GOP Health Care Reform Moves to Senate

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 7, 2017

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s words are now coming back to haunt him and GOP leadership that rammed American Health Care Act (AHCA), without procedural safeguards, through the House chamber days ago. “I don’t think we should pass bills that we haven’t read that we don’t know what they cost,” said Ryan in a 2009 interview on MSNBC when Congress was debating President Obama’s 1990-page Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare.

Last month, the Trump Administration efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, with the American Health Care Act (AHCA) went down in flames when so many GOP moderates and conservative House lawmakers opposed the bill that the leadership didn’t dare bring it up for a vote. Successful negotiations of the GOP factions crafted a new version that passed last Thursday by a razor-thin vote of 217-213, a slim margin of four votes. All 193 Democrats opposed passage, along with 20 Republican lawmakers. With House passage, the bill moves to the Senate for deliberation.

Before the House vote on the GOP health bill there were no legislative hearings held to debate its merits and its full text was posted on the Web less than 24 hours before the vote. Ryan did not even wait for the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to provide an updated financial analysis of AHCA. The CBO’s analysis of the original bill, pulled moments before a scheduled vote on March 24, 2017, found that the GOP health care proposal estimated that if passed 24 million or more Americans could be uninsured by 2026.

Opposition Mounting to GOP Health Care Proposal

With the passage of AHCA, Democratic Policy and Communication Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline (D-RI) issued the following statement, saying “This is the cruelest and most immoral thing I’ve seen the Republican Party do to the American people. They just passed a bill that they know will result in the deaths of thousands of working people each year. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”

“All you need to know about this bill is that Republicans tried to exempt themselves from coverage [of the GOP health care proposal]] before they got caught. That’s because they know it’s a raw deal,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. This legislation sets us on a path to the bad old days when insurance companies could refuse coverage to those with preexisting conditions and deny people health benefits that should be in every plan – like ‎maternity and mental health care, he says.

Whitehouse warns that AHCA’s passage will leave millions of Americans without access to affordable health insurance. “Rhode Islanders rely on the Affordable Care Act and it’s working here. If they want to improve it, that’s one thing, but this House bill will hurt Rhode Islanders,

Within hours of the House vote on AHCA, a joint statement was issued by six prestigious national medical organizations (American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Psychiatric Association American and the American Osteopathic Association), representing over 560,000 physicians and medical students, denouncing the GOP health bill. Dozens of other state and national health care organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association and American Hospital Association (and this number grows daily) also gave a thumb down on the Republican health bill that is considered “unworkable and flawed.”

Aging advocacy groups came out swinging, too.

AARP, representing 38 million members and considered to be one of the nation’s most powerful aging lobbying groups, plans to hold GOP House lawmakers accounting for their support of AHCA while gearing up to oppose the Republican health care proposal in the Senate.

In a statement, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond reiterated AARP’s opposition to the GOP health bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, calling it “flawed” and warning that the legislative proposal “would harm American families who count on access to affordable health care.”

LeaMond says, “the bill will put an Age Tax on us as we age, harming millions of American families with health insurance, forcing many to lose coverage or pay thousands of dollars more for health care. In addition, the bill now puts at risk the 25 million older adults with pre-existing conditions, such as cancer and diabetes, who would likely find health care unaffordable or unavailable to them.”

According to LeaMond, AARP will continue its opposition of AHCA as it moves for Senate consideration because it “includes an Age Tax on older Americans, eliminates critical protections for those with pre-existing conditions, puts coverage at risk for millions, cuts the life of Medicare, erodes seniors’ ability to live independently, and gives sweetheart deals to big drug and insurance companies while doing nothing to lower the cost of prescriptions.

LeaMond warns, “We promised to hold members of Congress accountable for their vote on this bill. True to our promise, AARP is now letting its 38 million members know how their elected Representative voted on this health bill in The Bulletin, a print publication that goes to all of our members, as well as through emails, social media, and other communications.”

Medicaid Takes a Major Blow

“The bill threatens the very heart of the Medicaid program, taking away the guarantee that Medicaid will be there when seniors need it most. By slashing Medicaid funding by over $800 billion, the AHCA will place tremendous strain on state budget, says Kevin Prindiville, Executive Director of Justice in Aging, a nonprofit advocacy group for low-income seniors. “States will be forced to cut services, restrict eligibility, and reduce benefits for seniors, children, people with disabilities, and low-income older adults, he says.

“Congress is forcing families to pay more out-of-pocket when grandparents and other loved ones need nursing home care or home care. Two-thirds of all Medicaid spending for older adults pays for long-term services and supports. The AHCA puts this vital care for seniors in jeopardy,” says Prindiville. “By passing the ACHA, the House chose to cut taxes for the wealthy and pharmaceutical companies while harming Medicare beneficiaries by increasing Part B premiums and reducing the life of the Medicare Trust Fund, he says.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare calls the AHCA vote “appalling” for retirees and views the “raid of Medicare, cuts to Medicaid among the most problematic parts of the AHCA.”

“Despite the bill’s name, risking the health of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens to give the wealthy an $ 600 billion tax cut is tremendously uncaring — and does not reflect real American values,” says Richtman. In modifying the original AHCA bill to give reluctant Republicans political cover, the House leadership made a bad piece of legislation even worse,” he says.

No Protection for Pre-existing Conditions

“Recent amendments to this cruel, ill-advised bill could put coverage for older Americans with pre-existing conditions like cancer and diabetes out of reach. The $8 billion (over 5 years) added to the legislation at the last minute to defray the cost of higher premiums is woefully inadequate. It’s a thin veil that covers a head of snakes,” notes Richtman

“Equally inadequate are the meager tax credits that the GOP bill offers older Americans to buy insurance. A $4,000 annual tax credit doesn’t come to close to covering premiums for seniors ages 60-64, meaning millions of older Americans will lose coverage altogether,” says Richtman.

According to Richtman, AHCA slashes nearly $1 trillion from the Medicaid by converting the social health care program into a block grant program or imposing per capita caps. “This would make it harder for impoverished seniors to access long term skilled nursing care and community or home care. Overall, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 14 million people will be kicked off the Medicaid rolls in the next 10 years if this bill becomes law,” he says.

Richtman observes that the enactment of AHCA would reduce Medicare’s solvency by repealing Obamacare’s 0.9 percent payroll tax on wages above $200,000. This could lead to cuts in Medicare, including privatizing the program — harming current and future beneficiaries, he says.

“Under the GOP bill, insurers can charge older enrollees five times more than younger ones. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that by 2026 this provision will substantially raise premiums for older people by as much as 25 percent,” notes Richtman.

Senate Becomes New AHCA Battle Ground

After the politically decisive House vote to pass AHCA, President Donald Trump and House GOP lawmakers celebrated their major political victory at the White House Rose Garden claiming that they had fulfilled a promise made 7 years ago to repeal and replace Obamacare. But this celebration was short lived. Like House Democratic lawmakers, Democratic and Republican Senators began voicing their skepticism and strong opposition to the House’s passed health bill. Holding a slim 52-to-48 advantage in the upper chamber, GOP Senate Leadership must craft a bill that can win the support of at least 50 of their caucus members.

Washington insiders are now reporting that the House’s unpopular AHCA is “Dead on Arrival” in the Senate. Senate Republicans say they will not vote on the House passed bill and the upper chamber is expected to move slowly in crafting its health bill, starting from scratch. Many GOP Senators opposed AHCA, especially those who want to protect their constituents with pre-existing conditions and others who represent states that have expanded their Medicaid program under Obamacare.

A group of 13 Republican Senators (all men) have begun the process of hammering out their own health bill. Senate rules do not allow a review of the legislation or the determination of the rules of the debate until the CBO provides its official fiscal impact estimate. Because of this the health policy debate may not begin until summer.

Hopefully, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, and his partisan working group will reach across the aisle to Democratic Senators to assist in crafting a bipartisan solution. Won’t that be refreshing.

GOP Health Care Proposal Pulled at Last Moment

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 26, 2017

Days ago, unified Democratic lawmakers combined with a deep philosophical wedge between the conservative House Freedom Caucus and moderate Republicans over policy details of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), forced the Trump Administration and House Speaker Paul Ryan to pull the AHCA proposal minutes from a floor vote to steer it away from a humiliating legislative defeat last Friday. Interestingly, the seventh anniversary of President Barack Obama signing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), his signature health care law, took place one day before the House vote.

A day before Friday’s scheduled vote to dismantle and repeal Obama’s ACA, President Donald Trump taking a high-risk negotiation tactic straight out of his bestselling book, “The Art of the Deal,” gave a late-Thursday night ultimatum to the House GOP lawmakers. Trump told to them to vote up or down on AHCA or he would be prepared to move on to other legislative agenda items.

As to Trump’s ultimatum to GOP House lawmakers, CNN Presidency Historian Timothy Naftali noted on CNN Newsroom with Fredricka Whitfield, “He played chicken and he blinked.”

House GOP Making Legislative Sausage

In a report issued on March 13, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), detailed the drastic impact of the initial AHCA legislative proposal. CBO, a federal agency that provides budget and economic information to Congress, found that AHCA would result in 24 million losing health insurance coverage by 2026, Medicaid would be cut by $880 billion over the next ten years, and premiums and out-of-pocket costs would skyrocket increase, particularly for older adults and individuals with lower incomes.

Earlier this week, on Monday, Ryan and his House GOP Leadership team made eight amendments to AHCA to pull in skeptical GOP moderate and conservative lawmakers, including the controversial speeding up tax cuts while whittling down the Medicaid program. Later, on March 23, CBO confirmed that these amendments would lead to essentially the same level of coverage losses, about 24 million people and cost increases for individuals and would yield $187 billion less in savings than the original GOP health care proposal.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Senator Wyden and Congressman Pallone revealed that the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ independent Actuary “estimated that the repeal of the tax on prescription medications, known as the ‘pharma fee,’ beginning January 1, 2017 would increase Medicare Part B premiums by $8.7 billion through fiscal year 2027.” noted the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

On Thursday, three more amendments were offered to sway GOP House critics. One would strip the requirement that insurance companies cover essential health benefits (EHB). This amendment would effectively eliminate annual out-of-pocket caps, reinstate annual and lifetime coverage limits, and gut protections for pre-existing conditions. Another would delay – but not remove – the Medicare payroll tax cut that will undermine Medicare’s financing and its future stability.

After the defeat of AHCA, Trump blamed the Democrats for the House GOP’s failure to pass its health care proposal to scrap Obamacare. “The Democrats were not going to give us a single vote,” he said, warning that “Obamacare will explode” forcing the opposition party back to the negotiation table to craft a better health care law.

House Speaker Ryan also noted that “We are going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”

“We just really did not get a consensus today,” say Ryan. “That’s why I thought the wise thing to do was not proceed with a vote but to pull the bill. When asked if he was going to try “to prop it up, Ryan responded by saying “it is so fundamentally flawed, I don’t know that that is possible.”

Sighs of Relief from Aging Groups, Democrats

“The American Health Care Act is not American in spirit or health care in substance. In fact, it’s a tax cut bill for the wealthy, not a health care bill for the people. It will make America sicker. Congress should reject this charade and this disaster of a bill today,” states Judith Stein, Executive Director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

“The House Congressional leadership was destined to lose on their disastrous American Health Care Act, which would have effectively repealed Obamacare and hurt seniors, including beneficiaries of Medicare and Medicaid. It doesn’t matter whether they pulled or failed to pass the bill,” says Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in a statement. “It needed to go down and we thank the millions of National Committee members and supporters – and those of other senior advocacy organizations – whose protests were loud, numerous, and furious.”

“No one knew’ that health care could be so complicated. Hopefully, he has learned a lesson… that health legislation is built on a complex foundation that considers the real human needs – and costs – of changes to the system. A common refrain from Donald Trump during the campaign was, ‘What do you have to lose by electing me?’ Now we know what’s at stake: affordable health care for older Americans, Medicare, and Medicaid,” says Richtman.

“The leadership’s decision to withdraw the bill from consideration proves that the voices of Americans are very powerful. This harmful legislation would have added an Age Tax on older Americans and put vulnerable populations at risk,” says AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement.

LeaMond calls on Congress to focus on the issues important to older Americans and their families, including: protecting and improving Medicare’s benefits and financing; providing access to affordable quality coverage; preventing insurers from engaging in discriminatory practices; lowering prescription drug costs; providing new incentives to expand home and community based services; and strengthening efforts to fight fraud, waste, and abuse.

Adds, Justice in Aging Executive Director, Kevin Prindiville, “Congress tried to rush this disastrous bill through Congress without regard for the health and safety of older Americans and their families, and such a bill cannot and should not be revived. Older adults and their families rely on Medicaid and Medicare and these programs must be protected.”

Compromise might well be the way to make sound changes to the nation’s health care law, says Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI), who serves as House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. “The Affordable Care Act is a good law, and Republicans and Democrats should be working together to make it even better. If Republicans ever decide to come to the table, we should work together to increase competition, expand coverage, and bring down premiums. That’s a decision that Republicans have to make – whether to work with Democrats or continue down the path they’re on,” he says.

Rep. James Langevin (D-RI) also stresses the importance of reaching over the aisle to create a better health care law and getting away from partisan bickering. “It’s time for Republicans to move on from their misguided crusade to dismantle the ACA. The health care law has brought insurance coverage to millions of Americans. Its consumer protections, premium assistance, essential health benefits, and countless other provisions that were at risk of elimination have improved our nation’s health and saved lives. We must work together in a bipartisan manner to strengthen and improve the ACA, not risk the health and wellbeing of everyday Americans for an empty, partisan victory,” he says.

Search on for GOP Senators to Protect Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 29, 2017

Since President Donald Trump took the oath of office on January 20, he is making good on some of his hundreds of campaign promises. During his first week in office Trump signed three executive orders declaring new government policies and eight presidential memoranda detailing the priorities of his new administration.

But, for aging groups, with Trumps arrival in Washington, D.C, the skirmish officially begins to protect Medicare in this new session of Congress.

With Trump and Congressional Republican Leadership on record for their support of repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, President and CEO Max Richtman, of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), clearly sees the writing on the wall. If successful, Richtman warns that GOP legislative actions will severely damage Medicare impacting 57 million seniors and disabled adults who rely on the program for their health care.

Building A Firewall Against Privatizing Medicare

With the GOP holding a slim majority of the U.S. Senate seats, 52 to the Democrats 48 seats, Richtman sees swaying Republican Senators away from their party’s position on privatizing Medicare to protect the federal health care program.

On January 24, 2017, Richtman urged Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to be the Senate’s “firewall against Medicare cuts.” His correspondence asked them to vote against proposals to privatize Medicare, raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, and repeal provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law, that provided additional benefits to beneficiaries.

Richtman reminded the GOP Senators that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) improved Medicare benefits and extended the solvency of the Part A Hospital Insurance Trust Fund by more than a decade. ACA’s closing of the prescription drug donut hole has put money into the pockets of Medicare beneficiaries. The health care law also added coverage of an annual wellness visit and eliminated copays for preventive services like cancer screenings, he said.

“I am also troubled by “premium support” [GOP] proposals to privatize Medicare,” says Richtman. According the aging advocate who was a former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging and a 16-year veteran of Capitol Hill, under previous privatization plans, beneficiaries would not enroll in the current program; rather, they would receive a capped payment or voucher to be used to purchase private health insurance or traditional Medicare. Private plans would have to provide benefits that are at least actuarially equivalent to the benefit package provided by fee-for-service Medicare, but they could manipulate their plans to attract the youngest and healthiest seniors. This would leave traditional Medicare with older and sicker beneficiaries whose higher health costs would lead to higher premiums that they and others may be unable or unwilling to afford, reducing the fee for service risk pool even further resulting in a death spiral for traditional Medicare.

GOP Medicare Fix Financially Hurts Beneficiaries

Richtman also told the GOP Senators that NCPSSM opposed the raising of the Medicare eligibility age from age 65 to 67 because the proposal would increase costs for millions of older Americans. Absent the guarantees in the existing ACA, such as requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions and limiting age rating, millions of seniors 65 and 66 without Medicare would find private insurance unaffordable. Raising the eligibility age would also increase average costs for Medicare as younger, healthier seniors are eliminated from the risk pool and costs are spread across an older, less-healthy population, he says.

Richtman urged the GOP Senators to oppose efforts underway in the 115th Congress to block grant Medicaid, cap Medicaid payments on a per-beneficiary basis (per capita caps) and/or repeal the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. He noted that these policy changes would “financially hurt states and lead to states cutting services, quality and eligibility for the most vulnerable of our senior population.”

Many seniors would not be able to absorb the loss of coverage and increase in their costs that would occur if these proposals became law. In fact, half of all Medicare beneficiaries in 2014 had incomes below $24,150 and Medicare households spent over two times more than the average American household on out-of-pocket health care costs,” he says.

“If Senate Democrats stand strong, we only need a handful of Republicans to protect the commitment to Medicare,” says Richtman. “We hope Senators McCain, Collins, Grassley, and Alexander to do the right thing for seniors in their states – and across America.”

Richtman correspondence to the four GOP Senators is part of NCPSSM’s pro-active legislative strategy to protect the existing Medicare program. The letters sent quantify the economic impact that proposed Medicare cuts would have on seniors in the four GOP Senators’ states: Arizona (with 1.3 million beneficiaries), Maine (306,000 beneficiaries), Iowa (nearly 572,000 beneficiaries), and Tennessee (1.2 million beneficiaries).

“We know that these four Republican Senators have the wisdom and judgment to protect seniors in their states from legislation that would impose painful Medicare cuts,” says Richtman. “It’s time to slam the brakes on any attempts to pass harmful legislation.”

Senate Democrats Attempt to Block HHS Nomination

Two days before Trump was sworn in as president, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held confirmation hearing on Rep. Tom Price, (R-Ga), Trump’s nominee to oversee the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency that oversees the Medicare program. In confirmed, he is expected to play a key role in the GOP’s efforts to privatize Medicare.

No formal vote was taken at the HELP Committee hearing but the Congressman is scheduled to testify a week later at the Senate Finance Committee, which will vote on his nomination.

During the four-hour heated confirmation hearing, held in 430 Dirksen Senate Office Building, HHS nominee Price dodged questions lobbed by Democrats about the Trump Administrations position on the future of Medicare. They also zeroed in on his personal financial investments in health care companies, calling them conflicts of interest which the denied.

Price, an orthopedic surgeon and a six term congressman, considered to be one of the most vocal critics of Obamacare on Capitol Hill, is expected play a key role in the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, sitting on the HELP Committee, gave this take on Price after the first of two confirmation hearings: “Price hasn’t been able to win Democratic support for any of his health care legislation [in the House] and today confirmed that he and his allies have no plan that can win support from across the aisle or the millions of Americans who would be affected by tearing down the Affordable Care Act. He conceded that he should not stop Americans under twenty-six from staying on their parents’ insurance, re-open the dreaded prescription drug doughnut hole for seniors, deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and reinstate lifetime limits on care. But he has no plan to make that happen.”

Adds Whitehouse, “Price also failed to reassure the Rhode Islanders I serve who rely on Medicare for their care. He has fought to voucherize the program, which would gradually unload costs onto seniors while eroding their benefits. He needed to tell the American people they could depend on him to faithfully administer Medicare and keep the sacred promise we’ve made to our seniors of a dignified retirement with access to good health care. He did not.”

“Congress must protect Social Security and Medicare, but many Republicans see the latest election results as an opportunity to hollow out these vital programs. President Trump’s pick to oversee Medicare has long championed efforts to privatize Medicare, which I strongly oppose. Cutting benefits and privatizing these programs could hurt millions of Americans and harm our economy,” said Sen. Jack Reed, noting that these programs reduce poverty and improve public health in ways that benefit all Americans.

As NCPSSM’s Richtman continues his effort to sway GOP Senators, rallying the troops at the state-level may well be the path to blocking GOP attempts to privatize Medicare. Voters in states with Republican Senators must send this message to their elected official, “don’t touch my Medicare.” Let the movement to strengthen Medicare in these states begin today.

We Need Congress to Step Up and Fix Social Security, Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 3, 2016

Expect the nation’s Social Security program to be fully funded for nearly two decades, and Medicare’s solvency to continue courtesy of health care reforms. Social Security beneficiaries may even get a very small .2 percent cost of living (COLA) adjustment next year but will get wacked with a Medicare premium increase. These facts are reported in the recently leased 262 page report issued by the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare funds, transmitted to Congress and President Obama. This is the 76th report issued by the Trustees that financially reviews these two of the nation’s largest entitlement programs.

This 2016 Trustee Report, released on Jun 22, should be of interest to Rhode Island’s retirees who receive checks from Social Security, According to AARP, 153,349 Rhode Islanders received Social Security checks as of the end of 2014. Also, 22 percent of Rhode Island retirees depend on their Social Security check for 90 percent or more of their income. Their average benefit is $1,341 per month.
The Devils in the Details

The recently released 2016 Trustees Report notes there is now $2.81 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $23 billion more than last year and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.

Meanwhile, Social Security remains well-funded. In 2016, as the economy continues to improve, Social Security’s total income is projected to exceed its expenses. In fact, the Trustees estimate that total annual income will exceed program obligations until 2020.

The Trustees say that Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until the year 2034, the same as projected in last year’s Report. After that, Social Security will still have sufficient revenue to pay about 79% of benefits if no changes are made to the program.

Although the Trustees project a .2% Cost of Living Adjustment increase, retirees will be hit with a premium increase next year. Medicare Part B premiums are projected to increase by only a very small amount for about 70 percent of beneficiaries in 2017 from $104.90 to $107.60. The standard monthly premium is projected to increase from $121.80 to $149.00 while the annual deductible is projected to increase from $166 to $204 for all beneficiaries.

The Trustees peg Medicare solvency to the passage of healthcare reform, with the program paying full benefits until 2028, 11 years later than was projected prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act. However, this is two years earlier than projected in 2015.

Congress Must Step to the Plate

Responding to the Social Security Trustees report, recently released report, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, said, “While the Trustees once again report that the combined Old Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance Trust can pay full retirement, survivor and disability benefits for some time, we know that if no action is taken, benefits could be cut by nearly 25 percent in 2034, and families could lose up to $10,000 per year in benefits.”

“Social Security remains a critical part of the fabric of our lives to protect us from both expected and unexpected challenge,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins calls on Presidential candidates and those running for Congress and the Senate to make a commitment to strengthening Social Security and outline their plans for the fix. “Throughout the 2016 election, we’ll continue to push candidates to take action if elected,” she says.

As to Medicare, Jenkins adds, “This year’s Medicare Trustees report reinforces the recent progress that has been made through greater Medicare savings and lower costs per enrollee. The report also highlights the financial challenges that continue to face the Medicare program, which is projected to provide critical health coverage to 64 million Americans by 2020.”

“A typical senior today has an annual income of just under $25,000 and pays roughly one out of every six dollars of this in out-of-pocket health care costs. The more than 55 million older Americans who today depend on Medicare for guaranteed, affordable health coverage simply cannot afford more than they already pay,” says Jenkins.

The Solution Could Be Simple

Jenkins urges Congress to make simple solutions to bring stability to the nation’s Medicare program. She suggests Congress find ways to reduce high prescription drug costs, improve the nation’s health care outcomes, eliminate unnecessary diagnostic testing, curb excess paperwork, and identify waste and fraud in the program.

Adds, Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “What’s likely to be missing in headlines about today’s Social Security Trustees Report is that the program remains well-funded with total income, again, projected to exceed expenses. However, in order to head off a benefit cut in 2034 Washington should embrace the growing movement to lift the payroll tax cap and expand benefits for the millions of seniors struggling to get by on an average $1,300 retirement benefit.

The Trustees also project a tiny .2% cost of living adjustment next year yet Medicare premiums will increase in 2017, says Richtman. “Seniors continue to see their modest Social Security benefits eaten away by growing healthcare costs which illustrates, once again, that the current Social Security COLA formula isn’t accurately measuring seniors’ expenses. Congress needs to adopt a fully developed CPI for the elderly (CPI-E) and begin work on the many Social Security expansion bills now languishing in the House and Senate,” he adds.

This [Trustee’s] report reinforces the importance of ensuring that Social Security and Medicare are preserved and guaranteed, especially for working and middle class Rhode Islanders,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) who is a co-sponsor of the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act. “Reasonable measures, such as raising the cap on high-income contributions, should be considered by Congress to extend the solvency of these programs. I will continue to advocate for commonsense legislation that strengthens benefits for working families and ensures the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare,” he says.

RI. Reps Protect Social Security

Like Cicilline, Rep. Jim Langevin and Democratic Senators Jack Reed (D and Sheldon Whitehouse both view Social Security as an earned benefit and the primary source of income to millions of retirees that must be protected. The Rhode Island Congressional Delegation has fought off Republican efforts to privatize Social Security and have supported legislation to strengthen this program and Medicare.

It is very clear to aging advocates and to the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds that the next President and Congress put political differences aside to make legislative fixes to strengthen and ensure the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare.

The Trustees say this very clearly in their report, “Lawmakers have many policy options that would reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare. Lawmakers should address these financial challenges as soon as possible. Taking action sooner rather than later will permit consideration of a broader range of solutions and provide more time to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare.”

Political compromise will be the way to hammer out Social Security and Medicare reforms. When the dust is settled after the upcoming November president elections hopefully this message was delivered at the ballet box.

Obama’s Budget DOA, Thanks to GOP Gridlock

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 14, 2016

With a GOP-controlled Congress President Obama’s final budget arrives “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill.  The 182-page 2017 Fiscal Year budget, submitted on February 9, detailing $4.1 trillion in federal spending, which starts October 1, seems to be not worth the paper it’s written on.

Obama, a “lame duck” president in his last term, will not get his day in court.  Since the 1970s, a long-standing political tradition has brought the Office of Management and Budget Director and other senior administration officials, to present the president’s entire budget to Congress.  However, the Chairs of the House and Senate budget committees snubbed the Democratic President by issuing a joint statement saying, there will be no hearings before their panels this year. Sadly, political gridlock, fostered GOP Senate and House leadership, still seems to be alive and well on Capitol Hill.

Crafting the budget proposal now is in the hands of a very conservative Congress. But there a positives in Obama’s budget proposal, provisions that hopefully be placed in an enacted budget.

Obama’s budget proposal makes critical investments to fund domestic and national security priorities while adhering to the bipartisan budget agreement signed into law last fall.  It lifts sequestration in future years.  The budget proposal also attempts to drive down the federal deficit through smart savings from health care, immigration, and tax the wealthy and banks.

The Budget also seeks to tackle a multitude of domestic issues including confronting climate change, finding new clinical treatments for attacking cancer, advancing biomedical research, fighting infectious diseases, protecting the nation’s water supply and fostering clean energy initiatives, ratcheting up military readiness, revitalizing the American manufacturing sector, and funding job training and education initiatives.

Obama’s Final Budget and Seniors

But Obama’s 2017 Fiscal Year Budget has a number of budget provisions that directly impact older Americans, too.

According to  President and CEO Max Richtman, of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, like last year’s Obama recently released budget proposal proposes no changes in the way Social Security benefits are determined which is “good news for seniors.”

Richtman says that his aging organization worked tirelessly to make sure the FY 2017 budget did not include any Social Security proposals that would negatively impact benefits for current or future beneficiaries.  He notes, “The new budget proposes a substantial increase in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) budget — $13.067 billion for SSA’s FY 2017 appropriation for administrative funding.  This is a $905 million, or 7.44 percent, increase over the FY 2016 enacted level.”

Finally, Obama’s newly released budget helps SSA to improve customer service for those applying for SSA and/or disability benefits by hiring additional front-line employees for its teleservice centers and local offices as well as additional staff to reduce the backlog of disability applications that have accumulated in SSA’s hearing offices, he says.

NCPSSM also applauded the President’s budget proposal for allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

Richtman observed it has taken Congress a long time to acknowledge that the high cost of prescription drugs has hit older American’s hard in their wallets.  “Medicare spends billions providing Part D drug coverage each year while beneficiaries including seniors, the disabled and their families also face rising out-of-pocket costs and higher premiums, he says, noting that “All the while, drug makers continue to reap the profits of their price gouging.”

In his budget proposal Obama has again proposed lifting the ban preventing Medicare from negotiating prices with the drug companies, notes Richtman, warning that “Big Pharma has lobbied hard to keep the ban in place but seniors expect, this time, Congress will do the right thing and finally allow Medicare to negotiate for fair prices.”

Richtman says there are other budget provisions that benefit the nation’s seniors.  Specifically, the closing the Part D donut hole two years earlier, additional funding for in-home services, and reforms for overpayments going to private insurers in Medicare Advantage.

Meanwhile, the President’s budget was not all good news, adds Richtman, noting that “Once again, the budget proposes shifting even more healthcare costs to seniors by extending Medicare means-testing to the middle class and increasing out-of-pocket costs such as the home health care copayment and the Part B deductible.”

The President’s new funding request also targets vulnerable older Americans, by increasing funding from the 2016 Fiscal year Budget.  The President has increased last year’s budget by more than $10 million in discretionary resources for supportive services, also increasing the Congregate and Home-Delivered Nutrition Programs (like Meals on Wheels) by $14 million.  The Aging and Disability Resource Centers is also given a $2 million increase.

Other programs benefit from Obama’s budget proposal, too.  Elder Justice Initiative and Lifespan Respite Care Programs each would receive $2 increases from last year.  The Commodity Supplemental Food Program would get $14 million more.   The budget proposal also puts $10 million in for a new initiative to improve senior access to the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program.  Section 202 Housing for the Elderly also gives a bump from last year in the tune of $72 million.

But the budget request slashes funding for programs that serve low-income seniors, specifically the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Programs and the Community Development Block Grant takes huge fiscal hits.

Views from the Side Line 

             Obama’s budget proposal preserves programs for seniors, funding Social Security and Medicare, says Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, “Not many Republicans are taking this budget very seriously as they plan to write their own budget. The GOP alternative likely is going to include changes to programs affecting senior citizens, he warns.

Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation weighs in on the looming heated partisan budget debate where law makers will be toeing the part line.

Congressman David Cicilline, notes that he is disappointed that the House Budget Committee will not ‎holding hearings on President Obama’s budget proposal. “We should be discussing ways to strengthen Social Security, preserve Medicare, and ensure retirement security for every American. Unfortunately, it’s clear that House Republicans don’t want to have this discussion,” he says.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse weighed in on the brewing pre-election budget battle.  “I’m pleased to see that the President’s budget protects Social Security and Medicare from the cuts sought by many Republicans.  As the President has proposed, we should reduce the deficit by closing wasteful tax loopholes, not by compromising the programs essential to our seniors, and not after saving Rhode Island seniors $14.4 million in prescription costs thanks to the Affordable Care Act.”

Finally, U.S. Senator Jack Reed notes that the President’s budget proposal reflects a number of his ongoing efforts to support Rhode Island seniors.  “This budget blueprint proposes significant investments in the health and well-being of aging Americans, and I will work hard to champion these proposals as we work through the appropriations process this year, he says.

“I am particularly glad the President heeded my call to propose meaningful steps towards lowering the cost of prescription drugs, which is critical for middle class families,” adds the Senator.

Now the work begins as Congress starts to craft it’s 2017 Fiscal Year Budget.  Democratic Congressional lawmakers can glean and fight for provisions in Obama’s eighth and final budget that positively benefit older Americans. With Senator Reed, sitting on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Rhode Island’s Senior Senator and the state’s Congressional Delegation will play a major role in shaping the nation’s future aging programs and services.

 

Bush Flip Flops on Politically Charged Medicare Statement

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 16, 2015

On July 30, aging advocates celebrated the fiftieth birthday of Medicare, the nation’s second largest social insurance program in the United States. This program provides health care to more than 53.8 million beneficiaries, with total expenditures of $613 billion in 2014.  Three weeks earlier one GOP Presidential candidate was not calling for the celebration of this golden anniversary, but for the dismantling of it.

On Wednesday, July 22, at a New Hampshire town hall meeting, GOP Presidential candidate Jeb Bush suggested that its time to “phase out” Medicare.  This event was sponsored by Americans for prosperity, a conservative group financially backed by the extremely right-wing Koch Brothers, who oppose President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the expansion of Medicare, minimum wage and anything else endorsed by Democrats and Progressives. . .

Bush Gets Cozy with Koch Brothers

At the town hall meeting, the former Florida Republican Governor called on the left to “join the conversation” of reforming Medicare.  “But they haven’t,” he charges.

GOP Presidential candidate Bush reminded the attending conservatives that over a year ago Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) offered his proposal in the 2015 Budget plan to replace the health program with vouchers and to increase the age eligibility from 65 to 67.  After this, television ads began to appear with a Ryan look-alike pushing a senior off a cliff in a wheelchair, he said, quipping “That’s their [liberals] response.”

Bush went on to say, “And I think we need to be vigilant about this and persuade people that our, when your volunteers go door to door, and they talk to people, people understand this. They know, and I think a lot of people recognize that we need to make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that have already received the benefits, that are receiving the benefits. But that we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something – because they’re not going to have anything.”

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) quickly seized Bush’s politically charged talking points, posting his comments at Americans for Prosperity event on YouTube.  The DNC jumped on the opportunity to send a message out to older Americans and liberal groups that the Florida Republican opposes a very popular domestic program.

One day later, on August 23, Bush worked hard to dodge intense political flack generated by his call for seriously “phasing out Medicare.” He explained that the Democrats and media took his previous comments out of context, he was only trying to reform Medicare to save it.

Medicare is an “actuarially unsound health system,” says Bush, who called for something to be done before skyrocketing costs burden future generations with $50 billion dollars of debt.

Keep the Status Quo

Bush’s campaigning in New Hampshire has revealed what many seasoned Republicans lawmakers know, there can be a swift political backlash to tinkering with the widely popular Medicare program.  A newly released national poll bluntly supports what AARP and other national aging advocacy groups and Democrats clearly know, the American public is quite happy with their Medicare program.

According to “Medicare and Medicaid at 50,” a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll released on last month, a majority of Americans and the vast majority of program beneficiaries view both Medicare positively.   Simply put, respondents had a strong preference for the status quo over major structural changes that would reshape how the programs serve beneficiaries, say researchers in their 27 page report.

The survey finds that a strong majority (70%) say that Medicare should continue to ensure all seniors get the same defined set of benefits. Far fewer (26%) say that the program should be changed to instead guarantee each senior a fixed contribution to the cost of their health insurance – a system known as premium support that has been proposed to address Medicare’s long-term financing challenges.

By a whopping two-to-one margin, majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents favor keeping Medicare as is rather than changing to a premium support program. Adults under 65 years old are somewhat more likely than seniors to favor premium support (28% compared to 18%), though large majorities in all age groups prefer Medicare’s current structure.

But, despite the public’s lack of support for this change, the survey says that majority (54%) worry that Medicare will not be able to provide the same level of benefits to future enrollees, and two thirds (68%) say that changes are needed to keep Medicare sustainable for the future.

Improved Outlook for Medicare

While Bush, his fellow Republican Presidential Candidates and Republican Congressional Leadership say that Medicare costs are bankrupting the nation, a recently released Medicare Trustee’s 2015 Annual Report states the opposite.  This program will remain solvent until 2030, unchanged from last years analysis, but with an improved long-term outlook from the 2014 report, says the report released in July.   Under this year’s projection, the trust fund will remain solvent 13 years longer than the Trustees projections in 2009, before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

“Growth in per-Medicare enrollee costs continues to be historically low even as the economy continues to rebound. While this is good news, we cannot be complacent as the number of Medicare beneficiaries continues to grow,” said Andy Slavitt, Acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). “That’s why we must continue to transform our health care system into one that delivers better care and spends our dollars in a smarter way for beneficiaries so Medicare can continue to meet the needs of our beneficiaries for the next 50 years and beyond,” he adds.

The Medicare Trustee’s 2015 Annual Report also noted that per-enrollee Medicare spending growth has been low, averaging 1.3 percent over the last five years. In 2014, Medicare expenditures were slightly lower for Part A and Part D, and higher for Part B than previously estimated. Over the next decade, and partially due to the cost-containment provisions in the Affordable Care Act, per-enrollee Medicare spending growth (4.2 percent) is expected to continue to be lower than the overall growth in overall health expenditures (5.1 percent).

Over the years, Republican Congressional Lawmaker efforts have been largely unsuccessful in changing a very popular Medicare program.  As Bush found out during his politicking in the granite state, touching Medicare can have instant negative political consequences.

Once the GOP whittles down its 16 presidential candidates to a chosen standard-bearer to push its conservative agenda in the upcoming 2016 Presidential elections, the party must reexamine its position of scrapping the existing Medicare program.  Recognizing future challenges in the nation’s health care system, AARP throws commonsense ideas into the national debate as to what is the best way of strengthening Medicare.  The Washington, D.C. aging advocacy group calls for lowering prescription costs, improving health care coordination, and cracking down on over-testing, waste and fraud.

As AARP suggests, simple fixes can lower costs, but it also continues health coverage to the program’s current and future beneficiaries.  That’s the way to reform a widely popular domestic program.  By small incremental steps.

 

President’s Budget Addresses Issues of Interest to Seniors

Published in Pawtucket Times on February 27, 2015
President Obama released his 141 page ‘policy and wish list” when he unveiled his politically ambitious FY 2016 budget on Feb 2, not having to worry about running for president in the upcoming 2016 presidential election cycle.

Yes, even inside the Washington Beltway a picture is truly worth a thousand words. Gone is the budget’s plain blue cover replaced by a black and white photo of the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, an image that projects one of the President’s spending priorities of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure to create jobs and improve the transportation system.

The $4 trillion presidential budget, a political campaign document outlaying his policies and priorities, would cancel automatic sequestration cuts to domestic and military programs over a 10 year period. According to the New York Times, Obama’s budget proposal would add $6 trillion to the national debt, and the single-year deficit would rise to $687 billion by 2025.

Obama’s FY 2016 budget puts more funding into education, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, increased defense spending, along with providing tax relief for America’s middle class while increasing the taxes for corporate America and the wealthy. Political insiders say that Obama’s budget, one that gives to the middle class and assesses higher taxes from corporate America and the wealthy, sets the issues to be surely debated in the upcoming presidential election. .

A Look at Aging Priorities

On her Feb. 3 blog post, Nora Super, executive director of the upcoming White House Conference on Aging, details how the recently released budget proposal will “ensure that older Americans enjoy not only longer but healthier lives.”

As to retirement security, Super notes that the Obama Administration strongly opposes any legislative measures that would privatize the nation’s Social Security program, or slash benefits for future generations or reduce basic benefits to current beneficiaries. Super says that half the nation’s workforce, that’s about 78 million, does not have a retirement savings plan at work. “Fewer than 10 percent of those without plans at work contribute to a plan of their own. The President’s FY 2016 Budget expands retirement opportunities for all Americans to help families save and give them better choices to reach a secure retirement,” she says.

According to Super, Obama’s Budget proposal supports healthy aging by strengthening the Medicare program by “aligning payments with the costs of providing care, along with encouraging health care providers to deliver better care and better outcomes for their patients, and improving access to care for beneficiaries.”

To put the brakes to rising prescription drug costs, Super notes that the President’s Budget proposes to close the Medicare Part D donut hole for brand drugs by 2017, rather than 2020, by increasing discounts from the pharmaceutical industry. The Budget proposal also gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services new authority to negotiate with drug manufacturers on prices for high cost drugs and biologics covered under the Part D program.

Linking nutrition to healthy aging, Super says that Obama’s Budget provides “over $874 million for Nutrition Services programs, a $60 million increase over the 2015 enacted level, allowing States to provide 208 million meals to over 2 million older Americans nation-wide, helping to halt the decline in service levels for the first time since 2010.” Also, Obama’s budget ratchets up funding for supportive housing for very low-income elderly households, including frail elderly, to give these individuals access to human services, she adds. .

Protecting older persons from elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, Super blogs that the President’s budget proposal includes $25 million in discretionary resources for Elder Justice Act programs authorized under the Affordable Care Act. “Funding will “improve detection and reporting of elder abuse; grants to States to pilot a new reporting system; and funding to support a coordinated Federal research portfolio to better understand and prevent the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable adults,” she says.

Here’s Super’s take on the Obama budgetary blueprint: “Taken together, these and other initiatives in the Budget will help to change the aging landscape in America to reflect new realities and new opportunities for older Americans, and they will support the dignity, independence, and quality of life of older Americans at a time when we’re seeing a huge surge in the number of older adults.”

In a released statement, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond gives thumbs to the president’s efforts to “lower the cost of prescription drugs, promote better care, reward improved outcomes and make health care programs more efficient and less wasteful.” She also expresses her nonprofit group’s support for the President’s budgetary priorities to “create opportunities for the middle class” and his goal “to make saving for retirement easier.”

But, LeaMond expresses concerns that higher premiums, deductibles and copays might shift costs to older Americans. “As the federal deficit continues shrinking, we must find responsible solutions for strengthening critical programs and improving the retirement and overall economic security of current and future generations. We must also look for savings throughout the entire health care system, as the rising cost of health care threatens people of all ages,” she says.

In his statement, President/CEO Max Richtman, of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, agrees with LeaMond’s concerns of higher premiums, deductible’s and co pays, too. “While some tout increasing means testing in Medicare as a way to insure ‘rich’ seniors pay their share, the truth is, the middle-class will take this hit as well,” he predicts.

Political pundits say that Obama’s 2016 budget was dead-on arrival at Capitol Hill the day it was released at the beginning of February. In the shadow of the upcoming 50th Anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 80th Anniversary of Social Security, GOP leadership in both chambers of Congress must work with the Democratic President to hammer out a bipartisan compromise. Putting budgetary proposals that strengthens the nation’s programs and services for older Americans on the chopping block for purely political reasons is not acceptable, especially to a nation that opposes political gridlock.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.