New Budget Deal Protects Seniors’ Pocketbooks

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 1, 2015

Just days after a Republican-controlled House passed legislation with a vote of 266-167 to prevent the U.S. government from going into default on its debt obligations on Nov. 3, also averting a potential federal government shutdown next month, on Friday, Oct.30, the Republican-led upper chamber followed suit.  Just after 3:00 a.m., the Senate voted 64-35 to approve a two-year bipartisan budget plan sending the bill to President Obama for his signature.

Before Friday’s Senate vote, on Thursday afternoon GOP Presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)’s 20 minute filibuster fizzled, with Senate leadership moving forward for the budget bills consideration.  The measure had strong support for passage.  Retiring House GOP Speaker John Boehner with Congressional leaders from both political parties and President Barack Obama pulled together, putting aside differences, to craft the bill.

.           Before the companion legislation was taken up by the House and Senate, in a statement AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, representing 38 million baby boomers and seniors, called on Congressional leaders and their members to support the bipartisan agreement, one that financially protect older Americans.   Jenkins detailed a number of provisions within the 144 page bill that would “reduce skyrocketing Medicare Part B premiums and alleviate the challenges faced by the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Trust Fund.”

Rhode Island Lawmakers Give Thumbs Up

U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), called the bipartisan budget agreement “a credible compromise,” noting that “It is only a two-year patch, but it puts us on a much better path forward.   Reed, who sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, called on the House and Senate Appropriations committees to “quickly reach consensus and produce a detailed omnibus spending package by the Dec. 11 deadline.”

“This budget deal will provide much-need relief from harmful sequester cuts and give the nation a measure of certainly we have lacked amid the patchwork of stop-gap spending bills in recent years,” added U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Whitehouse noted the bipartisan budget deal provides “much-needed relief from harmful sequester cuts and gives the nation a measure of certainty it has “lacked amid the patchwork of stop-gap spending bills passed in recent years.”

With 37,000 Rhode Islander’s relying on the SSDI program it was easy for Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) to support the bipartisan compromise budget plan because it “prevents a 20 percent cut to SSDI benefits and extends the solvency of this critical program an additional seven years, as well as protecting thousands of Rhode Island seniors from an increase in their Medicare premiums.”

“We need to do more to protect Social Security benefits for seniors, ensure cost-of-living adjustments are calculated in a way that accounts for their needs, and lift the cap on payroll taxes so millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share,” said Rhode Island’s Democratic Congressman.

On the side line, aging advocates were also closely watching the action in both chambers, too.  “We are glad that the Budget passed by Congress this week lets people who rely on Medicare breathe a bit easier – knowing their premiums and deducible will not skyrocket next year,” said Judith Stein, founder and executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “However, we still have concerns about the way in which the Part B cost-sharing resolution is paid for, and concerns about the expenses underlying the original Part B increases.”

“The Center continues to urge law-makers to join Congressman Courtney (CT-2) in asking Secretary Burwell to investigate and fix the underlying reasons for the huge increase in Part B costs,” said Stein. “Much of the increase seems to come from parallel increases in billing inpatient hospital care to Part B – which was never meant to pay for such care – through the use of so-called ‘outpatient’ Observation Status.”

Older Americans Protected by Enacted Budget Plan

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 would raise the nation’s debt ceiling through March 2017, allowing the government to borrow to pay its debt. During these two years it allow Congressional lawmakers to lift budget caps for defense and domestic programs by $80 billion.

The passed budget plan derails a 52 percent Medicare Part B premium increase to 30 percent of beneficiaries, which would have hit millions of seniors in their wallets next year. Similarly, the deductible was projected to increase for these individuals to $223 next year.  But thanks to the budget agreement passed this week, the deductible will instead have a more modest increase from the current amount of $147 to approximately $167.

A general fund loan to the Medicare trust fund lessens the premium and deducible increases. Beneficiaries will repay this loan by a $3 per month premium surcharge over a five-year period.

According to the enacted budget plan, next year, only the 30 percent of the beneficiaries hit by the premium increase would pay this $3 premium surcharge.  In 2017 and beyond, all Medicare beneficiaries not subject to the hold harmless provision in a given year would pay a $3 monthly surcharge theoretically until the general fund loan is repaid..

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is expected to announce final premiums for 2016 by the beginning of November.

Keeping SSDI Afloat

The enacted budget plan also prevents a 20 percent cut in Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits that would have occurred in late 2016 impacting 11 million recipients nationwide.  The enacted law now ensures at least 7 years of certainty that SSDI will pay full benefits.  Now, the passed budget measure “reallocates” a small percentage of the Social Security payroll tax to the SSDI program.  This has occurred 11 times.  But, GOP lawmakers have blocked recent efforts to transfer funds as a bargaining chip to force Congress and the Obama Administration to make cuts to Social Security benefits.

The new law would also tightens up the SSDI review process by requiring a physician or psychologist to review applications before a decision is made.  It ensures that application reviews are uniform nationally.  Finally, it requires the Social Security Administration to reject medical evidence presented in a disability application that was provided by “unlicensed” or “unsanctioned” physicians.

It also attacks Social Security fraud and abuse by providing additional funding to contact case reviews ensuring the applicants are entitled to the benefits, improves the fraud-fighting capacity of the SSA’s Office of Inspector General and increases penalties for those physicians, lawyers, translators who perpetuate fraud.

Finally, the bipartisan budget agreement closes loopholes in the current SSA law that allows higher-income recipients to exploit the rules for applying for benefits, with the goal of receiving large pension checks than Congress intended, and which most retirees are able to receive.

The savings made in the Social Security and SSDI programs remain in the Social Security trust funds and can only be used to pay for future benefits.

With Representative Paul D. Ryan now becoming the 62nd speaker of the House, the nation waits to see if the Wisconsin lawmaker has the special political skills to rein in the ultra-conservative wing of his party.  With only 374 days before the upcoming 2016  presidential and congressional elections America’s federal lawmakers must begin to work together to craft laws that will enhance the quality of life of the nation’s retirees.  Compromise is not a dirty word to those residing outside the Washington, DC beltway.  Gridlock is.

Advertisements

“Doc Fix” Law Brings Permanent Changes to Medicare Physician Payments

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 19, 2015

Congress put aside its fierce partisan bickering and came together to pass H.R. 2 – the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA). This week President Obama took the opportunity to sign the legislation package into law.

The Congressional fix repeals and replaces the flawed Medicare physician reimbursement system known as the sustainable growth rate or Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR). For the past 13 years, physicians have faced the possibility of an arbitrary cut in their Medicare payments unless Congressional lawmakers passed a so-called “Doc.fix” Medicare bill. Since 2003, Congress has passed 17 short-term bills to block these cuts in Medicare doctors’ fees that were called for under the existing law.

On April 14, the U.S. Senate passed the MACRA by a whopping 92 to 8 (the House passing its version of the bill in late March by a large margin, 392-37). Two days later, at an outdoor signing ceremony in the Rose Garden, President Obama signed the legislation into law, with the House bill brokers, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in attendance. .

A Permanent Fix Prevents Payment Cuts

Just hours before a cut in reimbursement that would take place this week, a rare bipartisan Congressional effort prevented a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to occur. It’s a permanent fix. And the new law extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which has provided coverage to millions of American children.

At the signing, Obama called the passage “a milestone for physicians, and for the seniors and people with disabilities who rely on Medicare for their health care needs,” noting that it would also strengthen the nation’s health care delivery system for the long run.

Obama stated this new law “creates incentives to encourage physicians to participate in new, innovative payment models that could further reduce the growth in Medicare spending while preserving access to care.”

According to the Center for Medicare Advocacy (CMA), a national nonprofit, nonpartisan law group that provides education, advocacy and legal assistance to older people and people with disabilities, the estimated cost of the new law is roughly $214 billion over 10 years. CMA says roughly half (approximately $35 of the total $70 billion over 10 years) will come from Medicare beneficiaries through changes that will increase their out-of-pocket costs for health care.(through means testing of higher-income Medicare beneficiaries, increased Part B premiums, and added deductibles to Medigap plans purchased in the future.”

CMA adds that the nation’s pharmaceutical and insurance industries were not required to pay for any of this law, although doing so would have paid for a major portion of the SGR replacement.

On the Back of Medicare Beneficiaries

Aging advocacy groups, including the Center for Medicare Advocacy and AARP, failed in their attempts to improve the Senate bill Medicare beneficiaries, including a repeal of the annual therapy caps, raising eligibility standards for low-income programs and permanently extending outreach and education funding for critical programs aimed at low-income beneficiaries. The Senate bill passed without amendments.

While many gave thumbs up to the new law, Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC –based National Committee to Preserve Medicare and Medicaid, sees big problems with MACRA. “The Senate ‘Doc Fix’ vote has traded one bad policy for another, shifting the costs of Congress’ failed Medicare payment formula for physicians to seniors who can least afford to foot that bill. Contrary to claims by supporters, on both sides of the aisle, this ‘doc fix’ will hit millions of seniors who aren’t ‘wealthy’ by any stretch of the imagination. Seniors at all income levels who are already paying steep premiums for Medigap plans to help control their health care costs will now be hit with even higher costs. Forty-six percent of all Medigap policy holders have incomes of $30,000 or less.”

Richtman added, “Medicare beneficiaries will also be forced to contribute nearly $60 billion in premiums over the next decade thanks to passage of this so-called ‘fix.’

It’s no surprise that conservatives applaud this legislation as ‘the first real entitlement reform in two decades’ because it fulfills their political goal of shifting costs to seniors, cutting benefits and expanding means-testing to push Medicare further and further away from being the earned benefit seniors have long valued and depended on.”.

“Trading a bad deal for doctors for a bad deal for seniors is not a legislative victory and it is a surprising move from so many in Congress who have previously vowed to protect Medicare from harmful benefit cuts and seniors from cost-shifting,” says Richtman. .

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins also expressed strong disappointment in the Senate not passing an amendment that would have removed Medicare’s arbitrary cap on physical therapy, speech language pathology, and occupational services. “Many Medicare patients, particularly stroke victims and people with Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis would have benefited,” says Jenkins. With a majority of the Senate agreeing with this amendment, Jenkins says that AARP will continue to lobby to remove the arbitrary coverage cap.

But, Jenkins sees the positives. “Passage of MACRA moves Medicare in the right direction toward better quality health care and greater transparency for patients. These changes will benefit Medicare beneficiaries, as well as physicians and other providers, hospitals, and the overall health care system,” she says.
.
Through the enactment of MACRA Congress put aside its political differences that made a permanent fix to a flawed law. If you can do it once, let’s see our lawmaker do this again, to provide improved programs and services to our nation’s older population.

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

Poll Calls Upon Congress to do “the people’s work”

Published in the Pawtucket Times, January 10, 2014

Four months ago, public anger reached a boiling point when the Republican-led House, controlled by its minority faction of Tea Party members, and the Democratic majority in the Senate failed to agree to an appropriations continuing resolution.
As a result of this budget impasse, a 16 day federal shutdown forced the furlough of 800,000 federal employees and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates.

Public polls at that time blamed the GOP for turning its back on the nation by putting partisan politics first rather than doing the People’s business.” The popularity of Congress sank to a new historic low with heated partisan conflict echoing throughout the hallways of Congress.

Hammering Out an 11th Hour Deal

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) with the blessings of conservative groups, including the Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, Freedom Works, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, forcefully pushed House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to offer continuing resolutions not acceptable to President Obama and Congressional Democrats to politically force a delay or to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (called “Obamacare”). Strong GOP opposition, spearheaded by Tea Party lawmakers, to raising the nation’s debt ceiling almost forced the government to run out of money to pay its bills.

After weeks of intense political bickering, Congress finally hammered out a political compromise, one that would open the doors of government, but also raise the debt ceiling to keep the nation from free-falling off the fiscal cliff. A failure to raise the debt ceiling could have resulted in the nation’s credit rating being downgraded. If this occurred, average Americans might have seen higher interest rates for mortgages, car loans, student loans and even credit cards. Higher business expenses, due to expensive borrowing rates, might have forced businesses to stop hiring or even to lay off employees. Housing prices might have drop and retail sales slow. The 11th hour compromise kept the American tax payer and business community from taking a huge hit in their pocketbook.

Although Cruz and Tea Party lawmakers in both chambers viewed shutting down the federal government and not raising the debt ceiling as a way to put excess government spending on the chopping block economy, there was economic damage. According to the economists at Standard & Poors, the total cost of the political gridlock to the nation’s economy that occurred before Christmas was estimated to be $24 billion.
Americans Lack Confidence in Congress

With the new Congressional session beginning this month, a new national poll released last week by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs reveals that few Americans have faith in the current political status with Congress receiving low marks on its performance of upholding the views of most Americans while only 9 percent say it is doing a good job.

According to the poll that comes months after the first government shutdown in 17 years, 70 percent lack confidence in the federal government’s ability “to make progress on important issues facing the nation in 2014.”

However, the poll findings indicate that the respondents have a little bit more faith in their local and state governments, with 45 percent saying that they are at least moderately confident in their state government and 54 percent having at least moderate confidence with elected officials at the local level.

The federal government receives low marks on its performance. For instance, 55 percent believe the government is doing a poor job of representing the views of most Americans while only 9 percent say it’s doing a good job.

Meanwhile, the poll’s results find Americans are more pessimistic than optimistic on matters such as the nation’s ability to produce strong leaders, America’s role as a global leader, and the opportunity to achieve the American dream.

The People’s preferred agenda for the government in 2014 includes a diverse set of policy issues that range from economic problems to social policies to foreign affairs, notes the poll. Health care reform tops their list of priorities, mentioned by 52 percent of respondents as one of the top ten problems, followed by unemployment (42 percent), the economy in general (39 percent), and the federal deficit (31 percent).

“While it is very easy to ask people to choose a single ‘most important problem’ and to build a list for the answers, the reality is that government has to address many issues at the same time,” said Trevor Tompson, director of the AP-NORC Center. “This survey, with data about the public’s priorities on a range of policy issues, provides policy makers with rigorous data as they seek to understand the public’s outlook on where the country is now and what the action agenda should be for the year ahead.”

Wendy Schiller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University, notes that the AP-NORC poll reveals “broader concerns expressed in national opinion polls, and by the average Rhode Islander “that our country seems to be slipping on lots of levels.”

Schiller, a frequent guest on Rhode Island PBS’s “A Lively Experiment,” notes that aging baby boomers and seniors worry about issues facing the younger generations, personal debt resulting from student loans to national debt. On the other hand, “Younger folks worry about how they will take care of their parents and grandparents, as well as providing for their own retirement,” she says.

“In a state like Rhode Island, which has such a strong family centered culture, these issues weigh heavily on almost everyone’s minds,” observes Schiller.

One of the poll’s positive findings was that the respondents did not cite healthcare for seniors as a pressing issue even though they did express concern over Social Security and health care reform, adds Schiller. “Preserving Medicare is as important, if not more, to the physical and financial well-being of seniors, so I found it striking that it was not as large a concern [as other issues].”

The polls negative findings of a distrust of government, rather than just a disappointment, concerns Schiller, noting that “Democracies do not fare well when the people lose faith in their government.”

As indicated by the poll, Schiller believes that Rhode Island state elected officials are viewed more positively by voters than those serving in Congress. But, 2014 will be a challenging year for them, especially with issues like the 38 Studios debacle, pension reform issues, and Rhode Island job growth. Schiller believes that “If the General Assembly can increase the trend towards greater transparency and accountability, than they might be able to reverse the downward slide of public faith in government.”

As noted in the poll, “public opinion about Congress is at an all-time low,” says Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “People are disenchanted with the hyper-partisanship in Washington, D.C., and the inability of congressional leaders to address major policy problems, he says, noting that the government shutdown was very disturbing to mainstream and people now worry about Congress getting anything done.

West, a former Brown University professor and a prominent Rhode Island political commentator, does not see a major resurgence of bipartisanship in this Congress.
“The parties have incentives to highlight their differences rather than compromise their principles. That will make it difficult for the parties to work together, he says.

But West sees an indicator that the GOP might move away from its ties to the Tea Party that put a damper on reaching across the aisle to get the people’s work done. “The only promising sign is Speaker Boehner’s declaration of independence from the right-wing. A month ago, Boehner criticized outside conservative groups and said they had lost all credibility. If he really believes that, it may embolden him to work on immigration reform and pass needed legislation”, says West.

Because of the complexity of today’s domestic and foreign policy, the People want and need their elected officials to quit this partisan bickering and join together to solve the enormous problems that face the nation, warns well-know Rhode Island activist, Susan Sweet, a keen watcher of state, national, and global politics. “Without the political will to stand together and strengthen the People of America, this great experiment in democracy could decline and fall,” she says.

The AP-NORC national poll was conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research from Dec. 12-16, 2013, with 1,141 adults. Additional information about how the survey was conducted, including the survey report and the survey’s complete topline findings can be found on the AP-NORC Center’s website at http://www.apnorc.org.

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