Trump Spending Priorities Would Fray Social Safety Net Programs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 16, 2019

Last Monday, President Donald Trump released his proposed FY 2020 budget request to Congress. Lawmakers, who rejected many of these budgetary spending requests in the president’s previous two submitted budgets proposals, consider his latest to be “dead-on-arrival.”

But, Trump’s $4.7 trillion fiscal blueprint, outlined in the 150-page “Budget for a Better America,” gives us a clear picture of his spending priorities and policies he seeks to implement through executive orders and regulator changes.

Trump’s FY 2020 spending plan proposes funding increases for combating the opioid epidemic, improving veteran’s health care, fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure ($200 billion increase), even giving the Pentagon a 5 percent increase in spending exceeding what the military asked for. White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump successfully pushed for the FY 2020 budget to include $750 million to establish a paid parental leave program and a $1 billion one-time fund to provide childcare to under served populations.

Trump’s budget proposal makes a commitment of $291 million to eliminate the spread of HIV within a decade, it slashes the National Institutes of Health’s funding by 12 percent, and the budget for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention by about 10 percent.

Trump does not back away from his controversial stance of building a wall, putting in an additional $8.6 trillion for the construction of a U.S. Mexico border barrier. Congress had earlier opposed his demand for $5.7 billion for the construction project.

Trump Budget Proposal Puts Senior’s Earned Benefits at Risk

In 2016, Presidential candidate Trump had pledged not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, but he does in his submitted FY 2020 budget proposal.

Trump calls for a 5 percent cut in non-defense federal agencies, including a whopping $ 1.5 trillion in Medicaid over 10 years. The budget plan instead allocates $1.2 trillion to create “market-based health care grants,” (a.k.a block grants) for states that would start in 2021. This gives states the power to set their own rules for this program.

Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would be eliminated by Trump’s FY 2020 budget proposal by ending ACA’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions and causing millions of people to join the ranks of the uninsured. About 15 million more Americans have joined Medicaid since the ACA expansion was enacted.

Trump’s budget proposal also cuts Medicare by $845 billion over the next decade by cutting payments to hospitals and physicians, rooting out fraud and abuse, and by lowering prescription drug costs.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Disability Insurance program takes a huge budgetary cut of $25 billion and the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget is slashed by 1 percent, at a time when the agency is working hard to ratchet up its customer service provide to SSA beneficiaries.

Trump’s budget proposal would cut $220 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly referred to as the food stamp program. The program currently serves 39 million people. Under this budget, beneficiaries would be required to be employed for 20 hours a week to be eligible for assistance and replacing the EBT-debit card used to purchase groceries with the delivery of a “Harvest Box” filled with non-perishable foods like cereal and pasta, canned goods and surplus dairy products.

Housing and Urban Development’s 202 housing program for seniors and people with disabilities takes a $36 million hit, says long-time aging advocate Bill Benson, principal of Washington, D.C.-based Health Benefits ABC, in the March 15th issue of Aging Policy and Public Health News.

According to Benson, several Older Americans Act programs including the Family Caregiver Support program would be cut in Trump’s budget proposal. The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program would be cut by $1 million. Elder Justice Programs would also be cut under the President’s budget including a $2 million cut to the Elder Justice Initiative at Administration for Community Living.

” Cruelest of all [budgetary cuts] is the proposed out-right elimination of the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) which is the only source of sustained federal funding to states for Adult Protective Services (APS),” says Benson. Some 37 states use SSBGs to support their APS programs. SSBG is also used by states for a number of other services benefiting older adults including home-delivered meals and case management.

Shortchanging Seniors

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) warns that Trump’s budget proposal shortchanges seniors. “In combination with 2017’s tax cuts for the wealthy and the administration’s failure to allow Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma, the Trump budget shows that his administration is not plugged into the realities of being elderly in America,” he says.

Richtman says that Trump’s budget plan also proposes to eliminate federal grants that help pay for programs under the Older Americans Act, such as Meals on Wheels and home heating assistance for the elderly poor.”

According to Richtman, the 116th Congress gives seniors hope with introduced legislation that would boost Social Security benefits and expand Medicare coverage to include dental, hearing and vision services, changes that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. He calls on Congress to “quickly reject this callous budget proposal — and take decisive action to enhance the well-being of older Americans.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sees Trump’s newly released budget proposal as very troubling, too. “It sharply cuts funding in the part of the budget that invests in future economic growth through education and training, scientific research, infrastructure, and the like,” he says.

“It reverses progress in making affordable health care available to people who don’t have employer coverage or can’t afford private coverage. It cuts basic assistance substantially for families, children, and elderly and disabled people who are in need and struggle to get by. And, it doubles down on policies that take away health care, food, and housing when adults aren’t able to meet a work requirement,” says Greenstein.
“Despite bemoaning deficits, it calls for making the costly 2017 tax cuts — which largely benefit those who already have high incomes and wealth — permanent,” he adds.

Richtman believes that Trump’s 2020 spending proposal serves as a warning of what the administration would do if it were not for the firewall known as the Democratic-led House of Representatives. “These draconian ideas – though rejected by voters in the 2018 mid-terms – remain in the conservative political bloodstream, requiring continued advocacy on the part of seniors and their champions in Congress,” he says.

The release of Trump’s FY 2020 budget program begins the Democratic party’s efforts to retake the White House and Senate in the 2020 presidential election, just over 598 days away. By making major cuts in Social Security and Medicare and turning Medicaid into a state block grant program, Trump is giving Democratic challengers in the 2020 presidential election fodder to create politically-charged themes for ads to turn senior voters against him for seeking cuts in these popular domestic programs.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, healthcare, and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

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House Bill to Expand, Strengthen Social Security

Published in Woosocket Call on February 3, 2019

With the 116th Congress kicking off on January 3, 2019 and the Democrats seizing control of the House, it did not take long for a bill to emerge that would strengthen and expand the nation’s Social Security program. Seven years ago, when U.S. Congressman John Larson (D-CT) first introduced the Social Security 2100 Act during the 113th Congress, the GOP controlled Congress blocked a fair hearing and vote. Now, with a Democratic majority in the House Larson’s Social Security proposal will finally get a thorough review as Democrats take control of the House Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor. These committees have oversight of Social Security.

Larson chose to throw the bill into legislative hopper on the 137th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birth, who signed Social Security into law in 1935.

On January 30, 2019, Larson, recently appointed to chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, introduced H.R.860, the Social Security Act 2100 Act, with over 202 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin), to ensure the retirement security of working Americans for another century.

Passage of the Social Security 2100 Act only requires a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass. But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

H.R. 860’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. It would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients will receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

Increasing the Financial Solvency of Social Security

According to an independent analysis of the Social Security’s Office of the Chief Actuary, H.R. 860 proposal would also strengthen and protect the Trust Funds by 75 years.

H.R. 860 would have wealthy individuals pay the same rate as everyone else. Presently, payroll taxes are not collected on wages over $132,900.
Larson’s legislation would apply the payroll tax to wages of $400,000, affecting the top 0.4% of wage earners. The bill gradually phases in an increase in the pay roll contribution rate beginning in 2020, of 50 cents per week, so that by 2043 workers and employers would pay 7.4 percent instead of 6.2 percent. Finally, the bill’s provisions would combine the Old-Age and Survivors, called Social Security, and the Disability Insurance trust funds into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure that all benefits will be paid.

“Social Security is a promise that after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity and economic security. It’s critical that Congress preserve and strengthen this promise for years to come,” said Cicilline, who serves as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, representing Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district.

Larson, recently appointed chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, noted, “With 10,000 baby boomers becoming eligible for Social Security every day, the time to act is now. The Social Security 2100 Act will provide economic security not just for today’s seniors but for future generations too,” said Larson, as the bill was thrown into the legislative hopper.”

There have not been any significant adjustments to Social Security since 1983, when Tip O’Neill was Speaker and Ronald Reagan was President, said Larson. “It’s time for Congress and the President to come together again, just like Speaker O’Neill and President Reagan did to make this a reality, he said.

“For years, fiscal hawks have told us that the only way to ‘save’ Social Security is to cut benefits for future retirees. Congressman Larson’s bill is a resounding rebuke to those claims. The Social Security Act 2100 keeps the program financially sound for most of this century while boosting benefits for millions of beneficiaries,” said Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Richtman says, “Congressman Larson has promised that, for the first time, this legislation will receive thorough consideration in the U.S. House, including hearings with testimony from experts and the public. We applaud him for his vision, persistence, and advocacy on behalf of America’s current and future retirees in moving this bill forward.”

Today, more than 222,000 Rhode Islanders receive Social Security benefits today. It is the most important retirement income for 4 out of 5 seniors and provides financial protections to disabled workers and families who have lost a breadwinner.

For decades, GOP lawmakers pushed its Social Security reforms by privatization, raising the retirement eligibility age and imposing stingier COLA formulas. But, national poll after poll, across party lines and age groups, revealed the public’s strong support for the nation’s retirement program.

Washington Insiders expect Larson’s Social Security bill to pass the House. While GOP Senate leadership keeps the companion measure at arms-length, the upcoming 2020 elections may well grease the legislative wheels for passage. Over 20 Republican Senate, whose seats are at serious risk, may well vote for passage with Democratic Senators.
Stay tuned…

Funding for Seniors in Raimondo’s FY 2020 Budget Blueprint

Published in the Woonsocket Call on January 27, 2019

By Herb Weiss

Almost two weeks ago, Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo formerly unveiled her $9.9 billion budget proposal to the Rhode Island General Assembly. The House and Senate Finance Committees then begin the task of holding hearings on budget plan, getting feedback from the administration and the public. Once the revised estimates of tax revenue and social-services spending is available in May, negotiations seriously begin between Raimondo, the House Speaker and Senate President to craft the House’s budget proposal. Lawmakers will hammer out and pass a final state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Local media coverage of Raimondo’s ambitious spending initiatives zeroed in on her call for expanding free tuition to Rhode Island College and adding some public pre-kindergarten, increasing minimum wage from $ 10.50 to $ 11.10 per hour, allowing mobile sports betting and legalizing recreational marijuana.

But, Raimondo’s budget proposal gives state lawmakers a road map for what programs and services are needed for a state with a graying population.

According to Meghan Connelly, DEA’s Spokesperson, a nearly 60 percent increase in the State’s population of residents aged 65 and older from the years 2016 to 2040 highlights the need for continued investments in programs servicing Rhode Island’s older adults and their family caregivers.

Connelly says Raimondo’s budget proposal, released on January 17, elevates Elderly Affairs from a division under the Department of Human Services to an Office within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. The governor shifts financing for the office and 31.0 FTE positions to EOHHS to accomplish this recommended action.

“The projected increase in the state’s senior population – from 174,000 in 2016 to 265,000 by 2040 – coupled with the proven impact of community-based supports and services, highlights the need for continuing to invest in helping our seniors remain home, connected to their families and networks. Support of aging-related health-promotion initiatives are essential to maintain a high quality of life for Rhode Island seniors while minimizing aging-related healthcare costs,” says Connelly

“We are focused on making it easier for older adults to live independent, fulfilling lives for as long as possible,” said Michelle Szylin, Acting Director of the Division of Elderly Affairs. “The Co-Pay expansion [in the governor’s proposed budget] enables additional older adults to age-in-place, remaining safely in their homes and engaging in their communities.”

The Co-Pay expansion enables additional older adults to age-in-place, remaining safely in their homes and engaging in their communities. The governor’s proposal to expand the state’s Co-Pay program [by $ 550,000] will allow more seniors to reside in their communities, staying connected to their family and network of friends and neighbors.

Providing access to the Co-Pay program to individuals earning up to 250% of the Federal Poverty Level will allow more seniors to age-in-place with a better quality of life and delay nursing home admission. The DEA Co-Pay program was established in 1986 as an option for elders who would otherwise be ineligible for subsidized home and community care assistance because they did not qualify for the Rhode Island Medical Assistance program.

Recognizing the importance of the state’s Elderly Transportation Program to keep older Rhode Islander’s independent, Raimondo’s budget proposal calls for additional funding of $1.8 million from general funds to support the State’s elderly transportation program. This program provides non-emergency transportation benefits to Rhode Islanders age 60 and over who do not have access to any means of transportation. The program provides transportation to and from medical appointments, adult day care, meal sites, dialysis/cancer treatment and the Insight Program.

Raimondo’s proposed budget also increases Health Facilities regulation staffing to increase the number of inspections to state-licensed health care facilities. The governor recommends a $327,383 increase in restricted receipt funds for 3.0 FTE positions. These positions will bolster existing staffing to increase the number of inspections to state-licensed healthcare facilities.

The Governor’s proposed FY 2020 budget also through the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority continues to subsidize the transit of elderly and disabled Rhode Islanders through the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

Raimondo’s proposed budget also continues the support for the Independent Provider model P model with almost $200,000 in general revenue funds budgeted (about $770,000 all funds) to cover implementation costs. The goal of this model is to increase workforce capacity and create a new option for delivery of direct support services for both seniors and people with developmental disabilities.

Finally, the governor’s FY 2020 budget also allocates funding to an array of programs and services for seniors. Here’s a sampling: $800,000 to support the state’s senior centers through a grant process (the amount was doubled last year); $ 530,000 to support Meals on Wheels; $ 85,000 to implement security measures in elderly housing complexes; $ 169,000 for the long-term care ombudsman through the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, which advocates on behalf of residents of nursing homes, assisted living residences and certain other facilities, as well as recipients of home care services; and $ 500,000 funds the state’s Home Modifications program at Governor’s Commission on Disabilities.

Nursing Facility Provides Take a Hit

Raimondo’s proposed budget plan seeks to freeze the state’s Medicaid payment rates to hospitals, slashing funding by an estimated $15 million overall for the year, and to limit the rate increase for nursing homes to 1%, costing them nursing home providers about $4 million.
“We are beginning the budget process with a 1 percent increase in the COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment), says Scott Fraser, President and CEO of Rhode Island Health Care Association (RIHCA), warning that “this is not enough.”

“Since 2012, nursing facility costs have risen 21.6 percent while Medicaid payment rates have only gone up by 9.6 percent, adds Fraser, noting that by statute, rates are supposed to be adjusted annually for inflation. “We will be advocating for additional funding for nursing facilities throughout the remainder of the budget process,” he warns.

Jim Nyberg, Director LeadingAge RI, an organization representing not-for-profit providers of aging services, joins with RIHCA in calling on Rhode Island lawmakers to restore the full inflation adjustment. “Ongoing increases in minimum wage (up 42 percent since 2012) make it harder for publicly funded providers to compete for skilled workers,” says Nyberg, noting that most of his nonprofit nursing homes have 60 percent to 70 percent of their residents on Medicaid. “A rate increase is needed help nursing homes recruit and retain the direct care workers that are so critical to providing quality care,” he says.

“Since 2016, our nursing homes and consumers have been severely disrupted by UHIP, financially and operationally. The ongoing problems with Medicaid application approvals and payments has resulted in significant increases in staff workload just to maintain operations, let alone the impact on cash flow and financial stability, adds Nybrg.

Nyberg’s group is also advocating to expand the CoPay program for individuals under the age of 65 with dementia. “This has been proposed in the past but not included in this budget. We think that such an expansion will help this at-risk population for whom no publicly-funded programs and services currently exist,” he says.

Lawmakers, AARP Rhode Island Gives Comments

AARP Rhode Island is encouraged to see that the Governor placed an increase in the State Budget for the Department of Elderly Affairs home healthcare Co-Pay program,” said AARP Rhode Island Advocacy Director John DiTomasso. “By increasing the income eligibility from 200% of the poverty level to 250%, more older Rhode Islanders will be able to obtain home care services at reduced hourly rates,” he added. “This will help large numbers of people to extend the time they can age in place in their home and in their community rather than in more costly state-paid long-term care facilities,” says DiTomasso.

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio says, “Upon a first look at the budget, I am very pleased that some of the Senate’s top priorities are incorporated. The Governor had to close a significant deficit, and difficult choices had to be made. However, the budget is a statement of priorities, and initiatives like the no-fare bus pass program for low-income seniors and disabled Rhode Islanders are a priority for us in the Senate. I am very pleased to see this program funded in the budget, along with many other services for seniors, and I look forward to deeper analysis of all aspects of the budget in the months ahead.”

AddsD House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, “The House Finance Committee will soon begin holding public hearings and reviewing every aspect of the Governor’s budget proposal. We will make certain that the level of care and services to older adults will be maintained and hopefully enhanced. We are facing significant budget challenges this year, but we will always keep the needs of our seniors at the forefront of the discussions.”

Older Rhode Islanders and aging groups must continue to push the House to at a minimal maintain the governor’s senior agenda. Hopefully, as Mattiello said, senior programs and services can be enhanced.

For a Senate Fiscal Analysis of Raimondo’s FY 2020 budget, go to http://www.rilegislature.gov/sfiscal/Budget%20Analyses/FY2020%20SFO%20Governor’s%20Budget%20-%20First%20Look.pdf.

Government Shutdown Hurts Seniors, Too

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 21, 2019

At press time, the federal government has been partially shut down for over 29 days because of Democrats and Republicans being at odds over President Trump’s ask for $5.7 billion to be included in continuing spending resolutions for the Oct. 1 start of the new federal fiscal year. Trump calls for billions of dollars to build a border wall along the 234 miles of the nation’s southern border.

The partial shutdown began on Dec. 22 because Congress had not passed legislation, signed by the President, to fund nine federal departments, so these departments do not have funding to operate. The department’s include Agriculture (USDA), Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Interior, State, Transportation and Treasury.

During the partial government shutdown, Trump has so refused to retreat from his request for funding to build a wall. With strong Democratic opposition the political standoff has made this partial shutdown the longest one of its kind in the nation’s history. There have been 21 shutdowns since 1976.

Local media has widely reported that this shutdown has left 800,000 federal workers furloughed without pay, as well as those working in several federal agencies. But half of these employees are still working, being recalled but without being pay. But Trump has signed legislation this week to pay these employees retroactively once a funding bill is enacted.

What About Aging Programs and Services?

According to AARP’s Senior Writer Dena Bunis in a Jan. 18th web article, “Essential Services Stay in Place Despite Massive Federal Employee Furloughs,” the government shutdown does not impact major domestic programs, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security but other programs and services for seniors are affected.
Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will continue operating and not be disrupted by the shutdown because these programs are funded by an advance appropriations and Social Security [ an earned benefit] is separately funded, says Bunis.

Bunis adds, even with the shutdown aging veterans will still have access to VA hospitals, medical centers and clinics because the Department of Veterans Affairs is funded.

Retirees will find many of the nation’s 400 national parks open but having limited services. Park rangers are furloughed and volunteers are stepping up to help where needed, says Bunis, noting that with employees not reporting for work, bathrooms and other facilities remain unattended with trash piling up and vandalism reports are increasing.

Although flights are not affected and air traffic controllers remain working, Transportation Security Administration’s airport security screeners are calling in sick in large numbers, increasing waiting times, notes Bunis. She says that Federal Aviation Administration has brought back thousands of safety inspectors and engineers to keep the planes in the air flying safely.

Seniors receiving SNAP (formerly called food stamps) from the USDA can expect getting their February benefits, says Bunis, but Meals on Wheels and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program food-box deliveries will be available through March.

Bunis notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has brought back nearly 150 furloughed employees without pay “to resume safety inspections on certain drugs, medical devices and high-risk foods, such as cheese, fruits and vegetables, and infant formula.”

The current government shutdown has closed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Those workers age 40 and over who file age discrimination claims may experience difficulties in applying and getting these claims processed, says Bunis.

USDA loans for low- and moderate-income Americans who live in rural areas have stopped because of the shutdown, says Bunis. “The Federal Housing Administration is not issuing the needed paperwork for reverse mortgages to get approved. More than 1,000 contracts between HUD and landlords who provide rental assistance to low-income tenants have expired, and hundreds more will expire in February,” she notes.

Meanwhile, USDA has recalled 2,500 Farm Service Agency employees to temporarily assist agricultural producers with existing farm loan payments to ensure they get the tax documents necessary to file their returns, says Bunis.

It’s tax season…Bunis says that although the Internal Revenue Service is affected by the shutdown because it is part of the Treasury Department, over 46,000 furloughed employees have been called back to work to process income-tax returns and refunds. Filing season officially begins on Jan. 28.

Casey Calls on Trump to Reopen Government

Last week, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, urged Trump to end the partial shutdown charging that the federal government’s closing jeopardizes the transportation, housing, and nutrition needs of older Americans and people with disabilities.

“I am particularly concerned about the adverse impact of the shutdown on seniors, people with disabilities and their families,” stated in Jan 15 correspondence to the President. Food assistance programs administered through the UDSA, rental assistance payments from HUD, transportation services through the Department of Transportation (DOT), and frauds and scams investigations and enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are all negatively impacted during the shutdown, said Casey.

“Elected and appointed officials in Washington have a sacred responsibility of ensuring seniors can age with dignity and people with disabilities can live independently. I request you direct the USDA, HUD, DOT, FTC and FCC to provide additional information to Congress on the steps they will take to mitigate the harmful impact this shutdown will have on seniors and people with disabilities. And, I urge you to reopen the government so that the health and financial security of our aging loved ones are no longer put in jeopardy,” Casey adds.

For a copy of Casey’s correspondence, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/press-releases/casey-to-trump-the-shutdown-hurts-seniors_.

Midterm Elections are Here: Your Vote Sends a Message to Congress

Published in the Woonsocket Call on November 11, 2018

The mid-term elections are here and Americans have an opportunity, if they choose to vote, to send a strong message to Capitol Hill about what policy issues are important to them. All 435 Congressional seats are on the ballot including 35-Senate seats. The outcome of these political races will ultimately impact older Americans. Will Congressional lawmakers work to ensure the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, or protect those with pre-existing conditions? Or will they put political differences aside to craft legislation that will put the brakes to spiraling prescription drug costs.

Last month, AARP released, a 52-page report, “2018 Mid-Term Election Voter Issue Survey,” that found that the majority of those surveyed say the following issues will help them make their voting decisions in days: lowering health care costs (79 percent), strengthening and reforming Social Security (75 percent) and Medicare, (70 percent) and putting the brakes to skyrocketing prescription drug costs (74 percent).

AARP’s survey data were collected by Alan Newman Research (ANR) between July 7 and July 18, 2018. ANR conducted a total of 802 telephone interviews of registered likely voters age 50 and older. All data were weighted by education, race/ethnicity, age, gender, and census division according to Current Population Survey statistics provided by AARP.

What Issues Are Important to Older Voters?

Let’s take a closer look at AARP’s July telephone survey findings…

The top issue for the Democratic survey respondents was health care costs, Social Security, drug costs and Medicare while Republicans identified national security as their issue.

People become eligible for health insurance through Medicare when they turn age 65. Democrats responding to the AARP survey (77 percent) were more likely to support giving those age 50 to 64, the option to buy health insurance through Medicare than the responding Republicans (57 percent).

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and other lawmakers have proposed a national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single
government plan (called Medicare-for-All). The researchers noted that Democratic respondents gave the thumbs up (75 percent) to supporting this legislative policy while only 34 percent of the Republican respondents supported the health care policy.

The AARP survey also found that 66 percent of the respondents supported allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug costs to increase the solvency of the program.

Last year, Congress passed legislation that required pharmaceutical companies to contribute more to contribute more to close the Medicare Part D coverage gap to reduce the high out-of-pocket cost of drug costs. The pharmaceutical lobby is working to reverse this requirement. The AARP survey found that 78 percent of the age 50 and over respondents support the existing requirement to contribute more to close the Medicare Part D coverage gap.

Federal law prohibits insurance companies from charging those with pre-existing conditions more for health coverage. While some want to repeal this law because they believe the person should pay more, others say that paying a higher premium is unfair. The AARP survey found that 84 percent of the women and Democrats surveyed were more likely to say that the higher costs of health care is unfair for those with preexisting conditions.

Current federal law allows insurance companies to charge up to three times more for health insurance for those over age 50. Some Congressional lawmakers propose increasing this charge up to five times more for health insurance. Eighty three percent of the older survey respondents oppose this, calling any changes unfair.

Over half of the age 50 older survey respondents have caregiving experiences. Two in five of these respondents believe they will become caregivers. The survey found that 75 percent of the respondent’s support employer requirements for family caregiving. The requirements include: ensuring that employees can not be fired for taking time off for caregiving; allowing the use of existing sick leave for caregiving activities; allowing a limited amount of unpaid and paid leave for use by caregivers.

Eighty seven percent of the AARP survey respondents believe Congress should pass laws to protect caregivers from being fired for taking time off to care for a loved one. Most of these respondents (88 percent) also believe that stronger laws are needed to protect older workers from age discrimination.

Currently, there is discussion on Capitol Hill about the need for a rule that requires professional financial advisors, when giving advice to their older clients about their retirement savings accounts, to give advice that is in the best interest of these individuals. The AARP survey found that 69 percent of the survey respondents agree to this rule.

Phone App Informs Older Voters on Aging Issues

The Washington, DC-based AARP today launches “Raise Your Voice,” the nation’s first comprehensive advocacy and voting app for smart speakers (works on Amazon Alexa and Google Home) . The voice-enabled experience is designed to help older voters to use smart speakers to become educated on a wide range of aging issues — including Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs, Medicaid and caregiving.

“This groundbreaking skill empowers voters at a time when people are looking for trustworthy, accessible sources of information,” said John Hishta, AARP Senior Vice President of Campaigns, in a statement announcing the Oct. 11 release of the phone app.

To invoke the app, the user simply says their smart speaker’s wake command, followed by “Open Raise Your Voice.” With days before the upcoming midterm elections, the user can direct “Raise Your Voice” to look up polling information and send it directly to the user’s cell phone. Similarly, the user can command the app to provide information on AARP issues.

“Traditional voter education is laudable and important work, but it’s a leap forward to develop technology that better supports voters as they seek out the location of their polling place, information on key issues, and the ability to contact their elected officials,” said Sami Hassanyeh, AARP Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy and Membership. “

The app is available at http://www.aarp.org/raiseyourvoice.

Send a Message to Congress

Robert Roach, Jr., President of the Washington, DC-based Alliance for Retired Americans, calls on older voters to “Know your rights before heading to the polls.” Your state’s Secretary of State’s website can provide details about voter identification requirements and other laws. If you are encountering problems with voting or suspect voter rights at your polling site, seek out an elected official to discuss, suggests Roach. Also, call the voting rights hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683).

“Bring a snack, a book and even a chair if you think there may be a line. Don’t go home until your vote has been counted,” says Roach. “An unfortunate election result could lead to health insurers charging people aged 50-64 five times more than younger consumers for the same coverage. A good result could lead to an expansion of your earned Social Security benefits,” he says.

Calls for Strengthening Medicare as it Hits 53

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 5, 2018

Just before Summer recess House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) joined Seniors Task Force co-chairs Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Doris Matsui (D-CA), Democratic Policy and Communications Committee co-chair Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) and seniors’ advocates gathered in the historic Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol, one of the largest rooms on Capitol Hill, to celebrate the 53rd anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid being signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

“We usually celebrate Medicare’s anniversary at the U.S. Capitol with balloons and cake. This year, the 53rd anniversary, was a more solemn occasion because of relentless attacks on the program by the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans, says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, one of the advocacy groups in attendance.

When signing the landmark legislation into law on July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B Johnson said, “No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime. No longer will young families see their own incomes and hopes eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents.”

At the July 25 birthday commemoration, Leader Pelosi called Medicare and Medicaid “the pillars of health and security for the nation,” noting that for years these two programs have been under unrelenting and constant attacks from Republicans.

“For years, Republicans have sought to deny seniors and working families the healing miracle of medicine. Republicans want Medicare, in their words, to ‘wither on the vine.’ They want to cut and cap Medicaid into oblivion. They want to give massive tax handouts to big pharma who are denying seniors lower prescription drug prices,” says Pelosi.

According to Pelosi, the Democrats plan, A Better Deal, provides a legislative strategy for lowering the price of prescription drugs. “Our plan calls for tough new enforcement of drug price gauging, allowing Medicare part D to negotiate drug prices,” she said, noting that President Donald Trump had promised that during his presidential campaign, “We’re going to negotiate like crazy.”

Echoing Pelosi, at the press conference Rhode Island Congressman Cicilline also called for the reining in of prescription drug costs to put the brakes on rising Medicare expenditures. “Democrats believe that seniors shouldn’t have to cut pills in half to afford prescription drugs. We need a president who will work with us to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, to compel drug makers to justify cost increases, and to crack down on price gougers,” said Cicilline.

Cicilline reminded those attending that the President once promised to take on the drug companies but now has decided to appoint a former drug company executive as his Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Service. “And right now, he’s pretty much letting the pharmaceutical lobby have the run of the place,” he charged.

At the press conference, the Democratic lawmakers were joined by ten yellow t-shirted senior volunteers from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare’s Capitol Action Team (CAT), who demanded that the program be strengthened. One of the CAT members, Patricia Cotton, gave a powerful personal testimonial about the importance of Medicare in her life. Cotton, a Medicare beneficiary who suffers from a blood cancer known as Myelofibrosis, said she wouldn’t be alive today without the health care program.

“My cancer meds started at $10,000 every 30 days and have gone up twice in two years. Cancer meds are very expensive. My Medicare Part B and D premiums have gone up, and that is coming out of my Social Security check. That is why, without Medicare and Social Security, the rich will live and the poor will die,” said Cotton.
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Democratic Report Spotlights GOP’s Ongoing Attacks on Medicare

At this event, the House Democratic Seniors Task Force unveiled a new 24 page report, “The Republican Record on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security: Attacks on Benefits Seniors Have Earned and Deserve,” detailing years of Republican’s attacks on seniors and demanded the GOP take action on lowering pharmaceutical prices.

“This report shows how the passage of the GOP tax bill was just one step in a long line of Republican attacks on seniors,” says Congressman Matsui (D-CA). “In budget after budget, year after year, Republicans have reaffirmed their commitment to gutting Medicaid, scaling back Medicare, and cutting seniors’ earned Social Security benefits. Democrats are focusing on efforts that help seniors and families, like lowering drugs prices, and fighting to ensure that these vital programs are here for current and future generations.”

“The House GOP budget proposal includes more than $500 billion in Medicare cuts, a higher eligibility age, and privatization of the program through a voucher system,” the National Committee’s Max Richtman explains. “The President’s 2019 budget would inflict similar harm on Medicare. The Trump administration is undermining the program through skillfully worded enrollment information that favors private Medicare Advantage plans over traditional Medicare. These actions are contrary to the mission of Medicare so eloquently stated by President Lyndon Johnson is when he signed it into law 53 years ago,” says Richtman.

AARP Calls Medicare an Economic Engine for Rhode Island

Last year, Medicare, which helps pay the health care costs of 56 million beneficiaries, is a critical part of the country’s economic infrastructure, investing about $ 710 billion in the national economy that year, says AARP.

On July 25th, the same day that House Democratic Leadership and aging groups celebrated the 53rd anniversary of the signing of Medicare, AARP released fact sheets illustrating Medicare’s contribution to the economies of each state and the District of Columbia.

Let’s take a close look at the Ocean State.

Medicare contributes $2.5 billion to Rhode Island’s economy, equivalent to 21% of state and local government spending in the state, according to the released AARP Rhode Island fact sheet, noting that the program also covers 192,186 beneficiaries in the state. In polls, older Americans have said Medicare is one of their top issues in the 2018 mid-term elections, and AARP Rhode Island is working to encourage older Rhode Island voters to participation this election season.

“Medicare is a major economic engine in our economy security, as well as a key part of, providing health security to Rhode Islanders,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell in a statement. “Older Americans have said Medicare is one of their top issues in this election, yet too many politicians fail to recognize the contributions Medicare makes to the economy and our residents. Any candidate who fails to talk about how they would strengthen Medicare for future generations does so at their peril,” says Connell.

Below the AARP fact sheet breaks down some of Medicare’s spending in Rhode Island:
• $1.1 billion for hospitals
• $551 million for doctors
• $338 million for prescriptions and medical supplies
• $198 million for skilled nursing facilities
• $159 million for home healthcare agencies
• $92 million health professionals
• $24 million for medical equipment

Also, businesses in Rhode Island receiving Medicare dollars use them to pay employees’ salaries, rent, state and local taxes, and buy equipment, and make capital improvements to their facilities, says the AARP fact sheet.

With the mid-term elections looming, it is now time to send a clear message to Congress and President Donald Trump, “Stop Attacking Medicare.” Lawmakers on both side of the aisle must work to craft a bipartisan solution to strengthen the program for the benefit of America’s retirees. Consider sending this message when you vote…

AARP’s “Be The Difference. Vote” campaign includes a one-stop online portal – aarp.org/vote – to provide people with information (about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and aging issues} they need to. know about before voting in the upcoming November elections.

To see the House Democratic Senior Task Force report, “The Republican Record on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security: Attacks on Benefits Seniors Have Earned and Deserve,” go to
http://www.schakowsky.house.gov/uploads/Seniors%20Task%20Force%20Report%207.24.18.pdf

GOP House Budget Fray’s Nation’s Safety Net

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 24, 2018

Just six months ago, the Republican-controlled House passed their massive $1.5 trillion tax cuts for the nation’s largest corporations and to the wealthiest 1 percent. The day of reckoning has now come as the GOP spells out how it will rein in the nation’s spiraling deficit through its recently released FY 2019 budget resolution. On Tuesday, the House Budget Committee unveiled its 85-page budget resolution, making trillions in spending cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, he nation’s two largest entitlement programs, health care, and programs benefiting veterans, students and working families. ‘

The budget titled, “A Brighter American Future,” calls for $8.1 trillion of deficit reduction while including reconciliation instructions for 11 House authorizing committees to enact at least $302 billion over nine years. Consistent with levels signed into law in February 2018, this budget sets topline discretionary spending at $1.24 trillion ($647 billion for defense spending and $597 billion for non-defense discretionary spending).

The budget blueprint cleared the House Budget Committee by a partisan vote of 21-13, with a vote, with a Democratic and Republican lawmaker absent from the vote. Political insiders Fortunately, Capitol Hill-watchers say the 2019 House GOP Budget proposal is unlikely to make it before the full House or pass this year. But, it sends a message out to voters about the Republican’s legislative priorities to rein in a skyrocketing deficits and debt by slashing entitlement and popular domestic programs.

Putting the Wealthy and Powerful Ahead

When unveiling the House GOP’s budget, Chairman Steve Womack of Arkansas, notes that it addresses “unsustainable mandatory spending, continues economic growth, encourages better government and greater accountability, and empowers state and local governments.”

During a CNBC interview on June 22, 2018, Womack said, “We have done our job and it is a reflection of what we believe is the stark reality of the fiscal condition of our country right, unstable deficits year over year and $21 trillion in debt that is going to continue to grow over time. We just felt like it was time to sound the alarm and do something about and this and this particular budget resolution does it.”
Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline counters Womack’s rosy assessment of the House GOP budget. ““If a budget is a statement of your values, then this budget shows Republicans are putting the wealthy and powerful ahead of working people. Just a few months after passing a massive tax cut for billionaires and corporate special interests, Republicans are proposing to repeal the Affordable Care Act; cut funding for road repairs and other infrastructure projects; cripple Medicare and Social Security; make deep cuts to Pell grants; and repeal Dodd-Frank so the big banks can do whatever they want once again. In fact, this budget is so terrible, it’s hard to imagine Republicans will ever bring it to the floor,” says the Rhode Island lawmaker.

“But despite an extraordinary past and a booming economy thanks to tax reform, there are real fiscal challenges casting a shadow of doubt on the nation’s future, including $21 trillion of debt that is rapidly on the rise. We must overcome the challenges,” says Womack.

Womack says that his budget plan “offers a balanced and responsible plan to not only address the challenges but give rise to the nation’s prosperity.”

Medicare and Medicaid on Budgetary Chopping Block

Numerous federal programs affecting old Americans would be put on the budgetary chopping block, which includes another call for full repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), leaving 23 million Americans without health coverage. $5.4 trillion of cuts would come from mandatory or automatic spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The plan calls for raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67, as well as combining Medicare Parts A and B, and allowing for privatization of the entitlement program. The projected cuts for Medicare alone add up to $537 billion.

The GOP’s efforts to privatize Medicare runs counter to what Americans want, preserving the program in its current form. The Kaiser Family Foundation released poll results in 2015, celebrating Medicare’s 50th Anniversary, the respondents by a margin of more than two to one, do not want to see their traditional Medicare privatized.

As to Medicaid, a joint federal and state program that helps with medical costs for some people with limited income and resources, the GOP budget plan limits per capita payments and allows states to turn it into a block grant. It also introduces stricter work requirements for beneficiaries and shifting to a capped system linked to medical inflation rates, these changes cutting about $1.5 trillion. Additionally, Womack’s budget would no longer allow people on Social Security disability to receive unemployment insurance at the same time, slashing $4 billion for the FY 2019 budget.

Outside of mandatory spending programs, the budget would cut trillions from “welfare,” federal retirement programs and veterans programs, while overhauling rules for medical liability lawsuits.

“This budget proposal is a direct attack on the quality of life of America’s seniors,” said Robert Roach, Jr., President of the Alliance of Retired Americans. “We must hold our elected officials accountable for their actions. We predicted cuts to our hard-earned benefits after the GOP passed their unfunded tax cuts for billionaires and corporations. Unfortunately, that reality is now staring us in the face,” he says.

Adds Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “Speaker Ryan is obviously making good on his promise to come after safety net programs to pay for the reckless Trump/GOP tax reform. In so doing, he and his party are sending a clear message: older, poorer, and disabled Americans are not as important as the billionaires and big corporations who are the main beneficiaries of a tax scheme that is blowing up our nation’s debt.”

Before the House Budget Committee vote, Joyce A. Rogers, AARP’s Senior Vice President Government Affairs, urged that Medicare not be cut. She called for good changes such as “reducing prescription drugs costs, enhancing payment and delivery reforms, and addressing the widespread fraud, waste, and abuse in the program.”

According to Rogers, “The typical senior, with an annual income of approximately $26,000 and already spending one out of every six dollars on health care, counts on Social Security for the majority of their income, and on Medicare for access to affordable health coverage.”

Finally, Rogers notes that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) plays vital role in providing nutritional assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families, many seniors. “In 2016, 8.7 million (over 40 percent of) SNAP households had at least one adult age 50 or older. Proposals to block grant the program, or expand work requirements, will make SNAP less responsive and accessible in times of need,” she says.

Educate Yourself About the Issues

With the upcoming Rhode Island primary on September 12, and midterm elections just 135 days, AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell urges all registered Rhode Island voters to review candidates’ positions on the issues and go to the polls and cast your ballot. “The 2018 midterms will be among the most historic elections in a generation,” she said.

Nationwide, the balance of power in both houses of Congress, as well as in many state legislatures and governorships, could shift because of the results in the fall’s general elections, says Connell.

While the most common way to vote is for registered voters to go to their local polling place on Election Day, Connell said that many family caregivers and others who may have difficulty voting on that day may be eager to take advantage of other methods of casting a ballot.

“With all that unpaid family caregivers have on their plates each day, it can often be hard for them to get to the polls on Election Day,” said Connell. “If a caregivers’ loved one is voting, it can be even harder, especially if their loved one has mobility issues. When available, alternative methods of casting a ballot (a mail ballot) are essential to allowing our state’s family caregivers and others to participate in this important election.” To learn more about mail ballots, visit https://vote.sos.ri.gov/

To mobilize it’s 35 million members, AARP has launched “Be the Difference. Vote,” a campaign designed to maximize the political influence of over age 50 voters. The initiative seeks to get the largest possible turnout of older voters to the polls during the ongoing primaries and in the November general election. It will also put front and center issues like Medicare security and family caregiving, along with other topics of particular interest to older voters.

To learn more about “Be the Difference. Vote,” check out aarp.org/vote to see how to get involved and state informed.