GOP House Budget Fray’s Nation’s Safety Net

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 24, 2018

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

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

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

Putting the Wealthy and Powerful Ahead

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

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

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

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

Medicare and Medicaid on Budgetary Chopping Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educate Yourself About the Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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House Budget Committee Plan Calls for Privatization of Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 23, 2017

Over four months ago President Trump released his draconian FY 2018 Budget, now Congress begins to hammer out its budgetary spending plan. Last Wednesday, the House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), sent the Republican drafted budget plan to the House floor for consideration. After a 12-hour markup held in Room 1334 Longworth HOB, the budgetary blueprint passed by a vote of 22 to 14, along party line. Rep. Black’s GOP controlled panel defeated 28 amendments offered by Democrats.

Once the House and Senate pass their budget resolutions, the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees “markup” appropriations bills. The House and Senate vote on appropriations bills and reconcile differences.

Rep. Black says that the GOP FY 2018 Budget Resolution, “Building a Better America,” passed on July 19, will balance the federal budget within 10 years by cutting spending, reforming government and growing the economy. According to the House Budget chair, the recently released budget achieves $ 6.5 trillion in total reduction over 10 years. It sets overall discretionary spending for the fiscal budget at $1.132 trillion ($621.5 billion in defense discretionary spending and $511 billion in non-defense discretionary spending).

The House budget plan is the first step that Republicans must take to begin their efforts to overhaul the nation’s tax code to grow the economy. It also provides increased funding for defense and the building of Trump’s border wall. It also requires food stamp recipients to work for their benefits.

Although the Social Security program is spared, it bars recipients from receiving Social Security Disability Income recipients from also receiving unemployment benefits. But, most worrisome to aging group advocates, the passed House Budget Committee budget makes major cuts to Medicaid, turning the Medicare program into a voucher program. But, Medicare is targeted for major changes.

In the Eyes of the Political Beholder

Upon passage, the House Budget Chair, Rep. Black, said in a statement, “I am proud of the work done by the members of the committee. We’ve spent months reviewing all aspects of the federal government and have put together a plan that will balance the budget, promote economic growth, strengthen our national defense, and make Washington more accountable to taxpayers. Our budget also takes the crucial first step in the reconciliation process to fix our broken tax code and make long overdue mandatory spending cuts and reforms.”

But, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, in a statement expressed a vastly different opinion as to the impact of the panel’s passed budget resolution. “Republicans on the House Budget Committee just approved a budget that the American people do not want and do not deserve from their government. Their budget adopts the worst extremes of the Trump proposal by cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires at the expense of everyone else. It cuts at least $1.5 trillion from Medicare and Medicaid, and puts at risk investments in nearly every national priority, from education and veteran services, to transportation, environmental protections, and medical research. Democrats believe we should be investing in the American people, our economy, and greater opportunity for all, and we will continue to fight against this irresponsible budget when—or if—it is brought to the House floor,” he said.

House Budget Plan Calls for Substantial Changes to Medicare

Medicare takes a huge hit, $ 487 billion over a ten-year period, in the House Budget Committee’s passed FY 2018 Budget, says Paul N. Van De Water, in a blog post on the website of Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The Senior Fellow serving as CBPP’s Director, Policy Futures, says that the budget plan’s changes to Medicare include higher income-related premiums for those making $85,000 and over (twice the amount for couples), limits on malpractice awards, raising Medicare’s eligibility age from 65 to 67, also increasing cost sharing of beneficiaries.

In his posting, Van De Water details the substantial changes made to Medicare, one of the nation’s largest entitlement programs, in the House Budget Committee’s passed budget. He notes, it would “replace Medicare’s guarantee of health coverage with a flat premium support payment or voucher, [starting in 2024] that beneficiaries would use to help buy either private health insurance or a form of traditional Medicare.” Although there are no details in the House Budget Committee’s plan to determine its impact on beneficiaries, he says that most people enrolled in traditional Medicare would pay more with the new changes than under the current law, according to a previous Congressional Budget Office analysis.

NCPSSM Sounds the Alarm About Privatization of Medicare

As the House Budget Committee began its markup of the FY 2018 budget, Max Richtman, President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) warned in a statement that the GOP-controlled panel “is targeting the health and financial well-being of America’s seniors by making another attempt to privatize Medicare.”

“Recent polling indicates that large majorities of Americans across party lines prefer that Medicare be kept the way it is, not to mention that President Trump repeatedly promised to protect the program during the 2016 campaign,” says Richtman.

Richtman says that converting Medicare into a voucher program is an existential threat to the program itself. “Over time, giving seniors vouchers to purchase health insurance would dramatically increase their out of pocket costs since the fixed amount of the voucher is unlikely to keep up with the rising costs of health care,” he says. “And, as healthier seniors choose less costly private plans, sicker and poorer seniors would remain in traditional Medicare, leading to untenable costs, diminished coverage, and an eventual demise of traditional Medicare, plain and simple. Of course, raising the eligibility age to 67 – as the House spending plan also proposes – is a drastic benefit cut.”

Undermining Medicare has been a long-held dream of fiscal conservatives. Their “premium support” proposal is a thinly veiled scheme to allow traditional Medicare to “wither on the vine,” as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once put it,” adds Richtman.

Privatization is being sold as “improving customer choice,” but based on the way current Medicare Advantage plans work, private insurance will continue to offer fewer choices of doctors than traditional Medicare does. If traditional Medicare is allowed to shrink and collapse, true choice will disappear, too, says Richtman.

Stay tuned….

Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.