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.

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Senate Republicans Pushing to Vote on Latest Health Care Proposal

Published in the Woonsocket Call on September 24, 2017

With the September 30 expiration of its special Senate budget reconciliations status that allows the chamber to repeal and replace Obamacare with just a simple majority, Senate Republicains are rushing to bring their latest health care fix up for vote by the end of next week. The GOP’s last attempt failed by a razor thin margin.

Critics charge that the Senate Republicans push to quickly vote on their latest health care bill, crafted by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, comes before the issuance of a complete analysis of the Congressional Budget Office (CB)) that would detail the legislative proposal would impact coverage nationwide.

AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and health care provider groups say that Graham-Cassidy’s fix to put the brakes to rising health care costs will increase premium and out-of-pocket costs for millions. They say that the nonpartisan CBO would give the details to its negative impact.

Even Gov. Chris Christie came out opposing the GOP health care over haul bill that Senate Republicans are pushing. “I can’t support a bill that takes $3.9 billion away from the people of the state of New Jersey,” said the New Jersey Governor, reported last Wednesday by the Trentonian News. Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Gov. Republican Governor John Kasich, of Ohio, held a bipartisan news conference this week calling for a bipartisan approach to reforming health care.

Talk Show Host Jimmy Kimmel also came out swinging against the Graham-Cassidy proposal, calling Sen. Cassidy, a co-sponsor of the bill, a liar. Earlier this year the Republican Senator had appeared on his show and after hearing that Kimmel had an infant son with a heart condition, he assure Kimmel that any GOP proposal would protect those with pre-existing conditions. It does not, at least to Kimmel’s satisfaction.

For days, aging and provider groups and even Democrats on cable shows expressed concern that the Graham-Cassidy Bill would allow states to permit insurance companies to charge people with preexisting conditions (an estimated 25 million Americans age 50 to 64) just because they have cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, etc.

Age Tax Hits Seniors Right in their Wallets

On September 20, 2017, AARP writer Dena Bunis, charges in a blog posting, “Latest Senate Health Care Bill Revives Age Tax for Older Americans,” the GOP’s latest effort to repeal President Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act (ACA), imposes an “age tax” on older Americans by eliminating premium tax credits and cost sharing payments that helped low-income persons afford deductibles and copayments for medical services.

The Graham-Cassidy bill would also allow states to get federal waivers for insurers to charge older Americans more so as to lower the cost for younger policyholders. The ACA limits the expense for older policyholders at three times the amount younger ones pay, says Bunis.

To illustrate the “age tax” Bunis, citing an AARP analysis, notes, that for a 60-year-old earning $25,000 a year, premiums and out-of-pocket costs could increase by as much as $16,174 a year. If that 60-year-old lives in a state that allows insurers to charge older individuals dramatically higher premiums, he or she would face an additional $4,124 increase in premiums,” she says.

The Graham-Cassidy bill takes away the premium tax credits that help older adults pay for their health care coverage, notes Bunis. . “About 6 million 50- to 64-year-olds buy their health coverage in the individual market, and about half of those individuals receive tax credits to help pay their premiums, she says, citing an analysis by the AARP Public Policy Institute.

The Graham-Cassidy bill would also eliminate vital cost-sharing payments that help low-income persons — especially those over age 50 — afford deductibles and copayments for medical services, too, adds Bunis, noting that “about 58 percent of adults enrolled in ACA marketplace plans get cost-sharing assistance, and 35 percent of those individuals are between 50 and 64 years old.”

Bunis notes that the latest Senate health care proposal would shift federal funds to the state through block grants that would allow each state to develop their own specific health care coverage initiatives to reduce costs. But, she says that Medicaid per capita cap or block grants funding proposals, “fundamentally change the Medicaid program [covering 17.4 million older Americans and people with disabilities], which has been a safety net for millions of poor Americans and people with disabilities.

Receiving Medicaid eligibility for coverage and services would leave fewer doctors and other providers willing to take Medicaid patients or provide needed care because reimbursement is too low.

Block grants, mandated by the Graham-Cassidy bill, would only last through 2026, offering no replacement health care plan, says Bunis. “Over 20 years, Graham-Cassidy would slash Medicaid funding by $1.2 trillion to $3.2 trillion, turning control of the program to the states and shifting costs over time to states and Medicaid enrollees,” she says.

“Americans have a right to know how this bill would impact them. Regretfully, the Majority Leadership is rushing the Senate to blindly consider Graham-Cassidy without fully vetting this proposal in committee hearings and mark-up, where amendments could be considered, and without a full Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score. CBO previously estimated that repeal-without-replace would cause 32 million people to lose health coverage,” said Max Richtman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), in a statement to Senate Finance. The Senate panel is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Graham-Cassidy bill next week.

“Senate consideration of any bill that would change the accessibility and affordability of essential health care for millions of Americans without a complete CBO analysis and committee debate would be the height of legislative malpractice,” says Richtman.

NCPSSM calls the latest GOP Senate Health care proposal “deeply flawed” and suggests that it be referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions where Chairman Lamar Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray are attempting to hammer out a bipartisan solution to strengthen the ACA’s individual health insurance market reforms.

A Final Take

A press time, Republican Sens. Ron Paul (Kentucky) and John McCain (Arizona) give thumbs down to the Graham-Cassidy bill with the Portland Press Herald reporting that Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, saying “I’m leaning against the bill.” Fifty Republican Senators must give their thumbs up, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote, to get a simple majority for passage. Now, the votes are just not there for passage.

But, one long-time Republican Senator speaks honestly on the record why President Donald Trump his fellow Senate caucus members are pushing so hard for passage of the latest Senate health care proposal. “You know, I could maybe give you 10 reasons why this bill shouldn’t be considered,” Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. “But Republicans campaigned on this so often that you have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign. That’s pretty much as much of a reason as the substance of the bill.”

Sadly, if true the Republican-controlled Congress has put millions of Americans at risk of losing their health care coverage and at risk for the sake of a political promise. Our lawmakers must become statesmen and vote on legislative proposals because it is the right thing to do, not politicians who vote by party-line.

Three GOP Senators Derail ‘Skinny’ Repeal Maneuvers

Published in the Woonsocket Call on July 30, 2017

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

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

Senate Republicans Begin Efforts to Repeal Obamacare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sigh of Relief

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

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

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

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

A Bipartisan Approach

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

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

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

House Budget Committee Plan Calls for Privatization of Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

In the Eyes of the Political Beholder

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

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

House Budget Plan Calls for Substantial Changes to Medicare

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

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

NCPSSM Sounds the Alarm About Privatization of Medicare

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned….

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

Social Security, Medicare Are Solvent…at least for Now

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 16, 2017

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

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

The Good News

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

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

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

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

Social Security is “Stable and Healthy for Now”

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

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

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

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

Safeguarding and Expanding Social Security Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensuring the Long-Term Solvency of Social Security

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

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

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

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

GOP Senators Avoid Angry Constituents During July Recess

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 9,2017

With Senate Republican leadership pulling their health care bill, titled “Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017,” scheduled for vote before the Fourth of July recess, because they were unable find 50 votes, opponents continue their lobby against an anticipated rewrite of the unpopular Senate bill. Mobilization to oppose passage of a GOP health care bill began immediately after the House passed its legislation, titled “The American Health Care Act” in May.

“It is essential that all of those who oppose this dangerous bill have their voices heard,” said Richard Fiesta, Executive Director of the Alliance for Retired American, one of many aging groups mobilizing its membership during the Fourth of July recess. “The fact that most Republicans in the Senate are too afraid to show up in public should tell you everything you need to know. The Senate bill is dangerous to all Americans, particularly older Americans, and must be stopped,” he said.

Lawmakers Choose to Not Face Angry Constituents

Throughout the nation, thousands of constituents of GOP senators made it clear to their lawmakers returning to their home districts, “vote no on the Senate version of the healthcare bill,” that would repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act of 2017 (ACA), popularly, called Obamacare. Opponents of Trumpcare held sit-ins (referred to as die-ins) to remind their GOP Senators that 22 million low-and medium-income Americans would lose their health coverage with the slashing of $800 billion from Medicaid, warning that there would be a significant increase in premium costs.

According to the Town Hall project, between January to May, 33 GOP senators have not held a single in person town meeting this year, these lawmakers choosing not to face angry constituents who oppose the Senate health care bill. During this 11-day recess, most Republican senators chose not to hold town meetings, most skipping their community’s Fourth of July parades, to keep away from hostile crowds.

But, Moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, appeared at Fourth of July parade in Eastport, Maine and was overwhelmingly thanked for her opposition to the Senate health bill. At the parade, the Washington Post stated that spectators urged Collin’s “to stay strong” in opposing the GOP Senate’s version of the health care bill. The Post noted that only three other Republican senators, Ted Cruz, of Texas, Dean Heller, of Nevada, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, also appeared in their community’s Fourth of July parades.

Seeing the Writing on the Wall

Political reality is now setting in for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who has shifted his position on repealing Obamacare if he cannot pull the 50 votes necessary to pass his health care bill. With all Democratic and Independent senators in their caucus opposing passage of the bill, GOP senate leadership can only afford the defection of two Republican senators if they want their bill to pass. Can he revise this legislation to satisfy the concerns of moderate and conservative members of his caucus to ensure passage?

The Washington Post reported, last Thursday, at a Kentucky Glasgow Rotary Club lunch, McConnell admitted to the attending Rotarians that Republicans would have to work with Democrats to stabilize the health insurance markets if they failed to pass the Senate bill.

As predicted with the GOP senators returning from recess, facing angry constituents, a growing number are now publicly withholding their support for the senate bill. At press time, there have been multiple reports that ten senators are now opposing the legislation.

“There have been little to no senator-level discussions on amendments to the Senate health bill during the July recess,” says Dan Adcock, Director of Government Relations and Policy for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM). He expects more negotiations to take place when the Senate reconvenes this Monday.

Adcock says, “there would be a delay between an announced “compromise” bill and Senator floor consideration since the Congressional Budget Office would first need time to perform a cost estimate on the amended sections of the bill.”

Senator Cruz’s Fix for Senate Health Bill?

According to Adcock, that is being most talked about in the corridors of the Capitol is Sen. Ted Cruz’s proposal to replace the existing language in Senate bill — that would allow insurance companies to pick and choose which Obamacare essential benefits they would offer — with a plan to require that insurance carriers offer at least one plan with Obamacare essential benefits and all other plans could decide which benefits to include and exclude.

But, Adcock sees a multitude of problems with the Cruz proposal, making it difficult to be inserted into a final Senate health bill.

“First, it really is not that different from the current language that allows insurance companies to offer plans without the required ACA essential benefits,” says Adcock. “Under the Cruz proposal, healthy people would enroll in health plans that aren’t required to cover all ACA essential benefits, while sick people or enrollees with pre-existing conditions would tend to enroll in plans with all of the ACA essential benefits. As a result, the latter plans would be very expensive and unaffordable for less healthy enrollees,” he says.

Adcock estimates that Texas Senator’s proposal and the Senate health bill’s essential benefits waiver provisions would be particularly harmful to the 40 percent of enrollees age 50 to 64 who have one or more pre-existing condition.

“Second, there is a good chance that the Senate Parliamentarian will rule that the Cruz proposal violates Budget Reconciliation rules because it is superfluous to reducing federal spending,” says Adcock, noting that if this happens his proposal in the form of an amendment would face a 60-vote point of order. The Senate Republicans do not have the 60 votes they need to waive this budget rule.

Another point that is being negotiated between Senate leadership and moderate and conservative senators is provisions that would restructure federal payments to state Medicaid programs, says Adcock, noting that the Senate bill and House-passed healthcare bills would restructure the way federal funding is provided to the states – changing from the current matching rate formula to per capita caps or block grants at state option.

Medicaid Cuts Hit LTC Sector

“Per capita caps limit federal funding for state Medicaid programs to an arbitrary per beneficiary funding level. This would ultimately shift costs to states by eliminating the guarantee of additional federal funds if state costs increase because of underlying health care costs, demography or complexity of care. We are particularly concerned about how these cuts would affect Medicaid long-term care coverage – both home and community and nursing home care,” Adcock added.

Adcock also sees other negatives of the draft Senate health care bill.

“From the year 2025 on, the senate bill bases the per capita cap on an even less generous measure than the House bill. While the House bill used a measure based on medical inflation, the Senate bill would allow Medicaid to grow only at the rate of general inflation. Medical inflation has historically grown at a higher rate than general inflation. And, even the index used in the House-passed AHCA would be unlikely to keep up with growth in health care costs,” notes Adcock.

Adcock added, “some moderate Republican senators object to linking Medicaid payments in 2025 and thereafter to general inflation. However, Sen. Pat Toomey – who drafted this provision – does not want to compromise on it.”

And, Sen.Portman and Capito also continue to express interest in increasing funding for Opioid substance abuse treatment, adds Adcock. The Senate health bill includes $2 billion for this purpose. Portman has called for $40 billion for treating Opioid addictions, he says.

With senators returning to Washington, D.C., after their roughly one-week Fourth of July recess, there are only 14 legislative working days before their month-long August recess begins on July 28 with their return Sept. 5.

Recently, ten Senate Republicans have called on Senate Majority Leader McConnell to cancel the upcoming August recess to allow them to focus on five priorities: fixing health care, funding the federal government by Oct.1 to avoid a shutdown, dealing with the debt ceiling, passing the budget resolution and improving the nation’s tax code.

This will not likely happen due to the Senate’s legislative workload.

According to Adcock, the Senate either needs to approve its health care bill or abandon it by the upcoming August recess because the repeal of Obamacare is holding up consideration of the FY 2018 budget resolution and tax reform.

“That’s because the Senate healthcare bill is being considered in the form of the FY 2017 budget reconciliation bill. There cannot be a conference agreement on the FY 2018 budget reconciliation bill until the FY 2017 budget reconciliation is either enacted or abandoned,” he says.

Finally, Adcock notes, “A conference agreement on the FY 2018 budget resolution is necessary to set in motion consideration of a FY 2018 budget reconciliation bill that would include tax reform and perhaps cuts to mandatory spending programs, like Medicare and Medicaid. Budget reconciliation bills are filibuster-proof in the Senate.”

Calling for Political Compromise

A recently released USA Today/Suffolk University poll at the end of June says that “just 12 percent of Americans support the Senate Republican health care plan. On the other hand, “a 53 percent majority say Congress should either leave the law known as Obamacare alone or work to fix its problems while keeping its framework intact.”

So, now it’s time for the White House and Congress to read the political winds. Americans want health care fixed for the right reasons, not for political reasons. Lawmakers must put aside their philosophical differences and craft a “win-win” compromise to fix Obamacare’s flaws.

It’s the right thing to do.

Senate Health Bill Vote Expected Next Week

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 25, 2017

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

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

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

Senate Health Bill “Meaner” than House Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aging Groups See Writing on Wall if Senate Passes Health Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking at a Crystal Ball

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

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

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

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