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’s Budget Proposal Comes ‘Dead on Arrival’ to Aging Groups

Published in Woonsocket Call on February 18, 2018

Last Monday, President Donald Trump released his 2019 budget proposal, “An American Budget,” providing guidance to Congress on how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in new federal spending plan authorized by the Bipartisan Budget Act recently passed into law. Trump’s federal spending wish list clearly shows that many programs and services for older Americans will take a huge hit if any of these proposals are picked up by the Republican-controlled Congress.

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) expresses concern that Trump’s budget proposal contains many of the same harmful proposals that the Administration and Republican-controlled Congress has pushed before, including $1.4 trillion in Medicaid cuts, $490 billion in Medicare cuts, and repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Social Security on the Chopping Block

According to the NCPSSM’s analysis released this month, the President’s budget blue print calls for deep cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance, breaking his campaign promise not to touch Social Security.

Trump proposes to slash up to $64 billion from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits through eight demonstrations “ostensibly” geared toward helping disability beneficiaries to stay at work or return to work, says NCPSSM, noting that these Social Security Administration’s (SSA) demonstration projects, established in 1980, had only “a modest effect on beneficiaries’ workforce participation.”

NCPSSM’s analysis warns that the President’s proposed budget also calls for other benefit cuts for disabled seniors, including limiting the retroactivity of applications for disability benefits from 12 months to six months. It would also deny unemployment compensation payments to SSDI beneficiaries who work but get laid off. Social Security Income recipients that live together, even with families, would see their benefits reduced, too.

The Trump Administration also proposes $12.393 billion for SSA’s FY 2019 appropriation for administrative funding, says NCPSSM, warning that this $89 million funding cut will result in longer waits for decisions on initial disability claims and time to speak to a representative from SSA’s 800 number. “With 10,000 baby boomers reaching age 65 every day, SSA needs substantial yearly increases just to keep pace with increased workloads, says NCPSSM.

President Trump’s budget plan only funds production and mailing of only 15 million Social Security statements. “This proposal is part of SSA’s overall plan to limit sending statements only to individuals who are 60 or older rather than sending them to all workers every five years,” says the aging advocacy group, urging the Administration “to send these important financial planning documents to all workers, as is required in section 1143 of the Social Security Act.”

Medicare Takes a Blow

President Trump’s draconian budget calls for over $500 billion in cuts to Medicare, many of these savings coming from cuts to Medicare providers and suppliers. This is another campaign promise broken.

NCCPSSM warns that President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal also includes policy changes to the prescription drug benefit that would impact Medicare’s spending and beneficiary costs. It would create an out-of-pocket maximum for Part D. Medicare t beneficiaries with very high drug costs would no longer have cost sharing responsibility once they hit the catastrophic threshold. This would add $7.4 billion in costs over 10 years.

Trump’s budget proposal would also change the way the threshold for moving out of the coverage gap or “donut hole”” is calculated that would make it more costly to seniors to move through it. “Taken together with an out-of-pocket cap, it will mean savings for some seniors with very high drug costs, but costs will climb for a larger number of seniors. This saves $47.0 billion over 10 years,” reports NCPSSM.

Finally, Trump’s 2019 budget proposal saves $210 million over 10 years by eliminating the cost-sharing on generic drugs for low-income beneficiaries.

Hurting Medicaid Recipients

In FY 2015, federal and state governments spent about $158 billion or 30 percent of Medicaid spending on long-term services and supports (LTSS). The federal and state partnership pays for about half of all LTSS for older adults and people with disabilities.

The President’s 2019 budget proposal slashes the program’s funding by changing the structure of the program into either a per capita cap or Medicaid block grant, with a goal of giving states more flexibility of managing their programs. Through 2028, the president’s budget would cut $1.4 trillion from the Medicaid program through repealing the Affordable Care Act, restructuring the program.

NCPSSM expresses concern that if states lose money under per capita caps or block grants, state law makers would have to make up the funding themselves if federal funds do not keep up with their Medicaid population’s needs. This can happen by either by cutting benefits and/or limiting eligibility, requiring family members to pick up more nursing home costs, or scaling back nursing home regulations that ensure quality, service and safety protections.

And That’s Not All

NCPSSM’s analysis says that Trump’s budget proposal also calls for the elimination of the Older Americans Act Title V Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). The program, funded $ 400 million in FY 2017. provides job training to nearly 70,000 low-income older adults each year.

Community Services Block Grants ($715 million), the Community Development Block Grant ($3 billion) and the Social Services Block Grant ($1.7 billion) programs are also targeted to be eliminated. Some Meals on Wheels programs rely on funding from these federal programs, in addition to OAA funding, to deliver nutritious meals to at-risk seniors.

Trump’s 2019 Budget proposal would also eliminate funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) This program received $3.39 billion in FY 2017. “Of the 6.8 million households that receive assistance with heating and cooling costs through LIHEAP each year, 2.26 million or one-third are age 60 or older,” says NCPSSM.

Trump’s budget plan also eliminates funding for Senior Corps programs including the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions. Current Senior Corps funding at the FY 2017 level is $202.1 million. “These programs enable seniors to remain active and engaged in their communities, serving neighbors across the lifespan, and benefitting their own health in the process. In 2016, 245,000 Senior Corps volunteers provided 74.6 million hours of service,” says NCPSSM. .

Finally, research into cancer, Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s and other diseases affecting older persons will be negatively impacted with $ 46 million in funding cuts to National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Aging advocacy groups view Trump’s second budget “flawed,” jam-packed with “damaging policies” for Congress to enact with an aging population. It’s “Dead on Arrival.” If Trump and GOP lawmakers choose not to listen to their older constituents, the results of the upcoming mid-term elections might just get their attention.

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.

Aging Groups Fear that Deficit May Lead to Attacks on Entitlement Programs

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 21, 2018

In early December, the GOP-controlled Senate passed by a partisan vote of 51 to 49 its sweeping tax rewrite, sending the $1.5 trillion tax package, detailed in a 492 page bill, to the Conference Committee to iron out the differences between the Senate and House bills. The House’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1), was passed by a 227-to-205 vote on November 16, 2017. Congress ultimately passed the Conference Committee’s revised tax bill, sending it to President Trump’s desk for signature. While the new tax law has a few positive provisions for seniors, aging groups predict a frontal assault by the GOP-controlled Congress and White House in 2018 to make cuts on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to balance to ballooning federal deficit.

Just days before President Trump signed into law on December 22, 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (P.L. 115-97), considered to be the biggest tax reform overhaul in over 30 years, AARP’s Chief Executive Officer, Jo Ann C. Jenkins, sent a letter to Congress raising the Washington, DC-based aging groups concerns with the law’s significant shortcomings as well as highlighting its impact “on the nation’s ability to fund critical priorities.”

Putting Medicare on the Chopping Block

In December 19 correspondence, Jenkins noted that AARP opposed the tax bill because of its negative impact on older adults. She expressed concern that there would be increased calls for greater spending cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and other domestic programs serving older Americans, with the tax legislation increasing the nation’s deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years (with an unknown amount beyond 2027).

“Indeed, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has confirmed that unless Congress takes action, the reconciliation legislation will result in automatic federal funding cuts of $136 billion in fiscal year 2018, $25 billion of which must come from Medicare,” said Jenkins. With the tax legislation’s repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, health care premiums would increase by 10 percent (with 64-year olds paying an average increase of $1,490) and there would be 13 million fewer Americans with health coverage, says Jenkins, citing a CBO’s analysis of the tax legislation.

However, AARP did appreciate that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act retained the medical expense , deduction and restored the 7.5 percent income threshold for all tax filers for two years, said Jenkins, noting that “almost three-quarters of tax filers who claimed the medical expense deduction are age 50 or older and live with a chronic condition or illness, and seventy percent of filers who claimed this deduction have income below $75,000.”

Finally, Jenkins also said that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act retained the additional standard deduction for those age 65 and older, as well as rejected proposals to make significant changes to the tax treatment of retirement contributions, which would have negatively affected the ability many tax filers to save for their retirement.

Targeting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

Like Jenkins, the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare also sees Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security becoming more vulnerable to benefit cuts due to the huge $1.5 trillion increase in the public debt resulting from the enactment of the GOP’s tax law.

According to the NCPSSM’s Government Relations and Policy staff in a January 2018 policy brief, key supporters of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act made it very clear that Medicare, Medicare and Social Security, would be targeted to balance the federal budget immediately after its approval. “For example, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that the tax bill is just the first step before “…instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare…” benefits to reduce the federal deficit. Similarly, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that “we’re going to have to get back next year [2018] at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.” In other words, the majority leadership will seek cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits as the next step to pay for the deficits this tax bill will create,’ NCPSSM’s policy brief.

In 2018, NCPSSM anticipates that the GOP-controlled Congress will seriously look at privatizing Medicare, raising the Medicare eligibility age, increasing beneficiary out-of-pocket costs, expand means testing of Medicare premiums, and block granting Medicaid, as a way to reducing the huge federal debt.

NCPSSM says that under the GOP’s Medicare privatization plan, when people become eligible for Medicare benefits they would not enroll in the current traditional Medicare program, which provides guaranteed benefits, but would receive a voucher to purchase private health insurance or traditional Medicare through a Medicare Exchange. The voucher’s amount would be determined annually when private health insurance plans and traditional Medicare participate in a competitive bidding process.

Medicare costs could also be cut by gradually increasing the eligibility age of Medicare to correspond with Social Security’s retirement age which is increasing from 65 to 67. Although this GOP strategy would initially save money, it would increase “system-wide health spending for everyone else,” warns NCPSSM.

NCPSSM says that “savings from redesigning the Medicare benefit [to reduce the federal deficit] by combining the Part A and Part B deductibles and making changes to supplemental insurance (Medigap) policies, would likely increase costs for people with Medigap policies.”

In 2018, the GOP Congress also might even consider expanding means-testing of Medicare premiums to reduce the federal deficit, says NCPSSM. “Expand income-related premiums under Medicare Parts B and D until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to these premiums [would reduce costs]. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that this proposal would affect individuals with incomes equivalent to $45,600 for an individual and $91,300 for a couple in 2013,” says NCPSSM’s policy brief.

Medicaid provides funding for health care to low-income seniors, people with disabilities, children and some families. “We anticipate [GOP] proposals will be made that would end the current joint federal/state financing partnership and replace it with per capita caps (or a block grant, at state option) giving states less money than they would receive under current law,” says NCPSSM’s policy brief, noting that repealing the Medicaid expansion under Obama’s Affordable Care Act would prevent low-income adults from accessing health care services.

Concerns Over Fast-Track Reforming Social Security

Finally, NCPSSM’s policy brief warns that GOP lawmakers might push for a “fast-track” procedure that would lead to cutting social security benefits. This proposal would require the President to submit a plan to be considered in Congress under “expedited procedures” to reform Social Security if the Social Security Trustees determine the Trust Funds do not meet a 75-year actuarial balance. NCPSSM views this proposal “as a way that to circumvent public scrutiny of proposals to reduce Social Security programs.”

NCCPSSM also anticipates a GOP proposal to eliminate concurrent receipt of unemployment insurance and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for beneficiaries who work, get laid off and as a result qualifies for Unemployment Insurance.

Last month, the GOP-controlled Congress and White House enacted the largest tax reform bill. AARP, NCPSSM and other aging advocacy groups warn that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will be targeted by the GOP lawmakers to balance the tax reform law’s $1.5 billion costs. Older voters must now become politically active in protecting and strengthening these programs for both current beneficiaries and future generations” With the looming 2018 mid-term elections, may be Congress might just listen.

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.

House Budget Committee Plan Calls for Privatization of Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 23, 2017

Over four months ago President Trump released his draconian FY 2018 Budget, now Congress begins to hammer out its budgetary spending plan. Last Wednesday, the House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), sent the Republican drafted budget plan to the House floor for consideration. After a 12-hour markup held in Room 1334 Longworth HOB, the budgetary blueprint passed by a vote of 22 to 14, along party line. Rep. Black’s GOP controlled panel defeated 28 amendments offered by Democrats.

Once the House and Senate pass their budget resolutions, the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees “markup” appropriations bills. The House and Senate vote on appropriations bills and reconcile differences.

Rep. Black says that the GOP FY 2018 Budget Resolution, “Building a Better America,” passed on July 19, will balance the federal budget within 10 years by cutting spending, reforming government and growing the economy. According to the House Budget chair, the recently released budget achieves $ 6.5 trillion in total reduction over 10 years. It sets overall discretionary spending for the fiscal budget at $1.132 trillion ($621.5 billion in defense discretionary spending and $511 billion in non-defense discretionary spending).

The House budget plan is the first step that Republicans must take to begin their efforts to overhaul the nation’s tax code to grow the economy. It also provides increased funding for defense and the building of Trump’s border wall. It also requires food stamp recipients to work for their benefits.

Although the Social Security program is spared, it bars recipients from receiving Social Security Disability Income recipients from also receiving unemployment benefits. But, most worrisome to aging group advocates, the passed House Budget Committee budget makes major cuts to Medicaid, turning the Medicare program into a voucher program. But, Medicare is targeted for major changes.

In the Eyes of the Political Beholder

Upon passage, the House Budget Chair, Rep. Black, said in a statement, “I am proud of the work done by the members of the committee. We’ve spent months reviewing all aspects of the federal government and have put together a plan that will balance the budget, promote economic growth, strengthen our national defense, and make Washington more accountable to taxpayers. Our budget also takes the crucial first step in the reconciliation process to fix our broken tax code and make long overdue mandatory spending cuts and reforms.”

But, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, in a statement expressed a vastly different opinion as to the impact of the panel’s passed budget resolution. “Republicans on the House Budget Committee just approved a budget that the American people do not want and do not deserve from their government. Their budget adopts the worst extremes of the Trump proposal by cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires at the expense of everyone else. It cuts at least $1.5 trillion from Medicare and Medicaid, and puts at risk investments in nearly every national priority, from education and veteran services, to transportation, environmental protections, and medical research. Democrats believe we should be investing in the American people, our economy, and greater opportunity for all, and we will continue to fight against this irresponsible budget when—or if—it is brought to the House floor,” he said.

House Budget Plan Calls for Substantial Changes to Medicare

Medicare takes a huge hit, $ 487 billion over a ten-year period, in the House Budget Committee’s passed FY 2018 Budget, says Paul N. Van De Water, in a blog post on the website of Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The Senior Fellow serving as CBPP’s Director, Policy Futures, says that the budget plan’s changes to Medicare include higher income-related premiums for those making $85,000 and over (twice the amount for couples), limits on malpractice awards, raising Medicare’s eligibility age from 65 to 67, also increasing cost sharing of beneficiaries.

In his posting, Van De Water details the substantial changes made to Medicare, one of the nation’s largest entitlement programs, in the House Budget Committee’s passed budget. He notes, it would “replace Medicare’s guarantee of health coverage with a flat premium support payment or voucher, [starting in 2024] that beneficiaries would use to help buy either private health insurance or a form of traditional Medicare.” Although there are no details in the House Budget Committee’s plan to determine its impact on beneficiaries, he says that most people enrolled in traditional Medicare would pay more with the new changes than under the current law, according to a previous Congressional Budget Office analysis.

NCPSSM Sounds the Alarm About Privatization of Medicare

As the House Budget Committee began its markup of the FY 2018 budget, Max Richtman, President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) warned in a statement that the GOP-controlled panel “is targeting the health and financial well-being of America’s seniors by making another attempt to privatize Medicare.”

“Recent polling indicates that large majorities of Americans across party lines prefer that Medicare be kept the way it is, not to mention that President Trump repeatedly promised to protect the program during the 2016 campaign,” says Richtman.

Richtman says that converting Medicare into a voucher program is an existential threat to the program itself. “Over time, giving seniors vouchers to purchase health insurance would dramatically increase their out of pocket costs since the fixed amount of the voucher is unlikely to keep up with the rising costs of health care,” he says. “And, as healthier seniors choose less costly private plans, sicker and poorer seniors would remain in traditional Medicare, leading to untenable costs, diminished coverage, and an eventual demise of traditional Medicare, plain and simple. Of course, raising the eligibility age to 67 – as the House spending plan also proposes – is a drastic benefit cut.”

Undermining Medicare has been a long-held dream of fiscal conservatives. Their “premium support” proposal is a thinly veiled scheme to allow traditional Medicare to “wither on the vine,” as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once put it,” adds Richtman.

Privatization is being sold as “improving customer choice,” but based on the way current Medicare Advantage plans work, private insurance will continue to offer fewer choices of doctors than traditional Medicare does. If traditional Medicare is allowed to shrink and collapse, true choice will disappear, too, says Richtman.

Stay tuned….

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

Social Security, Medicare Are Solvent…at least for Now

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 16, 2017

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

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

The Good News

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

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

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

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

Social Security is “Stable and Healthy for Now”

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

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

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

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

Safeguarding and Expanding Social Security Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensuring the Long-Term Solvency of Social Security

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

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

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

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