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.


Three GOP Senators Derail ‘Skinny’ Repeal Maneuvers

Published in the Woonsocket Call on July 30, 2017

After seven years of vowing to repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, nicknamed Obamacare, Congressional GOP efforts went down in flames on Friday when Sens. John McCain, of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, voted nay in supporting the Senate Republican’s “skinny” repeal bill.

Sen. McCain, giving his no vote with a thumb down gesture, left Republican Senators gasping and Democratic Senators clapping. The 80-year old Arizona Senator, recently diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer, had flown back to vote. The Senator’s vote was considered the decisive vote to derail the GOP’s long-time efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Senate Republicans Begin Efforts to Repeal Obamacare

On July 25, GOP leadership began its efforts to begin debate on the Senate health care bill to repeal AHA. On that Tuesday afternoon, the Senate passed a “motion to proceed” vote by 51-50, the deciding vote being cast by Vice President Mike Pence. The votes outcome allowed the upper chamber to begin debate on the Senate Republican’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace proposal. Sens. Collins and Murkowski had opposed this motion, but McCain, returning to Washington, D.C. after being diagnosed with brain cancer, voted yes to proceed with the debate.

Senators began a 20- hour period of debate, considering various amendments to the House version of the health care bill. By a vote of 43 to 57, the Senate rejected one version that included Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) controversial amendment that would have allowed those with pre-existing conditions to be separated into plans with much higher premiums. The Senate also rejected, by a vote of 45 to 55, another version that would have repealed the ACA with no replacement but with a two-year delay, giving GOP senators more time to create their replacement.

Late Thursday evening, GOP Senate leadership finally unveil its expected “skinny” repeal bill, formally called the Health Care Freedom Act, that would repeal ACA’s individual and employer mandates, temporarily repeal the medical device tax, and give states more flexibility to allow insurance that doesn’t comply with Obamacare regulations.

CBO’s analysis of the “skinny” repeal bill, estimated that 15 million more people would be uninsured next year than under Obamacare, with 16 million more in 2026, and that premiums would increase 20 percent next year, compared to current law.

Earlier that day, Sen. McCain and Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, held a news conference threatening to oppose the “skinny” repeal bill if the House Speaker did not offer sound guarantees that the House would enter negotiations after the Senate passed it. They feared that the House would end up passing “the skinny bill” rather than a more comprehensive bill hammered out in conference committee.

Ryan’s carefully crafted statement to the concerned Senators that the House would be willing to go to a conference committee did not include a specific guarantee that the House would not vote on the Senate’s proposal. Both Graham and Johnson went on to vote for the legislation. But, after his surprising vote it seems that McCain still had his concerns.

Before the Senate vote, President Trump even tweeted his displeasure of Murkowski’s opposition, her no vote against debating Obamacare repeal, says the Alaska Dispatch News. The state’s daily newspaper reported that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called the state’s Senators, Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, to inform them that Murkowski’s vote would “put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy.”

After Zinke’s call, “Murkowski, who chairs the Senate and Natural Resources Committee, sent a message back to the Interior Secretary and Trump. Overseeing the agencies confirmation process, a committee hearing on nominations to the Interior and Energy departments, was “postponed indefinitely” with no reason given, stated the Alaska Dispatch News.

Finally, early Friday, by a vote of 49-51, Senate Republicans failed to repeal Obamacare with three Republican senators — McCain, Collins and Murkowski – joining 48 Democrats to vote against the “skinny” repeal bill. Sen. McCain’s reputation as a political maverick was evident when he voted against GOP Senate leadership. But, this vote will be considered his political legacy.

A Sigh of Relief

Reacting to the defeat of the Senate’s ‘skinny’ repeal bill, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement, called the vote “a victory for Americans age 50-plus.”

“The ‘skinny’ bill the Senate defeated would have dramatically increased health care costs, caused millions to lose their health coverage, and destabilized the insurance market,” says LeaMond.” She also thanked Senators Collins, McCain, and Murkowski, Senate Democrats and Independents who “called, emailed, rallied and wrote to object to this seriously flawed bill.”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security, in a statement stated, “Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain were under extreme pressure from the White House and their colleagues to vote with the party instead of voting for the American people. It’s important to applaud them for stopping this train wreck of a healthcare bill. We have to wonder, however, why other Senators were willing to put their constituents at risk by cutting off their healthcare coverage.”

“We urge the majority party to put raw politics aside and work with Democrats to improve the Affordable Care Act in a way that benefits millions of American families in both blue states and red states. Let’s move forward, not back,” said Richtman.

A Bipartisan Approach

President Trump and Congress must finally listen to listen to their constituents to create policies to bring health care coverage to those in need. It is time to put politics aside and work in a bipartisan manner to hammer out a viable solution to provide affordable health care insurance to millions of Americans without coverage. McCain, Collins, and Murkowski, did just that when they resisted their party’s pressure to vote their own personal conscience not party line. They believed that the bill they voted against would do more harm than good.

Obamacare can be reworked to become more cost effective and to provide more health insurance to those in need of coverage. A recently released USA Today/Suffolk University poll at the end of June says that “just 12 percent of Americans support the Senate Republican health care plan. But, “a 53 percent majority say Congress should either leave the law known as Obamacare alone or work to fix its problems while keeping its framework intact.”

The majority of America says keep Obamacare, but make it better. Hopefully, lawmakers will listen.

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.