GOP House Budget Fray’s Nation’s Safety Net

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 24, 2018

Just six months ago, the Republican-controlled House passed their massive $1.5 trillion tax cuts for the nation’s largest corporations and to the wealthiest 1 percent. The day of reckoning has now come as the GOP spells out how it will rein in the nation’s spiraling deficit through its recently released FY 2019 budget resolution. On Tuesday, the House Budget Committee unveiled its 85-page budget resolution, making trillions in spending cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, he nation’s two largest entitlement programs, health care, and programs benefiting veterans, students and working families. ‘

The budget titled, “A Brighter American Future,” calls for $8.1 trillion of deficit reduction while including reconciliation instructions for 11 House authorizing committees to enact at least $302 billion over nine years. Consistent with levels signed into law in February 2018, this budget sets topline discretionary spending at $1.24 trillion ($647 billion for defense spending and $597 billion for non-defense discretionary spending).

The budget blueprint cleared the House Budget Committee by a partisan vote of 21-13, with a vote, with a Democratic and Republican lawmaker absent from the vote. Political insiders Fortunately, Capitol Hill-watchers say the 2019 House GOP Budget proposal is unlikely to make it before the full House or pass this year. But, it sends a message out to voters about the Republican’s legislative priorities to rein in a skyrocketing deficits and debt by slashing entitlement and popular domestic programs.

Putting the Wealthy and Powerful Ahead

When unveiling the House GOP’s budget, Chairman Steve Womack of Arkansas, notes that it addresses “unsustainable mandatory spending, continues economic growth, encourages better government and greater accountability, and empowers state and local governments.”

During a CNBC interview on June 22, 2018, Womack said, “We have done our job and it is a reflection of what we believe is the stark reality of the fiscal condition of our country right, unstable deficits year over year and $21 trillion in debt that is going to continue to grow over time. We just felt like it was time to sound the alarm and do something about and this and this particular budget resolution does it.”
Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline counters Womack’s rosy assessment of the House GOP budget. ““If a budget is a statement of your values, then this budget shows Republicans are putting the wealthy and powerful ahead of working people. Just a few months after passing a massive tax cut for billionaires and corporate special interests, Republicans are proposing to repeal the Affordable Care Act; cut funding for road repairs and other infrastructure projects; cripple Medicare and Social Security; make deep cuts to Pell grants; and repeal Dodd-Frank so the big banks can do whatever they want once again. In fact, this budget is so terrible, it’s hard to imagine Republicans will ever bring it to the floor,” says the Rhode Island lawmaker.

“But despite an extraordinary past and a booming economy thanks to tax reform, there are real fiscal challenges casting a shadow of doubt on the nation’s future, including $21 trillion of debt that is rapidly on the rise. We must overcome the challenges,” says Womack.

Womack says that his budget plan “offers a balanced and responsible plan to not only address the challenges but give rise to the nation’s prosperity.”

Medicare and Medicaid on Budgetary Chopping Block

Numerous federal programs affecting old Americans would be put on the budgetary chopping block, which includes another call for full repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), leaving 23 million Americans without health coverage. $5.4 trillion of cuts would come from mandatory or automatic spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The plan calls for raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67, as well as combining Medicare Parts A and B, and allowing for privatization of the entitlement program. The projected cuts for Medicare alone add up to $537 billion.

The GOP’s efforts to privatize Medicare runs counter to what Americans want, preserving the program in its current form. The Kaiser Family Foundation released poll results in 2015, celebrating Medicare’s 50th Anniversary, the respondents by a margin of more than two to one, do not want to see their traditional Medicare privatized.

As to Medicaid, a joint federal and state program that helps with medical costs for some people with limited income and resources, the GOP budget plan limits per capita payments and allows states to turn it into a block grant. It also introduces stricter work requirements for beneficiaries and shifting to a capped system linked to medical inflation rates, these changes cutting about $1.5 trillion. Additionally, Womack’s budget would no longer allow people on Social Security disability to receive unemployment insurance at the same time, slashing $4 billion for the FY 2019 budget.

Outside of mandatory spending programs, the budget would cut trillions from “welfare,” federal retirement programs and veterans programs, while overhauling rules for medical liability lawsuits.

“This budget proposal is a direct attack on the quality of life of America’s seniors,” said Robert Roach, Jr., President of the Alliance of Retired Americans. “We must hold our elected officials accountable for their actions. We predicted cuts to our hard-earned benefits after the GOP passed their unfunded tax cuts for billionaires and corporations. Unfortunately, that reality is now staring us in the face,” he says.

Adds Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “Speaker Ryan is obviously making good on his promise to come after safety net programs to pay for the reckless Trump/GOP tax reform. In so doing, he and his party are sending a clear message: older, poorer, and disabled Americans are not as important as the billionaires and big corporations who are the main beneficiaries of a tax scheme that is blowing up our nation’s debt.”

Before the House Budget Committee vote, Joyce A. Rogers, AARP’s Senior Vice President Government Affairs, urged that Medicare not be cut. She called for good changes such as “reducing prescription drugs costs, enhancing payment and delivery reforms, and addressing the widespread fraud, waste, and abuse in the program.”

According to Rogers, “The typical senior, with an annual income of approximately $26,000 and already spending one out of every six dollars on health care, counts on Social Security for the majority of their income, and on Medicare for access to affordable health coverage.”

Finally, Rogers notes that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) plays vital role in providing nutritional assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families, many seniors. “In 2016, 8.7 million (over 40 percent of) SNAP households had at least one adult age 50 or older. Proposals to block grant the program, or expand work requirements, will make SNAP less responsive and accessible in times of need,” she says.

Educate Yourself About the Issues

With the upcoming Rhode Island primary on September 12, and midterm elections just 135 days, AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell urges all registered Rhode Island voters to review candidates’ positions on the issues and go to the polls and cast your ballot. “The 2018 midterms will be among the most historic elections in a generation,” she said.

Nationwide, the balance of power in both houses of Congress, as well as in many state legislatures and governorships, could shift because of the results in the fall’s general elections, says Connell.

While the most common way to vote is for registered voters to go to their local polling place on Election Day, Connell said that many family caregivers and others who may have difficulty voting on that day may be eager to take advantage of other methods of casting a ballot.

“With all that unpaid family caregivers have on their plates each day, it can often be hard for them to get to the polls on Election Day,” said Connell. “If a caregivers’ loved one is voting, it can be even harder, especially if their loved one has mobility issues. When available, alternative methods of casting a ballot (a mail ballot) are essential to allowing our state’s family caregivers and others to participate in this important election.” To learn more about mail ballots, visit https://vote.sos.ri.gov/

To mobilize it’s 35 million members, AARP has launched “Be the Difference. Vote,” a campaign designed to maximize the political influence of over age 50 voters. The initiative seeks to get the largest possible turnout of older voters to the polls during the ongoing primaries and in the November general election. It will also put front and center issues like Medicare security and family caregiving, along with other topics of particular interest to older voters.

To learn more about “Be the Difference. Vote,” check out aarp.org/vote to see how to get involved and state informed.

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Trump Signs Legislation to Undo Nation’s Banking Rules

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 27, 2017

On May 22, 2018, The Senior Safe Act, a bipartisan bill authored by U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to help protect older American’s from financial exploitation and fraud, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 258-159 as part of a bipartisan banking reform package after previously passing the Senate in March by a vote of 67-31. President Donald J. Trump’s signed the bill into law rolling back regulatory oversight of the nation’s financial industry.

The Senior Safety Act is part of S. 2155, the “Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act,” a bill that modified the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, which was passed by Congress in 2010 to oversee the financial industry after the financial crash and recession of 2008-09.

Protecting Older Investors from Financial Exploitation

Through the watchdog efforts of the Senate Aging Committee, financial exploitation of seniors was identified as a top senior issue to combat. According to the Government Accountability Office, financial fraud targeting older Americans is a growing epidemic that costs seniors an estimated $2.9 billion annually. These frauds range from the “Jamaican Lottery Scam,” to the IRS impersonation scam, to the financial exploitation of seniors through guardianships. Earlier this year a hearing was held to update the public about the committee’s efforts to combat scams targeting older Americans as well as unveil its 2018.

As the Chairman and former Ranking Member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Senators Collins and McCaskill introduced the Senior $afe Act last year. Existing bank privacy laws can make it difficult for financial institutions to report suspected fraud to the proper authorities. The Senior $afe Act address this problem by encouraging banks, credit unions, investment advisors, broker-dealers, insurance companies and insurance agencies to report suspected senor financial fraud. It also protects these institutions from being sued for making reports so long as they have trained their employees and make reports in good faith and on a reasonable basis to the proper authorities.

“As Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, I have been committed to fighting fraud and financial exploitation targeted at older Americans,” said Senator Collins. “The Senior $afe Act, based on Maine’s innovative program, will empower and encourage our financial service representatives to identify warning signs of common scams and help prevent seniors from becoming victims.”

Judith M. Shaw, Maine Securities Administrator and chair of the North American Securities Administrators Association’s Committee on Senior Issues and Diminished Capacity, says that this legislation incentivizes financial service institutions, including those in the securities industry, to train key employees on the identification and reporting of suspected financial exploitation of seniors. “This is a significant and important tool in the ongoing efforts to protect senior investors,” she adds.

Adds Jaye L. Martin, Executive Director of Legal Services for the Elderly, “We know from our proven success with Senior Safe in Maine that education of financial services professionals is a key component to identifying and stopping financial exploitation of seniors. There is no doubt this bill will help prevent seniors all over the country from becoming victims.”

With the passage of S. 2155, Keith Gillies, President of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA), said, “The Senior Safe Act provides “much needed protection for older investors and will allow advisors to better protect their clients’ interests.”

“Advisors are often the first line of defense for scammers looking to take advantage of investors,” says Gillies, noting that studies have found older Americans are often a prime target.

The Pros and Cons of S. 2155

Since the Dodd-Frank legislation’s passage eight years ago, 20 percent of small banks have been put out of business, said President Trump and a ceremony where he signed S. 2155 into law. He predicted that the roll back of the costly banking reform regulations, both “crippling” and “crushing” to community banks and credit unions, would stimulate the banking industry to increase lending to businesses.

Banking regulations made it virtually impossible for new banks to be established to replace those that had closed their doors, said Trump, denying small businesses with access to capital. “By liberating small banks from excessive bureaucracy — and that’s what it was: bureaucracy — we are unleashing the economic potential of our people,” said Trump.

Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) calls the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act a jobs bill, saying “it is a much-needed solution for the folks who power our local economies.”

In an op-ed in the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly, Senator Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana) said, “This banking package is reasonable, balanced, and the result of thoughtful negotiation and compromise. It would take measured steps to encourage community financial institutions to boost lending and provide new protections for consumers. And it’s an example of what we can achieve when we work together to break the gridlock in Washington.”

But others strongly oppose passage of S. 2155.

Although S. 2155 has a provision to protect seniors from financial exploitation, Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline, expressed strong concerns when the Houses passed S. 2155, he jokingly refers to as “the Bank Lobbyist Act.”

“Ten years ago, Wall Street’s recklessness brought our economy to the brink of collapse. It has taken Rhode Island years to recover. In many ways, we are still recovering.,” noted Rhode Island’s Congressman representing District 1. “The Dodd-Frank financial reform law ended the worst of the Big Banks’ excesses. It established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and gave working people a voice against the most powerful corporations in our country,” he said, noting that the passing of S. 2155 has reversed this progress.

It’s a massive giveaway to the wealthy and the middle class is getting screwed. This is a raw deal for working men and women. The American people deserve A Better Deal,” Cicilline said.

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, warns that with the deregulation of banks, the GOP “are still gunning for Social Security under the guise of entitlement reform.”

Richtman predicts the passage of S. 2155 and it’s signing into law “makes another financial crisis more likely.”” He asks, “How fair is it to ask workers to be responsible and save when the government strips away protections intended to keep our savings secure?”

“Retirees’ Social Security benefits must be preserved because, at least for now, they are the only thing workers can depend on after the next financial crash,” says Richtman.

The Senior $afe Act was endorsed by organizations, including AARP, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS), the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions (NAFCU), the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA), the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI), Transamerica, and LPL Financial.

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.