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.

 

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Gridlock Threatens Elder Programs, Services

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 11, 2013

At press time, this week continued heated partisan bickering on Capitol Hill that threatens to unravel a fragile economy, along with putting the brakes to an economic upturn that slowly was pushing the nation out of its financial doldrums. With this stand-off, a partial shutdown of the federal government continues. The Republican-controlled House, captured by the ultra-right Tea Party, has refused to budge, opposing the passage of a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government agencies past Sept. 30. House Republican leadership has demanded that passage of the CR must be tied to either the repeal or partially dismantling of President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The Democratic President along with a Senate Democratic leadership say no.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a “clean” CR to provide funding through Nov. 15, not putting ACA on the GOP’s chopping block. Even if both legislative chambers sort out differences and hammer out a compromise agreement to open the doors of the federal government, this would not shield the nation from the disastrous impact of the impending second round of sequester cuts and a Oct. 17 deadline for the government to raise the debt ceiling. No action means a first-ever default on the nation’s debt that could send the stock market tumbling and push the nation’s and the world’s economy into a tailspin.

Treasury officials say that congressional deadlock and no action will result in the federal government running out of cash to pay its bills if Congress does not act to raise the nation’s debt ceiling this month.

Get Your House in Order

With the debt crisis looming, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond called on Congressional lawmakers to settle the debt ceiling debate to avoiding default on the nation’s debt, specifically to protect the retirement of seniors and future generations.

In her letter, LeaMond expressed concern that any delay in raising the nation’s debt limit may unnecessarily increase borrowing costs, negatively impact retirement savings accounts and harm the nation’s fragile economy.

“Our members are worried that the benefits they have earned may be cut as part of a deal to reduce the deficit, fund government operations, or increase the debt ceiling, and they are increasingly worried that if there is no agreement very soon, they may not receive their Social Security checks and may lose access to their health care,” noted LeaMond.

Ten days ago, the nation entered a government shutdown, forcing furloughs of 800,000 workers, without pay, and suspending services. The last time this occurred was 17 years ago during the Clinton administration. The Congressional impasse has closed national parks and monuments, federally owned museums, such as the Smithsonian, offices overseas that give visas to foreigners hoping to visit the United States, and even many federal regulatory agencies.

So, how does this impact programs and services for older Americans? Simply put, impact on programs and benefits may vary throughout the federal bureaucracy.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services will furlough over 40,512 of its 78, 198 employees. The largest percentage of these employees comes from “grant-making and employee-intensive agencies,” such as the Administration for Community Living. This federal agency would not be able to fund the Senior Nutrition programs, Native American Nutrition and Supportive Services, Prevention of Elder Abuse and Neglect, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, and Protection and Advocacy for persons with developmental disabilities.

As reported, Social Security checks will be mailed, Medicare and Medicaid benefits will continue to be paid out, because these are considered mandatory programs, not discretionary ones. Benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food Stamps, will continue in October, despite the federal shutdown.

Food Program Takes Budgetary Hit

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Heather Amaral, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island, agrees, noting that her Providence-based nonprofit program, has already lost $70,970 in 2013 federal funds due to last year’s sequestration cuts.

Amaral says that as a result of these cuts, to maintain meal delivery at the same numbers as last year (360,299 meals), she had to reduce menu items that were once offered. “Although the government shutdown doesn’t have an immediate impact on our program, I am concerned that it could lead to additional cuts,” she says, noting that should the shutdown continue until year end, the nonprofit agency will be forced to rely on donations and reserves to maintain service levels.

“We provide a safety check along with each home delivered meal and are often the only contact our client has that day, adds Amaral, who stresses that her program may be the only thing keeping a senior at home. “If we are forced to reduce the number of meals we serve, these people may be forced to live with a family member or enter a nursing home,” she warns.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency will be unable to fund additional payments to public housing authorities, many providing shelter to older Americans. HUD expects the 3,300 Public Housing Authorities it funds to have enough funding to get through the month of October. But, if the shutdown continues, some public housing authorities will not be able to maintain normal operation.

Also, Quarterly formula grants will not go out for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), or the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG).

Nutrition programs serving older adults face a double whammy with no FY14 appropriations and no reauthorization of the Farm Bill. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program expired along with the Farm Bill on Sept. 30. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) requires appropriations to continue operating.

According to well-known Aging Advocate Susan Sweet, this is a partial shutdown that hasn’t really hit aging programs yet. There are funding reductions in programs for older people, but that is due to the sequester, which will have another round of cuts in October, she says.

Sweet predicts that the negative effects of the shutdown itself will become worse with every passing day. For example, there is doubt that veterans benefits and social security will be paid in or after October absent a funding bill. Death benefits, including burial subsidies, have not been paid to the survivors of fallen armed forces members, she notes. Because of the public outcry regarding this outrage, a private charity has stepped up to pay the benefits with the promise of reimbursement when the government re-opens.

“Reduced to its true absurdity, the United States of America has lost the ability to rationally govern,” states Sweet. “The sequester cuts, previously characterized as “cuts for dummies”, have been implemented, we are in a war yet cannot bury our dead from that war, can’t even agree on a temporary fix, and are arguing whether the US should pay its bills or default,” she adds.

“It is perplexing, and we have heard many, many concerns from Rhode Island members, “ said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Since the U.S. government has never failed to meet its financial obligations, we don’t know what payments it could make if the President and Congress fail to reach an agreement.

“One cannot help but wonder what effects this uncertainty has on people – many of whom struggle enough with health and financial issues,” Connell added. “We’re doing whatever we can to urge Congress and the President to act responsibly.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.