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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We Haven’t Turned the Page on Reading Yet

Published in Woonsocket Call on September 11, 2016

In May 1897, the great American humorist, novelist, publisher and lecturer Samuel Clemens – who we all know as Mark Twain – was in London on a world-wide speaking tour. In this City someone had started a rumor that he was gravely ill, ultimately the rumor changing to he had died.

When Twain was told that one major American newspaper actually printed his obituary, when he was told about this by a reporter, he quipped: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

As the rumor about Twain’s death was “greatly exaggerated” those lamenting the decreasing number of Americans who read print books, even predicting its demise with the advent of e-books, audio books and computer tablets is not correct, says a new Pew Research Center Survey released. Researcher Andrew Perrin notes in his study, “Book Reading 2016” that printed books remain more popular than books in digital formats for American Readers.

AAmericans Love Print Books

According to the survey findings, released on September 1, 65 percent of Americans have read a print book in the last year, more than double the share that has read an e-book (28 percent) and more than four times the share that have listened to an audio book (14 percent).

While the total share of Americans who have read a book in the last 12 months (73 percent) has remained consistent since 2012, nearly four-in-ten Americans read print books exclusively. Just 6 percent of Americans are digital-only book readers, adds the Pew Research Center Survey findings.

Although print remains the most popular book format, Americans who do read e-books are increasingly turning to multipurpose devices such as smartphones and tablet computers, says Pew Research Center Survey findings. The share of e-book readers on tablets has more than tripled since 2011, and the number of readers on phones has more than doubled over that time, says.

Perrin’s 9 page report also details other key findings.

The study found that 84 percent of American adults read to research specific topics of interest, while 82 percent read to keep up with current events, 80 percent read for pleasure, and 57 percent read for work or school. Also, 19 percent of Americans under the age of 50 have used a cellphone to read e-books, and cellphones play a relatively prominent role in the e-reading habits of blacks (16 percent) and those who have not attended college (11 percent).

As to education, the study found that college graduates are nearly four times as likely to read books – and twice as likely to read print books and listen to audio books – compared with those who have not graduated high school. In addition, Americans read an average, or mean, of 12 books per year; however, the typical, or median, American has read 4 books in the last 12 months.

Finally women (77 percent) are more likely than men (68 percent) to read books in general, and they are also more likely to read print books (70 percent). However, men and women are equally likely to read digital-format books such as e-books and audio books.

Book Buying Strong in Rhode Island

Jennifer Massotti, who manages both the Barrington and Cranston locations for Barrington Books, has some thoughts about the recently released report. “The survey findings support the reading style and buying trends that we have seen from our loyal customer base for years. The majority of our customers prefer to read from a physical book. Even those who use their smart phones to research titles, still come in looking to buy the book instead of ordering it online or downloading. This could be personal reading preference or in support of the localism movement. Either way, book buying is strong,” she says.

Massotti does not see book stores becoming obsolete because of today’s digital age. “While the advent of e-readers and online buying options certainly altered the book industry several years back, it has not been the nail in the proverbial coffin that everyone predicted … If anything, there has been a resurgence in the independent bookstore industry, specifically. Brick and mortar stores that are supported by and steeped within their communities are thriving,” she says.

Massotti says, “In fact, in the last year, RI and neighboring MA have seen that growth first-hand with the highly anticipated opening of three new bookstores. It’s a feel-good time in our industry.”

But, the general manager of Barrington Books notes, “downloading a book to your smartphone is convenient and serves a purpose to some. But it doesn’t come close to replicating the authentic experience one finds when perusing the carefully curated stacks in a bookstore, or engaging in a conversation with a like-minded bookseller.”

According to Massotti, bookstores aren’t like most other retail outlets that are in the business of selling goods; bookstores, and books, are the original social media. “It’s a sharable experience, it’s about community. You can’t get that delivered to your door or your phone,”

As to the future of reading, Massotti firmly says that e-books and digital formats will never replace print books.

Self-Publishing Leaves a Legacy

Author Steven R. Porter, a publisher, and president of the Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA), representing over 260 independent and traditionally published authors who live and write in Rhode Island, says that Rhode Islanders love to read locally written books and to chat with the authors. “Readers also find great value in a signed book. There is something special about reading and sharing a book that the author held in their hands. The bottom line is that people who love to read are voracious. They can’t get enough. And we can’t write them fast enough,” he says.

Porter has seen an “explosion of self-published books”in the last 5 years, but more recently, the rate has leveled off. “I think most of the leveling has to do with the fact that there were thousands of frustrated writers in the world and when the gates finally opened, and they all rushed through at the same time,” he says, noting that improved information and technology has efficiently assisted authors getting their books to market.

“Seniors are publishing more and more every day. I think there is an inherent need in all of us to have some sort of legacy. That legacy for many may be achieved through your life’s work, or through your family, says Porter. It is the “ultimate expression of immortality,” he says.

Like Massotti, Porter agrees with the findings of the Pew Research Center’s report on book reading in America. “More people are writing than ever before, and reading than ever before. It’s a great time to be a writer and a reader!,” he says.

To read the report, go to http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016/.

Poll Says Americans Shy Away from Wanting to Live to Age 120

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 16, 2013

What if new biomedical advances could slow the aging process and allow people to live into their 12th decade (to age 120), would you want to have these new medical treatments? Although you might take this opportunity to keep death at bay for decades, a new research survey by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project finds most Americans (56%) say “no” – they, personally, would not want treatments to enable dramatically longer life spans. But roughly two-thirds (68%) think that most other people would choose to live to 120 and beyond.

Released last week, the ten page report, “Living to 120 and Beyond: American’s Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension,” notes that “some futurists think that even more radical changes are coming, including medical treatments that could slow, stop or reverse the aging process and allow humans to remain healthy and productive to the age of 120 or m ore. The possibility that extraordinary life spans could become ordinary life spaces no longer seems far-fetched.”

The Pew Research Center Report’s findings are tabulated from data compiled from a new nationwide telephone survey, conducted March 21-April 8, 2013, on cell phones and landlines, among a nationally representative sample of 2,012 adults. The overall margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Is Living Longer Better?

The Pew Research Center’s survey explores the public’s attitudes toward aging, medical advances and what some biomedical researchers call “radical life extension” – the possibility that scientific breakthroughs someday could allow people to live much longer than is possible today. The findings indicated that overall, more Americans think dramatically longer life spans would be bad (51%) than good (41%) for society.

The researchers asked adult recipients how long they ideally would like to live, more than two-thirds (69%) cite an age between ages 79 and 100. (For this writer, eighty-nine years old is just the ripe old age to shed my mortal coil in this world.). The median desired life span of the survey respondents is 90 years – about 11 years longer than the current average U.S. life expectancy, which is 78.7 years. Just 9% of Americans say they want to live more than 100 years.

According to the researchers, because most people say they have heard little or nothing about the possibility of radically extended lifetimes, and because the scientific breakthroughs are far from certain, the wording of the survey questions focus on the result – much longer life spans – and are deliberately vague about how this would be achieved or how healthy an average person would be at 120 and beyond.

The survey also seeks to put the forward-looking questions about radical life extension into perspective by asking the respondents about their views on aging, health care, medical advances in general, personal life satisfaction and bioethical issues.

According to the researchers, the study’s findings indicate that the U.S. public is not particularly concerned about the gradual rise in the percentage of Americans who are 65 and older. Nearly nine-in-ten adults surveyed stated that “having more elderly people in the population” either is a good thing for society (41%) or doesn’t make much difference (47%). Just 10% see the graying of America as a bad thing.

A Cure for Most Cancers, a Possibility

The findings indicate that the public also tends to view medical advances in general as good thing (63%) rather than as interfering with the natural cycle of life (32%). Moreover, the public is optimistic that some extraordinary breakthroughs will occur in the next few decades. For instance, about seven-in-ten adult Americans think that by the year 2050 there will be a cure for most forms of cancer (69%) and that artificial arms and legs will perform better than natural ones (71%).

Survey respondents expressed skepticism that radical life extension will be possible anytime soon. Only a quarter think that by 2050 the average American will live to be 120 years old; nearly three-quarters (73%) say this either “probably” or “definitely” will not happen. And, if it does happen, many Americans foresee both positive and negative consequences for society.

While forty-four percent of the respondents, for example, say that radical life extension would make the economy more productive because people could work longer, fifty-three percent disagree. Two-thirds say they think that dramatically longer life spans “would strain our natural resources” and that medical scientists would offer life-extending treatments before they fully understood the health effects. And although a solid majority of respondents (79%) think that life-extending treatments should be available to everyone who wants them, most (66%) also think that, in practice, only the wealthy would have access to the new technology.

The researchers found that there some differences among religious groups when it comes to their attitudes about medical treatments that would slow the aging process and extend life by decades. Black Protestants are among the most likely to say radical life extension would be a good thing for society (54%). By contrast, fewer white evangelical Protestants (34%) and white Catholics (31%) say the same. Hispanic Catholics (44%) are more likely than white Catholics (31%) to think these treatments would be a good thing for society.

Ideal Life Span for Some Rhode Islanders

But what do Rhode Islander’s think about living longer, say into their 12th decade.

Kasey Johnson, development associate at Slater Mill Museum, will not seek out advanced medical technologies to extend her life. “Aging is viewed negatively in our culture,” the East Greenwich resident says, noting that those reaching very old age are often times seen by many as a drain on the nation’s economy and resources.

Johnson notes, Americans were not raised to honor or revere their elderly like they do in other cultures. “We end up resenting them for the time and energy it takes us to care for them. I wouldn’t want to live longer, only to be seen as a burden by everyone else,” says the 26 year old.

Graphic designer Neville Lassotovitch, 69, who lives with her retired husband, Peter, 70, and Daisy, their 17-year old beagle, in Barrington, would not mind extending her the years of her life by decades, but only if she was surrounded by her husband, good friends and children. “I would not want to be alone with out them,” she said.

Fifty-one year old Ken McGill, heading Pawtucket’s Board of Canvassers, sees a bright prospect of living a longer life. He has a lot to check off on his bucket list. “Nobody likes to pass on,” quips McGill, who notes that he plans to retire at age 70. “This would give me a good forty years to do all the things I have wanted to do, like traveling to see the world, even moving to Florida,” says the long-time Pawtucket resident.

Finally, like McGill, Keri Ambrosino, of Design By Keri, would “love” to live to the ripe old age of 120 years as long as her quality of life stayed “youthful” and her thinking remained sharp. “Quality of life overbears on quantity in my book,” says the 33 year old West Warwick resident.

Other Reports Released on Radical Life Extension

There is, at present, no method of slowing the aging process and extending the average life expectancy to 120 years or more. But research aimed at unlocking the secrets of aging is underway at universities and corporate labs, and religious leaders, bioethicists and philosophers have begun to think about the morality of radical life extension.

Together with the survey results, Pew Research Center is releasing two accompanying reports. “To Count Our Days: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Life Extension” presents an overview of the scientific research and the emerging ethical debate. “Religious Leaders’ Views on Radical Life Extension” describes how some clergy, bioethicists, theologians and other scholars think their religious traditions might approach the issue.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com