Social Security, Medicare Are Solvent…at least for Now

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 16, 2017

Just days ago, a released annual federal report, the 2017 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds, says the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs continue to work, are fiscally solvent, but future fixes will be needed to maintain their long-term actuarial balance.

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) annual snap shot of the fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare, two of the nation’s largest entitlement programs, released on July 13, is important to millions of beneficiaries. According to the federal agency, in 2017 over 62 million Americans (retired, disabled and survivors) received income from programs administered by SSA, receiving approximately $955 billion in Social Security benefits.

The Good News

The trustee’s report projects that Social Security will be financially solvent until 2034 (unchanged from last year), after which SSA can pay 77 percent of benefits if there are no changes in the program. The 269-page report also noted that the Medicare Trust Fund for hospital care has sufficient funds to cover its obligations until 2029, one year longer than projected last year, then 88 percent afterward if nothing is done to strengthen the system’s finances

The trustees report says that there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year — and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.

Social Security Administration efficiently manages its entitlement program, says the trustee report. The cost of $6.2 billion to administer to program in 2016 was a very low 0.7 percent of the total agency’s expenditures.

The trustee’s project a 2.2 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security beneficiaries in 2018, the largest increase in years. In addition, Medicare Part B premiums will also remain unchanged next year. Most beneficiaries pay a monthly premium of $134 (this amount increases for those with higher incomes.)

Social Security is “Stable and Healthy for Now”

According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security (NCPSSM), the recently released trustee’s report confirms that the federal entitlement program is “stable and healthy for now,” while acknowledging there will be future challenges if “corrective action is not taken.”

“Forty percent of seniors (and 90 percent unmarried seniors) rely on Social Security for all or most of their income. The average monthly retirement benefit of $1,355 is barely enough to meet basic needs, and the Trustees’ latest projected cost-of-living increase of 2.2 percent will not keep pace with seniors’ true expenses. Under these circumstances, any benefit cuts (including raising the retirement age to 70 as some propose) would be truly painful for our nation’s retirees,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s president and CEO, in a statement responding to the release of the federal report.

“Opponents of Social Security may once again try to use this report as an excuse to cut benefits, including raising the retirement age,” warns Max Richtman. “We must, instead, look to modest and manageable solutions that will keep Social Security solvent well into the future without punishing seniors and disabled Americans,” he says.

Depending on what the final Senate health bill looks like, the legislation could reduce the solvency of Medicare by two years, say Richtman. “The National Committee opposes the GOP health plan and rejects efforts to privatize Medicare. We advocate innovation and continuing efficiencies in the delivery of care, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies used to pay the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual-eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid) – in order to keep Medicare in sound financial health,” he says.

Safeguarding and Expanding Social Security Benefits

In a statement, Richard Fiesta, Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based Alliance of Retired Americans, notes that the Trustees project that the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) trust will be fully solvent until 2028, five years longer than last year’s report. “In light of this data, it makes no sense that the President’s FY 2018 budget seeks to cut Social Security Disability Insurance funding by $63 billion,” he says.

Despite the trustees’ strong report, Fiesta believes that improvements can be made that would benefit all workers and retirees. His organization supports safeguarding and expanding Social Security benefits, providing a more accurate formula for cost-of-living adjustments, and lifting the cap on earnings for the wealthiest Americans.

Fiesta adds, “reining in the prices of prescription drugs would strengthen Medicare for the future and reduce costs to retirees.”

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, in a statement, calls for bipartisan action in Congress and the Trump administration to ensure the strong fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare programs. “Social Security should remain separate from the budget. Medicare can improve if we reduce the overall cost of health care, rather than impose an age tax, and if we lower prescription costs, instead of giving tax breaks to drug and insurance companies,” she says.

Finally, in a statement, Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works, also chairing the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, says that this year’s trustee’s report clearly indicates that the nation can fully afford an expanded Social Security. Altman says that polling continues to show that Americans support expanding the program’s benefits.

Altman believes the Social Security program can solve the nation’s “looming retirement income crisis, the increasing economic squeeze on middle-class families, and the perilous and growing income and wealth inequality.” So, when confronting these challenges, she says, “the question is not how can we afford to expand Social Security, but, rather, how can we afford not to expand it.”

Ensuring the Long-Term Solvency of Social Security

Those nearing retirement or retired will be assured existing Social Security benefits, promises the 2016 Republican Party Platform. “Of the many reforms being proposed, all options should be considered to preserve Social Security. As Republicans, we oppose tax increases and believe in the power of markets to create wealth and to help secure the future of our Social Security system,” says the Platform. Simply put, the GOP opposes the raising of payroll taxes on higher income taxpayers to stabilize or expand Social security and supports privatization, allowing Wall Street to control your Social Security benefits.

On the other hand, last year’s Democratic Party Platform opposed Social Security cuts, privatization or the weakening of the retirement program, along with GOP attempts to raise the retirement age, slash benefits by cutting cost-of-living adjustments, or reducing earned benefits. The Democratic Platform called for taxing people making above $250,000 will bring additional funding into the entitlement program.

Congressional gridlock has not blocked legislation from being introduced to fix the nation’s Social Security program. According to Social Security Works, over 20 Social Security expansion bills have been introduced in the House and Senate since 2015. Recently, the Social Security 2100 Act, introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), has 162 House cosponsors —around 85 percent of all Democratic representatives. Similarly, around 90 percent of Senate Democrats are on record in favor of expanding, not cutting Social Security.

Many consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia notes that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.” With the Social Security and Medicare programs now on firm financial footing, it is now time for Congress to seriously consider legislative actions to ensure the longevity and expansion of these programs. When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2018 elections, we’ll see if Social Security is truly “a third rail.”

We Need Congress to Step Up and Fix Social Security, Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 3, 2016

Expect the nation’s Social Security program to be fully funded for nearly two decades, and Medicare’s solvency to continue courtesy of health care reforms. Social Security beneficiaries may even get a very small .2 percent cost of living (COLA) adjustment next year but will get wacked with a Medicare premium increase. These facts are reported in the recently leased 262 page report issued by the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare funds, transmitted to Congress and President Obama. This is the 76th report issued by the Trustees that financially reviews these two of the nation’s largest entitlement programs.

This 2016 Trustee Report, released on Jun 22, should be of interest to Rhode Island’s retirees who receive checks from Social Security, According to AARP, 153,349 Rhode Islanders received Social Security checks as of the end of 2014. Also, 22 percent of Rhode Island retirees depend on their Social Security check for 90 percent or more of their income. Their average benefit is $1,341 per month.
The Devils in the Details

The recently released 2016 Trustees Report notes there is now $2.81 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $23 billion more than last year and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.

Meanwhile, Social Security remains well-funded. In 2016, as the economy continues to improve, Social Security’s total income is projected to exceed its expenses. In fact, the Trustees estimate that total annual income will exceed program obligations until 2020.

The Trustees say that Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until the year 2034, the same as projected in last year’s Report. After that, Social Security will still have sufficient revenue to pay about 79% of benefits if no changes are made to the program.

Although the Trustees project a .2% Cost of Living Adjustment increase, retirees will be hit with a premium increase next year. Medicare Part B premiums are projected to increase by only a very small amount for about 70 percent of beneficiaries in 2017 from $104.90 to $107.60. The standard monthly premium is projected to increase from $121.80 to $149.00 while the annual deductible is projected to increase from $166 to $204 for all beneficiaries.

The Trustees peg Medicare solvency to the passage of healthcare reform, with the program paying full benefits until 2028, 11 years later than was projected prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act. However, this is two years earlier than projected in 2015.

Congress Must Step to the Plate

Responding to the Social Security Trustees report, recently released report, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, said, “While the Trustees once again report that the combined Old Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance Trust can pay full retirement, survivor and disability benefits for some time, we know that if no action is taken, benefits could be cut by nearly 25 percent in 2034, and families could lose up to $10,000 per year in benefits.”

“Social Security remains a critical part of the fabric of our lives to protect us from both expected and unexpected challenge,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins calls on Presidential candidates and those running for Congress and the Senate to make a commitment to strengthening Social Security and outline their plans for the fix. “Throughout the 2016 election, we’ll continue to push candidates to take action if elected,” she says.

As to Medicare, Jenkins adds, “This year’s Medicare Trustees report reinforces the recent progress that has been made through greater Medicare savings and lower costs per enrollee. The report also highlights the financial challenges that continue to face the Medicare program, which is projected to provide critical health coverage to 64 million Americans by 2020.”

“A typical senior today has an annual income of just under $25,000 and pays roughly one out of every six dollars of this in out-of-pocket health care costs. The more than 55 million older Americans who today depend on Medicare for guaranteed, affordable health coverage simply cannot afford more than they already pay,” says Jenkins.

The Solution Could Be Simple

Jenkins urges Congress to make simple solutions to bring stability to the nation’s Medicare program. She suggests Congress find ways to reduce high prescription drug costs, improve the nation’s health care outcomes, eliminate unnecessary diagnostic testing, curb excess paperwork, and identify waste and fraud in the program.

Adds, Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “What’s likely to be missing in headlines about today’s Social Security Trustees Report is that the program remains well-funded with total income, again, projected to exceed expenses. However, in order to head off a benefit cut in 2034 Washington should embrace the growing movement to lift the payroll tax cap and expand benefits for the millions of seniors struggling to get by on an average $1,300 retirement benefit.

The Trustees also project a tiny .2% cost of living adjustment next year yet Medicare premiums will increase in 2017, says Richtman. “Seniors continue to see their modest Social Security benefits eaten away by growing healthcare costs which illustrates, once again, that the current Social Security COLA formula isn’t accurately measuring seniors’ expenses. Congress needs to adopt a fully developed CPI for the elderly (CPI-E) and begin work on the many Social Security expansion bills now languishing in the House and Senate,” he adds.

This [Trustee’s] report reinforces the importance of ensuring that Social Security and Medicare are preserved and guaranteed, especially for working and middle class Rhode Islanders,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) who is a co-sponsor of the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act. “Reasonable measures, such as raising the cap on high-income contributions, should be considered by Congress to extend the solvency of these programs. I will continue to advocate for commonsense legislation that strengthens benefits for working families and ensures the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare,” he says.

RI. Reps Protect Social Security

Like Cicilline, Rep. Jim Langevin and Democratic Senators Jack Reed (D and Sheldon Whitehouse both view Social Security as an earned benefit and the primary source of income to millions of retirees that must be protected. The Rhode Island Congressional Delegation has fought off Republican efforts to privatize Social Security and have supported legislation to strengthen this program and Medicare.

It is very clear to aging advocates and to the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds that the next President and Congress put political differences aside to make legislative fixes to strengthen and ensure the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare.

The Trustees say this very clearly in their report, “Lawmakers have many policy options that would reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare. Lawmakers should address these financial challenges as soon as possible. Taking action sooner rather than later will permit consideration of a broader range of solutions and provide more time to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare.”

Political compromise will be the way to hammer out Social Security and Medicare reforms. When the dust is settled after the upcoming November president elections hopefully this message was delivered at the ballet box.

And No, We’re Not Talking Pong: New Survey Captures Attitudes and Habits of Older Gamers

Published on June 19, 2016 in Woonsocket Call

Although the millennial generation grew up being surrounded with interactive technology, spending thousands of hours playing video games, baby boomers are technologically plugged in, too. According to a new survey released in the beginning of June by AARP and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 41 million Americans, more than one of every three people over age 50, play video games on a regular basis.

According to Oscar Anderson, AARP Research, “The video game industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. economy with more than $23 billion in sales last year. Innovation present in this industry affects not only entertainment but also business, engineering, health, and education.”

Older Adults and Technology

The 93 page report, Video Games: Attitudes and Habits of Adults Age 50-Plus, found that three-quarters of gamers age 50-plus play weekly, with four in 10 playing daily. Among gamers age 60 and above, 43 percent play video games every day.

Researchers say that the top reason gamers say they play video games is to have fun (26% say this is an extremely important reason and 52% say it is very important). Maintaining mental sharpness also was cited by the survey respondent as an important reason for playing video games.

The researchers also found that a greater proportion of older gamers compared to younger gamers report playing video games weekly or more often (37% of 50-59 year olds compared to 43% of 60-plus say they play every day).

“With the explosion of dynamic, compelling, and diverse content and the growing popularity of online gaming, video games are now an experience shared across generations of Americans,” said Michael D. Gallagher, president and CEO of ESA, which represents the U.S. video game industry in a statement on June 2, 2016 with the release of the survey findings. “As Gen X turns 50 and Millennials raise tech-centric families, participation will only continue to expand just as games continue to evolve.”

The report prepared by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications, explored the attitudes and habits of people age 50 also examining what how and what older gamers play. Older gamers most commonly play on laptops or computers (59 percent), followed closely by phones or mobile devices (57 percent) to play video games. They prefer video games that mimic traditional forms of play; card/tile games (46 percent) and puzzle/logic games (44 percent) are the most popular among older gamers.

Crossing Generational Lines

“Video games have come a long way since the days of Pong. Today’s online video games give people 50-plus fun ways to stay connected with their family and friends through online gaming communities across a variety of devices,” said Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, in her statement. “Video games and apps are truly ageless, offering gamers of all ages—a grandfather as well as his granddaughter—the opportunity to share entertainment and social interactions with one another.”

The study found that Gamers age 50-plus are more likely to be women (40 percent) than men (35 percent). More of the female respondents reported playing games daily (45 percent) than their male counterparts (35 percent). Meanwhile, women (57%) are significantly more likely than men (43%) to say they play more today than they did five years ago.

Additionally, researchers say that card/tile games (46%) and puzzle/logic games (44%), followed distantly by trivia/word/ traditional board video games top the list of respondents’ three favorite types of video games.

In total, 22% of gamers have not made any video game related purchase in the past 6 months. Of the gamers who made purchases, 77% bought for themselves, while 52% bought for others.

Half of older gamers say that learning about new video games and gaming hardware came from sources other than internet websites, with one in six reporting their children and grandchildren influence their choice of games.

With the exception of those who are trained in their jobs, most people 50+ have learned most of that they know about computing from their children and their grandchildren,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “So, it should come as no surprise that plenty of people 50 and over have been exposed to, if not addicted to video games.

Promoting Brain Health and Other Bennies

“Recently, I observed a member playing the online Scrabble game ‘Words With Friends’ on her tablet while waiting for a meeting to start,” Connell added. “She was connected with a grandchild and loving it.

“We know that certain video games promote brain health, which is something we all are hoping to strengthen. And the so-called ‘passive-learning games’ are a way to connect people with useful information.  Just last month, AARP launched the Pop Up! Family Caregiver Game, which challenged players to learn more about valuable resources for family caregivers. Throughout June, you could download the free app and play daily with a chance to win prizes. It was a refreshing way to engage people, provide some fun and spread the word about our organization’s ongoing efforts to support caregivers.”

Researchers are telling us that playing video games can increases social interaction, enhance your mood and improves physical health, social and cognitive functioning. Some games can even improve hand-eye coordination.

AARP’s Video Game study findings indicate that older persons are becoming comfortable with newly emerging technologies. A growing number of baby boomers and seniors are now easily communicating with family and friends on Facebook and other social media, playing video games, streaming movies or even reading digital E-books.

Most important research studies are now looking at gaming and brain functioning are are finding that regularly playing video and internet games just might positively impact your physical and cognitive health and well-being.

As to methodology of AARP’s Video Game study, the online survey took place between March 9 through March 17, 2016, with a nationally representative sample of 2,964 adults age 50 and older (gamers, n=1510; non-gamers, n=1454). For additional details about this newly released report, contact G. Oscar Anderson of AARP Research at GAnderson@aarp.org.

AARP Exec Seeks to Change America’s Perception of Growing Old

Published in Pawtucket Times on March 7, 2016

With the youngest of the aging baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, reaching their fifties, AARP launches a new ad campaign geared at connecting people’s hopes and dreams. According to a statement, this initiative was built on the foundation laid by the 2014 launch of Real Possibilities and “You Don’t Know ‘AARP,’” last month, the nonprofit unveiled its latest ad campaign that shines a spotlight on individuals tackling everything from brain health to new careers, introducing a new meme, “We Hear You.”

As part of AARP’s renewed focus on listening and responding to Americans over age 50, “We Hear You” highlights the many ways the organization celebrates life in extended middle age and helps people turn their dreams into realities. Also new in 2016, the ads feature AARP’s CEO Jo Ann Jenkins delivering the iconic “We Hear You” line to underscore the organization’s genuine commitment to helping baby boomers take control of their lives and their futures.

“We’ve seen Real Possibilities and “You Don’t Know ‘AARP’” really take hold over the last two years,” said AARP Senior Vice President of Brand Integration Barbara Shipley. “Now, we have a chance to add more momentum by putting a human face on the brand. The campaign shows very real people expressing wants and needs in terms of careers, travel, caregiving, brain health and fraud protection. It also introduces Jo Ann and her “We Hear You” message to prove we are in tune with what people are looking for at this time of their life.”

According to AARP, since Jenkins became AARP’s CEO in 2014, she tirelessly advocated for changing outdated beliefs and sparking new solutions so that everyone can live and age as they choose. The advertising campaign echoes many themes from her forthcoming book Disrupt Aging, most notably “own your age.” The book is now available for preorder on Amazon for $15.87 (hardcover). Copies will be available on April 5.

The first of the ads features AARP’s Life Reimagined program and will air during NBC’s primetime all-star tribute to Jim Burrows on Sunday, February 21. The second ad featuring the award-winning AARP the Magazine will air during the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday, February 28. The remaining spots will be rolled out throughout the year.

Redefining How We Grow Old

Next month, AARP/CEO Jo Ann Jenkins releases her new 272 page book, Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age. AARP’s top official suggests it’s time to redefine what it means to grow old in America. Throughout its pages the Northern Virginia resident encourages readers to re-think the negative stories they consistently tell themselves and others, urging them to come together to change both the conversation about aging and its reality. While sharing these ideas with others, and meeting fearless people working to change what it means to age in America, Jo Ann was inspired to write her book.

Jenkins’s life experience and affiliation with AARP, the nation’s largest aging organization representing over 38 million members, brings her the needed life experiences to pen this tome. She is the chief executive officer of AARP. Previously, she served as its COO and, before that, president of AARP Foundation, AARP’s affiliated charity. Before joining AARP, she was the COO of the Library of Congress. She has received the Library of Congress Distinguished Service Award and in 2015 was named Influencer of the Year by the Nonprofit Times.
“60 Is Not the New 40.”

Jenkins notes that everyone has watched ads on TV or seen and in magazines—”50 is the new 30″ or “60 is the new 40.” AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins disagrees. 50 is 50, and she, for one, likes the look of it. In her highly focused but down-to-earth personal style, Jenkins says Disrupt Aging is not about defying aging or denying aging. It’s about “owning” your age.

In Disrupt Aging, Jenkins focuses on three core areas—health, wealth, and self—to show people how to embrace opportunities and change the way society looks at getting older. Here, she chronicles her own journey and that of others who are making their mark as disruptors to show readers how we can be active, healthy, and happy as we get older. Through engaging narrative, she touches on all the important issues facing people over age 50 today, from caregiving and mindful living to building age-friendly communities and making our money last.

Disrupt Aging provides readers practical, hands-on, highly useful information for a broad range of key issues, including: Taking Control of Your Health; Choosing Where You Live – or Want to Live; Financing Your Future; and Putting Your Experience to Work.

In Praise of…

Jenkins’s philosophy on aging has touched a chord with a number of aging experts and prominent persons who give their thumbs up to the project.

Arianna Huffington, cofounder, president, and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, says “Jo Ann Jenkins doesn’t just challenge the stereotypes of aging, she reduces them to rubble, showing that our later years can be just as productive, meaningful, and purposeful as our primary working years. Disrupt Aging is for anyone who insists on living a life of connection, engagement, expansion, and possibility—at any age.”

“Jo Ann Jenkins’s Disrupt Aging is spot-on: every single year is a gift. By confronting the most common stereotypes about aging, this book will help us all live each year to the fullest,” adds Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and founder of LeanIn.Org.

Even Jeff Gordon, four-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion throws in his two cents about Disrupt Aging. . “Jo Ann Jenkins believes that age and experience can expand life’s possibilities for all of us. In this personal and thought-provoking book, she inspires us to seize the opportunities that longer lives give us and to embrace aging as something to look forward to, not something to fear.” Adds, Dan Marino, former NFL Quarterback, “In Disrupt Aging, Jo Ann Jenkins lays out a game plan for living your best life regardless of your age.”

Jenkins says that her book is for anyone who wants to continue exploring new possibilities in their later years, to celebrate new discoveries over declines, and to seek out new opportunities to live the best life there is. To order Disrupt Aging, go to http://www.amazon.com.

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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.