Bipartisan Fix Needed to Ensure Solvency of Social Security, Medicare

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 10, 2018

On June 5, 2018, the Social Security and Medicare trustees released their annual report to Congress providing a snapshot of the long-term financial security of Medicare and Social Security, two of the nation’s two large entitlement programs. It was not good news for lawmakers. Nor for the 67 million people who receive retirement, or disability benefits from Social Security and for 58.4 million on Medicare.

The 2018 Social Security Trustee’s Report to Congress, prepared by nonpolitical actuaries and economists, warned that the combined asset reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Funds are projected to become depleted in 2034, the same as projected in last year’s Annual Report, with 79 percent of benefits payable at that time.

According to the Annual Report’s findings, the OASI Trust Fund is projected to become depleted in late 2034, as compared to last year’s estimate of early 2035, with 77 percent of benefits payable at that time. The DI Trust Fund will become depleted in 2032, extended from last year’s estimate of 2028, with 96 percent of benefits still payable.’

As to Medicare, the Medicare trustee’s report predicted that the Medicare hospital program will not be able to pay full benefits in 2026. The Trustees, for a second year in a row, issued a Medicare funding warning due to general revenue funding expected to exceed 45 percent of total Medicare outlays within 7 years, triggering a requirement for the President to submit to Congress in 2019 legislation to address warning to be considered on an expedited basis.

Released Report Triggers Discussion on Social Security, Medicare, Solvency

Media across the country reported the Social Security and Medicare trustees warning about long-term financial issues facing Social Security and Medicare. Just read the New York Time’s headline: “Medicare’s Trust Fund is Set to Run Out in 8 Years. Social Security.” Here’s CNN’s take: “Social Security Must Reduce Benefits in 2034 if Reforms Aren’t Made.” Or take a look at the New York Daily News’s attention-grabbing headline, “Social Security and Medicare Head Toward the Skids.”

With the release of the 2018 Annual Report, the powerful House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX), called for ensuring the financial solvency of Social Security and Medicare. “The time is now to come together in a bipartisan manner to address these real challenges, he said.

Health Subcommittee Chairman Peter Roskam (R-IL) also gave his two cents. “The Medicare Trustees paint an even bleaker picture than last year, pointing to the need for commonsense reforms to ensure this critical safety net program continues to deliver health care to our nation’s seniors and individuals with disabilities,” said Roskam. “The solutions are not elusive as was demonstrated in part earlier this year when Congress acted on key Medicare reforms contained in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 to improve access and quality in the Medicare program, but more work remains to be done. This warning from the Trustees is a sobering marker of the work ahead to ensure this program is around for our children and grandchildren,” he said.
Looking at the Glass Half-Full, not Half-Empty

Even with the bleak findings, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and other aging advocacy groups have their take.

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), notes the released Annual Report confirms that the Social Security’s trust fund is “still very much intact, with $2.89 trillion in assets – or $44 billion more than last year.”

There is still time for Social Security fixes, says Richtman. “The Trustees have confirmed that Congress has ample time (16 years) to enact modest and manageable changes to Social Security to address the fiscal shortfall. Most Americans agree that raising the payroll wage cap is the easiest and most effective way to strengthen Social Security’s finances, negating the need for harmful benefit cuts like means testing or raising the retirement age,” he said.

According to NCPSSM, since 2013 there has been a growing number of aging groups [along with Democratic lawmakers] calling to lift the wage cap and increase Social Security benefits. The Washington, DC-based NCPSSM’s Boost Social Security Now campaign endorses legislation in Congress introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and others, which keeps the Social Security Trust Fund solvent well into this century, while boosting benefits and cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).

On Medicare, the Trustees report shows that the Part A Trust Fund will be able to pay full benefits until 2026, at which point payroll taxes are estimated to be sufficient to cover 91% of benefits – if nothing is done to bolster the system’s finances, says Richtman, noting that NCPSSM supports several measures to keep Medicare financially sound, including a genuine push to allow the program to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

NCPSSM calls for restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies formerly paid the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual-eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid), in addition to innovation in the delivery of care and in the way, care is paid for – to keep Medicare fiscally sound for future beneficiaries.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins urges Congress to work “in a bipartisan manner to strengthen these vital social insurance programs to ensure they can meet their benefit promises for current and future generations.” She agrees with Richtman about the need to rein in rising Medicare pharmaceutical costs. “In particular, we need to take further steps to lower the cost of health care, especially the ever-rising price of prescription drugs. No good reason exists for Americans to continue paying the highest brand name drug prices in the world. High-priced drugs hurt Americans of all ages, and seniors, who on average take 4.5 medications a month, are particularly vulnerable,” she said.

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works and the Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, calls for strengthening and expanding Social Security not cutting it.

The Social Security program is “fully affordable,” says Altman, noting that “poll after poll shows that the American people overwhelmingly support expanding the program’s benefits.” Politicians are listening, too, she said.

“Social Security is a solution to our looming retirement income crisis, the increasing economic squeeze on middle-class families, and the perilous and growing income and wealth inequality. In light of these challenges and Social Security’s important role in addressing them, the right question is not how we can afford to expand Social Security, but, rather, how can we afford not to expand it,” says Altman.

It’s Time for a Bipartisan Fix

As the mid-term election approaches, it’s time for the Republican congressional leaders to work with their Democratic colleagues to craft bipartisan legislation to make permanent long-term fixes to Social Security and Medicare to ensure these program’s fiscal solvency for future generations.

It is projected roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 today, and about 10,000 more will cross that threshold every day for the next 19 years. By the time the last of this generation approaches retirement age in 2029, 18 percent of the U.S. will be at least that age, reports the Pew Research Center.

With the graying of American, the hand writing is on the wall. With the release of this year’s report by the Social Security and Medicare trustees, Congress must decisively act now to ensure that Social Security and Medicare are strengthened, expanded and benefits not cut. As Chairman Brady, of the House Ways and Means Committee, says, it is now time to address these real challenges. Hopefully, his House colleagues and lawmakers in the upper chamber will agree.

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Trump Signs Legislation to Undo Nation’s Banking Rules

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 27, 2017

On May 22, 2018, The Senior Safe Act, a bipartisan bill authored by U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to help protect older American’s from financial exploitation and fraud, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 258-159 as part of a bipartisan banking reform package after previously passing the Senate in March by a vote of 67-31. President Donald J. Trump’s signed the bill into law rolling back regulatory oversight of the nation’s financial industry.

The Senior Safety Act is part of S. 2155, the “Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act,” a bill that modified the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, which was passed by Congress in 2010 to oversee the financial industry after the financial crash and recession of 2008-09.

Protecting Older Investors from Financial Exploitation

Through the watchdog efforts of the Senate Aging Committee, financial exploitation of seniors was identified as a top senior issue to combat. According to the Government Accountability Office, financial fraud targeting older Americans is a growing epidemic that costs seniors an estimated $2.9 billion annually. These frauds range from the “Jamaican Lottery Scam,” to the IRS impersonation scam, to the financial exploitation of seniors through guardianships. Earlier this year a hearing was held to update the public about the committee’s efforts to combat scams targeting older Americans as well as unveil its 2018.

As the Chairman and former Ranking Member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Senators Collins and McCaskill introduced the Senior $afe Act last year. Existing bank privacy laws can make it difficult for financial institutions to report suspected fraud to the proper authorities. The Senior $afe Act address this problem by encouraging banks, credit unions, investment advisors, broker-dealers, insurance companies and insurance agencies to report suspected senor financial fraud. It also protects these institutions from being sued for making reports so long as they have trained their employees and make reports in good faith and on a reasonable basis to the proper authorities.

“As Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, I have been committed to fighting fraud and financial exploitation targeted at older Americans,” said Senator Collins. “The Senior $afe Act, based on Maine’s innovative program, will empower and encourage our financial service representatives to identify warning signs of common scams and help prevent seniors from becoming victims.”

Judith M. Shaw, Maine Securities Administrator and chair of the North American Securities Administrators Association’s Committee on Senior Issues and Diminished Capacity, says that this legislation incentivizes financial service institutions, including those in the securities industry, to train key employees on the identification and reporting of suspected financial exploitation of seniors. “This is a significant and important tool in the ongoing efforts to protect senior investors,” she adds.

Adds Jaye L. Martin, Executive Director of Legal Services for the Elderly, “We know from our proven success with Senior Safe in Maine that education of financial services professionals is a key component to identifying and stopping financial exploitation of seniors. There is no doubt this bill will help prevent seniors all over the country from becoming victims.”

With the passage of S. 2155, Keith Gillies, President of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA), said, “The Senior Safe Act provides “much needed protection for older investors and will allow advisors to better protect their clients’ interests.”

“Advisors are often the first line of defense for scammers looking to take advantage of investors,” says Gillies, noting that studies have found older Americans are often a prime target.

The Pros and Cons of S. 2155

Since the Dodd-Frank legislation’s passage eight years ago, 20 percent of small banks have been put out of business, said President Trump and a ceremony where he signed S. 2155 into law. He predicted that the roll back of the costly banking reform regulations, both “crippling” and “crushing” to community banks and credit unions, would stimulate the banking industry to increase lending to businesses.

Banking regulations made it virtually impossible for new banks to be established to replace those that had closed their doors, said Trump, denying small businesses with access to capital. “By liberating small banks from excessive bureaucracy — and that’s what it was: bureaucracy — we are unleashing the economic potential of our people,” said Trump.

Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) calls the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act a jobs bill, saying “it is a much-needed solution for the folks who power our local economies.”

In an op-ed in the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly, Senator Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana) said, “This banking package is reasonable, balanced, and the result of thoughtful negotiation and compromise. It would take measured steps to encourage community financial institutions to boost lending and provide new protections for consumers. And it’s an example of what we can achieve when we work together to break the gridlock in Washington.”

But others strongly oppose passage of S. 2155.

Although S. 2155 has a provision to protect seniors from financial exploitation, Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline, expressed strong concerns when the Houses passed S. 2155, he jokingly refers to as “the Bank Lobbyist Act.”

“Ten years ago, Wall Street’s recklessness brought our economy to the brink of collapse. It has taken Rhode Island years to recover. In many ways, we are still recovering.,” noted Rhode Island’s Congressman representing District 1. “The Dodd-Frank financial reform law ended the worst of the Big Banks’ excesses. It established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and gave working people a voice against the most powerful corporations in our country,” he said, noting that the passing of S. 2155 has reversed this progress.

It’s a massive giveaway to the wealthy and the middle class is getting screwed. This is a raw deal for working men and women. The American people deserve A Better Deal,” Cicilline said.

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, warns that with the deregulation of banks, the GOP “are still gunning for Social Security under the guise of entitlement reform.”

Richtman predicts the passage of S. 2155 and it’s signing into law “makes another financial crisis more likely.”” He asks, “How fair is it to ask workers to be responsible and save when the government strips away protections intended to keep our savings secure?”

“Retirees’ Social Security benefits must be preserved because, at least for now, they are the only thing workers can depend on after the next financial crash,” says Richtman.

The Senior $afe Act was endorsed by organizations, including AARP, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS), the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions (NAFCU), the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA), the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI), Transamerica, and LPL Financial.

2050 and the Caregiver Dilemma

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 22, 2018

The year 2030 marks an important demographic turning point in U.S. history according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections, released last month. By 2030, older people are projected to outnumber children. In the next twenty years, when these aging baby boomers enter their 80s, who will provide informal caregiving to them.

Almost three years earlier, in a July 2015 report, “Valuing the Invaluable: 2015 Update Undeniable Progress, but Big Gaps Remain,” the AARP Public Policy Institute warned that fewer family members will be around to assist older people with caregiving needs.

According to AARP’s 25-page report, coauthored by Susan C. Reinhard, Lynn Friss Feinberg, Rita Choula, and Ari Houser, the ratio of potential family caregivers to the growing number of older people has already begun a steep decline. In 2010, there were 7.2 potential family caregivers for every person age 80 and older. By 2030, that ratio will fall sharply to 4 to 1, and is projected to drop further to 3 to 1 in 2050.

Family caregivers assisting relatives or close friends afflicted with chronic, disabling, or serious illness, to carry out daily activities (such as bathing or dressing, preparing meals, administering medications, driving to doctor visits, and paying bills), are key to keeping these individuals in their homes and out of costly nursing facilities. What is the impact on care of aging baby boomers when family caregivers no longer provide assistance in daily activities?

“In 2013, about 40 million family caregivers in the United States provided an estimated 37 billion hours of care to an adult with limitations in daily activities. The estimated economic value of their unpaid contributions was approximately $470 billion in 2013, up from an estimated $450 billion in 2009,” notes AARP’s caregiver report. What will be the impact on the nation’s health care system without family caregivers providing informal care?

The Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections, again puts the spot light on the decreasing caregiver ratio over the next decades identified by the AARP Policy Institute, one that must be planned for and addressed by Congress, federal and state policy makers.

Who Will Take Care of Aging Baby Boomers?

With the expansion in the size of the older population, 1 in every 5 United States residents will be retirement age. Who will provide informal caregiving in our nation with a larger adult population and less children to serve as caregivers?

“The aging of baby boomers means that within just a couple decades, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history,” said Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau. “By 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.4 million under the age of 18.”

The 2030s are projected to be a transformative decade for the U.S. population, says the 2017 statistical projections – the population is expected to grow at a slower pace, age considerably and become more racially and ethnically diverse. The nation’s median age is expected to grow from age 38 today to age 43 by 2060.

The Census Bureau also observed that that as the population ages, the ratio of older adults to working-age adults, also known as the old-age dependency ratio, is projected to rise. By 2020, there will be about three-and-a-half working-age adults for every retirement-age person. By 2060, that ratio will fall to just two-and-a-half working-age adults for every retirement-age person.

Real Challenges Face Congress as the Nation Ages

Jean Accius, Ph.D., AARP Policy Institute’s Vice President, Independent Living, Long-Term Services and Supports, says, “The recent Census report highlights the sense of urgency to develop innovative solutions that will support our growing older adult population at a time when there will likely be fewer family caregivers available to help. The challenges that face us are real, but they are not insurmountable. In fact, this is an opportunity if we begin now to lay the foundation for a better system of family support for the future. The enactment of the RAISE (Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage) Family Caregivers Act, which would create a strategy for supporting family caregivers, is a great path forward.”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, gives his take on the Census Bureau’s 2017 statistical projections, too.

“Despite how cataclysmic this may sound, the rising number of older people due to the aging of baby boomers is no surprise and has been predicted for many years. This is why the Social Security system was changed in 1983 to prepare for this eventuality. Under current law, full benefits will continue to be paid through 2034 and we are confident that Congress will make the necessary changes, such as raising the wage cap, to ensure that full benefits continue to be made well into the future,” says Richtman.

Richtman calls informal caregiving “a critical part of a care plan” that enhances an older person’s well-being. “While there currently are programs such as the Medicaid Waiver that will pay family members who provide caregiving support more can be done to incentivize caregiving so that loss of personal income and Social Security work credits are not barriers to enlisting the help of younger individuals to provide informal support services,” he says.

Adds Richtman, the Medicare and Medicaid benefits which reimburse for the home-based services and skilled nursing care “will be unduly strained ”as the diagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s disease skyrockets with the growing boomer population. He calls on Congress to “immediately provide adequate research funding to the National Institutes of Health to accelerate finding a cure in order to save these programs and lower the burdens on family caregivers and the healthcare system. “

Finally, AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, says “Our aging population represents challenges on many, many fronts, including healthcare, housing, Social Security, Medicare and, of course, caregiving. It would be nice to think everything would take care of itself if there were more younger people than older people. But that misses the point entirely. The needs of older Americans are a challenge to all Americans, if for no other reason than most of us end up with multiple late in life needs. And too many reach that point without savings to cover those needs.”

“It’s worth noting, by the way, that many of the solutions will come from people 50 and older — many of whom will work longer in their lives to improve the lives of older Americans. We need to stop looking through the lens of ‘old people’ being the problem and instead encourage and empower older Americans to take greater control over their lives as they help others,” says Connell.

“Congress needs to focus on common sense solutions to assure families that Social Security and Medicare are protected. The healthcare industry needs to face the medical challenges. And at the state and local level, we must focus on home and community-based health services,” adds Connell.

For details about the Census Bureau’s 2017 statistical projections, co to http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2018/cb18-41-population-projections.html.

For more information about AARP’s July 2015 caregiver report, go to http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2015/valuing-the-invaluable-2015-update-new.pdf.

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House Fails to Pass GOP’s Balanced Budget Amendment

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 15, 2018

Following the recent passage of the $ 1.3 trillion omnibus government spending bill and the massive GOP tax cut bill that added more than a $1 trillion to the nation’s despite economic growth, and with midterm elections looming, the House GOP leadership quickly acted to tackle the spiraling nation’s deficit by bringing H.J. Res. 2, a balanced budget amendment (BBA), to the floor for a vote. Simply put, the amendment requires that total annual outlays not exceed total annual receipts. It also requires a true majority of each chamber to pass tax increases and a three-fifths majority to raise the debt limit.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), introduced H.J. Res. 2, which he notes is nearly identical to text in legislation that passed the House in 1995, but failed in the Senate by one vote. This would be the Virginia Congressman’s last chance to push for passage of a BBA because he is not seeking re-election at the end of this term.

Last October. House Speake Paul Ryan (R-WI) agreed to vote on Goodlatte’s BBA, in exchange for conservative votes from the Republican Study Committee, chaired by Mark Walker (R-NC), on a procedural budget measure needed for Republicans to move forward on tax reform.

BBA Gets Thumbs Down by House Lawmakers

As expect, the House GOP’s BBA was defeated by a vote of 233 to 184, falling far short (by 57 lawmakers) of the two-thirds vote required for passage of an amendment under the Constitution. Six Republicans voted against it while only seven Democrats voted for it. But, the GOP’s BBA had little chance of becoming law because the required support of two-thirds in the Senate and Democratic Senators unified in their opposition, and finally the requirement that 38 states ratify the constitutional amendment.

“Our extraordinary fiscal crisis demands an extraordinary solution. We must rise above partisanship and join together to send a balanced budget amendment to the states for ratification.

I urge all my colleagues to join me in supporting this amendment and in freeing our children and grandchildren from the burden of a crippling debt they had no hand in creating, so they can be free to chart their own futures for themselves and for their own posterity,” Goodlatte said during the House floor on Thursday evening.

During the four-hour debate, House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), asked Congress to balance its budget like typical families do. She said,“Families across the country sit down at their kitchen tables every month and make tough decisions to balance their budget so that they can make ends meet. Just like American families, the federal government should spend within its means. A Balanced Budget Amendment, which requires a two-third majority in both chambers of Congress to pass, is a needed and important mechanism to restore fiscal discipline. “

On the House Floor, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called the BBA “a brazen assault on seniors, children and working families – the American people we were elected to protect.”

“Make no mistake, this GOP con job has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility. It is not balanced in terms of money because of their GOP Tax Scam that’s placed us in a bad spot fiscally and it’s not balanced in terms of values,” says Pelosi, noting that GOP fiscal responsibility comes down to “ransacking Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and breaking our nation’s sacred promise of dignity and security for seniors and families.”

Before the House vote on the BBA, Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, stated “I would be surprised if the bill made it through Congress.” He added, “It’s hypocritical for Republicans to support a balanced budget amendment after they cut taxes by $1.5 trillion and added significantly to the federal deficit. Voters will see through that and understand the vote is about scoring political points and not making good public policy.”

House Lawmakers Bombarded with Opposition Letters

Days before the House vote the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), AARP expressed opposition to the passage of the BBA by sending a letter to the Hill, urging House lawmakers to reject the GOP’s constitutional amendment. Hundreds of aging, health care, educational, unions, and business groups were cited in the April 12, 2018 issue of the The Congressional Record as opposing the amendment.

Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO, wrote House lawmakers warning that a BBA would unravel the nation’s social safety net by making gigantic entitlement cuts by blocking benefit payments from the Social Security and Medicare Part A trust funds because “all federal expenditures, including these earned benefits, would have to be covered by revenue collected in the same year. “

A BBA would also force Congress to make huge spending cuts to Medicare Parts B, C and D, Medicaid, and many other social safety net programs for seniors, to rein in the nation’s deficit and pushing lawmakers to make “massive new tax cuts.,” says Richtman.

“While the balanced budget amendment did not dictate any particular approach to deficit reduction, by altering established Congressional voting procedures it would have increased the likelihood that the fiscal policies adopted in coming decades would favor the well-off at the expense of middle- and low-income Americans. The amendment would have required a two-thirds vote of the full membership of the House and Senate to raise taxes. Spending cuts, by contrast, would continue to require only a majority of those present and voting and could be passed on a voice vote,” observed Richtman.

Finally, Richtman noted that the risk of a federal government default would increase because a BBA requires a three-fifths vote of both the House and the Senate to raise the national debt limit, rather than the current simple majority.

AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond also expressed opposition to the BBA in a letter to House lawmakers charging that the amendment would impact the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, “subjecting both programs to potentially deep cuts without regard to the impact on the health and financial security of individuals.” Programs that provide meals or heating assistance to low income seniors would also see available resources diminish, she predicted, she said.

The lack of a dependable Social Security and Medicare benefit [if a BBA was passed] would be devastating for millions of Americans. Social Security is currently the principal source of income for half of older American households receiving benefits, and roughly one in five households depend on Social Security benefits for nearly all (90 percent or more) of their income. Over 50 million Americans depend on Medicare, half of whom have incomes of less than $24,150. Even small fluctuations in premiums and cost sharing would have a significant impact on the personal finances of older and disabled Americans,” said LeaMond.

Midterm Elections Just Six Months Away

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted early this week that the annual government’s deficit is projected to be $ 1 trillion next year. And the nation’s $21 trillion debt would skyrocket to 33 trillion by 20028. With the midterm elections just six months away, combined with the CBO’s recently released economic analysis, the Republican party’s image as being the fiscally responsible political party is now shattered.

Even controlling both chambers of Congress and with President Donald Trump in the White House, GOP lawmakers must now look for political issues that may resonate with their constituents. Further attempts to dismantle Socials Security and Medicare may not be the way to go.

Older Americans to Benefit from Bipartisan Budget Act

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 11, 2018

While many were sleeping, funding to operate the federal government expired midnight Thursday, though it was restored about eight and a half hours later with action from Congress to end the brief government shutdown, when President Donald Trump signing the 652-page Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 early Friday morning.

The $400 billion budget agreement funds the federal government through March 23 to give lawmakers time to pull together the details needed to craft full appropriations bills that become the official federal budget.

Lawmakers had expected the massive budget bill to pass before the midnight deadline to avoid a government shutdown but Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), delayed the Senate vote past midnight to protest the additional billions of dollars being added to the federal budget deficit by the legislation.

Ultimately the House approved the bill by 240 votes to 186, almost four hours after the Senate had passed the budget bill by 71 to 28 three hours earlier. The GOP-controlled House needed the help of 73 Democratic lawmakers to pass the budget bill because 67 House Republicans voted against the legislation.

The Nuts and Bolts

The two-year budget deal eliminates strict budget caps that were set in 2011 to reduce the federal deficit and allows Congress to increase military and domestic spending by $300 billion, along with adding another $90 billion for emergency disaster aid for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and throws in billions more for infrastructure, the opioid epidemic and health programs. It also suspends the debt limit for one year – until after the upcoming midterm elections.

Specifically, the newly enacted Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, would allocate $165 billion to the Pentagon and defense spending while $131 billion would be directed to domestic programs. In addition, $20 billion would be spent on infrastructure programs such as surface transportation, rural water and wastewater systems, $ 7 billion in community health centers to provide care to low-income people, $6 billion to fight the opioid crisis, and $4 billion directed to veteran’s health care.

The budget agreement also repeals the controversial Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which was designed to limit Medicare costs. It also gives a ten-year extension to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is four years longer than the previous spending bill passed last month. Finally, the legislation did not address the dilemma of 700,000 “Dreamer immigrants who are in the United States illegally after being brought here as children and who” are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, set to expire on March 5, nor did it provide funding for President Trump’s proposed southern border wall.

“A Pretty Good Deal for Seniors”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, sees the Bipartisan Budget Bill of 2018 “a pretty good deal for seniors.”

“Seniors will feel these changes in their pocketbooks and even in the way they feel physically,” says Richtman, in a released statement. “We have been fighting for these measures for quite some time and are happy to see Congress take action on a bipartisan basis.”

According to Richtman, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 closes Medicare Part D “donut hole” in 2019. The prescription drug coverage gap embedded in the original law, which the Affordable Care Act has been gradually closing, will be altogether eliminated one year early. This will save seniors thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket prescription drug costs., he says.

Richtman says that the enacted Budget agreement also repeals Medicare therapy caps. The bill scraps arbitrary caps on physical, speech, language and occupational therapies that have cost senior’s money – or delayed care at crucial times. Beneficiaries will now find it easier – and more affordable – to get the therapies they need without undue interruption, he notes.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 also lifts non-defense domestic spending caps, allowing Congress to appropriate more adequate funding for the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget, says Richtman, noting that the federal agency has suffered from draconian budget cuts since 2011 which have impinged on customer service, even as 10,000 Baby Boomers retire every day. He notes that “this badly-needed (but yet unspecified) higher level of funding should allow SSA to improve customer service for the program’s 67 million beneficiaries.”

But, on the negative side, says Richtman, the new law increases Medicare premiums for some individuals by further expanding Medicare means-testing. “Congress continues to expand Medicare means-testing, and they will not stop until middle-class seniors are burdened with higher Medicare premiums,” he warns.

“We are particularly pleased that this legislation permanently repeals Medicare’s therapy caps, something that AARP has long supported. Millions of vulnerable patients who need occupational, physical, and speech-language therapy will now be protected from an arbitrary limit on how much Medicare will pay for needed therapy,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, in a released statement..

“AARP is also pleased that Congress expedited the closing of the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap known as the ‘donut hole,’ which will now close in 2019, one year earlier than currently scheduled. Medicare beneficiaries will soon get permanent relief from higher out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs. We also applaud the provision that adds biosimilar drugs to the Medicare Part D Coverage Gap Discount Program. This change will lower out-of-pocket costs and encourage the development and use of these drugs,” adds LeaMond.

Medicare Takes a Blow Under GOP’s Major Tax Plan Fix

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 10, 2017

In early December, the GOP-controlled Senate passed by a partisan vote of 51 to 49 its sweeping tax rewrite (with Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee siding with the Democrats and opposing the measure), sending the $1.4 trillion tax package, detailed in a 492 page bill, to the Conference Committee to iron out the differences between the Senate and House bill, Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1), that was passed by a 227-to-205 vote on November 16, 2017.

While Democrats are technically part of the conference committee, Republicans are yet again hashing out the details behind closed doors on a purely partisan basis. Democrats charge that the GOP lawmakers on the conference committee will look to rubber-stamp whatever their leadership comes up with and do not expect to see any changes to the legislation for the better.

The cores of the House and Senate bills are already very similar: tax cuts for the wealthiest and corporations paid for by middle-class Americans. Republicans are rushing to get legislation to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature before Christmas. While Trump looks forward to the first major legislative accomplishment of his presidency (once signed into law) as a Christmas gift to the nation, those opposing the massive changes to the nation’s US tax code view it as a stocking stuffed with coal.

Congressional insiders expect to see a finalized tax bill in the coming days, and votes in the House mid-next week at the earliest.

Medicare Takes a Blow

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, sitting on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, sees the writing on the wall with the passage of the GOP tax bill. “The Republican tax plan would run up huge deficits, trigger immediate cuts to Medicare, and threaten Social Security and Medicaid down the line,” says the Rhode Island Senator.

Adds, Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), this forces the “the poor, middle class, and elderly to pick up the tab for trillions of dollars in tax breaks that the super-rich and profitable corporations do not need..” If enacted, the GOP tax fix triggers an automatic $25 billion cut to Medicare,” he warns, noting that “it blows a $1 trillion hole in the deficit, inviting deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.”

Richtman says, “adding insult to injury” both the GOP Senate and House tax bills repeal the Obamacare mandate, which will raise ACA premiums for older adults (age 50-64) by an average of $1,500 in 2019. He notes that the Senate tax bill uses the “Chained CPI” inflation index for calculating deductions and tax brackets, this “setting a dangerous precedent that could spill over into cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security.”

In her December 7 correspondence to Congressional leadership, AARP Chief Executive Officer Jo Ann Jenkins, representing millions of members who whose health care depends on Medicare, urged lawmakers to work together in a bipartisan fashion to enact tax code legislation that would meet the needs of the older population and arrive at a tax code that is “more equitable and efficient, promotes growth, and produces sufficient revenue to pay for critical national programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.”

Jenkins urged Congress to prevent $25 billion in automatic cuts to Medicare in 2018 that would result from the enactment of H.R. 1 and its $1.5 trillion deficit increase (according to the Congressional Budget Office) since it “would have an immediate and lasting impact, including fewer providers participating in Medicare and reduced access to care for Medicare beneficiaries.”

“The sudden cut to Medicare provider funding in 2018 would have an immediate and lasting impact, including fewer providers participating in Medicare and reduced access to care for Medicare beneficiaries,” said Jenkins, who warned that health care providers may choose to stop accepting Medicare patients at a time when the Medicare population is growing by 10,000 new beneficiaries each day.

Jenkins also expressed her concern that Medicare Advantage plans and Part D prescription drug plans may charge higher premiums or cost-sharing in future years to make up for the cuts now.

The Devil is in the Details

On the AARP website, Gary Strauss, an AARP staff writer and editor, posted an article on December 6, 2017, “Your 2018 Taxes? Congress Now Deciding,” that identifies specific GOP tax bill provisions that hit older tax payers in their wallets.

According to Strauss, an AARP Public Policy Institute analysis also found that more than one million taxpayers 65 and older would pay higher taxes in 2019, and more than 5 million would see their taxes increase by 2027. More than 5 million seniors would not receive a tax break at all in 2019, and 5.6 million would not see their taxes decrease by 2027.

The House and Senate tax bills also have differing views on the medical expense deduction, used by nearly 75 percent of filers age 50 and older, says Strauss. The Senate plan allows taxpayers to deduct medical expenses exceeding 7.5 percent of their income rather than a current 10 percent — for the next two years. The House tax plan eliminates this deduction. Some 70 percent of filers who use the deduction have incomes below $75,000.

Strauss says that the House bill eliminates the extra standard deduction for those age 65 and up, while the Senate bill retains it. For 2017, that’s $1,250 for individuals, $1,550 for heads of households or $2,500 for couples who are both 65 and older. .

Both Senate and House versions abolish state and local tax deductions, with the exception of up to $10,000 in property taxes. Residents in high-tax states such as California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, would pay higher taxes, adds Strauss.

For home owners, Strauss notes that the Senate plan leaves interest deduction limits at $1 million, while the House bill lowers the mortgage interest deduction limit to $500,000 and no longer allows it to be used for second homes, says Strauss.. Individuals would also continue to get up to $250,000 tax-free from the sale of a home (up to $500,000 for couples). But, both bills require sellers to live in the property five of the eight years prior to a sale, up from the current requirement of two of the last five years,” adds Strauss.

At press time, dozens of newspapers are reporting that Americans across the nation are protesting the passage of GOP tax bill that makes the biggest changes to the U.S. tax code in 30 years, calling it a “scam.” AARP and NCPSSM are mobilizing their millions of members to protect Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

While Trump told Senators at a lunch meeting held on December 5 at the White House that the Republican tax plan was becoming “more popular,” two recently released polls are telling us a completely different story. According to a Gallup national poll, a majority of independents (56 percent) join 87 percent of Democrats in opposing the tax plan. Only 29 percent of Americans overall approve of the proposed GOP changes to the nation’s tax code. Reflecting Gallup’s finding, the Quinnipiac University national poll found that 53 percent of American voters disapprove of the tax plan, while only 29 approve.

With mid-term Congressional elections less than a year away, Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress continued push to dismantle Obamacare, leaving millions without health care coverage and creating a tax code that would destroy Medicare, may well bring millions of older taxpayers to the polls to clean house. We’ll see.

Aging Groups: House GOP Tax Rewrite a Turkey

Published in the Woonsocket Call on November 19, 2017

Thanksgiving approaches the GOP-Controlled House has passed H.R. 1, “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” its tax reform legislation, on November 16, by a partisan vote of 227 to 206, with 13 Republicans siding with the Democrats. The House tax bill would dramatically reduce corporate and individual income taxes and would increase the deficit by $ 1.7 trillion over 10 years — — possibly offset by $ $338 billion saved by repealing the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) individual mandate.

On Thursday, after four days of debate, members of the Senate Finance Committee voted 14 to 12 along party lines to approve their version of the tax package. Now the full Senate is expected to consider the bill after Thanksgiving hoping to quickly get it to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature.

Medicare and ACA Takes a Hit

Matt Shepard, of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, warns that the GOP’s attempt to overhaul to nation’s tax code is an immediate threat to the Medicare program and healthcare coverage to millions of Americans covered by ACA.

According to Shepard, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that the huge cost for the Republican tax plan would result in immediate, automatic and ongoing cuss to Medicare — $25 billion in 2018 alone.

After the GOP’s failed attempts to repeal the ACA, the Senate now uses a provision in its tax rewrite plan to finally repeal the ACA’s individual mandate to purchase insurance coverage in order to help pay for tax cuts, he says. If the GOP tax reform legislation becomes law, 13 million more people will be without health coverage and increasing premiums will disproportionately affect people age 50 who are not yet eligible for Medicare.

“These new dangers are on top of an already bad bill. Congress is engaged in a rushed effort to push through a massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, presenting a clear and present danger to health coverage, other vital programs, and families throughout the nation,” says Shepard.

“After adding $1.5 trillion to the federal debt, policymakers will use the higher debt – created by the tax cuts – to argue that deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other bedrock programs are necessary,” predicts Shepard.

Responding to the House passage of its tax reform bill, just days ago, in a statement AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond expressed disappointment in passage, warning that the legislation is harmful to millions of Americans age 65 and over.

Older Tax Payers Get Financial Hit with GOP Tax Code Fix

“AARP estimates H.R. 1 will raise taxes on 1.2 million seniors next year alone. Millions more older Americans will see tax increases in the future, or at best, no tax relief at all,” says LeaMond.

As Congress continues its debate to hammer out tax reform, LeaMond calls on lawmakers to retain the medical expense deduction at the 7.5% income threshold for older tax filers. “Nearly three-quarters of tax filers who claim the medical expense deduction are age 50 or older and live with a chronic health condition or illness. Seventy percent of filers who claim this deduction have income below $75,000.,” she says, urging that Congress also retain the standard deduction for older taxpayers, which helps reduce tax liability and can help seniors avoid a tax increase.

AARP also urges Congress to assist working family caregivers in a new tax code that creates a new, non-refundable tax credit to offset the often high out-of-pocket costs associated with caring for a loved one.

Finally, LeaMond calls on Congress to reject adding a provision in the tax bill that will lead to higher premium costs in the individual insurance market, as well as 13 million Americans losing their health coverage, including 2 million Americans who would lose employer-sponsored coverage.

In a statement, Max Richtman, President and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, calls the House passed tax rewrite, “Robin Hood-in-Reverse tax legislation.” Now, the House Republicans have sent out a “crystal-clear message “that the elderly, disabled, poor, and working class are no longer part of the GOP’s vision for America,” he says.

Blooming Deficit Might Trigger Raid Social Security

“This craven giveaway to the wealthy and big corporations at the expense of everyone else flies in the face of public opinion, basic decency, and good old common sense, says Richtman, “By ballooning the deficit, Republicans have teed up a raid on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to make up the difference,” he warns.

“The repeal of the medical expense deduction will punish seniors paying out of pocket for treatment of chronic and serious diseases – or long-term care., says Richtman.

With Senate Republicans gearing up their efforts to pass their version of the House’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” Richtman calls on Senators “to show courage and to do what House Republicans refused to [do]: stop the tax juggernaut before it does irreparable harm to our nation.”

If the GOP tax reform legislation is passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump, we will quickly find out by Christmas if it a financial gift to America’s middle class or a lump of coal in their stockings. Aging groups already know this answer.