A Storm Cloud Looms Over Older Americans Month

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 13, 2018

Two years after President John F. Kennedy had formally designated May as “Senior Citizens Month” at a meeting of the National Council of Senior Citizens in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Older Americans Act into law, formally declaring May as Older Americans Month. When Kennedy first proclaimed May as Older American’s Month, there were just 17 million Americans who had reached age 65. According to the recently released 2017 Profile of Older Americans, one in seven Americans are 65 or older, and just two years from now, this this demographic group’s numbers will skyrocket to 56 million people.

Nothing but Empty Words

Since Kennedy’s inaugural proclamation, all presidents have proclaimed the month of May as Older American’s Month. Not surprisingly President Donald J. Trump recently proclaimed May as Older Americans Month, too, calling upon “all Americans to honor our elders, acknowledge their contributions, care for those in need, and reaffirm our country’s commitment to older Americans this month and throughout the year.”

Trump even touted his Administration’s priorities on fighting on the behalf of the nation’s older Americans. “The Department of Justice, for example, is focused on protecting seniors from fraud and abuse. My Administration is also committed to protecting the Social Security system so that seniors who have contributed to the system can receive benefits from it. We are also dedicated to improving healthcare, including by increasing the quality of care our veterans receive through the Department of Veterans Affairs and by lowering prescription drug prices for millions of Americans.”

But do Trump’s words in his April 30th resolution to proclaim May as Older Americans Month, match his past political actions. Not so.

Just almost three months ago the President released his 2019 budget and this fiscal blueprint did not show a commitment to aging programs and services.

Draconian Cuts in 2019 Trump Budget

Although Trump’s 2019 budget proposal was “Dead on Arrival” on Capitol Hill, as reported in my February 18, 2018 Commentary, his budgetary wish list of cuts would have been devastating to many programs and services for older Americans, as detailed by a policy analysis performed by the Washington, DC.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM).

Trump’s budget included $1.4 trillion in Medicaid cuts, $490 billion in Medicare cuts, and repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Breaking his campaign promise not to touch Social Security, Trump called for steep cuts up to $64 billion from the Social Security Disability Insurance program.

Trump’s budget proposal also called for over $500 billion in cuts to Medicare, many of these savings coming from cuts to Medicare providers and suppliers. This was another campaign promise broken.

Trump’s budget cuts would have drastically impacted Medicare’s spending on prescription benefits and beneficiary costs, too. It would save $210 million over 10 years by eliminating the cost-sharing on generic drugs for low-income beneficiaries.

Not surprisingly, Medicaid was not immune to Trump’s 2019 budget cuts. He called for changing the structure of the program into either a per capita cap or Medicaid block grant, with a goal of giving states more flexibility of managing their programs. Through 2028, the president’s budget would cut $1.4 trillion from the Medicaid program through repealing the Affordable Care Act, and restructuring the program.

Trump’s budget proposal also calls for the elimination of the Older Americans Act Title V Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). The program, funded at $400 million in FY 2017. provides job training to nearly 70,000 low-income older adults each year.

Community Services Block Grants ($715 million), the Community Development Block
Grant ($3 billion) and the Social Services Block Grant ($1.7 billion) programs were also targeted to be eliminated. Some Meals on Wheels programs rely on funding from these federal programs, in addition to OAA funding, to deliver nutritious meals to at-risk seniors.

Trump also called for the elimination of funding to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, cutting assistance for heating and fuel costs to low income seniors. It would have also eliminated funding for The Senior Corps programs including the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions. These programs enable seniors to remain active and engaged in their communities, serving neighbors of all ages, with the benefit of enhancing their health and wellbeing.

Finally, research into cancer, Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s and other diseases affecting older persons would be negatively impacted with $ 46 million in funding cuts to National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Also reported in my December 10, 2018 Commentary, Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress successfully passed the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, that was projected to add $1.5 billion to the nation’s deficit over the next decade. Under the 2010 “pay-as-you-go” law, that triggers automatic spending cuts to domestic programs when the nation’s deficit increases, the GOP’s sweeping tax plan (that Trump strongly supported) would have triggered automatic spending cuts to federal programs, including a $25 billion cut to Medicare in 2018 alone. But vigorous lobbying by AARP and NCPSSM, along with a long-list of other aging, health care and union groups, narrowly averted the draconian cuts by convincing the House and the Senate to waive them as part of a temporary spending bill to prevent a government shutdown.

Strengthening Federal Assistance to Seniors

When President Johnson signed the Older Americans Act into law on July 14, 1965, to raise the awareness of the problems facing seniors and to honor them, he formally proclaimed the month of May as Older Americans Month.

This year’s Older Americans Month is celebrated in every community across the nation as Medicare, Medicaid and Older Americans Act programs are under fierce legislative attack by President Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress.

With the 2018 mid-term elections just six months away, older voters can send a message to Capitol Hill – Strengthen Social Security, Medicare, and the Older Americans Act, expand Medicaid, and bring back health insurance to millions of Americans who lost their coverage because of the Republican tax plan that repealed key provisions of Obamacare.

With a Democratic-controlled Congress, next year’s theme for the Older Americans Month, might be “Strengthening Federal Assistance to Seniors.”

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House Fails to Pass GOP’s Balanced Budget Amendment

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 15, 2018

Following the recent passage of the $ 1.3 trillion omnibus government spending bill and the massive GOP tax cut bill that added more than a $1 trillion to the nation’s despite economic growth, and with midterm elections looming, the House GOP leadership quickly acted to tackle the spiraling nation’s deficit by bringing H.J. Res. 2, a balanced budget amendment (BBA), to the floor for a vote. Simply put, the amendment requires that total annual outlays not exceed total annual receipts. It also requires a true majority of each chamber to pass tax increases and a three-fifths majority to raise the debt limit.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), introduced H.J. Res. 2, which he notes is nearly identical to text in legislation that passed the House in 1995, but failed in the Senate by one vote. This would be the Virginia Congressman’s last chance to push for passage of a BBA because he is not seeking re-election at the end of this term.

Last October. House Speake Paul Ryan (R-WI) agreed to vote on Goodlatte’s BBA, in exchange for conservative votes from the Republican Study Committee, chaired by Mark Walker (R-NC), on a procedural budget measure needed for Republicans to move forward on tax reform.

BBA Gets Thumbs Down by House Lawmakers

As expect, the House GOP’s BBA was defeated by a vote of 233 to 184, falling far short (by 57 lawmakers) of the two-thirds vote required for passage of an amendment under the Constitution. Six Republicans voted against it while only seven Democrats voted for it. But, the GOP’s BBA had little chance of becoming law because the required support of two-thirds in the Senate and Democratic Senators unified in their opposition, and finally the requirement that 38 states ratify the constitutional amendment.

“Our extraordinary fiscal crisis demands an extraordinary solution. We must rise above partisanship and join together to send a balanced budget amendment to the states for ratification.

I urge all my colleagues to join me in supporting this amendment and in freeing our children and grandchildren from the burden of a crippling debt they had no hand in creating, so they can be free to chart their own futures for themselves and for their own posterity,” Goodlatte said during the House floor on Thursday evening.

During the four-hour debate, House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), asked Congress to balance its budget like typical families do. She said,“Families across the country sit down at their kitchen tables every month and make tough decisions to balance their budget so that they can make ends meet. Just like American families, the federal government should spend within its means. A Balanced Budget Amendment, which requires a two-third majority in both chambers of Congress to pass, is a needed and important mechanism to restore fiscal discipline. “

On the House Floor, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called the BBA “a brazen assault on seniors, children and working families – the American people we were elected to protect.”

“Make no mistake, this GOP con job has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility. It is not balanced in terms of money because of their GOP Tax Scam that’s placed us in a bad spot fiscally and it’s not balanced in terms of values,” says Pelosi, noting that GOP fiscal responsibility comes down to “ransacking Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and breaking our nation’s sacred promise of dignity and security for seniors and families.”

Before the House vote on the BBA, Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, stated “I would be surprised if the bill made it through Congress.” He added, “It’s hypocritical for Republicans to support a balanced budget amendment after they cut taxes by $1.5 trillion and added significantly to the federal deficit. Voters will see through that and understand the vote is about scoring political points and not making good public policy.”

House Lawmakers Bombarded with Opposition Letters

Days before the House vote the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), AARP expressed opposition to the passage of the BBA by sending a letter to the Hill, urging House lawmakers to reject the GOP’s constitutional amendment. Hundreds of aging, health care, educational, unions, and business groups were cited in the April 12, 2018 issue of the The Congressional Record as opposing the amendment.

Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO, wrote House lawmakers warning that a BBA would unravel the nation’s social safety net by making gigantic entitlement cuts by blocking benefit payments from the Social Security and Medicare Part A trust funds because “all federal expenditures, including these earned benefits, would have to be covered by revenue collected in the same year. “

A BBA would also force Congress to make huge spending cuts to Medicare Parts B, C and D, Medicaid, and many other social safety net programs for seniors, to rein in the nation’s deficit and pushing lawmakers to make “massive new tax cuts.,” says Richtman.

“While the balanced budget amendment did not dictate any particular approach to deficit reduction, by altering established Congressional voting procedures it would have increased the likelihood that the fiscal policies adopted in coming decades would favor the well-off at the expense of middle- and low-income Americans. The amendment would have required a two-thirds vote of the full membership of the House and Senate to raise taxes. Spending cuts, by contrast, would continue to require only a majority of those present and voting and could be passed on a voice vote,” observed Richtman.

Finally, Richtman noted that the risk of a federal government default would increase because a BBA requires a three-fifths vote of both the House and the Senate to raise the national debt limit, rather than the current simple majority.

AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond also expressed opposition to the BBA in a letter to House lawmakers charging that the amendment would impact the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, “subjecting both programs to potentially deep cuts without regard to the impact on the health and financial security of individuals.” Programs that provide meals or heating assistance to low income seniors would also see available resources diminish, she predicted, she said.

The lack of a dependable Social Security and Medicare benefit [if a BBA was passed] would be devastating for millions of Americans. Social Security is currently the principal source of income for half of older American households receiving benefits, and roughly one in five households depend on Social Security benefits for nearly all (90 percent or more) of their income. Over 50 million Americans depend on Medicare, half of whom have incomes of less than $24,150. Even small fluctuations in premiums and cost sharing would have a significant impact on the personal finances of older and disabled Americans,” said LeaMond.

Midterm Elections Just Six Months Away

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted early this week that the annual government’s deficit is projected to be $ 1 trillion next year. And the nation’s $21 trillion debt would skyrocket to 33 trillion by 20028. With the midterm elections just six months away, combined with the CBO’s recently released economic analysis, the Republican party’s image as being the fiscally responsible political party is now shattered.

Even controlling both chambers of Congress and with President Donald Trump in the White House, GOP lawmakers must now look for political issues that may resonate with their constituents. Further attempts to dismantle Socials Security and Medicare may not be the way to go.

Trump’s Budget Proposal Comes ‘Dead on Arrival’ to Aging Groups

Published in Woonsocket Call on February 18, 2018

Last Monday, President Donald Trump released his 2019 budget proposal, “An American Budget,” providing guidance to Congress on how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in new federal spending plan authorized by the Bipartisan Budget Act recently passed into law. Trump’s federal spending wish list clearly shows that many programs and services for older Americans will take a huge hit if any of these proposals are picked up by the Republican-controlled Congress.

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) expresses concern that Trump’s budget proposal contains many of the same harmful proposals that the Administration and Republican-controlled Congress has pushed before, including $1.4 trillion in Medicaid cuts, $490 billion in Medicare cuts, and repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Social Security on the Chopping Block

According to the NCPSSM’s analysis released this month, the President’s budget blue print calls for deep cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance, breaking his campaign promise not to touch Social Security.

Trump proposes to slash up to $64 billion from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits through eight demonstrations “ostensibly” geared toward helping disability beneficiaries to stay at work or return to work, says NCPSSM, noting that these Social Security Administration’s (SSA) demonstration projects, established in 1980, had only “a modest effect on beneficiaries’ workforce participation.”

NCPSSM’s analysis warns that the President’s proposed budget also calls for other benefit cuts for disabled seniors, including limiting the retroactivity of applications for disability benefits from 12 months to six months. It would also deny unemployment compensation payments to SSDI beneficiaries who work but get laid off. Social Security Income recipients that live together, even with families, would see their benefits reduced, too.

The Trump Administration also proposes $12.393 billion for SSA’s FY 2019 appropriation for administrative funding, says NCPSSM, warning that this $89 million funding cut will result in longer waits for decisions on initial disability claims and time to speak to a representative from SSA’s 800 number. “With 10,000 baby boomers reaching age 65 every day, SSA needs substantial yearly increases just to keep pace with increased workloads, says NCPSSM.

President Trump’s budget plan only funds production and mailing of only 15 million Social Security statements. “This proposal is part of SSA’s overall plan to limit sending statements only to individuals who are 60 or older rather than sending them to all workers every five years,” says the aging advocacy group, urging the Administration “to send these important financial planning documents to all workers, as is required in section 1143 of the Social Security Act.”

Medicare Takes a Blow

President Trump’s draconian budget calls for over $500 billion in cuts to Medicare, many of these savings coming from cuts to Medicare providers and suppliers. This is another campaign promise broken.

NCCPSSM warns that President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal also includes policy changes to the prescription drug benefit that would impact Medicare’s spending and beneficiary costs. It would create an out-of-pocket maximum for Part D. Medicare t beneficiaries with very high drug costs would no longer have cost sharing responsibility once they hit the catastrophic threshold. This would add $7.4 billion in costs over 10 years.

Trump’s budget proposal would also change the way the threshold for moving out of the coverage gap or “donut hole”” is calculated that would make it more costly to seniors to move through it. “Taken together with an out-of-pocket cap, it will mean savings for some seniors with very high drug costs, but costs will climb for a larger number of seniors. This saves $47.0 billion over 10 years,” reports NCPSSM.

Finally, Trump’s 2019 budget proposal saves $210 million over 10 years by eliminating the cost-sharing on generic drugs for low-income beneficiaries.

Hurting Medicaid Recipients

In FY 2015, federal and state governments spent about $158 billion or 30 percent of Medicaid spending on long-term services and supports (LTSS). The federal and state partnership pays for about half of all LTSS for older adults and people with disabilities.

The President’s 2019 budget proposal slashes the program’s funding by changing the structure of the program into either a per capita cap or Medicaid block grant, with a goal of giving states more flexibility of managing their programs. Through 2028, the president’s budget would cut $1.4 trillion from the Medicaid program through repealing the Affordable Care Act, restructuring the program.

NCPSSM expresses concern that if states lose money under per capita caps or block grants, state law makers would have to make up the funding themselves if federal funds do not keep up with their Medicaid population’s needs. This can happen by either by cutting benefits and/or limiting eligibility, requiring family members to pick up more nursing home costs, or scaling back nursing home regulations that ensure quality, service and safety protections.

And That’s Not All

NCPSSM’s analysis says that Trump’s budget proposal also calls for the elimination of the Older Americans Act Title V Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). The program, funded $ 400 million in FY 2017. provides job training to nearly 70,000 low-income older adults each year.

Community Services Block Grants ($715 million), the Community Development Block Grant ($3 billion) and the Social Services Block Grant ($1.7 billion) programs are also targeted to be eliminated. Some Meals on Wheels programs rely on funding from these federal programs, in addition to OAA funding, to deliver nutritious meals to at-risk seniors.

Trump’s 2019 Budget proposal would also eliminate funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) This program received $3.39 billion in FY 2017. “Of the 6.8 million households that receive assistance with heating and cooling costs through LIHEAP each year, 2.26 million or one-third are age 60 or older,” says NCPSSM.

Trump’s budget plan also eliminates funding for Senior Corps programs including the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions. Current Senior Corps funding at the FY 2017 level is $202.1 million. “These programs enable seniors to remain active and engaged in their communities, serving neighbors across the lifespan, and benefitting their own health in the process. In 2016, 245,000 Senior Corps volunteers provided 74.6 million hours of service,” says NCPSSM. .

Finally, research into cancer, Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s and other diseases affecting older persons will be negatively impacted with $ 46 million in funding cuts to National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Aging advocacy groups view Trump’s second budget “flawed,” jam-packed with “damaging policies” for Congress to enact with an aging population. It’s “Dead on Arrival.” If Trump and GOP lawmakers choose not to listen to their older constituents, the results of the upcoming mid-term elections might just get their attention.

Older Americans to Benefit from Bipartisan Budget Act

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 11, 2018

While many were sleeping, funding to operate the federal government expired midnight Thursday, though it was restored about eight and a half hours later with action from Congress to end the brief government shutdown, when President Donald Trump signing the 652-page Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 early Friday morning.

The $400 billion budget agreement funds the federal government through March 23 to give lawmakers time to pull together the details needed to craft full appropriations bills that become the official federal budget.

Lawmakers had expected the massive budget bill to pass before the midnight deadline to avoid a government shutdown but Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), delayed the Senate vote past midnight to protest the additional billions of dollars being added to the federal budget deficit by the legislation.

Ultimately the House approved the bill by 240 votes to 186, almost four hours after the Senate had passed the budget bill by 71 to 28 three hours earlier. The GOP-controlled House needed the help of 73 Democratic lawmakers to pass the budget bill because 67 House Republicans voted against the legislation.

The Nuts and Bolts

The two-year budget deal eliminates strict budget caps that were set in 2011 to reduce the federal deficit and allows Congress to increase military and domestic spending by $300 billion, along with adding another $90 billion for emergency disaster aid for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and throws in billions more for infrastructure, the opioid epidemic and health programs. It also suspends the debt limit for one year – until after the upcoming midterm elections.

Specifically, the newly enacted Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, would allocate $165 billion to the Pentagon and defense spending while $131 billion would be directed to domestic programs. In addition, $20 billion would be spent on infrastructure programs such as surface transportation, rural water and wastewater systems, $ 7 billion in community health centers to provide care to low-income people, $6 billion to fight the opioid crisis, and $4 billion directed to veteran’s health care.

The budget agreement also repeals the controversial Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which was designed to limit Medicare costs. It also gives a ten-year extension to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is four years longer than the previous spending bill passed last month. Finally, the legislation did not address the dilemma of 700,000 “Dreamer immigrants who are in the United States illegally after being brought here as children and who” are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, set to expire on March 5, nor did it provide funding for President Trump’s proposed southern border wall.

“A Pretty Good Deal for Seniors”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, sees the Bipartisan Budget Bill of 2018 “a pretty good deal for seniors.”

“Seniors will feel these changes in their pocketbooks and even in the way they feel physically,” says Richtman, in a released statement. “We have been fighting for these measures for quite some time and are happy to see Congress take action on a bipartisan basis.”

According to Richtman, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 closes Medicare Part D “donut hole” in 2019. The prescription drug coverage gap embedded in the original law, which the Affordable Care Act has been gradually closing, will be altogether eliminated one year early. This will save seniors thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket prescription drug costs., he says.

Richtman says that the enacted Budget agreement also repeals Medicare therapy caps. The bill scraps arbitrary caps on physical, speech, language and occupational therapies that have cost senior’s money – or delayed care at crucial times. Beneficiaries will now find it easier – and more affordable – to get the therapies they need without undue interruption, he notes.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 also lifts non-defense domestic spending caps, allowing Congress to appropriate more adequate funding for the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget, says Richtman, noting that the federal agency has suffered from draconian budget cuts since 2011 which have impinged on customer service, even as 10,000 Baby Boomers retire every day. He notes that “this badly-needed (but yet unspecified) higher level of funding should allow SSA to improve customer service for the program’s 67 million beneficiaries.”

But, on the negative side, says Richtman, the new law increases Medicare premiums for some individuals by further expanding Medicare means-testing. “Congress continues to expand Medicare means-testing, and they will not stop until middle-class seniors are burdened with higher Medicare premiums,” he warns.

“We are particularly pleased that this legislation permanently repeals Medicare’s therapy caps, something that AARP has long supported. Millions of vulnerable patients who need occupational, physical, and speech-language therapy will now be protected from an arbitrary limit on how much Medicare will pay for needed therapy,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, in a released statement..

“AARP is also pleased that Congress expedited the closing of the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap known as the ‘donut hole,’ which will now close in 2019, one year earlier than currently scheduled. Medicare beneficiaries will soon get permanent relief from higher out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs. We also applaud the provision that adds biosimilar drugs to the Medicare Part D Coverage Gap Discount Program. This change will lower out-of-pocket costs and encourage the development and use of these drugs,” adds LeaMond.

Aging Groups Fear that Deficit May Lead to Attacks on Entitlement Programs

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 21, 2018

In early December, the GOP-controlled Senate passed by a partisan vote of 51 to 49 its sweeping tax rewrite, sending the $1.5 trillion tax package, detailed in a 492 page bill, to the Conference Committee to iron out the differences between the Senate and House bills. The House’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1), was passed by a 227-to-205 vote on November 16, 2017. Congress ultimately passed the Conference Committee’s revised tax bill, sending it to President Trump’s desk for signature. While the new tax law has a few positive provisions for seniors, aging groups predict a frontal assault by the GOP-controlled Congress and White House in 2018 to make cuts on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to balance to ballooning federal deficit.

Just days before President Trump signed into law on December 22, 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (P.L. 115-97), considered to be the biggest tax reform overhaul in over 30 years, AARP’s Chief Executive Officer, Jo Ann C. Jenkins, sent a letter to Congress raising the Washington, DC-based aging groups concerns with the law’s significant shortcomings as well as highlighting its impact “on the nation’s ability to fund critical priorities.”

Putting Medicare on the Chopping Block

In December 19 correspondence, Jenkins noted that AARP opposed the tax bill because of its negative impact on older adults. She expressed concern that there would be increased calls for greater spending cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and other domestic programs serving older Americans, with the tax legislation increasing the nation’s deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years (with an unknown amount beyond 2027).

“Indeed, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has confirmed that unless Congress takes action, the reconciliation legislation will result in automatic federal funding cuts of $136 billion in fiscal year 2018, $25 billion of which must come from Medicare,” said Jenkins. With the tax legislation’s repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, health care premiums would increase by 10 percent (with 64-year olds paying an average increase of $1,490) and there would be 13 million fewer Americans with health coverage, says Jenkins, citing a CBO’s analysis of the tax legislation.

However, AARP did appreciate that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act retained the medical expense , deduction and restored the 7.5 percent income threshold for all tax filers for two years, said Jenkins, noting that “almost three-quarters of tax filers who claimed the medical expense deduction are age 50 or older and live with a chronic condition or illness, and seventy percent of filers who claimed this deduction have income below $75,000.”

Finally, Jenkins also said that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act retained the additional standard deduction for those age 65 and older, as well as rejected proposals to make significant changes to the tax treatment of retirement contributions, which would have negatively affected the ability many tax filers to save for their retirement.

Targeting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

Like Jenkins, the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare also sees Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security becoming more vulnerable to benefit cuts due to the huge $1.5 trillion increase in the public debt resulting from the enactment of the GOP’s tax law.

According to the NCPSSM’s Government Relations and Policy staff in a January 2018 policy brief, key supporters of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act made it very clear that Medicare, Medicare and Social Security, would be targeted to balance the federal budget immediately after its approval. “For example, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that the tax bill is just the first step before “…instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare…” benefits to reduce the federal deficit. Similarly, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that “we’re going to have to get back next year [2018] at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.” In other words, the majority leadership will seek cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits as the next step to pay for the deficits this tax bill will create,’ NCPSSM’s policy brief.

In 2018, NCPSSM anticipates that the GOP-controlled Congress will seriously look at privatizing Medicare, raising the Medicare eligibility age, increasing beneficiary out-of-pocket costs, expand means testing of Medicare premiums, and block granting Medicaid, as a way to reducing the huge federal debt.

NCPSSM says that under the GOP’s Medicare privatization plan, when people become eligible for Medicare benefits they would not enroll in the current traditional Medicare program, which provides guaranteed benefits, but would receive a voucher to purchase private health insurance or traditional Medicare through a Medicare Exchange. The voucher’s amount would be determined annually when private health insurance plans and traditional Medicare participate in a competitive bidding process.

Medicare costs could also be cut by gradually increasing the eligibility age of Medicare to correspond with Social Security’s retirement age which is increasing from 65 to 67. Although this GOP strategy would initially save money, it would increase “system-wide health spending for everyone else,” warns NCPSSM.

NCPSSM says that “savings from redesigning the Medicare benefit [to reduce the federal deficit] by combining the Part A and Part B deductibles and making changes to supplemental insurance (Medigap) policies, would likely increase costs for people with Medigap policies.”

In 2018, the GOP Congress also might even consider expanding means-testing of Medicare premiums to reduce the federal deficit, says NCPSSM. “Expand income-related premiums under Medicare Parts B and D until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to these premiums [would reduce costs]. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that this proposal would affect individuals with incomes equivalent to $45,600 for an individual and $91,300 for a couple in 2013,” says NCPSSM’s policy brief.

Medicaid provides funding for health care to low-income seniors, people with disabilities, children and some families. “We anticipate [GOP] proposals will be made that would end the current joint federal/state financing partnership and replace it with per capita caps (or a block grant, at state option) giving states less money than they would receive under current law,” says NCPSSM’s policy brief, noting that repealing the Medicaid expansion under Obama’s Affordable Care Act would prevent low-income adults from accessing health care services.

Concerns Over Fast-Track Reforming Social Security

Finally, NCPSSM’s policy brief warns that GOP lawmakers might push for a “fast-track” procedure that would lead to cutting social security benefits. This proposal would require the President to submit a plan to be considered in Congress under “expedited procedures” to reform Social Security if the Social Security Trustees determine the Trust Funds do not meet a 75-year actuarial balance. NCPSSM views this proposal “as a way that to circumvent public scrutiny of proposals to reduce Social Security programs.”

NCCPSSM also anticipates a GOP proposal to eliminate concurrent receipt of unemployment insurance and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for beneficiaries who work, get laid off and as a result qualifies for Unemployment Insurance.

Last month, the GOP-controlled Congress and White House enacted the largest tax reform bill. AARP, NCPSSM and other aging advocacy groups warn that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will be targeted by the GOP lawmakers to balance the tax reform law’s $1.5 billion costs. Older voters must now become politically active in protecting and strengthening these programs for both current beneficiaries and future generations” With the looming 2018 mid-term elections, may be Congress might just listen.

Congress Passes RAISE Family Care Givers Act

Published in the Woonsocket Call on January 14, 2018

With the dust finally settling after the heated partisan battles over the dismantling President Obama’s landmark Obamacare and later reforming the nation’s tax code, Congressional Democrats and Republicans put political and philosophical differences aside to overwhelming pass by voice vote the Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage (RAISE) Family Caregivers Act of 2017.

The RAISE Family Caregivers Act of 2017, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), was passed on January 8, 2017. Two months earlier a House companion measure (H.R. 3759), introduced by Reps. Gregg Harper (R-MS) and Kathy Castor (D-FL), was passed. At press time, the legislation now heads to the President’s desk to be signed into law.

The caregiver legislation would direct the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop and sustain a strategy to recognize and support family caregivers across the nation. This bipartisan legislation has been endorsed by more than 60 aging and disability organizations, including AARP, the Alzheimer’s Association, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and the Arc.

Universal Praise for Congressional Passage

Congress clearly understands that caregiving is not a partisan issue but a life experience for millions of Americans.Yes, everyone at some time in their life may take on the role of caregiver for parents, spouses, children and adults with disabilities, or personally know caregivers.

According to AARP’s Public Policy Institute, there are 40 million family caregivers in the United States who provided an estimated $470 billion in uncompensated long-term care in 2013. In the Ocean State at any time during the year, an estimated 134,000 Rhode Island family caregiver step up to provide 124 million hours of care for an aging parent or loved one, most often helping them to live independently in their own homes.

“Family caregivers play an essential role in our communities by dedicating time and attention and making countless personal and financial sacrifices to care for their loved ones,” said Sen. Collins upon the Senate bills passage. “I am delighted that our bipartisan legislation to develop a coordinated strategic plan to leverage our resources, promote best practices, and expand services and training available to caregivers will now become law,” adds the Maine Senator, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse sees the value of the RAISE Family Caregivers and its impact to Rhode Island caregivers. “The passage of the bipartisan RAISE Family Caregivers Act is an important first step toward easing the burden on the caregivers who mean the world to the family members they care for.” says the Rhode Island Senator who serves on the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

“Family caregivers play a key role in supporting their loved ones in Rhode Island and throughout the nation. adds Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline. “The RAISE Family Caregivers Act ensures that family caregivers have the support and the resources they need to do their jobs safely and effectively. As a co-sponsor of H.R. 3759, I made sure my colleagues understood that this bill needed to become law as soon as possible, and I am glad that it passed both Chambers without objection. Now I urge President Trump to sign it and allow this important law to take effect”

“Thanks to the efforts of bipartisan Senate and House champions—Senators Collins and Baldwin and Representatives Harper and Castor—the RAISE Family Caregivers Act will help address the challenges family caregivers face,” said AARP Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy A. LeaMond, in a statement. “Family caregivers are the backbone of our care system in America. We need to make it easier for them to coordinate care for their loved ones, get information and resources, and take a break so they can rest and recharge,” she says.

According to LeaMond, family caregivers take on a range of tasks including managing medications, helping with bathing and dressing, preparing and feeding meals, arranging transportation, and handling financial and legal matters. She estimates that the unpaid care that family caregivers provide helps delay or prevent costly nursing home care, which is often paid for by Medicaid.

What’s in the RAISE Family Caregiver Act?

The RAISE Family Caregivers Act directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop and update a national strategy to support family caregivers. The legislation would also create a Family Caregiving Advisory Council comprised of relevant Federal agencies and non-federal members, also including family caregivers, older adults with long-term care needs, individuals with disabilities, employers, health and social service providers, advocacy organizations engaged in family caregiving, state and local officials, and others with expertise in family caregiving.

The newly established Advisory Council (meetings open to the public) would be charged with making recommendations to the Secretary. The strategy would be updated to reflect new developments. The Advisory Council’s initial report would include an initial inventory and assessment of federally funded caregiver efforts that would be incorporated into the initial strategy. The strategy would then identify recommended actions that government, providers, communities, and others could take to support family caregivers.

The development of the initial strategy would take up to 18 months, followed by updates of the strategy biennially. The bill would improve the collection and sharing of information, including information related to evidence-based or promising practices and innovative models regarding family caregiving; better coordinate, assess, maximize the effectiveness, and avoid unnecessary duplication of existing federal government activities to recognize and support family caregivers. The strategy and work around it could help support and inform state and local efforts to support family caregivers, promoting greater adoption of person- and family-centered care in all health and Long-Term Service and Support (LTSS) settings, with the person and the family caregiver (as appropriate) at the center of care teams

In addition to requiring the development of a strategy to support the nation’s family caregivers, the bill also establishes an advisory body that will bring together stakeholders from the private and public sectors to make recommendations that communities, providers, government, and others are taking and may take to help make the big responsibilities of caregiving a little bit easier.

The activities under the bill would be funded from existing funding appropriated for the Department of Health and Human Services. No new funding is authorized and it would sunset in five years.

Calls for More Caregiver Assistance

“In Rhode Island, we’re working hard at staying ahead on legislation supporting caregivers,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We passed temporary caregiver insurance, which covers thousands of working caregivers with salary protection much like TDI (Temporary Disability Insurance). Earned-paid sick leave fills in a gap that caregiver TDI may not cover in emergency situations. The AARP-back CARE Act now requires hospitals, upon admitting patients, identify a designated caregiver, inform that person on discharge and provide training for at-home medical tasks. We have passed legislation making it easier for caregivers to modify their homes. And just this month, the state opened applications for a grant program we fought for in the current budget that provides up to $5,000 in hard cash for caregivers who make qualifying home improvements.” (Download a grant application at http://www.aarp.org/ricaregiving)

“We cannot stop here,” added Connell. “And the RAISE Act keeps the need for ongoing strategic planning and smart policymaking on the front burner. The numbers demand escalating action that will improve conditions not just for people who need care, but their family caregivers as well. But it is very important to emphasize that all taxpayers benefit when someone with chronic illness or aging disabilities can stay in their homes, rather than move into Medicaid-supported nursing homes. We all win when we support caregivers.”

NOTE: “The Rhode Island Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association has a commitment to assisting caregivers navigate the various challenges of caring for someone living with Alzheimer’s and other related dementias,” says Donna McGowan, Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Association, RI Chapter. Call 1-800-272-3900 for details about caregiver and provider services (including confidential support, information, and referrals to local resources via access to a 24/7 Helpline, care consultation, caregiver support groups, education programs for families, and online information (www.alz.org/ri ).

Medicare Takes a Blow Under GOP’s Major Tax Plan Fix

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 10, 2017

In early December, the GOP-controlled Senate passed by a partisan vote of 51 to 49 its sweeping tax rewrite (with Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee siding with the Democrats and opposing the measure), sending the $1.4 trillion tax package, detailed in a 492 page bill, to the Conference Committee to iron out the differences between the Senate and House bill, Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1), that was passed by a 227-to-205 vote on November 16, 2017.

While Democrats are technically part of the conference committee, Republicans are yet again hashing out the details behind closed doors on a purely partisan basis. Democrats charge that the GOP lawmakers on the conference committee will look to rubber-stamp whatever their leadership comes up with and do not expect to see any changes to the legislation for the better.

The cores of the House and Senate bills are already very similar: tax cuts for the wealthiest and corporations paid for by middle-class Americans. Republicans are rushing to get legislation to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature before Christmas. While Trump looks forward to the first major legislative accomplishment of his presidency (once signed into law) as a Christmas gift to the nation, those opposing the massive changes to the nation’s US tax code view it as a stocking stuffed with coal.

Congressional insiders expect to see a finalized tax bill in the coming days, and votes in the House mid-next week at the earliest.

Medicare Takes a Blow

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, sitting on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, sees the writing on the wall with the passage of the GOP tax bill. “The Republican tax plan would run up huge deficits, trigger immediate cuts to Medicare, and threaten Social Security and Medicaid down the line,” says the Rhode Island Senator.

Adds, Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), this forces the “the poor, middle class, and elderly to pick up the tab for trillions of dollars in tax breaks that the super-rich and profitable corporations do not need..” If enacted, the GOP tax fix triggers an automatic $25 billion cut to Medicare,” he warns, noting that “it blows a $1 trillion hole in the deficit, inviting deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.”

Richtman says, “adding insult to injury” both the GOP Senate and House tax bills repeal the Obamacare mandate, which will raise ACA premiums for older adults (age 50-64) by an average of $1,500 in 2019. He notes that the Senate tax bill uses the “Chained CPI” inflation index for calculating deductions and tax brackets, this “setting a dangerous precedent that could spill over into cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security.”

In her December 7 correspondence to Congressional leadership, AARP Chief Executive Officer Jo Ann Jenkins, representing millions of members who whose health care depends on Medicare, urged lawmakers to work together in a bipartisan fashion to enact tax code legislation that would meet the needs of the older population and arrive at a tax code that is “more equitable and efficient, promotes growth, and produces sufficient revenue to pay for critical national programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.”

Jenkins urged Congress to prevent $25 billion in automatic cuts to Medicare in 2018 that would result from the enactment of H.R. 1 and its $1.5 trillion deficit increase (according to the Congressional Budget Office) since it “would have an immediate and lasting impact, including fewer providers participating in Medicare and reduced access to care for Medicare beneficiaries.”

“The sudden cut to Medicare provider funding in 2018 would have an immediate and lasting impact, including fewer providers participating in Medicare and reduced access to care for Medicare beneficiaries,” said Jenkins, who warned that health care providers may choose to stop accepting Medicare patients at a time when the Medicare population is growing by 10,000 new beneficiaries each day.

Jenkins also expressed her concern that Medicare Advantage plans and Part D prescription drug plans may charge higher premiums or cost-sharing in future years to make up for the cuts now.

The Devil is in the Details

On the AARP website, Gary Strauss, an AARP staff writer and editor, posted an article on December 6, 2017, “Your 2018 Taxes? Congress Now Deciding,” that identifies specific GOP tax bill provisions that hit older tax payers in their wallets.

According to Strauss, an AARP Public Policy Institute analysis also found that more than one million taxpayers 65 and older would pay higher taxes in 2019, and more than 5 million would see their taxes increase by 2027. More than 5 million seniors would not receive a tax break at all in 2019, and 5.6 million would not see their taxes decrease by 2027.

The House and Senate tax bills also have differing views on the medical expense deduction, used by nearly 75 percent of filers age 50 and older, says Strauss. The Senate plan allows taxpayers to deduct medical expenses exceeding 7.5 percent of their income rather than a current 10 percent — for the next two years. The House tax plan eliminates this deduction. Some 70 percent of filers who use the deduction have incomes below $75,000.

Strauss says that the House bill eliminates the extra standard deduction for those age 65 and up, while the Senate bill retains it. For 2017, that’s $1,250 for individuals, $1,550 for heads of households or $2,500 for couples who are both 65 and older. .

Both Senate and House versions abolish state and local tax deductions, with the exception of up to $10,000 in property taxes. Residents in high-tax states such as California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, would pay higher taxes, adds Strauss.

For home owners, Strauss notes that the Senate plan leaves interest deduction limits at $1 million, while the House bill lowers the mortgage interest deduction limit to $500,000 and no longer allows it to be used for second homes, says Strauss.. Individuals would also continue to get up to $250,000 tax-free from the sale of a home (up to $500,000 for couples). But, both bills require sellers to live in the property five of the eight years prior to a sale, up from the current requirement of two of the last five years,” adds Strauss.

At press time, dozens of newspapers are reporting that Americans across the nation are protesting the passage of GOP tax bill that makes the biggest changes to the U.S. tax code in 30 years, calling it a “scam.” AARP and NCPSSM are mobilizing their millions of members to protect Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

While Trump told Senators at a lunch meeting held on December 5 at the White House that the Republican tax plan was becoming “more popular,” two recently released polls are telling us a completely different story. According to a Gallup national poll, a majority of independents (56 percent) join 87 percent of Democrats in opposing the tax plan. Only 29 percent of Americans overall approve of the proposed GOP changes to the nation’s tax code. Reflecting Gallup’s finding, the Quinnipiac University national poll found that 53 percent of American voters disapprove of the tax plan, while only 29 approve.

With mid-term Congressional elections less than a year away, Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress continued push to dismantle Obamacare, leaving millions without health care coverage and creating a tax code that would destroy Medicare, may well bring millions of older taxpayers to the polls to clean house. We’ll see.