Government Shutdown Hurts Seniors, Too

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 21, 2019

At press time, the federal government has been partially shut down for over 29 days because of Democrats and Republicans being at odds over President Trump’s ask for $5.7 billion to be included in continuing spending resolutions for the Oct. 1 start of the new federal fiscal year. Trump calls for billions of dollars to build a border wall along the 234 miles of the nation’s southern border.

The partial shutdown began on Dec. 22 because Congress had not passed legislation, signed by the President, to fund nine federal departments, so these departments do not have funding to operate. The department’s include Agriculture (USDA), Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Interior, State, Transportation and Treasury.

During the partial government shutdown, Trump has so refused to retreat from his request for funding to build a wall. With strong Democratic opposition the political standoff has made this partial shutdown the longest one of its kind in the nation’s history. There have been 21 shutdowns since 1976.

Local media has widely reported that this shutdown has left 800,000 federal workers furloughed without pay, as well as those working in several federal agencies. But half of these employees are still working, being recalled but without being pay. But Trump has signed legislation this week to pay these employees retroactively once a funding bill is enacted.

What About Aging Programs and Services?

According to AARP’s Senior Writer Dena Bunis in a Jan. 18th web article, “Essential Services Stay in Place Despite Massive Federal Employee Furloughs,” the government shutdown does not impact major domestic programs, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security but other programs and services for seniors are affected.
Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will continue operating and not be disrupted by the shutdown because these programs are funded by an advance appropriations and Social Security [ an earned benefit] is separately funded, says Bunis.

Bunis adds, even with the shutdown aging veterans will still have access to VA hospitals, medical centers and clinics because the Department of Veterans Affairs is funded.

Retirees will find many of the nation’s 400 national parks open but having limited services. Park rangers are furloughed and volunteers are stepping up to help where needed, says Bunis, noting that with employees not reporting for work, bathrooms and other facilities remain unattended with trash piling up and vandalism reports are increasing.

Although flights are not affected and air traffic controllers remain working, Transportation Security Administration’s airport security screeners are calling in sick in large numbers, increasing waiting times, notes Bunis. She says that Federal Aviation Administration has brought back thousands of safety inspectors and engineers to keep the planes in the air flying safely.

Seniors receiving SNAP (formerly called food stamps) from the USDA can expect getting their February benefits, says Bunis, but Meals on Wheels and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program food-box deliveries will be available through March.

Bunis notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has brought back nearly 150 furloughed employees without pay “to resume safety inspections on certain drugs, medical devices and high-risk foods, such as cheese, fruits and vegetables, and infant formula.”

The current government shutdown has closed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Those workers age 40 and over who file age discrimination claims may experience difficulties in applying and getting these claims processed, says Bunis.

USDA loans for low- and moderate-income Americans who live in rural areas have stopped because of the shutdown, says Bunis. “The Federal Housing Administration is not issuing the needed paperwork for reverse mortgages to get approved. More than 1,000 contracts between HUD and landlords who provide rental assistance to low-income tenants have expired, and hundreds more will expire in February,” she notes.

Meanwhile, USDA has recalled 2,500 Farm Service Agency employees to temporarily assist agricultural producers with existing farm loan payments to ensure they get the tax documents necessary to file their returns, says Bunis.

It’s tax season…Bunis says that although the Internal Revenue Service is affected by the shutdown because it is part of the Treasury Department, over 46,000 furloughed employees have been called back to work to process income-tax returns and refunds. Filing season officially begins on Jan. 28.

Casey Calls on Trump to Reopen Government

Last week, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, urged Trump to end the partial shutdown charging that the federal government’s closing jeopardizes the transportation, housing, and nutrition needs of older Americans and people with disabilities.

“I am particularly concerned about the adverse impact of the shutdown on seniors, people with disabilities and their families,” stated in Jan 15 correspondence to the President. Food assistance programs administered through the UDSA, rental assistance payments from HUD, transportation services through the Department of Transportation (DOT), and frauds and scams investigations and enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are all negatively impacted during the shutdown, said Casey.

“Elected and appointed officials in Washington have a sacred responsibility of ensuring seniors can age with dignity and people with disabilities can live independently. I request you direct the USDA, HUD, DOT, FTC and FCC to provide additional information to Congress on the steps they will take to mitigate the harmful impact this shutdown will have on seniors and people with disabilities. And, I urge you to reopen the government so that the health and financial security of our aging loved ones are no longer put in jeopardy,” Casey adds.

For a copy of Casey’s correspondence, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/press-releases/casey-to-trump-the-shutdown-hurts-seniors_.

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Senate Republicans Pushing to Vote on Latest Health Care Proposal

Published in the Woonsocket Call on September 24, 2017

With the September 30 expiration of its special Senate budget reconciliations status that allows the chamber to repeal and replace Obamacare with just a simple majority, Senate Republicains are rushing to bring their latest health care fix up for vote by the end of next week. The GOP’s last attempt failed by a razor thin margin.

Critics charge that the Senate Republicans push to quickly vote on their latest health care bill, crafted by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, comes before the issuance of a complete analysis of the Congressional Budget Office (CB)) that would detail the legislative proposal would impact coverage nationwide.

AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and health care provider groups say that Graham-Cassidy’s fix to put the brakes to rising health care costs will increase premium and out-of-pocket costs for millions. They say that the nonpartisan CBO would give the details to its negative impact.

Even Gov. Chris Christie came out opposing the GOP health care over haul bill that Senate Republicans are pushing. “I can’t support a bill that takes $3.9 billion away from the people of the state of New Jersey,” said the New Jersey Governor, reported last Wednesday by the Trentonian News. Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Gov. Republican Governor John Kasich, of Ohio, held a bipartisan news conference this week calling for a bipartisan approach to reforming health care.

Talk Show Host Jimmy Kimmel also came out swinging against the Graham-Cassidy proposal, calling Sen. Cassidy, a co-sponsor of the bill, a liar. Earlier this year the Republican Senator had appeared on his show and after hearing that Kimmel had an infant son with a heart condition, he assure Kimmel that any GOP proposal would protect those with pre-existing conditions. It does not, at least to Kimmel’s satisfaction.

For days, aging and provider groups and even Democrats on cable shows expressed concern that the Graham-Cassidy Bill would allow states to permit insurance companies to charge people with preexisting conditions (an estimated 25 million Americans age 50 to 64) just because they have cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, etc.

Age Tax Hits Seniors Right in their Wallets

On September 20, 2017, AARP writer Dena Bunis, charges in a blog posting, “Latest Senate Health Care Bill Revives Age Tax for Older Americans,” the GOP’s latest effort to repeal President Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act (ACA), imposes an “age tax” on older Americans by eliminating premium tax credits and cost sharing payments that helped low-income persons afford deductibles and copayments for medical services.

The Graham-Cassidy bill would also allow states to get federal waivers for insurers to charge older Americans more so as to lower the cost for younger policyholders. The ACA limits the expense for older policyholders at three times the amount younger ones pay, says Bunis.

To illustrate the “age tax” Bunis, citing an AARP analysis, notes, that for a 60-year-old earning $25,000 a year, premiums and out-of-pocket costs could increase by as much as $16,174 a year. If that 60-year-old lives in a state that allows insurers to charge older individuals dramatically higher premiums, he or she would face an additional $4,124 increase in premiums,” she says.

The Graham-Cassidy bill takes away the premium tax credits that help older adults pay for their health care coverage, notes Bunis. . “About 6 million 50- to 64-year-olds buy their health coverage in the individual market, and about half of those individuals receive tax credits to help pay their premiums, she says, citing an analysis by the AARP Public Policy Institute.

The Graham-Cassidy bill would also eliminate vital cost-sharing payments that help low-income persons — especially those over age 50 — afford deductibles and copayments for medical services, too, adds Bunis, noting that “about 58 percent of adults enrolled in ACA marketplace plans get cost-sharing assistance, and 35 percent of those individuals are between 50 and 64 years old.”

Bunis notes that the latest Senate health care proposal would shift federal funds to the state through block grants that would allow each state to develop their own specific health care coverage initiatives to reduce costs. But, she says that Medicaid per capita cap or block grants funding proposals, “fundamentally change the Medicaid program [covering 17.4 million older Americans and people with disabilities], which has been a safety net for millions of poor Americans and people with disabilities.

Receiving Medicaid eligibility for coverage and services would leave fewer doctors and other providers willing to take Medicaid patients or provide needed care because reimbursement is too low.

Block grants, mandated by the Graham-Cassidy bill, would only last through 2026, offering no replacement health care plan, says Bunis. “Over 20 years, Graham-Cassidy would slash Medicaid funding by $1.2 trillion to $3.2 trillion, turning control of the program to the states and shifting costs over time to states and Medicaid enrollees,” she says.

“Americans have a right to know how this bill would impact them. Regretfully, the Majority Leadership is rushing the Senate to blindly consider Graham-Cassidy without fully vetting this proposal in committee hearings and mark-up, where amendments could be considered, and without a full Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score. CBO previously estimated that repeal-without-replace would cause 32 million people to lose health coverage,” said Max Richtman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), in a statement to Senate Finance. The Senate panel is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Graham-Cassidy bill next week.

“Senate consideration of any bill that would change the accessibility and affordability of essential health care for millions of Americans without a complete CBO analysis and committee debate would be the height of legislative malpractice,” says Richtman.

NCPSSM calls the latest GOP Senate Health care proposal “deeply flawed” and suggests that it be referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions where Chairman Lamar Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray are attempting to hammer out a bipartisan solution to strengthen the ACA’s individual health insurance market reforms.

A Final Take

A press time, Republican Sens. Ron Paul (Kentucky) and John McCain (Arizona) give thumbs down to the Graham-Cassidy bill with the Portland Press Herald reporting that Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, saying “I’m leaning against the bill.” Fifty Republican Senators must give their thumbs up, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote, to get a simple majority for passage. Now, the votes are just not there for passage.

But, one long-time Republican Senator speaks honestly on the record why President Donald Trump his fellow Senate caucus members are pushing so hard for passage of the latest Senate health care proposal. “You know, I could maybe give you 10 reasons why this bill shouldn’t be considered,” Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. “But Republicans campaigned on this so often that you have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign. That’s pretty much as much of a reason as the substance of the bill.”

Sadly, if true the Republican-controlled Congress has put millions of Americans at risk of losing their health care coverage and at risk for the sake of a political promise. Our lawmakers must become statesmen and vote on legislative proposals because it is the right thing to do, not politicians who vote by party-line.