Search on for GOP Senators to Protect Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 29, 2017

Since President Donald Trump took the oath of office on January 20, he is making good on some of his hundreds of campaign promises. During his first week in office Trump signed three executive orders declaring new government policies and eight presidential memoranda detailing the priorities of his new administration.

But, for aging groups, with Trumps arrival in Washington, D.C, the skirmish officially begins to protect Medicare in this new session of Congress.

With Trump and Congressional Republican Leadership on record for their support of repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, President and CEO Max Richtman, of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), clearly sees the writing on the wall. If successful, Richtman warns that GOP legislative actions will severely damage Medicare impacting 57 million seniors and disabled adults who rely on the program for their health care.

Building A Firewall Against Privatizing Medicare

With the GOP holding a slim majority of the U.S. Senate seats, 52 to the Democrats 48 seats, Richtman sees swaying Republican Senators away from their party’s position on privatizing Medicare to protect the federal health care program.

On January 24, 2017, Richtman urged Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to be the Senate’s “firewall against Medicare cuts.” His correspondence asked them to vote against proposals to privatize Medicare, raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, and repeal provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law, that provided additional benefits to beneficiaries.

Richtman reminded the GOP Senators that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) improved Medicare benefits and extended the solvency of the Part A Hospital Insurance Trust Fund by more than a decade. ACA’s closing of the prescription drug donut hole has put money into the pockets of Medicare beneficiaries. The health care law also added coverage of an annual wellness visit and eliminated copays for preventive services like cancer screenings, he said.

“I am also troubled by “premium support” [GOP] proposals to privatize Medicare,” says Richtman. According the aging advocate who was a former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging and a 16-year veteran of Capitol Hill, under previous privatization plans, beneficiaries would not enroll in the current program; rather, they would receive a capped payment or voucher to be used to purchase private health insurance or traditional Medicare. Private plans would have to provide benefits that are at least actuarially equivalent to the benefit package provided by fee-for-service Medicare, but they could manipulate their plans to attract the youngest and healthiest seniors. This would leave traditional Medicare with older and sicker beneficiaries whose higher health costs would lead to higher premiums that they and others may be unable or unwilling to afford, reducing the fee for service risk pool even further resulting in a death spiral for traditional Medicare.

GOP Medicare Fix Financially Hurts Beneficiaries

Richtman also told the GOP Senators that NCPSSM opposed the raising of the Medicare eligibility age from age 65 to 67 because the proposal would increase costs for millions of older Americans. Absent the guarantees in the existing ACA, such as requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions and limiting age rating, millions of seniors 65 and 66 without Medicare would find private insurance unaffordable. Raising the eligibility age would also increase average costs for Medicare as younger, healthier seniors are eliminated from the risk pool and costs are spread across an older, less-healthy population, he says.

Richtman urged the GOP Senators to oppose efforts underway in the 115th Congress to block grant Medicaid, cap Medicaid payments on a per-beneficiary basis (per capita caps) and/or repeal the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. He noted that these policy changes would “financially hurt states and lead to states cutting services, quality and eligibility for the most vulnerable of our senior population.”

Many seniors would not be able to absorb the loss of coverage and increase in their costs that would occur if these proposals became law. In fact, half of all Medicare beneficiaries in 2014 had incomes below $24,150 and Medicare households spent over two times more than the average American household on out-of-pocket health care costs,” he says.

“If Senate Democrats stand strong, we only need a handful of Republicans to protect the commitment to Medicare,” says Richtman. “We hope Senators McCain, Collins, Grassley, and Alexander to do the right thing for seniors in their states – and across America.”

Richtman correspondence to the four GOP Senators is part of NCPSSM’s pro-active legislative strategy to protect the existing Medicare program. The letters sent quantify the economic impact that proposed Medicare cuts would have on seniors in the four GOP Senators’ states: Arizona (with 1.3 million beneficiaries), Maine (306,000 beneficiaries), Iowa (nearly 572,000 beneficiaries), and Tennessee (1.2 million beneficiaries).

“We know that these four Republican Senators have the wisdom and judgment to protect seniors in their states from legislation that would impose painful Medicare cuts,” says Richtman. “It’s time to slam the brakes on any attempts to pass harmful legislation.”

Senate Democrats Attempt to Block HHS Nomination

Two days before Trump was sworn in as president, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held confirmation hearing on Rep. Tom Price, (R-Ga), Trump’s nominee to oversee the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency that oversees the Medicare program. In confirmed, he is expected to play a key role in the GOP’s efforts to privatize Medicare.

No formal vote was taken at the HELP Committee hearing but the Congressman is scheduled to testify a week later at the Senate Finance Committee, which will vote on his nomination.

During the four-hour heated confirmation hearing, held in 430 Dirksen Senate Office Building, HHS nominee Price dodged questions lobbed by Democrats about the Trump Administrations position on the future of Medicare. They also zeroed in on his personal financial investments in health care companies, calling them conflicts of interest which the denied.

Price, an orthopedic surgeon and a six term congressman, considered to be one of the most vocal critics of Obamacare on Capitol Hill, is expected play a key role in the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, sitting on the HELP Committee, gave this take on Price after the first of two confirmation hearings: “Price hasn’t been able to win Democratic support for any of his health care legislation [in the House] and today confirmed that he and his allies have no plan that can win support from across the aisle or the millions of Americans who would be affected by tearing down the Affordable Care Act. He conceded that he should not stop Americans under twenty-six from staying on their parents’ insurance, re-open the dreaded prescription drug doughnut hole for seniors, deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and reinstate lifetime limits on care. But he has no plan to make that happen.”

Adds Whitehouse, “Price also failed to reassure the Rhode Islanders I serve who rely on Medicare for their care. He has fought to voucherize the program, which would gradually unload costs onto seniors while eroding their benefits. He needed to tell the American people they could depend on him to faithfully administer Medicare and keep the sacred promise we’ve made to our seniors of a dignified retirement with access to good health care. He did not.”

“Congress must protect Social Security and Medicare, but many Republicans see the latest election results as an opportunity to hollow out these vital programs. President Trump’s pick to oversee Medicare has long championed efforts to privatize Medicare, which I strongly oppose. Cutting benefits and privatizing these programs could hurt millions of Americans and harm our economy,” said Sen. Jack Reed, noting that these programs reduce poverty and improve public health in ways that benefit all Americans.

As NCPSSM’s Richtman continues his effort to sway GOP Senators, rallying the troops at the state-level may well be the path to blocking GOP attempts to privatize Medicare. Voters in states with Republican Senators must send this message to their elected official, “don’t touch my Medicare.” Let the movement to strengthen Medicare in these states begin today.

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Winning the Votes of Older Women

Published in Pawtucket Times on October 10, 2016

On Oct. 7, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthol’s story broke detailing a three minute video of GOP Presidential candidate Donald Trump wearing a hot microphone during a 2005 bus ride with former-host Bill Bush, of “Access Hollywood” to the set of “Days of Our Lives” where the real estate mogul had a walk on cameo on the soap opera. The video captured Trump saying “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything …Grab them by the p—y. You can do anything” and crudely describing his failed attempts to seduce a woman while being recently married.

Reaction came swiftly to Trump’s locker room banter with Bush. “No woman should never be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever,” said Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who was doing damage control to keep woman voters from voting Democrat. The leaked video has also resulted in a number of Republican Senate and House candidates running in November to withdrawal their endorsements of Trump.

This is horrific,” Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton said on Twitter, noting a link to the Washington Post article. “We cannot allow this man to become president.”

The embattled Trump initially issued a statement and later a video to try to defuse the controversy and get his flailing campaign back on track 30 days before the November presidential election.

Many political pundits believe that Trump’s off-the-cuff comments that are derogatory to woman, a powerful voting block who decide elections, might just block his chances of becoming the next occupant of the White House.

Women’s Campaign Issues

One day before the politically damaging Washington Post article appeared detailing Trump’s lewd comments in a leaked video, AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group, released survey findings highlighting issues of importance to women voters ages 50 to 69 in key battleground states.

“Older women voters – particularly women of the Boomer generation — could help decide the 2016 presidential election,” said AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond. “Yet many of their real concerns are being ignored and their questions overlooked in a largely issueless campaign. The candidates still have an opportunity to talk to these women about the issues that matter to them.”

The 27 page report, Women Voters Ages 50 +: Economic Anxieties, Social Security, and the 2016 Election, says that heading into this year’s presidential election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has a whopping 15 point lead (48 percent) over the GOP’s standard bearer Donald Trump (33 percent) among woman over age 50. The findings also indicate that older woman favor Democrats running for Congress by a narrower margin (47 percent are inclined to vote for a Democrat while 36 percent inclined to vote for a Republican).

AARP’s survey results noted that majority of woman age 50 and over believe that Clinton will do a better job than Trump in addressing family caregiving (Clinton, 57 percent; Trump, 27 percent), education (56 percent; 31 percent), environment (55 percent; 29 percent) and health (53 percent; 35 percent). The Democratic presidential candidate is also perceived by older woman as having a slight advantage over Trump in controlling government spending and controlling the budget deficit (44 percent; 43 percent).

“It’s the Economy Stupid”
Plus Retirement Issues

As to the economy, the majority of the older woman respondents across these 15 battle ground states worry about pocketbook issues such as prices rising faster than their income (61 percent) and having to pay too much in taxes (54 percent. Four in ten (41%) worry about having prescription drug expenses they cannot afford. Women with lower household incomes are especially likely to worry about these pocketbook issues.

Also, the AARP survey found that many women also worry about retirement security, including their ability to care for themselves as they age (45 percent), not having financial security in retirement (41 percent), and whether Social Security will be there when they retire (38 percent). These retirement-related issues are of particular concern to women with lower household incomes.

Additionally, most women (53 percent) say that the nearly 25 percent cut in Social Security benefits that would result from not addressing the solvency of Social Security would impact them, including 32 percent who say it would impact them “a lot.”

Fixing Social Security is a key issue to older woman voters. The AARP survey noted that the vast majority of women voters ages 50+ (72 percent) say that the next president and Congress should address Social Security immediately.

Most women (67 percent) also favor giving a caregiver credit in calculating Social Security benefits to people who take time off from work to care for loved ones, says the report.

Social Security is flying under the radar screen of the voter. The survey findings noted that few women say that they have heard about the candidates’ plans for Social Security. About one in three (34 percent) say they have seen or heard anything from Clinton, and even fewer (20 percent) say that they have seen or heard anything from Trump.

The AARP survey found that over 54 percent of the respondents are currently, or have been, a family caregiver providing unpaid care to an adult loved one. More than eight in ten (85 percent) women voter’s ages 50+ think it is important for the presidential candidates to talk about how they would support family caregivers who provide unpaid care to aging parents or spouses or other adult family members.

Finally, four in ten (41 percent) women are not confident that they will be able to cover the cost of care for an aging or elderly parent, spouse, or other family member.

Women: A Powerful Voting Block

According to the Center for American Women in Politics, “In recent elections voter turnout rates for women have equaled or exceeded voter turnout rates for men. Women, who constitute more than half of the population, have cast between four to seven million more votes than men in recent elections.“

Only weeks will tell if embattled Trump can overcome the political backlash generated from his locker room banter degrading woman, political insiders predicting that the gender vote gap might just historically widen.

AARP’s survey findings provide sound advice to Clinton and Trump and congressional candidates who are scrambling for last minute votes, especially from married women, younger millennials and women living in the nation’s suburbs. The women’s voting block might just surely tilt the election to a candidate in many legislative districts.

Let Rhode Island’s Social Security Debate Begin

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 21, 2016

It’s less than 80 days before the upcoming 2016 presidential election. At press time, Social Security has been placed on the backburner as the GOP standard bearer Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, turn their attention to crime, national security, health care and the economy.

On the sideline, nearly 218,000 Rhode Islanders who collect Social Security benefits, including 155,710 seniors, 37,476 disabled workers, and 17,802 survivors of a deceased spouse or parent, are closely watching one of the nation’s nastiest political campaign unfold. Political insiders and aging groups know that whoever takes over the White House and controls Congress will control in the year’s to come how retiree’s receive their retirement checks.

Putting a Spotlight on Social Security

Earlier this week David N. Cicilline (D-RI) and John B. Larson (D-CT) came to the Rumford Towers in East Providence to put the spotlight on Social Security, both stressing how important it is to keep Social Security solvent through the end of this century. The two Democratic lawmakers called on GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan to move their introduced legislation, “Social Security 2100 Act,” from House Committee to floor vote.

“Social Security is a promise that after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity, economic security, and peace of mind. It’s critical that Congress act expeditiously to preserve and strengthen this promise for years to come,” said Cicilline to over 80 attendees at the 90 minute event.

Larson noted that Social Security is not an entitlement but benefits that have been earned by hard-working Americans who have paid into the retirement system their whole lives. “Two-thirds of retirees rely on Social Security for the majority of their income, and it is a lifeline for the disabled and those who have lost a loved one,” he said, calling those pushing for Social Security cuts as “fundamentally misguided.”

The Nuts & Bolts

The “Social Security 2100 Act,” introduced by Cicilline and Larson in 2015, expands Social Security benefits, cuts taxes for 11 million seniors, provides stronger cost of living adjustments, and requires millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share. The legislative proposal also provides an immediate increase equivalent to 2% of the average benefit for all Social Security recipients. This change is projected to yield an annual increase for the typical retiree of $300.

The Democratic lawmakers Social Security fix also improves the annual cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) formula to reflect the prices of goods and services seniors actually buy – especially housing, health care, and transportation – to ensure that seniors aren’t asked to go without a COLA to protect against inflation. In three of the past seven years, Rhode Island seniors did not receive a COLA as a result of the inadequate formula that is used today.

Finally, the Cicilline-Larson Plan also lifts the cap on payroll taxes for individuals making more than $400,000 each year, requiring the wealthiest 0.4% of Americans to pay the same rate as all other workers. The increased revenue generated as a result will provide a tax cut for 11 million seniors and establish a new minimum benefit so that no one who has worked hard and played by the rules is asked to retire into poverty. Tax relief for Social Security beneficiaries due to an increase in the threshold for taxation of Social Security benefits to $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for joint filers, up from $25,000 and $32,000 respectively.

While current projections indicate that the Social Security Trust Fund will begin generating annual deficits in 2019 and stop paying out full benefits in 2033, the Cicilline-Larson Plan expands the lifeline of Social Security through the end of this century by gradually phasing in an increase in the contribution rate equivalent to 50 cents per week for the average worker.

NCPSSM Gives Thumbs Up

In an endorsement letter, Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), calls the Cicilline-Larson Plan “a bold step on behalf of seniors and all Americans by strengthening and safeguarding Social Security for future beneficiaries while at the same time making important improvements in the adequacy of the benefits the program provides.”

According to Richtman, the “Social Security 2100 Act” strengthens the retirement programs “financial foundations.” He says: “First, it extends the payroll tax to all wages paid to workers that are in excess of $400,000. Over time, the bill would completely eliminate the cap on Social Security payroll taxes. Second, the “Social Security 2100 Act” implements a small,
gradual increase in workers’ and employers’ contributions to Social Security. Because the increase is phased in over a long period of time, the average worker would see his or her annual contributions to the Social Security program increase by about 50 cents per week.”

In this presidential election cycle, Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, sees Democrats making a “big push” to strengthen and expand the Social Security program. “This will not likely happen as long as there is a Republican Congress as many members of the GOP want to cut the future rate of growth of Social Security and increase the retirement age,” he says, predicting that there is a good chance Democrats will get the Senate back.

West adds, “whether the GOP regain control of the House will depend on how big the presidential victory is. If Clinton wins big, she may sweep in enough Democrats to have control of that chamber. In that situation, this legislation has much better prospects. A President Clinton could very well be interested in this proposal and be willing to sign it into law.”

Where’s the Beef?

Political newcomer and GOP challenger H. Russell Taub, calls on Cicilline, his Democratic opponent in the 1st Congressional District race, to not attach new benefits to Social Security, a self-funded program. Taub wonders how new federal expenditures to pay for added Social Security benefits will impact the heavily burdened retirement program.

Taub sees a need to have a “serious public discourse” on the nation’s budget. “When we’ve come to a conclusion lets craft meaningful legislation to get the law to reflect that decision. Let’s not drop flash-in-the-pan, headline grabbing false initiatives just because it’s an election year. Our Constituents in the First District deserve much better than that shabby treatment,” he says.

“AARP Take a Stand volunteers and members of our staff were on hand to listen to what the Congressmen had to say,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Having candidates for office outlining their specific plan for making the necessary changes to preserve Social Security is what Take a Stand is all about. We are not at this time endorsing specific proposals, but we are engaging our members to keep asking for substantive answers. We’ve been saying ‘sound bites aren’t good enough.’ The Congressmen, indeed, go beyond a sound bite by presenting this plan in a public venue open to the media. People deserve to know how the plans will affect our families, what it will cost, and how they’ll get it done.

“Doing nothing is not an option.” Connell continued. “Every time the candidates dodge the question, our families pay the price.

If our nation’s leaders don’t act, future retirees stand to lose up to $10,000 a year. And every year our leaders wait and do nothing, finding a solution grows more and more difficult.”

Rhode Island voters are now able to see Cicilline’s fix for strengthening Social Security and expanding its benefits, detailed in his introduced legislative proposal, “Social Security 2100 Act.” GOP challenger Taub must throw in his two cents for strengthening the nation’s retirement program, but give us the details. Do you favor the GOP approach for privatizing Social Security? What is your position on raising the cap on Social Security payroll contributions to address the retirement program’s projected shortfall? Do you support raising the retirement age? What are your thoughts about slowly increasing the payroll contribution rate by 1/20th of one percent over 20 years to strengthen the program’s financial condition? Or even changing the current COLA formula.

While the presidential candidates put the economy, crime, and national security in the spotlight at their rallies, town meetings and speeches, Social Security receives little coverage. Let the serious debate begin in the Ocean State. Hopefully, this act will spread like wild fire across the country.