Three GOP Senators Derail ‘Skinny’ Repeal Maneuvers

Published in the Woonsocket Call on July 30, 2017

After seven years of vowing to repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, nicknamed Obamacare, Congressional GOP efforts went down in flames on Friday when Sens. John McCain, of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, voted nay in supporting the Senate Republican’s “skinny” repeal bill.

Sen. McCain, giving his no vote with a thumb down gesture, left Republican Senators gasping and Democratic Senators clapping. The 80-year old Arizona Senator, recently diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer, had flown back to vote. The Senator’s vote was considered the decisive vote to derail the GOP’s long-time efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Senate Republicans Begin Efforts to Repeal Obamacare

On July 25, GOP leadership began its efforts to begin debate on the Senate health care bill to repeal AHA. On that Tuesday afternoon, the Senate passed a “motion to proceed” vote by 51-50, the deciding vote being cast by Vice President Mike Pence. The votes outcome allowed the upper chamber to begin debate on the Senate Republican’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace proposal. Sens. Collins and Murkowski had opposed this motion, but McCain, returning to Washington, D.C. after being diagnosed with brain cancer, voted yes to proceed with the debate.

Senators began a 20- hour period of debate, considering various amendments to the House version of the health care bill. By a vote of 43 to 57, the Senate rejected one version that included Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) controversial amendment that would have allowed those with pre-existing conditions to be separated into plans with much higher premiums. The Senate also rejected, by a vote of 45 to 55, another version that would have repealed the ACA with no replacement but with a two-year delay, giving GOP senators more time to create their replacement.

Late Thursday evening, GOP Senate leadership finally unveil its expected “skinny” repeal bill, formally called the Health Care Freedom Act, that would repeal ACA’s individual and employer mandates, temporarily repeal the medical device tax, and give states more flexibility to allow insurance that doesn’t comply with Obamacare regulations.

CBO’s analysis of the “skinny” repeal bill, estimated that 15 million more people would be uninsured next year than under Obamacare, with 16 million more in 2026, and that premiums would increase 20 percent next year, compared to current law.

Earlier that day, Sen. McCain and Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, held a news conference threatening to oppose the “skinny” repeal bill if the House Speaker did not offer sound guarantees that the House would enter negotiations after the Senate passed it. They feared that the House would end up passing “the skinny bill” rather than a more comprehensive bill hammered out in conference committee.

Ryan’s carefully crafted statement to the concerned Senators that the House would be willing to go to a conference committee did not include a specific guarantee that the House would not vote on the Senate’s proposal. Both Graham and Johnson went on to vote for the legislation. But, after his surprising vote it seems that McCain still had his concerns.

Before the Senate vote, President Trump even tweeted his displeasure of Murkowski’s opposition, her no vote against debating Obamacare repeal, says the Alaska Dispatch News. The state’s daily newspaper reported that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called the state’s Senators, Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, to inform them that Murkowski’s vote would “put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy.”

After Zinke’s call, “Murkowski, who chairs the Senate and Natural Resources Committee, sent a message back to the Interior Secretary and Trump. Overseeing the agencies confirmation process, a committee hearing on nominations to the Interior and Energy departments, was “postponed indefinitely” with no reason given, stated the Alaska Dispatch News.

Finally, early Friday, by a vote of 49-51, Senate Republicans failed to repeal Obamacare with three Republican senators — McCain, Collins and Murkowski – joining 48 Democrats to vote against the “skinny” repeal bill. Sen. McCain’s reputation as a political maverick was evident when he voted against GOP Senate leadership. But, this vote will be considered his political legacy.

A Sigh of Relief

Reacting to the defeat of the Senate’s ‘skinny’ repeal bill, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement, called the vote “a victory for Americans age 50-plus.”

“The ‘skinny’ bill the Senate defeated would have dramatically increased health care costs, caused millions to lose their health coverage, and destabilized the insurance market,” says LeaMond.” She also thanked Senators Collins, McCain, and Murkowski, Senate Democrats and Independents who “called, emailed, rallied and wrote to object to this seriously flawed bill.”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security, in a statement stated, “Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain were under extreme pressure from the White House and their colleagues to vote with the party instead of voting for the American people. It’s important to applaud them for stopping this train wreck of a healthcare bill. We have to wonder, however, why other Senators were willing to put their constituents at risk by cutting off their healthcare coverage.”

“We urge the majority party to put raw politics aside and work with Democrats to improve the Affordable Care Act in a way that benefits millions of American families in both blue states and red states. Let’s move forward, not back,” said Richtman.

A Bipartisan Approach

President Trump and Congress must finally listen to listen to their constituents to create policies to bring health care coverage to those in need. It is time to put politics aside and work in a bipartisan manner to hammer out a viable solution to provide affordable health care insurance to millions of Americans without coverage. McCain, Collins, and Murkowski, did just that when they resisted their party’s pressure to vote their own personal conscience not party line. They believed that the bill they voted against would do more harm than good.

Obamacare can be reworked to become more cost effective and to provide more health insurance to those in need of coverage. A recently released USA Today/Suffolk University poll at the end of June says that “just 12 percent of Americans support the Senate Republican health care plan. But, “a 53 percent majority say Congress should either leave the law known as Obamacare alone or work to fix its problems while keeping its framework intact.”

The majority of America says keep Obamacare, but make it better. Hopefully, lawmakers will listen.

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.

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.”

Senate Health Bill Vote Expected Next Week

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 25, 2017

The long-awaited Senate health bill text crafted by a group of 13 GOP senators (all male) appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to replace and repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act of 2017 (ACA), popularly, called Obamacare, was unveiled days ago. Republican lawmakers have worked for over seven years to dismantle the Democratic president’s landmark health care law. Supporters say that ACA brought health care coverage to an estimated 20 million Americans, covered between marketplace, Medicaid expansion, young adults staying on their parent’s plan, and other coverage provisions. Critics charge that Obamacare imposed too many costs to business owners.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats lashed out at GOP Senate leadership charging that the Senate health bill, titled “Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017,” was written behind closed doors without a single committee hearing being held or draft bill text being circulated to the public. Some Republican senators also expressed frustration for not seeing the details of the GOP bill before its release on June 22, 2017.

Like Senate Democrats, Health and Human Secretary Tom Price was left in the dark, too. At a Senate hearing before the release of the Senate bill the Trump Administration’s top health official stated that he had not seen any legislative language.

Senate Health Bill “Meaner” than House Version

Despite President Trump’s campaign pledge not to touch popular entitlement programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, he strongly endorsed the House Republican passed health bill, the American Health Care Act of 2017 (AHCA). At the eleventh hour, Trump twisted the arms of reluctant GOOP House members to gain their support of the controversial health care bill. Celebrating the passage of AHCA at the White House Rose garden, the president told the attending Republican lawmakers and guests that the GOP health bill was a “great plan,” adding that it was “very, very, incredibly well-crafted.” It was reported weeks later, after a closed-door luncheon with 15 Republican Senators, Trump had called AHCA “mean” and urged the attending Senators make their legislative proposal “more generous.”

With the release of the Senate health bill, Senate Minority Leader Schumer called the bill “meaner” than the House passed version, stressing its negative impact was far worse than AHCA. Trump called the House health bill “mean.” Schumer views the Senate’s version “meaner.”

GOP Senate leadership is pressing for a floor vote before the upcoming July 4th Congressional recess. To meet this deadline, this vote must take place by the end of next week, either Thursday or Friday, after 20 hours of debate. Early next week the Congressional Budget Office will release its score, detailing cost and coverage impact, on the Senate health bill. Moderate Republican senators might just be influenced not to vote for the bill if reduces health coverage for millions of Americans.

It usually takes 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate. But, GOP Senate leadership is using a technical parliamentary procedure, referred to as reconciliation, to allow the Senate health bill to pass with only 50 votes, including the Vice President as a tiebreaker.

At press time, there are four conservative senators (Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin) and one moderate senator (Dean Heller of Nevada)., who have publicly expressed their opposition to the Senate health bill. With all Democratic and Independent senators in their caucus opposing passage of the bill, GOP Senate leadership can only afford the defection of two Republican senators if they want their bill to pass.

Meanwhile, a 100-year old organization, Planned Parenthood, is gearing up to fight a provision of the Senate health bill that would cut $555 million in funding. Two moderate GOP Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are on the fence voting for the bill if cuts are made to Planned Parenthood.

Aging Groups See Writing on Wall if Senate Passes Health Bill

The released 142-page GOP Senate health bill, written hastily behind closed doors, will overhaul the nation’s health care system, impacting on one-sixth of the nation’s economy. Dozens of aging, health care and medical groups, including AARP, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the American Medical Association, and the American Hospital Association, are voicing their strong opposition to the GOP Senate’s health care fix.

And this list keeps growing as next week’s Senate vote approaches.

The Washington, DC-based AARP, representing a whopping 38 million members, vows to hold GOP Senators accountable for a bill that hurts older Americans. The nonprofit group charges that “the legislation imposes an “Age Tax” on older adults – increasing health care premiums and reducing tax credits [that made insurance more affordable under Obamacare], makes cuts to both Medicaid funding, and yet gives billions of dollars in take breaks to drug and insurance companies.”

“AARP is also deeply concerned that the Senate bill cuts Medicaid funding that would strip health coverage from millions of low-income and vulnerable Americans who depend on the coverage, including 17 million poor seniors and children and adults with disabilities. The proposed Medicaid cuts would leave millions, including our most vulnerable seniors, at risk of losing the care they need and erode seniors’ ability to live in their homes and communities,” says
AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement.

“The Senate bill also cuts funding for Medicare which weakens the programs ability to pay benefits and leaves the door wide open to benefit cuts and Medicare vouchers. AARP has long opposed proposals that cut benefits or weaken Medicare, adds LeaMond.

LeaMond says, “As we did with all 435 Members of the House of Representatives, AARP will also hold all 100 Senators accountable for their votes on this harmful health care bill. Our members care deeply about their health care and have told us repeatedly that they want to know where their elected officials stand. We strongly urge the Senate to reject this bill.”

Another Washington-DC based organization, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group whose mission is to protect Social Security and Medicare, issued a stinging statement criticizing the Senate health bill.

“The Senate’s version of AHCA is an exercise in political expediency that does nothing to safeguard access to quality healthcare for older Americans. President Trump rightly called the House-passed bill ‘mean’ and lacking ‘heart.’ Unfortunately, the Senate bill is only marginally less mean in some ways, and even more heartless in others, says Max Richtman, President & CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Adds, Richtman, “The Senate health bill is “a lose-lose for seniors and the American people. The biggest loss is that the AHCA ends the Medicaid program as we know it. Astoundingly, the Senate bill makes even deeper cuts to Medicaid than the House did. This is devastating news for today’s and tomorrow’s seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s, cancer, the after-effects of stroke and other serious conditions who depend on Medicaid to pay for long-term care. Millions will lose Medicaid coverage over the next ten years.”

“Despite some tweaks to premium subsidies, the Senate legislation will make healthcare unaffordable for many near seniors aged 50-64. The legislation allows insurers to charge older Americans five times as much as younger adults. Though the Senate bill nominally protects people with pre-existing conditions, the waiver of essential benefits means older patients with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease will pay sky-high premiums [making these premiums unaffordable to most]. Finally, the bill weakens Medicare by reducing the solvency of the Part A Trust fund,” notes Richtman.

Looking at a Crystal Ball

Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, says that the Senate health bill does not fix the issues critics had with the House version. “It moves Medicaid from an entitlement to a discretionary program. It uses a longer phase-in period than the House, but imposes deeper cuts on the program. This is very problematic from the standpoint of poor and disabled people who need help,” says West.

According to West, Republican Senators from more moderate states already have said they will not support the current version. There also are conservative Senators who feel the bill does not go far enough in repealing Obamacare. If those positions hold up, it doesn’t look like the bill will pass.

West warns those who oppose the passage of the Senate health bill to not underestimate Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “He is willing to negotiate with individual Senators to get their votes so it is premature to call the bill dead. McConnell knows the Senate well and understands what compromises need to be made to get to 50 votes,” notes West.

If Senate Republicans pass their health care bill next week, I predict they might just find out that they have “awakened a sleeping giant,” the Democrats. When the dust settles after the 2018 mid-term elections we will find this out.

GOP Health Care Reform Moves to Senate

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 7, 2017

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s words are now coming back to haunt him and GOP leadership that rammed American Health Care Act (AHCA), without procedural safeguards, through the House chamber days ago. “I don’t think we should pass bills that we haven’t read that we don’t know what they cost,” said Ryan in a 2009 interview on MSNBC when Congress was debating President Obama’s 1990-page Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare.

Last month, the Trump Administration efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, with the American Health Care Act (AHCA) went down in flames when so many GOP moderates and conservative House lawmakers opposed the bill that the leadership didn’t dare bring it up for a vote. Successful negotiations of the GOP factions crafted a new version that passed last Thursday by a razor-thin vote of 217-213, a slim margin of four votes. All 193 Democrats opposed passage, along with 20 Republican lawmakers. With House passage, the bill moves to the Senate for deliberation.

Before the House vote on the GOP health bill there were no legislative hearings held to debate its merits and its full text was posted on the Web less than 24 hours before the vote. Ryan did not even wait for the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to provide an updated financial analysis of AHCA. The CBO’s analysis of the original bill, pulled moments before a scheduled vote on March 24, 2017, found that the GOP health care proposal estimated that if passed 24 million or more Americans could be uninsured by 2026.

Opposition Mounting to GOP Health Care Proposal

With the passage of AHCA, Democratic Policy and Communication Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline (D-RI) issued the following statement, saying “This is the cruelest and most immoral thing I’ve seen the Republican Party do to the American people. They just passed a bill that they know will result in the deaths of thousands of working people each year. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”

“All you need to know about this bill is that Republicans tried to exempt themselves from coverage [of the GOP health care proposal]] before they got caught. That’s because they know it’s a raw deal,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. This legislation sets us on a path to the bad old days when insurance companies could refuse coverage to those with preexisting conditions and deny people health benefits that should be in every plan – like ‎maternity and mental health care, he says.

Whitehouse warns that AHCA’s passage will leave millions of Americans without access to affordable health insurance. “Rhode Islanders rely on the Affordable Care Act and it’s working here. If they want to improve it, that’s one thing, but this House bill will hurt Rhode Islanders,

Within hours of the House vote on AHCA, a joint statement was issued by six prestigious national medical organizations (American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Psychiatric Association American and the American Osteopathic Association), representing over 560,000 physicians and medical students, denouncing the GOP health bill. Dozens of other state and national health care organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association and American Hospital Association (and this number grows daily) also gave a thumb down on the Republican health bill that is considered “unworkable and flawed.”

Aging advocacy groups came out swinging, too.

AARP, representing 38 million members and considered to be one of the nation’s most powerful aging lobbying groups, plans to hold GOP House lawmakers accounting for their support of AHCA while gearing up to oppose the Republican health care proposal in the Senate.

In a statement, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond reiterated AARP’s opposition to the GOP health bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, calling it “flawed” and warning that the legislative proposal “would harm American families who count on access to affordable health care.”

LeaMond says, “the bill will put an Age Tax on us as we age, harming millions of American families with health insurance, forcing many to lose coverage or pay thousands of dollars more for health care. In addition, the bill now puts at risk the 25 million older adults with pre-existing conditions, such as cancer and diabetes, who would likely find health care unaffordable or unavailable to them.”

According to LeaMond, AARP will continue its opposition of AHCA as it moves for Senate consideration because it “includes an Age Tax on older Americans, eliminates critical protections for those with pre-existing conditions, puts coverage at risk for millions, cuts the life of Medicare, erodes seniors’ ability to live independently, and gives sweetheart deals to big drug and insurance companies while doing nothing to lower the cost of prescriptions.

LeaMond warns, “We promised to hold members of Congress accountable for their vote on this bill. True to our promise, AARP is now letting its 38 million members know how their elected Representative voted on this health bill in The Bulletin, a print publication that goes to all of our members, as well as through emails, social media, and other communications.”

Medicaid Takes a Major Blow

“The bill threatens the very heart of the Medicaid program, taking away the guarantee that Medicaid will be there when seniors need it most. By slashing Medicaid funding by over $800 billion, the AHCA will place tremendous strain on state budget, says Kevin Prindiville, Executive Director of Justice in Aging, a nonprofit advocacy group for low-income seniors. “States will be forced to cut services, restrict eligibility, and reduce benefits for seniors, children, people with disabilities, and low-income older adults, he says.

“Congress is forcing families to pay more out-of-pocket when grandparents and other loved ones need nursing home care or home care. Two-thirds of all Medicaid spending for older adults pays for long-term services and supports. The AHCA puts this vital care for seniors in jeopardy,” says Prindiville. “By passing the ACHA, the House chose to cut taxes for the wealthy and pharmaceutical companies while harming Medicare beneficiaries by increasing Part B premiums and reducing the life of the Medicare Trust Fund, he says.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare calls the AHCA vote “appalling” for retirees and views the “raid of Medicare, cuts to Medicaid among the most problematic parts of the AHCA.”

“Despite the bill’s name, risking the health of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens to give the wealthy an $ 600 billion tax cut is tremendously uncaring — and does not reflect real American values,” says Richtman. In modifying the original AHCA bill to give reluctant Republicans political cover, the House leadership made a bad piece of legislation even worse,” he says.

No Protection for Pre-existing Conditions

“Recent amendments to this cruel, ill-advised bill could put coverage for older Americans with pre-existing conditions like cancer and diabetes out of reach. The $8 billion (over 5 years) added to the legislation at the last minute to defray the cost of higher premiums is woefully inadequate. It’s a thin veil that covers a head of snakes,” notes Richtman

“Equally inadequate are the meager tax credits that the GOP bill offers older Americans to buy insurance. A $4,000 annual tax credit doesn’t come to close to covering premiums for seniors ages 60-64, meaning millions of older Americans will lose coverage altogether,” says Richtman.

According to Richtman, AHCA slashes nearly $1 trillion from the Medicaid by converting the social health care program into a block grant program or imposing per capita caps. “This would make it harder for impoverished seniors to access long term skilled nursing care and community or home care. Overall, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 14 million people will be kicked off the Medicaid rolls in the next 10 years if this bill becomes law,” he says.

Richtman observes that the enactment of AHCA would reduce Medicare’s solvency by repealing Obamacare’s 0.9 percent payroll tax on wages above $200,000. This could lead to cuts in Medicare, including privatizing the program — harming current and future beneficiaries, he says.

“Under the GOP bill, insurers can charge older enrollees five times more than younger ones. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that by 2026 this provision will substantially raise premiums for older people by as much as 25 percent,” notes Richtman.

Senate Becomes New AHCA Battle Ground

After the politically decisive House vote to pass AHCA, President Donald Trump and House GOP lawmakers celebrated their major political victory at the White House Rose Garden claiming that they had fulfilled a promise made 7 years ago to repeal and replace Obamacare. But this celebration was short lived. Like House Democratic lawmakers, Democratic and Republican Senators began voicing their skepticism and strong opposition to the House’s passed health bill. Holding a slim 52-to-48 advantage in the upper chamber, GOP Senate Leadership must craft a bill that can win the support of at least 50 of their caucus members.

Washington insiders are now reporting that the House’s unpopular AHCA is “Dead on Arrival” in the Senate. Senate Republicans say they will not vote on the House passed bill and the upper chamber is expected to move slowly in crafting its health bill, starting from scratch. Many GOP Senators opposed AHCA, especially those who want to protect their constituents with pre-existing conditions and others who represent states that have expanded their Medicaid program under Obamacare.

A group of 13 Republican Senators (all men) have begun the process of hammering out their own health bill. Senate rules do not allow a review of the legislation or the determination of the rules of the debate until the CBO provides its official fiscal impact estimate. Because of this the health policy debate may not begin until summer.

Hopefully, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, and his partisan working group will reach across the aisle to Democratic Senators to assist in crafting a bipartisan solution. Won’t that be refreshing.

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

GOP Health Care Proposal Pulled at Last Moment

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 26, 2017

Days ago, unified Democratic lawmakers combined with a deep philosophical wedge between the conservative House Freedom Caucus and moderate Republicans over policy details of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), forced the Trump Administration and House Speaker Paul Ryan to pull the AHCA proposal minutes from a floor vote to steer it away from a humiliating legislative defeat last Friday. Interestingly, the seventh anniversary of President Barack Obama signing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), his signature health care law, took place one day before the House vote.

A day before Friday’s scheduled vote to dismantle and repeal Obama’s ACA, President Donald Trump taking a high-risk negotiation tactic straight out of his bestselling book, “The Art of the Deal,” gave a late-Thursday night ultimatum to the House GOP lawmakers. Trump told to them to vote up or down on AHCA or he would be prepared to move on to other legislative agenda items.

As to Trump’s ultimatum to GOP House lawmakers, CNN Presidency Historian Timothy Naftali noted on CNN Newsroom with Fredricka Whitfield, “He played chicken and he blinked.”

House GOP Making Legislative Sausage

In a report issued on March 13, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), detailed the drastic impact of the initial AHCA legislative proposal. CBO, a federal agency that provides budget and economic information to Congress, found that AHCA would result in 24 million losing health insurance coverage by 2026, Medicaid would be cut by $880 billion over the next ten years, and premiums and out-of-pocket costs would skyrocket increase, particularly for older adults and individuals with lower incomes.

Earlier this week, on Monday, Ryan and his House GOP Leadership team made eight amendments to AHCA to pull in skeptical GOP moderate and conservative lawmakers, including the controversial speeding up tax cuts while whittling down the Medicaid program. Later, on March 23, CBO confirmed that these amendments would lead to essentially the same level of coverage losses, about 24 million people and cost increases for individuals and would yield $187 billion less in savings than the original GOP health care proposal.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Senator Wyden and Congressman Pallone revealed that the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ independent Actuary “estimated that the repeal of the tax on prescription medications, known as the ‘pharma fee,’ beginning January 1, 2017 would increase Medicare Part B premiums by $8.7 billion through fiscal year 2027.” noted the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

On Thursday, three more amendments were offered to sway GOP House critics. One would strip the requirement that insurance companies cover essential health benefits (EHB). This amendment would effectively eliminate annual out-of-pocket caps, reinstate annual and lifetime coverage limits, and gut protections for pre-existing conditions. Another would delay – but not remove – the Medicare payroll tax cut that will undermine Medicare’s financing and its future stability.

After the defeat of AHCA, Trump blamed the Democrats for the House GOP’s failure to pass its health care proposal to scrap Obamacare. “The Democrats were not going to give us a single vote,” he said, warning that “Obamacare will explode” forcing the opposition party back to the negotiation table to craft a better health care law.

House Speaker Ryan also noted that “We are going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”

“We just really did not get a consensus today,” say Ryan. “That’s why I thought the wise thing to do was not proceed with a vote but to pull the bill. When asked if he was going to try “to prop it up, Ryan responded by saying “it is so fundamentally flawed, I don’t know that that is possible.”

Sighs of Relief from Aging Groups, Democrats

“The American Health Care Act is not American in spirit or health care in substance. In fact, it’s a tax cut bill for the wealthy, not a health care bill for the people. It will make America sicker. Congress should reject this charade and this disaster of a bill today,” states Judith Stein, Executive Director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

“The House Congressional leadership was destined to lose on their disastrous American Health Care Act, which would have effectively repealed Obamacare and hurt seniors, including beneficiaries of Medicare and Medicaid. It doesn’t matter whether they pulled or failed to pass the bill,” says Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in a statement. “It needed to go down and we thank the millions of National Committee members and supporters – and those of other senior advocacy organizations – whose protests were loud, numerous, and furious.”

“No one knew’ that health care could be so complicated. Hopefully, he has learned a lesson… that health legislation is built on a complex foundation that considers the real human needs – and costs – of changes to the system. A common refrain from Donald Trump during the campaign was, ‘What do you have to lose by electing me?’ Now we know what’s at stake: affordable health care for older Americans, Medicare, and Medicaid,” says Richtman.

“The leadership’s decision to withdraw the bill from consideration proves that the voices of Americans are very powerful. This harmful legislation would have added an Age Tax on older Americans and put vulnerable populations at risk,” says AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement.

LeaMond calls on Congress to focus on the issues important to older Americans and their families, including: protecting and improving Medicare’s benefits and financing; providing access to affordable quality coverage; preventing insurers from engaging in discriminatory practices; lowering prescription drug costs; providing new incentives to expand home and community based services; and strengthening efforts to fight fraud, waste, and abuse.

Adds, Justice in Aging Executive Director, Kevin Prindiville, “Congress tried to rush this disastrous bill through Congress without regard for the health and safety of older Americans and their families, and such a bill cannot and should not be revived. Older adults and their families rely on Medicaid and Medicare and these programs must be protected.”

Compromise might well be the way to make sound changes to the nation’s health care law, says Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI), who serves as House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. “The Affordable Care Act is a good law, and Republicans and Democrats should be working together to make it even better. If Republicans ever decide to come to the table, we should work together to increase competition, expand coverage, and bring down premiums. That’s a decision that Republicans have to make – whether to work with Democrats or continue down the path they’re on,” he says.

Rep. James Langevin (D-RI) also stresses the importance of reaching over the aisle to create a better health care law and getting away from partisan bickering. “It’s time for Republicans to move on from their misguided crusade to dismantle the ACA. The health care law has brought insurance coverage to millions of Americans. Its consumer protections, premium assistance, essential health benefits, and countless other provisions that were at risk of elimination have improved our nation’s health and saved lives. We must work together in a bipartisan manner to strengthen and improve the ACA, not risk the health and wellbeing of everyday Americans for an empty, partisan victory,” he says.