Midterm Elections Can Impact Social Security’s Long-Term Survival

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 19, 2018

After just weeks celebrating the 53rd Anniversary of Medicare to score political points, Democrats, aging groups and Social Security Advocates put 83 candles on a cake to celebrate President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935. The new Act created a social insurance program designed to pay retired workers age 65 or older a continuing income after retirement.

With the midterm elections looming, less than three months away, the Democrats are gearing up their efforts to recapture the House and Senate. Polls tell us that Social Security is being positioned as a key issue to energize voters, especially in competitive races, to control both legislative chambers.

According to the Washington, DC-based AARP, recent polling suggests Social Security and Medicare will be key issues for 50-plus voters. Recent
AARP/Politico polls found a significant majority of age 50 and over Arizona voters report Social Security (78 percent), health care (76 percent) and Medicare (75 percent) are “very important” issues to them as they head to the polls in November. Also, significant majorities of older Florida voters age 50 and older say Social Security (82 percent) and health care (78 percent) will be very important to their vote for Congress this fall. In this swing state, nearly three-quarters of Florida voters cite the future of Medicare as an important election issue.

Social Security Checks Prime States and National Economic Engine

AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) and Social Security advocates say it’s a great time to remind political candidates for House and Senate races of the popularity of Social Security and Medicare and both programs impact on the nation’s fiscal health. The Washington, DC-based NCPSSM calls Social Security and Medicare an economic generator, annually paying out more than $ 800 billion in benefits to over 57 million beneficiaries who put this money back into their local, state and federal coffers.
In the Ocean State, there are 222,851 Social Security beneficiaries, including 152,898 Retired Workers, 37,133 Disabled Workers, 11,680 Widow(er)s, 5,810 Spouses and 15,330 Children Social Security benefits that pump $3 Billion each year to state’s economy, says NCPSSM, its figures taken from the nonprofits state-by-state analysis of how much revenue Social Security contributes to the economy of every Congressional District in each state.

“Social Security has a very big footprint in Congressional districts across the country, which is a tremendous benefit not only for beneficiaries, but for entire communities,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s president, and CEO. “Yet, in the face of clear evidence of Social Security’s effectiveness, conservatives want to cut and privatize the program. Candidates in this year’s mid-term elections must ask themselves whether their communities can afford to lose billions of dollars in economic stimulus – not to mention the baseline financial security that these earned benefits provide retirees and their families. The answer for anyone who seeks to represent the people should be a resounding ‘No,’” he says.

Yet, throughout the years, GOP lawmakers sought to ensure the solvency for the Social Security program by cutting benefits, raising the retirement age and
to privatize the program. Democrats call for the raising or eliminating the payroll cap on taxable wages, now $ 118,500 a year, to bring more revenues into Social Security from the nation’s wealthy. They say Social Security must be considered an earned benefit rather than an entitlement because working Americans pay into the system each paycheck, and receive benefits when they retire or become disabled.

Key Congressional Races to Watch

And there are a lot of Congressional races to watch during the upcoming mid-term elections. According to fivethirtyeight.com, a website that focuses on
opinion poll analysis and politics, “… 39 Republicans and 18 Democrats are not running for re-election. That includes 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats who are leaving to seek another office, such as governor. Excluding them, 26 Republicans and eight Democrats are walking away from their political careers at the end of the 115th Congress. That’s the most “pure” retirements by Republicans — and the fewest by Democrats — since the 2008 election.”

NCPSSM is closely monitoring both House and Senate races, calling for voters to support candidates who commit to strengthening and expanding Social Security. “These Social Security champions can be found across the country, in both red and blue states,” says the Social Security advocacy group.
Here are just a few campaigns to watch.

NCPSSM says one of these Social Security campaigns is Kathleen Williams, a water conservation expert, who is running for the House seat in Montana currently occupied by Republican Greg Gianforte. The Republican Congressman, elected in 2017, voted for the sweeping GOP tax plan, the Tax Cuts, and Jobs Act, increasing the national debt by $ 1.9 trillion between 2018 and 2028, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The skyrocketing deficit puts Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the GOP radar screen for cuts to the nation’s debt and deficits. Gianforte’s opponent pledges to “make sure that our seniors can retire with dignity by protecting Medicare and Social Security no matter what.”

Another, in Arizona, three-term Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, formerly serving in both chambers of the State Legislature, is running for retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake’s seat, a race that could determine which political party takes control of the Senate. “Sinema says, “We can’t allow… Washington to threaten the Medicare and Social Security benefits Arizonans have earned through a lifetime of hard work.” Her likely opponent, Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally, like Congressman Gianforte, voted for the GOP tax plan and Sinema has accused her of wanting to privatize Social Security while her Congressional voting record does not reflect this charge.

Finally, in Illinois’ 12th Congressional district, where challenger Brendan Kell, serving as the state’s attorney for St. Clair County and earned a commission as an officer in the U.S. Navy opposes incumbent Mike Bost. The Republican voted for the GOP’s failed Balanced Budget Amendment – Democrats and NCPSSM considering this a backdoor strategy to slash Social Security. The Democratic challenger Kelly that “instead of cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as those in Congress currently want to do… we have to fight against that and expand the access and coverage overall.”

You Can Make a Difference

With the outcome of the midterm elections, especially in battleground state, AARP’s voter engagement multifaceted campaign “Be The Difference. Vote” is mobilizing older voters to get them to vote in primaries and in the November general election. The “get out the vote” initiative will put issues of particular importance to aging baby boomers and seniors front and center— issues like Medicare, Social Security, financial security, prescription drug costs, and family caregiving.

AARP is tracking key races, sponsoring debates, and hosting candidate forums and tele-townhall events. Election information is provided through a full-scale digital effort, including aarp.org/vote, the AARP Now app, social media outreach, graphics, and news alerts. AARP is also using direct mail, phone banks and transportation assistance to help people get to the polls.

Social Security celebrates its 83 Anniversary this month. Older voters can send a message to Capitol Hill by casting votes for candidates to strengthen and expand the program instead of voting for those who call to privatize Social to replace the federal government-administered system.

A Final Note…

Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) will release a new report from the U.S. House Democrats’ Seniors Task Force during an event at Rumford Towers in East Providence this Monday. The report outlines the history of Washington Republican efforts to attack Social Security and Medicare.

Cicilline, who serves in the House Democratic Leadership, also plans to outline the policies that Democrats will advance if they take control of the House this November. Democrats have outlined a series of proposals to lower the costs of prescription drugs and health care premiums.

“Republicans are on the side of powerful special interests. Democrats are for the people,” Cicilline told me. “When Democrats take the majority, we’re going to pass legislation giving Medicare the ability to negotiate the cost of prescription drugs. We’re going to make Social Security and Medicare a priority by requiring the wealthy to pay into the system as much as everyone else and improving cost-of-living adjustments.”

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Calls for Strengthening Medicare as it Hits 53

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 5, 2018

Just before Summer recess House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) joined Seniors Task Force co-chairs Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Doris Matsui (D-CA), Democratic Policy and Communications Committee co-chair Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) and seniors’ advocates gathered in the historic Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol, one of the largest rooms on Capitol Hill, to celebrate the 53rd anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid being signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

“We usually celebrate Medicare’s anniversary at the U.S. Capitol with balloons and cake. This year, the 53rd anniversary, was a more solemn occasion because of relentless attacks on the program by the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans, says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, one of the advocacy groups in attendance.

When signing the landmark legislation into law on July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B Johnson said, “No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime. No longer will young families see their own incomes and hopes eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents.”

At the July 25 birthday commemoration, Leader Pelosi called Medicare and Medicaid “the pillars of health and security for the nation,” noting that for years these two programs have been under unrelenting and constant attacks from Republicans.

“For years, Republicans have sought to deny seniors and working families the healing miracle of medicine. Republicans want Medicare, in their words, to ‘wither on the vine.’ They want to cut and cap Medicaid into oblivion. They want to give massive tax handouts to big pharma who are denying seniors lower prescription drug prices,” says Pelosi.

According to Pelosi, the Democrats plan, A Better Deal, provides a legislative strategy for lowering the price of prescription drugs. “Our plan calls for tough new enforcement of drug price gauging, allowing Medicare part D to negotiate drug prices,” she said, noting that President Donald Trump had promised that during his presidential campaign, “We’re going to negotiate like crazy.”

Echoing Pelosi, at the press conference Rhode Island Congressman Cicilline also called for the reining in of prescription drug costs to put the brakes on rising Medicare expenditures. “Democrats believe that seniors shouldn’t have to cut pills in half to afford prescription drugs. We need a president who will work with us to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, to compel drug makers to justify cost increases, and to crack down on price gougers,” said Cicilline.

Cicilline reminded those attending that the President once promised to take on the drug companies but now has decided to appoint a former drug company executive as his Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Service. “And right now, he’s pretty much letting the pharmaceutical lobby have the run of the place,” he charged.

At the press conference, the Democratic lawmakers were joined by ten yellow t-shirted senior volunteers from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare’s Capitol Action Team (CAT), who demanded that the program be strengthened. One of the CAT members, Patricia Cotton, gave a powerful personal testimonial about the importance of Medicare in her life. Cotton, a Medicare beneficiary who suffers from a blood cancer known as Myelofibrosis, said she wouldn’t be alive today without the health care program.

“My cancer meds started at $10,000 every 30 days and have gone up twice in two years. Cancer meds are very expensive. My Medicare Part B and D premiums have gone up, and that is coming out of my Social Security check. That is why, without Medicare and Social Security, the rich will live and the poor will die,” said Cotton.
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Democratic Report Spotlights GOP’s Ongoing Attacks on Medicare

At this event, the House Democratic Seniors Task Force unveiled a new 24 page report, “The Republican Record on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security: Attacks on Benefits Seniors Have Earned and Deserve,” detailing years of Republican’s attacks on seniors and demanded the GOP take action on lowering pharmaceutical prices.

“This report shows how the passage of the GOP tax bill was just one step in a long line of Republican attacks on seniors,” says Congressman Matsui (D-CA). “In budget after budget, year after year, Republicans have reaffirmed their commitment to gutting Medicaid, scaling back Medicare, and cutting seniors’ earned Social Security benefits. Democrats are focusing on efforts that help seniors and families, like lowering drugs prices, and fighting to ensure that these vital programs are here for current and future generations.”

“The House GOP budget proposal includes more than $500 billion in Medicare cuts, a higher eligibility age, and privatization of the program through a voucher system,” the National Committee’s Max Richtman explains. “The President’s 2019 budget would inflict similar harm on Medicare. The Trump administration is undermining the program through skillfully worded enrollment information that favors private Medicare Advantage plans over traditional Medicare. These actions are contrary to the mission of Medicare so eloquently stated by President Lyndon Johnson is when he signed it into law 53 years ago,” says Richtman.

AARP Calls Medicare an Economic Engine for Rhode Island

Last year, Medicare, which helps pay the health care costs of 56 million beneficiaries, is a critical part of the country’s economic infrastructure, investing about $ 710 billion in the national economy that year, says AARP.

On July 25th, the same day that House Democratic Leadership and aging groups celebrated the 53rd anniversary of the signing of Medicare, AARP released fact sheets illustrating Medicare’s contribution to the economies of each state and the District of Columbia.

Let’s take a close look at the Ocean State.

Medicare contributes $2.5 billion to Rhode Island’s economy, equivalent to 21% of state and local government spending in the state, according to the released AARP Rhode Island fact sheet, noting that the program also covers 192,186 beneficiaries in the state. In polls, older Americans have said Medicare is one of their top issues in the 2018 mid-term elections, and AARP Rhode Island is working to encourage older Rhode Island voters to participation this election season.

“Medicare is a major economic engine in our economy security, as well as a key part of, providing health security to Rhode Islanders,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell in a statement. “Older Americans have said Medicare is one of their top issues in this election, yet too many politicians fail to recognize the contributions Medicare makes to the economy and our residents. Any candidate who fails to talk about how they would strengthen Medicare for future generations does so at their peril,” says Connell.

Below the AARP fact sheet breaks down some of Medicare’s spending in Rhode Island:
• $1.1 billion for hospitals
• $551 million for doctors
• $338 million for prescriptions and medical supplies
• $198 million for skilled nursing facilities
• $159 million for home healthcare agencies
• $92 million health professionals
• $24 million for medical equipment

Also, businesses in Rhode Island receiving Medicare dollars use them to pay employees’ salaries, rent, state and local taxes, and buy equipment, and make capital improvements to their facilities, says the AARP fact sheet.

With the mid-term elections looming, it is now time to send a clear message to Congress and President Donald Trump, “Stop Attacking Medicare.” Lawmakers on both side of the aisle must work to craft a bipartisan solution to strengthen the program for the benefit of America’s retirees. Consider sending this message when you vote…

AARP’s “Be The Difference. Vote” campaign includes a one-stop online portal – aarp.org/vote – to provide people with information (about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and aging issues} they need to. know about before voting in the upcoming November elections.

To see the House Democratic Senior Task Force report, “The Republican Record on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security: Attacks on Benefits Seniors Have Earned and Deserve,” go to
http://www.schakowsky.house.gov/uploads/Seniors%20Task%20Force%20Report%207.24.18.pdf

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.

 

New Budget Deal Protects Seniors’ Pocketbooks

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 1, 2015

Just days after a Republican-controlled House passed legislation with a vote of 266-167 to prevent the U.S. government from going into default on its debt obligations on Nov. 3, also averting a potential federal government shutdown next month, on Friday, Oct.30, the Republican-led upper chamber followed suit.  Just after 3:00 a.m., the Senate voted 64-35 to approve a two-year bipartisan budget plan sending the bill to President Obama for his signature.

Before Friday’s Senate vote, on Thursday afternoon GOP Presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)’s 20 minute filibuster fizzled, with Senate leadership moving forward for the budget bills consideration.  The measure had strong support for passage.  Retiring House GOP Speaker John Boehner with Congressional leaders from both political parties and President Barack Obama pulled together, putting aside differences, to craft the bill.

.           Before the companion legislation was taken up by the House and Senate, in a statement AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, representing 38 million baby boomers and seniors, called on Congressional leaders and their members to support the bipartisan agreement, one that financially protect older Americans.   Jenkins detailed a number of provisions within the 144 page bill that would “reduce skyrocketing Medicare Part B premiums and alleviate the challenges faced by the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Trust Fund.”

Rhode Island Lawmakers Give Thumbs Up

U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), called the bipartisan budget agreement “a credible compromise,” noting that “It is only a two-year patch, but it puts us on a much better path forward.   Reed, who sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, called on the House and Senate Appropriations committees to “quickly reach consensus and produce a detailed omnibus spending package by the Dec. 11 deadline.”

“This budget deal will provide much-need relief from harmful sequester cuts and give the nation a measure of certainly we have lacked amid the patchwork of stop-gap spending bills in recent years,” added U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Whitehouse noted the bipartisan budget deal provides “much-needed relief from harmful sequester cuts and gives the nation a measure of certainty it has “lacked amid the patchwork of stop-gap spending bills passed in recent years.”

With 37,000 Rhode Islander’s relying on the SSDI program it was easy for Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) to support the bipartisan compromise budget plan because it “prevents a 20 percent cut to SSDI benefits and extends the solvency of this critical program an additional seven years, as well as protecting thousands of Rhode Island seniors from an increase in their Medicare premiums.”

“We need to do more to protect Social Security benefits for seniors, ensure cost-of-living adjustments are calculated in a way that accounts for their needs, and lift the cap on payroll taxes so millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share,” said Rhode Island’s Democratic Congressman.

On the side line, aging advocates were also closely watching the action in both chambers, too.  “We are glad that the Budget passed by Congress this week lets people who rely on Medicare breathe a bit easier – knowing their premiums and deducible will not skyrocket next year,” said Judith Stein, founder and executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “However, we still have concerns about the way in which the Part B cost-sharing resolution is paid for, and concerns about the expenses underlying the original Part B increases.”

“The Center continues to urge law-makers to join Congressman Courtney (CT-2) in asking Secretary Burwell to investigate and fix the underlying reasons for the huge increase in Part B costs,” said Stein. “Much of the increase seems to come from parallel increases in billing inpatient hospital care to Part B – which was never meant to pay for such care – through the use of so-called ‘outpatient’ Observation Status.”

Older Americans Protected by Enacted Budget Plan

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 would raise the nation’s debt ceiling through March 2017, allowing the government to borrow to pay its debt. During these two years it allow Congressional lawmakers to lift budget caps for defense and domestic programs by $80 billion.

The passed budget plan derails a 52 percent Medicare Part B premium increase to 30 percent of beneficiaries, which would have hit millions of seniors in their wallets next year. Similarly, the deductible was projected to increase for these individuals to $223 next year.  But thanks to the budget agreement passed this week, the deductible will instead have a more modest increase from the current amount of $147 to approximately $167.

A general fund loan to the Medicare trust fund lessens the premium and deducible increases. Beneficiaries will repay this loan by a $3 per month premium surcharge over a five-year period.

According to the enacted budget plan, next year, only the 30 percent of the beneficiaries hit by the premium increase would pay this $3 premium surcharge.  In 2017 and beyond, all Medicare beneficiaries not subject to the hold harmless provision in a given year would pay a $3 monthly surcharge theoretically until the general fund loan is repaid..

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is expected to announce final premiums for 2016 by the beginning of November.

Keeping SSDI Afloat

The enacted budget plan also prevents a 20 percent cut in Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits that would have occurred in late 2016 impacting 11 million recipients nationwide.  The enacted law now ensures at least 7 years of certainty that SSDI will pay full benefits.  Now, the passed budget measure “reallocates” a small percentage of the Social Security payroll tax to the SSDI program.  This has occurred 11 times.  But, GOP lawmakers have blocked recent efforts to transfer funds as a bargaining chip to force Congress and the Obama Administration to make cuts to Social Security benefits.

The new law would also tightens up the SSDI review process by requiring a physician or psychologist to review applications before a decision is made.  It ensures that application reviews are uniform nationally.  Finally, it requires the Social Security Administration to reject medical evidence presented in a disability application that was provided by “unlicensed” or “unsanctioned” physicians.

It also attacks Social Security fraud and abuse by providing additional funding to contact case reviews ensuring the applicants are entitled to the benefits, improves the fraud-fighting capacity of the SSA’s Office of Inspector General and increases penalties for those physicians, lawyers, translators who perpetuate fraud.

Finally, the bipartisan budget agreement closes loopholes in the current SSA law that allows higher-income recipients to exploit the rules for applying for benefits, with the goal of receiving large pension checks than Congress intended, and which most retirees are able to receive.

The savings made in the Social Security and SSDI programs remain in the Social Security trust funds and can only be used to pay for future benefits.

With Representative Paul D. Ryan now becoming the 62nd speaker of the House, the nation waits to see if the Wisconsin lawmaker has the special political skills to rein in the ultra-conservative wing of his party.  With only 374 days before the upcoming 2016  presidential and congressional elections America’s federal lawmakers must begin to work together to craft laws that will enhance the quality of life of the nation’s retirees.  Compromise is not a dirty word to those residing outside the Washington, DC beltway.  Gridlock is.

Critics of Chained CPI Call It a “Flawed Policy”

 Published in the Pawtucket Times, July 5, 2013

            With President Barack Obama’s fiscal blueprint unveiled almost three months ago, on April 10, 2013, that included a chained consumer price index (CPI) for the purpose of calculating Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), Rhode Island aging advocates go on the offensive opposing the suggested way as to how the federal government would calculate inflation.

             In June 12, 2013, Rhode Island AARP State Director, Kathleen S. Connell, a former secretary of state and one-time teacher, and State President Alan Neville, of Cumberland, along with AARP staff and volunteers from every other state in the nation, traveled to Inside the Beltway to Capitol Hill, on June 12, 2013, to urge Congress to just say “No” to a tying a chained CPI to Social Security.

             Continuing to protest, early this week Connell, Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Langevin and Cicilline, joined over 150 people who voiced strong concerns over Congress’s consideration of a chained CPI.  The Rhode Island Alliance of Retired Americans, the organizer of Tuesday’s protest, called it a “flawed policy,” charged that “switching to a chained CPI would compound benefit reductions dramatically over time, resulting in an annual benefit cuts.” 

            AARP Rhode Island is also planning to host “You’ve Earned a Say” discussions at seniors centers across the state this summer and into the fall to get its membership to rally against changing how Social Security cost of living adjustments are calculated.

 

Critics Take Aim at Chained CPIs

             President Obama’s push in his proposed budget request to rein in Social Security costs (a concession to GOP leadership), through the use of the chained CPI, pushed liberal Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. David Cicilline, representing Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, to strongly oppose President Obama or any Congressional efforts to put Social Security on the chopping block to lower the nation’s federal deficit, through changing the way COLAs are calculated.

            Rather than tinkering with the CPI linked to Social Security to rein in the nation’s huge federal deficient, Rep. Cicilline called for reforming the nation’s tax code by ending subsidies for “Big Oil,” along with “making responsible target spending cuts,” to slash the nation’s huge federal deficit

 

            Referring to the Social Security’s 2012 Annual Report in April (see my June 1, 2012 Commentary in the Pawtucket Times) , Sen. Whitehouse stated that Social Security is fully solvent for the next 20 years and has not contributed to the nation’s budget deficit and has no place in the debate over federal spending. 

             Senator Whitehouse called it “a [Social Security] benefit cut disguised behind technical jargon.”  The Senator and other critics argue that the current CPI shortchanges older persons by placing too much emphasis on products that these individuals are less likely to buy, like “smart phones” and “computers.”  He noted that in 2010 and 2011, Social Security beneficiaries did not receive a COLA, even though prices for food and beverages, medical care, gasoline and fuel oil increased.

             According to the Washington, D.C.-based, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the Obama Administration sees this [chained CPI] switch as just “a technical adjustment.” Aging group warn that using the chained CPI will substantially reduce the Social Security benefits of current and future beneficiaries.  “If it is adopted, a typical 65 year-old would see an immediate decrease of about $130 per year in Social Security benefits.  At age 95, the same senior would face a 9.2 percent reduction—almost $1,400 per year,” notes NCPSSM.

             While all beneficiaries will feel the impact of this change, its effect will be greatest on those who draw benefits at earlier ages (e.g., military retirees, disabled veterans and workers) and those who live the longest, says NCPSSM, especially “women who have outlived their other sources of income, have depleted their assets, and rely on Social Security as their only lifeline to financial stability.”

 What’s the Impact???

             Washington-DC-based, AARP, representing 40 million members, has rolled out an educational campaign, to put the face who loses most if changes are made in how COLAs are calculated. 

 

              Fact Sheets, placed on AARP’s heavily traveled website (http://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/info-04-2012/youve-earned-a-say.html), tells how a federal policy shift would impact specific demographic groups in their pocketbook.

             Retired women can least afford using the chained CPI calculation because they earn less on average than men (that is $4,000), are more likely to have a part-time job and have gaps in their employment due to leaving the workforce to take care of their children.  With women living longer the chained CPI would slash their benefits more with every year they live.  Older women also rely on their Social Security Pension checks because they are less likely to have other sources of retirement income, this check even keeping 38 percent of them out of poverty compared to 32 percent of older men, the says the AARP fact sheets.

             AARP’s fact sheets, also details the impact on older disabled Americans, noting that 37 percent are dependent on Social Security benefits for nearly all their family income, that is around $13,560 annually.  Many begin getting Social Security checks at a young age.  For instance, a 35-year-old disabled worker who receives average disability benefits would see his or her benefits reduced each year by $886 at 65 and $1,301 at 80.   Finally, Social Security keeps about 40 percent of people with disabilities age 18 and over and their families out of poverty.  Cutbacks in benefits due to tying the chained CPI to the Social Security program would force the persons already living on a very tight budget impacted by rising drug costs, increased utilities and health care expenses to cut back on vital needs.

             Finally, one of AARP’s fact sheets charge that older veterans would be financially slammed, sort of a double whammy.  With almost 1.5 million veterans living below the poverty level, each dollar cut, like older person’s who are disabled, will get hit hard in their pocket book as the years roll by.  Because a chained CPI would cut both Social Security and Veterans’ benefits, this group gets the budget ax thrown at them twice. “A veteran who’s 65 today would have veterans benefits reduced annually by $1,029 and Social Security benefits by $1,422 at 95, when benefits are needed the most,” states the fact sheet.

 Congressional Fight Looming

             Rhode Island’s Senator’s Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have signed on as co-sponsors of SR 15, with over a dozen Senators, a Resolution Rejecting the chained CPI expressing “the sense of Congress that the chained CPI should not be used to calculate cost of living adjustments for Social Security and Veterans benefits.”

             Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, a resolution, HR 34, was introduced by Rep. Cicilline, cosponsored by Rep. James Langevin along with 111 other Democrats, also opposing President Obama and GOP attempts to rein in the Social Security budget through the use of a chained CPI calculation.

             With nonbinding resolutions expressing opposition to the use of a chained CPI index now introduced in both chambers of Congress, union and aging groups are urging rallying support for passage.

            AARP’s Kathleen S. Connell and her colleagues around the nation are gearing up to send a message loud and clear, once and for all to Congress.  Simply put, Connell says:  “Chained CPI is not only harmful and illogical; it is also out-of-place in the discussion of deficit reduction.  As a self-financed program providing earned benefits, Social Security has not caused the deficit—and it should not be turned into an ATM for politicians trying to address it.  We deserve a separate national conversation about how to protect Social Security for today’s seniors and responsibly strengthen it for our children and grandchildren.”

            Congress might well choose to tread lightly on giving the thumbs up to using a chained CPI in calculating Social Security Colas. The anticipated fiscal impact (detailed by AARP and aging group critics, along with the Rhode Island Congressional delegation) resulting from this federal policy change will hit the nation’s elderly right where it hurts, the most, in their wallets.  Increased bipartisan efforts can find better solutions to trimming the nation’s huge federal deficit and improving the fiscal viability of the nation’s Social Security Program.

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