GOP Trial Balloon Called “Trojan Horse”

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 16, 2017

In previous years, the GOP leadership, now controlling both chambers of Congress, pushed legislative proposals to eliminate Social Security and Medicare by privatizing these programs. These attempts were clearly visible for all to see. But, we are in new political times with a GOP White House seeking the destruction of these programs, too, but as some say through the back door.

According to an Associated Press story, published on April 10, 2017, as the Trump Administration begins to learn from its failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, tax code reform is now on its agenda. One trial balloon, being floated by a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the Trump Administration, would eliminate the mandated payroll tax that all American workers pay to fund Social Security and Medicare.

“This approach would give a worker earning $60,000 a year an additional $3,720 in take-home pay, a possible win that lawmakers could highlight back in their districts even though it would involve changing the funding mechanism for Social Security, according to a lobbyist, who asked for anonymity to discuss the proposal without disrupting early negotiations,” says Writers Josh Boak and Stephen Ohlemacher in their Associated Press story.

Currently, about 163 million American workers pay Social Security taxes and 59 million retired and/or disabled persons collect monthly benefits. About one family in four receive income from Social Security. The nation’s social insurance and welfare program is a “pay-as-you-go-program.” Today’s workers support the program by paying their taxes into the program and the money flows back out to the program’s current beneficiaries.

GOP Stealth Attack on Social Security

Responding to the GOP trial balloon, in her blog post published last Tuesday on the Huffington Post, a politically liberal American online news web site, Contributor Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works called the GOP trial balloon “a Trojan horse”, noting that “It appears to be a gift, in the form of middle class tax relief, but would, if enacted, lead to the destruction of working Americans’ fundamental economic security.”

If President Trump proposes “the Trojan horse, it would be the newest shot in the ongoing Republican war against Social Security. That war has failed so far. The American people overwhelmingly support Social Security because they appreciate that it provides working families with basic economic security when wages are lost as the result of death, disability, or old age. And it does so extremely efficiently, securely, fairly, and universally,” says Altman in her April 11, 2017 blog post.

According to Altman’s blog posting, after Trump and GOP lawmaker have suffered legislative defeats in their “frontal attacks” against Social Security to eliminate the programs “it appears they are contemplating a “stealth attack instead.” She noted, “In the 1980s, Republicans, who had long tried but failed to cut government programs directly, discovered a new tactic. They realized that they could undermine government and eventually force cuts to spending by cutting taxes and, in their words, starve the beast. Now, Trump is making plans to use that same tactic against Social Security.”

“Not only would the Trump proposal starve Social Security of dedicated revenue, it would ultimately destroy it. Social Security is not a government handout. It is wage insurance that the American people earn, as part of their compensation, and, indeed, pay for with deductions from their pay,” observed Altman.

Altman warns that GOP lobbyist’s proposal to eliminate the payroll tax to fund Social Security is consistent with Trump’s previous actions. “No one should be fooled by Trump’s campaign promise not to cut Social Security. Before he became a candidate, he called it a Ponzi scheme and advocated privatizing it. He chose, as his vice president, Mike Pence, who complained that the Bush privatization proposal didn’t go far enough, fast enough. As President, he has chosen a staunch opponent of Social Security, Mick Muvaney, as his budget director, and another staunch opponent, Tom Price, as Secretary of Health and Human Services (one of Social Security’s trustees.), she said.

In an email urging recipients to sign a petition to protect Social Security’s funding [the payroll tax], Michael Phelan, Deputy Director of Social Security Works noted, “For decades, Republicans in Washington and Wall Street bankers have told us that Social Security is going broke―even though Social Security has a $2.8 trillion surplus and can pay out 100% of benefits for the next 17 years and over 75% of benefits owed after that.” He warns the “Republican’s tax plans might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. By starving Social Security of funding, they could finally receive their wish―replacing Social Security’s guaranteed benefit with unstable Wall Street retirement plans.”

The “Great Wisdom” of a Payroll Contribution Tax

Max Richtman, President & CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, says, “It’s no surprise that the GOP lobbyist who suggested this dangerous idea and remained anonymous. After all, who would want to own up to an idea that would trigger the collapse of the most successful government program in U.S. history?”

Richtman adds, “Peddling this kind of scheme reminds me of President George W. Bush’s 2005 privatization proposal. Only in this case, the risk factor shifts from the uncertainty of Wall Street to benefit cuts that will almost certainly occur when Social Security is forced to compete for government funding with other discretionary programs. There was great wisdom in President Roosevelt’s plan for funding Social Security through a dedicated payroll tax. As President Roosevelt said, ‘We put those payroll contributions there to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions…No damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”

Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, sees an uphill battle to formalize the tax policy to eliminate the payroll contribution to fund Social Security. “I don’t think Trump will be able to eliminate or reduce the Social Security tax because of its dire consequences for the program itself. The program is very popular with the general public and many recipients count it as their sole support. Republicans will get killed if they try to do this. It is not a viable option now or anytime in the near future.”

When Trump releases his tax code reform proposal, aging advocates must remember that the devil is in the details. Read the proposal thoroughly with a fine-tooth comb

Advertisements

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.

Can Our Nation Survive Trump and the GOP’s Control of Capitol Hill?

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 8, 2017

Almost two months ago when GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump trounced his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton and his party took control of both chamber of Congress. Trump’s surprising victory stunned both voters and political commentators and pundits covering the heated presidential race. According to a November 16, 2016 Gallup Poll, 80 percent of Trump’s voters are “excited,” while 76 percent of Clinton’s voters say they are “afraid.” A large majority of the respondents (75 percent) shared one reaction: “surprise.”

Days after the tumultuous election, Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, penned his thoughts about how president-elect Trump might govern the divided nation. His posting, “Four Scenarios for a Trump Presidency,” can be found on the Brooking’s FixGov blog, written on November 14, 2016.

Speculating on Trump’s White House Governance

In his 1,286 word blog, West, an American author, political scientist, pollical commentator who formerly taught political science at Brown University for 26 years, says that Trump might choose to govern as a traditional Republican endorsing tax cuts, deregulation and repealing Obamacare. Like other GOP politicians he would call for reinstituting law and order, fighting ISIS and other extremist militant groups, and controlling illegal immigration from coming into this country. “These typical GOP positions might resolve his philosophical differences on “entitlement reform and free trade,” says West, an author or co-author of 22 books.

Trump just might even turn over the reins of the presidency to Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, says West, these individuals “becoming the de facto prime minister.”

According to West, like president-elect Trump did during the presidential campaign, he might take on the role of a “popular rogue.” A “populist Trump could break conventional political rules and “attack the political establishment to represent the little guy,” notes West’s blog posting.

West also suggests that Trump might ultimately fail as president. After all he lost the popular vote by 2 percentage points or nearly three million votes and alienated women, millennials, minorities and immigrants with his insulting comments. Scandals and disclosures about his personal behavior and continuing concerns about serious financial conflicts of interest could derail his “honeymoon” phase at the beginning of his presidential term and negatively impact his popularity ratings, he says.

West also speculates in his blog that policy backlashes due to millions losing health care coverage by his push to repeal Obamacare, privatizing Medicare or gutting Social Security, a slow-down in the economy or even Trump’s continued liking of Russian President Vladimir Putin, might make him a one term president, like President Jimmy Carter.

Finally, public outcry and violent protest may turn Trump into an authoritarian leader. If this happens West expresses concerns smear campaigns (waged by White House Strategist Steve Bannon), the use of federal agencies to “attack adversaries” and the use of local police to “crack down” on protestors. “Firing top intelligence officials would suggest that Trump wants compliant people who will do his bidding against foreign and domestic adversaries,” he says.

Big Changes with the GOP in Charge

“It is a scary time in American politics,” says West, who expects to see big changes on Capitol Hill in 2017. The Brookings political pundit predicts that a Trump White House with a GOP controlled Congress will tackle large tax cuts, corporate tax reform, repealing Obamacare (but not having anything to replace it with), and reversing the Dodd Frank financial regulation bill. With the Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress he does not expect gridlock during the first six months of the 115th Congress.

West predicts that in the long-run many of the GOP president and Republican Congressional leadership policy initiatives will be problematic. “They are governing as if they have a clear mandate even though they lost the popular vote, he says.

West, like some political observers, expect many of the GOP’s conservative policy proposals to hurt the people who voted for Trump. The tax cuts go disproportionately to the top one percent and proposed changes in Medicare and Medicaid will limit medical care, he said.

“In a couple of years, the economy probably will be much weaker than it is today, which will undermine the very rationale of Trump’s candidacy,” says West, noting that if this happens the newly elected president could have a 30 percent job approval rating by 2018. “Of course, that is when he really will become dangerous! The risk is he may try things to improve his poll numbers, such as identifying scapegoats or confronting adversaries,” warns West.

“GOP Congressional leaders have plans to privatize Medicare and block grant Medicaid to the states. This will impose limitations on medical care and make it more difficulty for needy people to get the help they need,” adds West, who also sees Republicans moving to reduce home care and medical assistance to America’s elderly.

West sees the “GOP legislative initiatives as being very contentious politically, and will reinforce perceptions of the GOP as cold and heartless [to Americans].”

“Democrats will not be able to pass legislation. Their main power will be trying to block things they don’t like or stop nominations at confirmation hearings that they find problematic,” says West, noting that they will be put in a defensive posture. “They will seek to protect certain gains made during the Obama administration. However, Congressional Democratic leadership may well be able to work together on infrastructure investments,” he says.

West believes that Trump’s fix for the economy will not work. “In the longer-run, there is a risk that inflation will go up. Interest rates already have risen in anticipation of this,” he says.

“The market is expecting Trump to spend a lot of money and not be able to corral spending by the same amount. That will increase deficits and drive up inflation. It will be hard to blame this on Democrats since there has been low inflation for years now. It will be pretty obvious that GOP policies are responsible for the rate increases,” West adds.

Democrats Mobilize, Video Sends Message to Congress

As president-elect Trump’s inauguration approaches, President Obama traveled to Capitol Hill last week to urge Congressional Democrats to block the GOP president and the Republican Congressional leadership’s efforts to dismantle Obamacare, the outgoing president’s signature healthcare reform law and to fight their legislative policy initiatives. Behind closed doors Obama urged Democratic lawmakers to not “rescue” the Republicans by passing replacement measures. He suggested calling the GOP’s new plan, “Trumpcare,” to ensure that they are held responsible for any disruptions in health coverage. At press time there seems to be no GOP health care plan to consider.

After Obama’s meeting Democrats lawmakers have begun using the phrase, “Make America Sick Again, tying into Trump’s wildly recognized campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Hollywood is moving to block Trump’s policy initiatives. Almost a week ago documentarian Liz Garbus unveiled her one minute and 49 second video (#StandUpForUS), released by Humanity for Progress, to urge Congress to block any legislative initiatives pushed by Trump and his GOP allies that attack groups he marginalized during last year’s presidential campaign. Celebrities and activists lined up to participate in this video. They included Rosie Perez, Keegan-Michael Key, Tavi Gevinson, Lea Delaria, Sally Field, Steve Buscemi, Zoe Kazan, Jeffrey Wright, and Janet Mock, among others.

“The majority of Americans, regardless of who they voted for, did not vote for racism, for sexism, or for xenophobia. And yet Donald Trump won,” notes the video. At the end of the video, viewers are asked to email the video to members of Congress, as well as to sign a petition on http://www.MoveOn.org, to resist Trump and the GOP agenda,

Stay Tuned

The aftermath of the 2017 presidential election has politically split our nation. Although Trump won the Electoral College, Clinton, the former secretary of state, pulled in over 64 million votes. Even without a clear legislative mandate President-elect Trump and Republican Congressional leadership are moving at a quick pace to make major policy and systemic changes during the first 100 days of the 115th Congress. Democrats are now forced to play the loyal opposition for the next four years and fight against GOP policies rammed through the legislative process. Will GOP legislative fixes push American in the right direction? Or will the nation survive these changes? Stay tuned.

Republicans Begin a Legislative Assault on Social Security

Published in Woonsocket Call on December 11, 2016

With the dust just settling after last month’s heated presidential 2016 election, the GOP took over the White House and maintained control of both chambers of Congress. With almost 40 days left before Obama leaves office, an emboldened GOP calls for the repeal of Obmacare and the privatization of Medicare. That said, fixing Social Security is now on their short list of domestic policies to address.

Last Thursday, the long-anticipated political skirmish over how to reform and ensure the fiscal solvency of Social Security began with Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (TX-03) introducing legislation to drastically overhaul the nation’s most popular social insurance program.

In the Eyes of the Beholder

“For years I’ve talked about the need to fix Social Security so that our children and grandchildren can count on it to be there for them just like it’s there for today’s seniors and individuals with disabilities,” Johnson said in his statement introducing H.R. 6439, the Social Security Reform Act of 2016. “My commonsense plan is the start of a fact-based conversation about how we do just that. I urge my colleagues to also put pen to paper and offer their ideas about how they would save Social Security for generations to come,” he said.

Johnson’s legislative proposal seeks to overhaul the nation’s Social Security program by increasing the retirement age from 67 to 69, this change impacting people born in 1968 who will begin retiring in the mid-2030s. The basic Social Security benefit formula would also become less generous for beneficiaries… except for the poorest beneficiaries. The annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), using a Chained-Weighted CPI, would put the brakes on generous COLA increases. COLA’s would be cut for those earning over $85,000.

Circling the Wagons to Protect Social Security

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi came out swing in a statement after Johnson’s threw his bill into the legislative hopper, charging that it would “inflict deep cuts in Social Security benefits.”

“Apparently nothing upsets House Republicans like the idea of hard-working people getting to enjoy a secure and dignified retirement. While Speaker Ryan sharpens his knives for Medicare, Chairman Johnson’s bill is an alarming sign that Republicans are greedily eying devastating cuts to Americans’ Social Security benefits as well,” Pelosi said.

She warned, “Although current retirees and those close to retirement will receive their Social Security benefits, changes are looming with a Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. For younger generations all benefit cut options are expected to be put on the table.”

Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline calls Johnson’s legislative proposal a “travesty,” warning that it would “destroy Social Security as we know it by slashing the critical benefits that millions of seniors rely on to live their retirement years with dignity.”

According to Cicilline, the last time Republicans tried to eliminate Social Security during the Administration of President George W. Bush, the American people were outraged and rejected it.”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare views Johnson’s Social Security fix legislation introduced as the 114th Congress is wrapping up, “the first salvo in the ‘War on the Working Class.’”

Rep. Johnson will no doubt re-introduce his bill in the next Congress, he predicts.

According to Richtman, Johnson’s legislative proposal cuts Social Security benefits by one third while raising the retirement age from 67 to 69. It seeks to control costs by changing the benefit-computation formula in a way that cuts benefit amounts. Finally, it cuts COLAs, too.

Richtman charges that this Social Security reform proposal would “irreparably harm the nearly 60 million Americans who currently depend on Social Security as well as future beneficiaries.”

“President-elect Trump will have a veto pen. Now is the time for Mr. Trump to re-affirm his campaign promise “not to touch” Social Security and Medicare. So far, he has been uncharacteristically silent on this vital issue. I promise that we will hold him accountable,” says Richtman.

“No one voted for massive cuts to Social Security, nor to end the program as we know it,” says Nancy Altman, founding co-director of Social Security Works, in a response to Johnson’s legislative proposal to radically change Social Security. “The Johnson plan would gradually but inexorably turn Social Security from a program that replaces wages to one that produces essentially one flat benefit, independent of how much a worker contributed,” she says.

“With Republicans in full control of the federal government, these cuts have a real chance of being passed into law. Trump needs to immediately reassure the American people that he will keep his campaign promise and veto this awful bill. He should tweet that immediately,” adds Altman.

The presidential debates and the platforms of the GOP and Democratic party reveal a stark difference as how to each party will fix the ailing Social Security program. Now is not the time to put Social Security on the chopping block. Congress must come together to hammer out bipartisan approaches to ensure the fiscal solvency for the next 100 years. .

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.

 

Gridlock Threatens Elder Programs, Services

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 11, 2013

At press time, this week continued heated partisan bickering on Capitol Hill that threatens to unravel a fragile economy, along with putting the brakes to an economic upturn that slowly was pushing the nation out of its financial doldrums. With this stand-off, a partial shutdown of the federal government continues. The Republican-controlled House, captured by the ultra-right Tea Party, has refused to budge, opposing the passage of a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government agencies past Sept. 30. House Republican leadership has demanded that passage of the CR must be tied to either the repeal or partially dismantling of President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The Democratic President along with a Senate Democratic leadership say no.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a “clean” CR to provide funding through Nov. 15, not putting ACA on the GOP’s chopping block. Even if both legislative chambers sort out differences and hammer out a compromise agreement to open the doors of the federal government, this would not shield the nation from the disastrous impact of the impending second round of sequester cuts and a Oct. 17 deadline for the government to raise the debt ceiling. No action means a first-ever default on the nation’s debt that could send the stock market tumbling and push the nation’s and the world’s economy into a tailspin.

Treasury officials say that congressional deadlock and no action will result in the federal government running out of cash to pay its bills if Congress does not act to raise the nation’s debt ceiling this month.

Get Your House in Order

With the debt crisis looming, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond called on Congressional lawmakers to settle the debt ceiling debate to avoiding default on the nation’s debt, specifically to protect the retirement of seniors and future generations.

In her letter, LeaMond expressed concern that any delay in raising the nation’s debt limit may unnecessarily increase borrowing costs, negatively impact retirement savings accounts and harm the nation’s fragile economy.

“Our members are worried that the benefits they have earned may be cut as part of a deal to reduce the deficit, fund government operations, or increase the debt ceiling, and they are increasingly worried that if there is no agreement very soon, they may not receive their Social Security checks and may lose access to their health care,” noted LeaMond.

Ten days ago, the nation entered a government shutdown, forcing furloughs of 800,000 workers, without pay, and suspending services. The last time this occurred was 17 years ago during the Clinton administration. The Congressional impasse has closed national parks and monuments, federally owned museums, such as the Smithsonian, offices overseas that give visas to foreigners hoping to visit the United States, and even many federal regulatory agencies.

So, how does this impact programs and services for older Americans? Simply put, impact on programs and benefits may vary throughout the federal bureaucracy.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services will furlough over 40,512 of its 78, 198 employees. The largest percentage of these employees comes from “grant-making and employee-intensive agencies,” such as the Administration for Community Living. This federal agency would not be able to fund the Senior Nutrition programs, Native American Nutrition and Supportive Services, Prevention of Elder Abuse and Neglect, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, and Protection and Advocacy for persons with developmental disabilities.

As reported, Social Security checks will be mailed, Medicare and Medicaid benefits will continue to be paid out, because these are considered mandatory programs, not discretionary ones. Benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food Stamps, will continue in October, despite the federal shutdown.

Food Program Takes Budgetary Hit

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Heather Amaral, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island, agrees, noting that her Providence-based nonprofit program, has already lost $70,970 in 2013 federal funds due to last year’s sequestration cuts.

Amaral says that as a result of these cuts, to maintain meal delivery at the same numbers as last year (360,299 meals), she had to reduce menu items that were once offered. “Although the government shutdown doesn’t have an immediate impact on our program, I am concerned that it could lead to additional cuts,” she says, noting that should the shutdown continue until year end, the nonprofit agency will be forced to rely on donations and reserves to maintain service levels.

“We provide a safety check along with each home delivered meal and are often the only contact our client has that day, adds Amaral, who stresses that her program may be the only thing keeping a senior at home. “If we are forced to reduce the number of meals we serve, these people may be forced to live with a family member or enter a nursing home,” she warns.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency will be unable to fund additional payments to public housing authorities, many providing shelter to older Americans. HUD expects the 3,300 Public Housing Authorities it funds to have enough funding to get through the month of October. But, if the shutdown continues, some public housing authorities will not be able to maintain normal operation.

Also, Quarterly formula grants will not go out for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), or the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG).

Nutrition programs serving older adults face a double whammy with no FY14 appropriations and no reauthorization of the Farm Bill. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program expired along with the Farm Bill on Sept. 30. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) requires appropriations to continue operating.

According to well-known Aging Advocate Susan Sweet, this is a partial shutdown that hasn’t really hit aging programs yet. There are funding reductions in programs for older people, but that is due to the sequester, which will have another round of cuts in October, she says.

Sweet predicts that the negative effects of the shutdown itself will become worse with every passing day. For example, there is doubt that veterans benefits and social security will be paid in or after October absent a funding bill. Death benefits, including burial subsidies, have not been paid to the survivors of fallen armed forces members, she notes. Because of the public outcry regarding this outrage, a private charity has stepped up to pay the benefits with the promise of reimbursement when the government re-opens.

“Reduced to its true absurdity, the United States of America has lost the ability to rationally govern,” states Sweet. “The sequester cuts, previously characterized as “cuts for dummies”, have been implemented, we are in a war yet cannot bury our dead from that war, can’t even agree on a temporary fix, and are arguing whether the US should pay its bills or default,” she adds.

“It is perplexing, and we have heard many, many concerns from Rhode Island members, “ said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Since the U.S. government has never failed to meet its financial obligations, we don’t know what payments it could make if the President and Congress fail to reach an agreement.

“One cannot help but wonder what effects this uncertainty has on people – many of whom struggle enough with health and financial issues,” Connell added. “We’re doing whatever we can to urge Congress and the President to act responsibly.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Retooling America’s Manufacturing Sector

Published in Pawtucket Times, February 15, 2013

Over 50 years ago, you could hear the humming of the machines coming from Rhode Island’s factories.  The piercing sound of factory whistles would rip through the surrounding neighborhood, alerting all that a shift was ending and the next would soon begin.  

Weaving cotton into textiles came from mills scattered throughout northern Rhode Island which translated into work opportunities for all.  Traveling from the City of Providence, the CapitalCity to the City of Pawtucket, the birthplace of the nation’s Industrial Revolution, through Central Falls and up through the City of Woonsocket, you will discover that once we were the hub for the manufacturing of fabric for the nation’s second world war effort. For those factories filling three shifts, meant thousands of workers working in these mills, giving them a place to earn an honorable living. Blue collar workers fueled the nation’s economy as they bought homes, automobiles, as well as providing the  resources to send their children to colleges and universities. “Made in America” was a lifestyle and we were proud of it. 

Today, there is silence in many of these mills and for many of them, a new identity as these same factories have been transformed into artist lofts and studios or renovated for condo living.    For those factories still in operation, many of these manufacturers have decreased the number of shifts, thus reducing their workforce and ultimately impacting many of the local small businesses, leading to closures because of lack of customers.  Simply put, it’s the domino affect and the last piece might fall without Congressional action.   

Manufacturing Goes Over Seas

Over this decade, America’s manufacturing sector has crumbled giving way to China and third world countries to pick up the ball.  Drastically lower wages enable Chinese manufacturers to make cheaper goods sold to consumers for less then it would cost for the items to be made by an American-based manufacturing company. Along with lower wages, Chinese manufacturers face less environmental and safety regulations, taxes and have subsidized operational costs.  Imbalanced trade agreements are not favorable to American manufacturers who are losing the “economic race”, thus resulting in a loss of profits and employee lay offs.  Many of the nation’s manufacturers are being forced out of business, permanently closing their doors in cities and towns throughout this nation.       

A shopping trip always leaves me very unsettled about the flood of cheap imported productions into our nation.  Lower price tags on goods made outside of this country are enticing, but how often is quality been sacrificed for price?  We’ve  become a country of ‘mediocraty’ where its “good enough”.  Imported products ultimately impacts America’s children, who are now less likely to experience the prosperity that their parents once achieved because of the country’s manufacturing economy, which has now begun to falter and tilt to a service economy.     

Shelves of big box stores are packed with electronics and appliances, with most of these items stamped “Made in China.” Your local department store filled with discount bins and clothing racks are certainly not immune from this labeling.  The next time you are shopping, examine the country of origin for that product you are holding.  You guessed it, clothing, dishes, pots and pans, picture frames, all made from Chinese manufacturing companies. 

 Manufacturing Plants Sitting Idle

 As America’s manufacturing sector is decimated by the Chinese along with our communities losing higher paying manufacturing jobs, only lower paying service sector jobs will become available to low and middle income Americans. US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011 Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages show that the average Rhode Island manufacturing job pays $50,823 annually and that there are currently 40,341 employees directly related to manufacturing. Six years ago, over 52,000 Rhode Islanders worked in the manufacturing sector.

Currently, cities and towns now see manufacturing plants sitting idle and empty or underutilized, often times reducing their tax base. This continued trend will not allow for a balanced economy.  Rhode Island can ill afford to lose its existing manufacturing base, ultimately thousands of people to the state’s unemployment statistics.

 

 Once upon a time, “Made in America” stamped on products gave the buyer an assurance of quality.  Government recalls protected our citizens from products that might harm or kill.  As we are increasingly aware, “Made in China” does not always ensure quality (such as pharmaceuticals, tooth paste and defective tires) because of poor Chinese governmental oversight.  In 2007, newspapers reported that some exported toys “Made in China” were produced with high levels of lead paint, being sent to tens of thousands of toy stores throughout the nation, putting our nation’s children at risk. At this time, even lack of product quality control even allowed poisoned pet food manufactured by Chinese companies to be shipped to America, killing thousands of cats and dogs.   

 Resuscitating the Nation’s Manufacturing Sector

With the kickoff of the 113th Congressional Session last month, it is crucial that the Democratic and Republican politicians thoroughly debate this nation’s trade policies and come up with viable bipartisan solutions to reenergizing America’s manufacturing sector.

Most importantly, what steps will President Barrack H. Obama working with a divided Congress take to ensure that American well-paying jobs do not vanish in the global economy?   On Tuesday evening, the President, addressing a joint session of Congress, gave us some clues in his State of the Union speech about retooling America’s manufacturing sector. 

Although the President touched on immigration reform and border security, early child education, clean energy technologies, the war in Afghanistan, and confronting gun violence, he called for fixing the nation’s aging infrastructure, along with launching manufacturing hubs, where businesses partner with the Department of Defense and Energy, to create high tech-jobs.  He looked to Congress to create a network of 15 of these hubs to “guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is “Made in America.”   If Congress blocks this economic initiative the defiant President plans to use executive orders to create three hubs on his own.

Meanwhile, redesigning the nation’s high schools to enable graduates to meet the demands of a high-tech economy can only help manufacturing companies, the noted President Obama.  Schools would be rewarded to develop partnerships with colleges and employers to create classes that teach science, technology, engineering and math skills needed by the nation’s manufacturing sector, he said.

In the Ocean State, as part of his ongoing work to jump start Rhode Island’s economy back, U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI)  at North East Knitting Company in Pawtucket, unveiled another version of his Make It In America Manufacturing Act to target federal investment in manufacturing, helping create jobs, generate public-private partnerships, and support small business growth. (This legislative proposal is similar to one that he introduced two years ago.)

“When they’re competing on a level playing field, American workers outperform competitors across the world,” said Cicilline. Noting that Rhode Island’s economy was built on the strength of its manufacturing industry, the Congressman who represents the 1st Congressional District, tapping into feedback from his Ocean State constituents and the Brookings Institution, crafted the legislative proposal to give manufacturer the resources needed to compete successfully, grow jobs, and get the state and national economy moving again.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), has introduced the companion measure in the Senate.  If signed into law, Cicilline’s Make It In America Manufacturing Act would create a competitive incentive grant program, jointly administered through the Departments of Labor and Commerce. States or regional partnerships may apply for the program, and successful applicants will receive grant funds to help implement innovative Manufacturing Enhancement Strategies. 

Meanwhile, funds can be used to create a revolving loan fund, to issue low interest loans to manufacturers, or to provide grants to non-profits, including community colleges, helping manufacturers to address the skills gap that hinders growth in the manufacturing sector.  The loan funds could also be used to increase exports and domestic supply chain opportunities, improve energy efficiency.  Also, the loans could be used to retool and expand existing manufacturing facilities to compete in the 21st century economy.

Seeking a Bipartisan Compromise

The clocks cannot be turned back.  The global economy is here to stay.  Clearly, Congressional gridlock must end by federal lawmakers seeking legislative solutions to making the nation’s manufacturing sector more competitive in a global economy.  Democratic and GOP lawmakers must hammer out bipartisan solutions to enable the nation’s manufacturing companies to fairly compete worldwide and to ensure that trade polices are balanced and fair for all.  

Many of President Obama’s repackaged proposals (reintroduced in his hour long State of the Union speech) and even Cicilline’s manufacturing proposal were derailed in the last Congress in a Republican-controlled House, where GOP Tea Party members practiced anti-compromise politics.  It becomes crucial for the President’s legislative agenda along with Cicilline’s Make It In America Manufacturing Act, to not be bottled up in the House but truly debated.

With the dust settling from November’s elections, the America public has sent both the President and Congress a strong, clear message that is: work together to fix the nation’s sagging economy. Do the people’s work and leave your political bickering outside the House and Senate Chambers.  Compromise and keep manufacturing in America.

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

 

           

            .