program costs.

When it comes to simplifying Medicare and incorporating catastrophic coverage, Tiberi had called the need for reform a “no-brainer.” Moffitt overwhelmingly agreed, stating, “It is a no-brainer. It is absolutely a no-brainer … [seniors] do not have protection from the most important thing that health insurance should deliver, which is that ultimate protection.”

As Moffit explained, the lack of catastrophic coverage in Medicare not only puts financial strain on the beneficiary, but it also causes a significant increase in unnecessary health care spending.

Coming Up with a Commonsense Approach

In her testimony, Katherine Baicker, Harvard University Professor of Health Economic and serves on the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, also called for commonsense solutions, specifically focused on the need for increased competition. She heighten the role that Medicare Advantage program plays in promoting innovation, as well as providing more seniors flexibility, choice, and quality at an affordable cost.

Baicker emphasized, “A thriving and competitive Medicare Advantage program can be a vital contributor to high quality beneficiary care in a sustainable health care system.”

When Baicker was asked which Obamacare provisions Congress should work to immediately repeal in an effort to protect Medicare Advantage, she replied, “I would like to see the cap on quality bonuses removed … and removing the double bonus for quality so that you’re appropriately rewarding plans for delivering the high-quality care that beneficiaries are seeking out.”

Finally, Stuart Guterman, senior scholar in residence at
AcademyHealth, told the panel that he believes the nation’s largest purchaser of health care can do more to ratchet up quality, enhance quality and coordinate care and control costs. “Because of Medicare’s unique position, it can be an important testing ground for cost and quality innovations. Policies have been put in place that encourage such development, including the expanding the power of the Secretary of Health and Human Services to put pilot programs on a ‘fast track’ and to work with private payers and providers to establish multi-payer initiatives.”

At the conclusion of the two hour hearing, like Baicker, Tiberi stressed the importance of bolstering support for Medicare Advantage, which serves approximately one-third of seniors today. Obamacare cut billions of dollars from Medicare Advantage and redirected those resources toward a one-size-fits-all, Washington-run entitlement, he says.

Tiberi also noted, “If we continue to berate a system that has been widely successful…I don’t think that’s a really good way to try to figure out how we bester serve patients, seniors, in a more cost-effective value-added, comprehensive way.”

Watching from the Sidelines

But, one aging group expressed strong concerns about the Health Panel’s look at Medicare. In his released statement, Max Richtman, President/CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security Medicare (NCPSSM), viewed the Health Panel hearing as “an Orwellian political exercise in which politicians say preserve when they actually mean privatize, and strengthen when they mean slash.”

“Republicans in the House envision a future in which millions of seniors will lose their guaranteed Medicare benefits in favor of a privatized CouponCare system in which they receive a government coupon to try and buy private insurance. Millions of seniors in Medicaid will lose their benefits due to block-granting to states without providing the resources to pay for it. The repeal of the Affordable Care Act will leave tens of millions without insurance and strip benefits from seniors in Medicare,” says Richtman in NCPSSM’s statement.

Furthermore, “The Republican leadership has offered no plans to improve benefits in Medicare or make reforms to reign in the skyrocketing price of drugs and healthcare costs system wide. Instead, the GOP vision for seniors in Medicare is they must just do more with less. Stagnant wages are grinding away at the middle class’s ability to save for retirement. Many employers have significantly scaled back or eliminated the traditional retirement benefits offered to their employees. As a result, current and future retirees simply cannot afford proposals to cut benefits, raise the eligibility age or privatize the program,” says in the NCPSSM statement.

Finally, the aging advocate warns that the GOP majority on the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee majority is moving to replace the nation’s traditional Medicare program in favor of a fully privatized system, and the GOP controlled House is in the process of producing a budget that would do just that.

A Democratic or Republican President? Which political party controls the House and Senate? When the dust settles these answered questions may result in a restructuring of the Medicare program, that may either be strengthened and expanded or put on the budgetary chopping block by the new incoming President or Congress. It’s a no brainer…Sitting on the political sideline will ultimately be detrimental to your pocketbook and coverage you receive for your health care.