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.