GOP Health Care Proposal Pulled at Last Moment

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 26, 2017

Days ago, unified Democratic lawmakers combined with a deep philosophical wedge between the conservative House Freedom Caucus and moderate Republicans over policy details of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), forced the Trump Administration and House Speaker Paul Ryan to pull the AHCA proposal minutes from a floor vote to steer it away from a humiliating legislative defeat last Friday. Interestingly, the seventh anniversary of President Barack Obama signing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), his signature health care law, took place one day before the House vote.

A day before Friday’s scheduled vote to dismantle and repeal Obama’s ACA, President Donald Trump taking a high-risk negotiation tactic straight out of his bestselling book, “The Art of the Deal,” gave a late-Thursday night ultimatum to the House GOP lawmakers. Trump told to them to vote up or down on AHCA or he would be prepared to move on to other legislative agenda items.

As to Trump’s ultimatum to GOP House lawmakers, CNN Presidency Historian Timothy Naftali noted on CNN Newsroom with Fredricka Whitfield, “He played chicken and he blinked.”

House GOP Making Legislative Sausage

In a report issued on March 13, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), detailed the drastic impact of the initial AHCA legislative proposal. CBO, a federal agency that provides budget and economic information to Congress, found that AHCA would result in 24 million losing health insurance coverage by 2026, Medicaid would be cut by $880 billion over the next ten years, and premiums and out-of-pocket costs would skyrocket increase, particularly for older adults and individuals with lower incomes.

Earlier this week, on Monday, Ryan and his House GOP Leadership team made eight amendments to AHCA to pull in skeptical GOP moderate and conservative lawmakers, including the controversial speeding up tax cuts while whittling down the Medicaid program. Later, on March 23, CBO confirmed that these amendments would lead to essentially the same level of coverage losses, about 24 million people and cost increases for individuals and would yield $187 billion less in savings than the original GOP health care proposal.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Senator Wyden and Congressman Pallone revealed that the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ independent Actuary “estimated that the repeal of the tax on prescription medications, known as the ‘pharma fee,’ beginning January 1, 2017 would increase Medicare Part B premiums by $8.7 billion through fiscal year 2027.” noted the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

On Thursday, three more amendments were offered to sway GOP House critics. One would strip the requirement that insurance companies cover essential health benefits (EHB). This amendment would effectively eliminate annual out-of-pocket caps, reinstate annual and lifetime coverage limits, and gut protections for pre-existing conditions. Another would delay – but not remove – the Medicare payroll tax cut that will undermine Medicare’s financing and its future stability.

After the defeat of AHCA, Trump blamed the Democrats for the House GOP’s failure to pass its health care proposal to scrap Obamacare. “The Democrats were not going to give us a single vote,” he said, warning that “Obamacare will explode” forcing the opposition party back to the negotiation table to craft a better health care law.

House Speaker Ryan also noted that “We are going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”

“We just really did not get a consensus today,” say Ryan. “That’s why I thought the wise thing to do was not proceed with a vote but to pull the bill. When asked if he was going to try “to prop it up, Ryan responded by saying “it is so fundamentally flawed, I don’t know that that is possible.”

Sighs of Relief from Aging Groups, Democrats

“The American Health Care Act is not American in spirit or health care in substance. In fact, it’s a tax cut bill for the wealthy, not a health care bill for the people. It will make America sicker. Congress should reject this charade and this disaster of a bill today,” states Judith Stein, Executive Director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

“The House Congressional leadership was destined to lose on their disastrous American Health Care Act, which would have effectively repealed Obamacare and hurt seniors, including beneficiaries of Medicare and Medicaid. It doesn’t matter whether they pulled or failed to pass the bill,” says Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in a statement. “It needed to go down and we thank the millions of National Committee members and supporters – and those of other senior advocacy organizations – whose protests were loud, numerous, and furious.”

“No one knew’ that health care could be so complicated. Hopefully, he has learned a lesson… that health legislation is built on a complex foundation that considers the real human needs – and costs – of changes to the system. A common refrain from Donald Trump during the campaign was, ‘What do you have to lose by electing me?’ Now we know what’s at stake: affordable health care for older Americans, Medicare, and Medicaid,” says Richtman.

“The leadership’s decision to withdraw the bill from consideration proves that the voices of Americans are very powerful. This harmful legislation would have added an Age Tax on older Americans and put vulnerable populations at risk,” says AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement.

LeaMond calls on Congress to focus on the issues important to older Americans and their families, including: protecting and improving Medicare’s benefits and financing; providing access to affordable quality coverage; preventing insurers from engaging in discriminatory practices; lowering prescription drug costs; providing new incentives to expand home and community based services; and strengthening efforts to fight fraud, waste, and abuse.

Adds, Justice in Aging Executive Director, Kevin Prindiville, “Congress tried to rush this disastrous bill through Congress without regard for the health and safety of older Americans and their families, and such a bill cannot and should not be revived. Older adults and their families rely on Medicaid and Medicare and these programs must be protected.”

Compromise might well be the way to make sound changes to the nation’s health care law, says Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI), who serves as House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. “The Affordable Care Act is a good law, and Republicans and Democrats should be working together to make it even better. If Republicans ever decide to come to the table, we should work together to increase competition, expand coverage, and bring down premiums. That’s a decision that Republicans have to make – whether to work with Democrats or continue down the path they’re on,” he says.

Rep. James Langevin (D-RI) also stresses the importance of reaching over the aisle to create a better health care law and getting away from partisan bickering. “It’s time for Republicans to move on from their misguided crusade to dismantle the ACA. The health care law has brought insurance coverage to millions of Americans. Its consumer protections, premium assistance, essential health benefits, and countless other provisions that were at risk of elimination have improved our nation’s health and saved lives. We must work together in a bipartisan manner to strengthen and improve the ACA, not risk the health and wellbeing of everyday Americans for an empty, partisan victory,” he says.

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Search on for GOP Senators to Protect Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 29, 2017

Since President Donald Trump took the oath of office on January 20, he is making good on some of his hundreds of campaign promises. During his first week in office Trump signed three executive orders declaring new government policies and eight presidential memoranda detailing the priorities of his new administration.

But, for aging groups, with Trumps arrival in Washington, D.C, the skirmish officially begins to protect Medicare in this new session of Congress.

With Trump and Congressional Republican Leadership on record for their support of repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, President and CEO Max Richtman, of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), clearly sees the writing on the wall. If successful, Richtman warns that GOP legislative actions will severely damage Medicare impacting 57 million seniors and disabled adults who rely on the program for their health care.

Building A Firewall Against Privatizing Medicare

With the GOP holding a slim majority of the U.S. Senate seats, 52 to the Democrats 48 seats, Richtman sees swaying Republican Senators away from their party’s position on privatizing Medicare to protect the federal health care program.

On January 24, 2017, Richtman urged Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to be the Senate’s “firewall against Medicare cuts.” His correspondence asked them to vote against proposals to privatize Medicare, raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, and repeal provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law, that provided additional benefits to beneficiaries.

Richtman reminded the GOP Senators that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) improved Medicare benefits and extended the solvency of the Part A Hospital Insurance Trust Fund by more than a decade. ACA’s closing of the prescription drug donut hole has put money into the pockets of Medicare beneficiaries. The health care law also added coverage of an annual wellness visit and eliminated copays for preventive services like cancer screenings, he said.

“I am also troubled by “premium support” [GOP] proposals to privatize Medicare,” says Richtman. According the aging advocate who was a former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging and a 16-year veteran of Capitol Hill, under previous privatization plans, beneficiaries would not enroll in the current program; rather, they would receive a capped payment or voucher to be used to purchase private health insurance or traditional Medicare. Private plans would have to provide benefits that are at least actuarially equivalent to the benefit package provided by fee-for-service Medicare, but they could manipulate their plans to attract the youngest and healthiest seniors. This would leave traditional Medicare with older and sicker beneficiaries whose higher health costs would lead to higher premiums that they and others may be unable or unwilling to afford, reducing the fee for service risk pool even further resulting in a death spiral for traditional Medicare.

GOP Medicare Fix Financially Hurts Beneficiaries

Richtman also told the GOP Senators that NCPSSM opposed the raising of the Medicare eligibility age from age 65 to 67 because the proposal would increase costs for millions of older Americans. Absent the guarantees in the existing ACA, such as requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions and limiting age rating, millions of seniors 65 and 66 without Medicare would find private insurance unaffordable. Raising the eligibility age would also increase average costs for Medicare as younger, healthier seniors are eliminated from the risk pool and costs are spread across an older, less-healthy population, he says.

Richtman urged the GOP Senators to oppose efforts underway in the 115th Congress to block grant Medicaid, cap Medicaid payments on a per-beneficiary basis (per capita caps) and/or repeal the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. He noted that these policy changes would “financially hurt states and lead to states cutting services, quality and eligibility for the most vulnerable of our senior population.”

Many seniors would not be able to absorb the loss of coverage and increase in their costs that would occur if these proposals became law. In fact, half of all Medicare beneficiaries in 2014 had incomes below $24,150 and Medicare households spent over two times more than the average American household on out-of-pocket health care costs,” he says.

“If Senate Democrats stand strong, we only need a handful of Republicans to protect the commitment to Medicare,” says Richtman. “We hope Senators McCain, Collins, Grassley, and Alexander to do the right thing for seniors in their states – and across America.”

Richtman correspondence to the four GOP Senators is part of NCPSSM’s pro-active legislative strategy to protect the existing Medicare program. The letters sent quantify the economic impact that proposed Medicare cuts would have on seniors in the four GOP Senators’ states: Arizona (with 1.3 million beneficiaries), Maine (306,000 beneficiaries), Iowa (nearly 572,000 beneficiaries), and Tennessee (1.2 million beneficiaries).

“We know that these four Republican Senators have the wisdom and judgment to protect seniors in their states from legislation that would impose painful Medicare cuts,” says Richtman. “It’s time to slam the brakes on any attempts to pass harmful legislation.”

Senate Democrats Attempt to Block HHS Nomination

Two days before Trump was sworn in as president, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held confirmation hearing on Rep. Tom Price, (R-Ga), Trump’s nominee to oversee the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency that oversees the Medicare program. In confirmed, he is expected to play a key role in the GOP’s efforts to privatize Medicare.

No formal vote was taken at the HELP Committee hearing but the Congressman is scheduled to testify a week later at the Senate Finance Committee, which will vote on his nomination.

During the four-hour heated confirmation hearing, held in 430 Dirksen Senate Office Building, HHS nominee Price dodged questions lobbed by Democrats about the Trump Administrations position on the future of Medicare. They also zeroed in on his personal financial investments in health care companies, calling them conflicts of interest which the denied.

Price, an orthopedic surgeon and a six term congressman, considered to be one of the most vocal critics of Obamacare on Capitol Hill, is expected play a key role in the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, sitting on the HELP Committee, gave this take on Price after the first of two confirmation hearings: “Price hasn’t been able to win Democratic support for any of his health care legislation [in the House] and today confirmed that he and his allies have no plan that can win support from across the aisle or the millions of Americans who would be affected by tearing down the Affordable Care Act. He conceded that he should not stop Americans under twenty-six from staying on their parents’ insurance, re-open the dreaded prescription drug doughnut hole for seniors, deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and reinstate lifetime limits on care. But he has no plan to make that happen.”

Adds Whitehouse, “Price also failed to reassure the Rhode Islanders I serve who rely on Medicare for their care. He has fought to voucherize the program, which would gradually unload costs onto seniors while eroding their benefits. He needed to tell the American people they could depend on him to faithfully administer Medicare and keep the sacred promise we’ve made to our seniors of a dignified retirement with access to good health care. He did not.”

“Congress must protect Social Security and Medicare, but many Republicans see the latest election results as an opportunity to hollow out these vital programs. President Trump’s pick to oversee Medicare has long championed efforts to privatize Medicare, which I strongly oppose. Cutting benefits and privatizing these programs could hurt millions of Americans and harm our economy,” said Sen. Jack Reed, noting that these programs reduce poverty and improve public health in ways that benefit all Americans.

As NCPSSM’s Richtman continues his effort to sway GOP Senators, rallying the troops at the state-level may well be the path to blocking GOP attempts to privatize Medicare. Voters in states with Republican Senators must send this message to their elected official, “don’t touch my Medicare.” Let the movement to strengthen Medicare in these states begin today.

Report Hones in on Caregiving Costs

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 20, 2016

On the last day of October, a 537 word proclamation issued by President Barack Obama proclaimed November 2016 as National Family Caregiver (NFC) month. In this official decree the president encouraged the nation to pay tribute to 90 million caregivers who work tirelessly care for family members, friends, and even neighbors.

Obama recognizing the nation’s caregivers came about through the lobbying efforts of Caregiver Action Network (the National Family Caregivers Association). The Washington, DC-based group began its efforts to nationally recognize family caregivers in 1994. Three years later, President Clinton signed the first NFC Month Presidential Proclamation and every president since that time has followed suit by issuing an annual proclamation recognizing and honoring family caregivers each November.

On the heels of Obama’s signed proclamation comes the release of a new AARP report that details the out-of-pocket cost of caregiving. According to researchers, family caregivers spend an average of nearly 20 percent of their income providing care for a family member or other loved one. Along with increased out-of-pocket (OOP) expense, the study also explores other financial and personal strains that family caregivers may experience as result of their caregiving activities.

The Financial Strain of Caregiving

AARP’s 56 page research report “Family Caregiving and Out-of-Pocket Costs: 2016 Report,” noted that caregivers spend an average of $6,954 in OOP costs related to caregiving, with Hispanic/Latino and low-income family caregivers spending an average of 44 percent of their total annual income.

“This study spotlights the financial toll on family caregivers – particularly those with modest incomes,” said AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond. “Whether helping to pay for services or make home modifications, the costs can be enormous and may put their own economic and retirement security at risk. As a nation, we need to do more to support America’s greatest support system. Passing the bipartisan Credit for Caring Act that provides a federal tax credit of up to $3,000 would give some sorely needed financial relief to eligible family caregivers.”

AARP’s report, released November 14, 2016, determined the amount of money that family caregivers spent over the last year providing help or assistance to a loved one. Certain groups of family caregivers spend disproportionately more in OOP expenses, said the researchers.

AARP’s report, prepared by Chuck Rainville, Laura Skufca and Laura Mehegan, noted that family caregivers of all ages spend $6,954 in OOP costs related to caregiving on average. They are earning less than $32,500 are under significant financial strain, spending an average of 44 percent of their annual income on caregiving.

Family caregivers caring for adults with dementia spend nearly twice the OOP costs ($10,697) than those caring for adults without dementia ($5,758), the AARP report found.

Cultural Diversity and Caregiver Costs

Researchers looked at cultural diversity as it related to OOP expenses of family caregivers. According to their findings, Hispanic/Latino family caregivers spend an average of $9,022 representing 44 percent of their total income per year. By comparison, African American family caregivers spend $6,616 or 34 percent, white family caregivers spend $6,964 or 14 percent, and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders spend $2,935 or 9 percent.

As expected, long-distance family caregivers had the highest OOP costs at $11,923 compared with family caregivers living with or nearby their care recipients.

The AARP report notes that increased OOP forces family caregivers to dip into savings, cut back on personal their spending, and they save less for retirement. Some must take out loans to make financial ends meet. Additionally, more than half of family caregivers are cutting back on leisure spending and also reported a report a work-related strain such as having to take unpaid time off.

“Many family caregivers experience a great deal of physical, emotional, and financial strain,” added Susan Reinhard, RN, PhD, Senior Vice President and Director, AARP Public Policy Institute. “This report highlights why AARP supports the bipartisan Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage (RAISE) Family Caregivers Act that would require the development of a national strategy to support family caregivers.”

AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell says that AARP’s recently released report verifies what most family caregivers know all too well: Providing for a loved one challenges caregivers in many ways and out-of-pocket expenses certainly is one of them, she says.

“In conversations I’ve had with caregivers over the years, I have found most all consider their efforts a responsibility as well as a labor of love. They rarely complain about cost because, I suspect, they try never to characterize caregiving as a burden,” says Connell..

Connell says, “With passage of the CARE Act and its implementation coming in 2017, Rhode Island is among the states leading the way in caregiver support. We cannot rest. You may be a caregiver. You may know a caregiver. You may someday rely on a caregiver. Any way you look at it, you need to be in the conversation about future needs.”

This study of a nationally representative sample of 1,864 family caregivers was conducted by GfK from July 18–August 28, 2016. All study respondents were currently providing unpaid care to a relative or friend age 18 or older to help them take care of themselves.

The full results of AARP’s caregiver report can be found here: http://www.aarp.org/caregivercosts

How the Election Impacts Social Security

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 24, 2016

On the final night of the Republican National Convention (RNC) an average of 32 million Americans tuned in to watch Donald J. Trump, a New York Real Estate Developer, author, television personality and now politician, formally accepted the GOP nomination for President of the United States.

After he delivered his July 21 speech, reporters, political commentators, and even postings trending on twitter called Trump’s hour and 15 minute speech (4,400 words) “dark” because of its stark tone and content. This GOP presidential candidate’s speech was even referred to as being the longest acceptance speech in history since 1972.

Before more than 2,400 delegates Trump, 70, pledged to be the nation’s law and order president who would crack down on crime and violence. America first would be Trump’s mantra during the negotiation of international trade deals and the existing NAFTA trade accord would be renegotiated.

Trump also called for defending the nation’s borders against illegal immigrants and giving parents more choice in choosing schools for their children. And to the forgotten men and woman across the country who were laid-off because of President Obama’s mishandling of the economy Trump promised to be their voice. Syrian refugees would be vetted and only those individuals who “will support our values and love our people” will be admitted, he said.

Trump Ignores Social Security in Speech

Aging advocates say that Trump’s acceptance speech was short on details when it can to domestic policy, specifically Social Security and Medicare. But, you won’t need tea leaves to read how a future Trump Administration will change the way the nation supports its retirees. .

According to Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the choice of Governor Mike Pence as Trump’s running mate should send “a very clear message to America’s seniors that their priorities will hold little weight in a Trump administration.” While Trump has promised on the campaign trail that he won’t cut Social Security and Medicare.

During his 12 years serving as a U.S. Congressman, Pence consistently voted in favor of GOP legislative efforts to cut benefits in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, says Richtman, charging that Trump’s vice presidential running mate is one of a few Congressional lawmakers that has a strong “anti-seniors voting record.”

Richtman says that “Mike Pence was one of Congress’ biggest proponents of privatization. He supports cutting Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age, reducing the COLA, means-testing and turning Medicare into “CouponCare.” As he told CNN, ‘I’m an all of the above guy. I think we need to look at everything that’s on the menu,’ and the record shows he has done just that by supporting every form of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefit cut proposed in the past decade.”

While Trump has promised not to cut Social Security benefits on his year-long campaign trail, he continues to surround himself with advisors who are “polar opposite” of his positions says Richtman. “They say actions speak louder than words — Donald Trump’s choice of Mike Pence as his Vice-Presidential running mate will speak volumes to American seniors,” he adds.

Political Experts Weigh in

Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, says that “Trump is on record as saying he does not want to cut Social Security so that is considerably different from most Republican leaders, who support benefit reductions as a way to balance its books. This probably is the reason the [GOP] platform is vague on Social Security. The party could not reconcile Trump’s view on not cutting benefits with the party’s general view that cuts are needed. That left them with a reference to market solutions without explaining what that meant.”

“Party leaders have said they want to raise the retirement age for people under age 50. That issue certainly would be on the issue in a Trump presidency although it is not clear how he views that issue. But there would be significant support in a GOP-run Congress for doing that and cutting the benefits of future retirees,” adds West.

West believes that “Democrats have a very good chance of recapturing control of the Senate. If that happens, that will allow them to block benefit reductions or raising the retirement age, he says.

Wendy Schiller, professor and chair, Department of Political Science at Brown University, warns that talking about changing Social Security can be risky and this “involves a depth of knowledge about entitlement financing that eludes most political candidates especially those without any political experience.”

The Brown professor of politics does not see Trump tackling this issue in any meaningful way in the campaign and she does not believe it will be a priority for him or the GOP if he wins. “Recall George W. Bush tried to reform Social Security immediately after he won reelection in 2004 – by late January 2005 it was dead on arrival in Congress,” she says.

“Overall I am not sure the GOP leadership in the Congress has fully processed what a Trump presidency would look like in terms of policy or what his priorities might be. It is unclear to me that they will align closely and getting anything through Congress these days is nearly impossible, no matter who sits in the Oval Office,” she adds.

Stark Differences in Platforms to Fix Social Security

On Friday, the released Democratic Platform released reveal a stark difference as how to the Democratic and Republican parties will fix the ailing Social Security program. The GOP platform. Although current retirees and those close to retirement will receive their benefits, changes are looming with a Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. For younger generations all benefit cut options to be put on the table, opposing the lifting of the payroll tax cap and sees privatization of Social Security as a way for older American’s to create wealth for use in retirement. On the other hand, the Democratic Party platform calls for a strengthening and expansion of the existing Social Security program. The Democrats oppose any attempts to “cut, privatize or weaken” Social Security, and calls for lifting the payroll tax and exploring a new COLA formula.

NCPSSM’s Richtman notes “ It’s also very telling that while the GOP buried their cuts and privatization plans for Social Security under the Platform’s Government Reform heading, the Democrats addressed Social Security, as they should, as part of their plan to restore economic security for average Americans. That’s been Social Security’s fundamental role for more than 80 years — providing an economic lifeline impacting the lives of virtually every American family.”

As AARP’s John Hishta noted in his July 22 blog, even though the “political spotlight was not on Social Security” at the RNC in Cleveland, delegates, rank-and-file politicians and even political operatives that he talked with clearly understand the programs importance to retirees and younger generations.

“If political leaders fail to act, future retirees could lose up to $10,000 a year. All beneficiaries could face a nearly 25 percent cut in their benefit,” warns Hishta. .

Hishta tells his blog readers that “AARP’s Take a Stand campaign left the RNC with renewed determination to make updating Social Security a bigger part of the presidential debate.” He pledges to continue pushing for strengthening and expanding the nation’s Social Security program at next week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and until the November presidential elections.

To keep informed about Social Security discussion during this presidential campaign go to http://takeastand.aarp.org/,

New Budget Deal Protects Seniors’ Pocketbooks

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 1, 2015

Just days after a Republican-controlled House passed legislation with a vote of 266-167 to prevent the U.S. government from going into default on its debt obligations on Nov. 3, also averting a potential federal government shutdown next month, on Friday, Oct.30, the Republican-led upper chamber followed suit.  Just after 3:00 a.m., the Senate voted 64-35 to approve a two-year bipartisan budget plan sending the bill to President Obama for his signature.

Before Friday’s Senate vote, on Thursday afternoon GOP Presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)’s 20 minute filibuster fizzled, with Senate leadership moving forward for the budget bills consideration.  The measure had strong support for passage.  Retiring House GOP Speaker John Boehner with Congressional leaders from both political parties and President Barack Obama pulled together, putting aside differences, to craft the bill.

.           Before the companion legislation was taken up by the House and Senate, in a statement AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, representing 38 million baby boomers and seniors, called on Congressional leaders and their members to support the bipartisan agreement, one that financially protect older Americans.   Jenkins detailed a number of provisions within the 144 page bill that would “reduce skyrocketing Medicare Part B premiums and alleviate the challenges faced by the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Trust Fund.”

Rhode Island Lawmakers Give Thumbs Up

U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), called the bipartisan budget agreement “a credible compromise,” noting that “It is only a two-year patch, but it puts us on a much better path forward.   Reed, who sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, called on the House and Senate Appropriations committees to “quickly reach consensus and produce a detailed omnibus spending package by the Dec. 11 deadline.”

“This budget deal will provide much-need relief from harmful sequester cuts and give the nation a measure of certainly we have lacked amid the patchwork of stop-gap spending bills in recent years,” added U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Whitehouse noted the bipartisan budget deal provides “much-needed relief from harmful sequester cuts and gives the nation a measure of certainty it has “lacked amid the patchwork of stop-gap spending bills passed in recent years.”

With 37,000 Rhode Islander’s relying on the SSDI program it was easy for Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) to support the bipartisan compromise budget plan because it “prevents a 20 percent cut to SSDI benefits and extends the solvency of this critical program an additional seven years, as well as protecting thousands of Rhode Island seniors from an increase in their Medicare premiums.”

“We need to do more to protect Social Security benefits for seniors, ensure cost-of-living adjustments are calculated in a way that accounts for their needs, and lift the cap on payroll taxes so millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share,” said Rhode Island’s Democratic Congressman.

On the side line, aging advocates were also closely watching the action in both chambers, too.  “We are glad that the Budget passed by Congress this week lets people who rely on Medicare breathe a bit easier – knowing their premiums and deducible will not skyrocket next year,” said Judith Stein, founder and executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “However, we still have concerns about the way in which the Part B cost-sharing resolution is paid for, and concerns about the expenses underlying the original Part B increases.”

“The Center continues to urge law-makers to join Congressman Courtney (CT-2) in asking Secretary Burwell to investigate and fix the underlying reasons for the huge increase in Part B costs,” said Stein. “Much of the increase seems to come from parallel increases in billing inpatient hospital care to Part B – which was never meant to pay for such care – through the use of so-called ‘outpatient’ Observation Status.”

Older Americans Protected by Enacted Budget Plan

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 would raise the nation’s debt ceiling through March 2017, allowing the government to borrow to pay its debt. During these two years it allow Congressional lawmakers to lift budget caps for defense and domestic programs by $80 billion.

The passed budget plan derails a 52 percent Medicare Part B premium increase to 30 percent of beneficiaries, which would have hit millions of seniors in their wallets next year. Similarly, the deductible was projected to increase for these individuals to $223 next year.  But thanks to the budget agreement passed this week, the deductible will instead have a more modest increase from the current amount of $147 to approximately $167.

A general fund loan to the Medicare trust fund lessens the premium and deducible increases. Beneficiaries will repay this loan by a $3 per month premium surcharge over a five-year period.

According to the enacted budget plan, next year, only the 30 percent of the beneficiaries hit by the premium increase would pay this $3 premium surcharge.  In 2017 and beyond, all Medicare beneficiaries not subject to the hold harmless provision in a given year would pay a $3 monthly surcharge theoretically until the general fund loan is repaid..

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is expected to announce final premiums for 2016 by the beginning of November.

Keeping SSDI Afloat

The enacted budget plan also prevents a 20 percent cut in Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits that would have occurred in late 2016 impacting 11 million recipients nationwide.  The enacted law now ensures at least 7 years of certainty that SSDI will pay full benefits.  Now, the passed budget measure “reallocates” a small percentage of the Social Security payroll tax to the SSDI program.  This has occurred 11 times.  But, GOP lawmakers have blocked recent efforts to transfer funds as a bargaining chip to force Congress and the Obama Administration to make cuts to Social Security benefits.

The new law would also tightens up the SSDI review process by requiring a physician or psychologist to review applications before a decision is made.  It ensures that application reviews are uniform nationally.  Finally, it requires the Social Security Administration to reject medical evidence presented in a disability application that was provided by “unlicensed” or “unsanctioned” physicians.

It also attacks Social Security fraud and abuse by providing additional funding to contact case reviews ensuring the applicants are entitled to the benefits, improves the fraud-fighting capacity of the SSA’s Office of Inspector General and increases penalties for those physicians, lawyers, translators who perpetuate fraud.

Finally, the bipartisan budget agreement closes loopholes in the current SSA law that allows higher-income recipients to exploit the rules for applying for benefits, with the goal of receiving large pension checks than Congress intended, and which most retirees are able to receive.

The savings made in the Social Security and SSDI programs remain in the Social Security trust funds and can only be used to pay for future benefits.

With Representative Paul D. Ryan now becoming the 62nd speaker of the House, the nation waits to see if the Wisconsin lawmaker has the special political skills to rein in the ultra-conservative wing of his party.  With only 374 days before the upcoming 2016  presidential and congressional elections America’s federal lawmakers must begin to work together to craft laws that will enhance the quality of life of the nation’s retirees.  Compromise is not a dirty word to those residing outside the Washington, DC beltway.  Gridlock is.

Military Recognition Long Over Due for Shemin and Johnson

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 7, 2015

             Almost a century ago when they fought in the bloody battlefields on Europe’s Western Front, and over four years after the passing of Frank Buckles, America’s last doughboy in 2011, America’s Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama presented the nation’s highest military honor to two long-deceased World War I veterans.  .

At White House ceremony, held on June 2, President Barack Obama recognized the acts of valor of Army Private Henry Johnson, an African-American, and Sgt. William Shemin, who was Jewish.  “It’s never too late to say thank you,” the President told the attendees, including 66 surviving Shemin family members.

“It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve,” the President said, at the formal ceremony to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to the two World War I infantry soldiers for their gallantry and “personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.”

Johnson and Shemin fought in France and risked their lives to save others, Obama said, stressing that America “is the country we are today” because they “rose to meet their responsibilities and then went beyond.”

The President said, “The least we can do is to say: We know who you are. We know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.”

Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Johnson, an Albany, New York, resident enlisted in the Army and was assigned to one of the few units that accepted African-Americans, Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment – an all-black National Guard unit known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” that later became the 369th Infantry Regiment.  Ultimately, the regiment was deployed in 1918, and Johnson’s unit brigaded with a French army colonial unit ending up at the western edge of the Argonne Forest in France’s Champagne region.

In the pitch black, pre-dawn hours, in “No Man’s Land,” Johnson, who had worked before the war as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard and redcap porter at Albany’s Union Station, was credited with helping fight off at least 12 soldiers of a German raiding party despite being wounded and protecting Sentry Needham Roberts, from capture, May 15, 1918.

.            According to Obama, “Johnson fired until his rifle was empty; he and Roberts threw grenades and both of them were hit, with Roberts losing consciousness, As the enemy tried to carry away Roberts, Johnson fought back. After his gun jammed, he used it and a Bolo knife to take down the enemy and protect Roberts from capture.”  Johnson’s bravery ultimately would bring a cache of weapons and supplies to the allies and keep the Germans from gaining valuable intelligence information.

While Johnson was one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor [the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm] for his bravery in battle] “his own nation didn’t award him anything – not even the Purple Heart, though he had been wounded 21 times,” Obama said.

At the ceremony, Obama also awarded the Medal of Honor to Shemin, a rifleman to Company G, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in France.

Shemin, a former semi-pro baseball player and ranger who worked as a forester in Bayonne, New Jersey, repeatedly exposed himself in combat to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue wounded troops during the Aisne-Marne offensive in France, between Aug. 7 and Aug. 9, 1918.

“After platoon leaders had become casualties, Shemin took command and displayed initiative under fire, until he was wounded by shrapnel and a machine gun bullet that was lodged behind his left ear,” said Obama.

Following three months of hospitalization for his injuries, he was transferred to light duty and served in the Army occupation in Germany and Belgium.  Shemin received the Purple Heart. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for battlefield valor, Dec. 29, 1919.

An Act of Congress

It took over five years to get Shemin’s Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to a Medial of Honor,  says Col. Erwin A. Burtnick, (Ret.), who chairs the Awards for Valor Committee, of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish War Veterans of the United States (JWV). Elsie Shemin-Roth, had approached JWV with her father’s records, asking the organization for a review.

Burtnick says, Shemin-Ross, a Missouri resident, grew up hearing stories from her father and those who served with him about how anti-Semitism played a role in preventing his recommendation for receiving the Medal of Honor.  From the documents submitted and a review of other Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor citations from World War I, the retired colonel felt strongly that if the Jewish soldier had been recommended for the Medal of Honor he would most likely had received it.  .

With a federal law required to allow Jewish World War I veterans to receive the Medal of Honor (current law mandates that it must be awarded within five years of when the heroic act being recognized took place), Burtnick asked Shemin-Roth, to help get the ball rolling by contacting Rep. Blaine Luekemeyer (R-MO). whose office ultimately drafted the initial legislation, the William Shemin World War I Veterans Act.

Burtnick provided advice in drafting the proposed legislation. Initially introduced in 2010 it was not enacted.  However, the legislation along with a companion measure in the Senate introduced by Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) passed and became part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012.  However, due to a technical requirement additional legislation was placed in the NDAA of  2015, which allowed the President to award the Medal of Honor to Shemin without regard to the five-year limitation.

.           Meanwhile, Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) spearheaded Congressional efforts to get Johnson his Medal of Honor. He knew that the nation’s highest military award had long been denied due to racism, but he knew that the African-American deserved recognition for his “bravery and heroism” during World War I.

The New York Senator submitted a nearly-1,300 page request to the military in support of Johnson’s receiving the Medal of Honor and launched an online petition to build public support. The Senator also made a personal call with U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh, met with Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright – who oversees decisions regarding Medals of Honor – and wrote a letter to Secretary Hagel, all in an effort to secure the Medal of Honor for Private Johnson.

Senator Schumer, the author of the legislation with the assistance of RR and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), successfully pushed for an amendment to be also included in the NDAA of 2015 (NDAA), which also waived the timing restrictions on the Medal of Honor and enabled the President to consider the Medal of Honor request.  With Obama’s pen stroke, Johnson got his Medal of Honor, too.

At the ceremony, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, New York National Guard senior enlisted advisor, accepted the medal on Johnson’s behalf. Soldiers from the 369th were among the attendees.  There are no family members left to accept the prestigious military award.

“It’s a blessing; it’s an honor; it’s a good thing that Henry Johnson is finally being recognized as a hero,” Wilson said.

Burtnick, came to the White House to see Shemin receive his Medal of Honor and attended a Pentagon enshrinement for the World War I soldier in the Hall of Heroes.  “I was elated that our efforts came to fruition, It took over five years to complete,” he says, acknowledging that he had fulfilled a pledge to Shemin-Ross when he first contacted her, to meet someday at the White House.  “I was happy to see her and she was happy to see me,” he says.

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.

 

Sensible Advice from Seasoned Folk to the Class of 2015  

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 17, 2015 — Updated

This month, notable and professionally successful commencement speakers are again gathering at the nation’s Colleges and Universities to give the robed graduating Class of 2015 seniors’ practical tips and advice as to how to have a rewarding personal and professional life.  High profile speakers cam oftentimes translate into big bucks for speaking fees but these widely recognized speakers can bring prestige to the educational institutions.

CNN.web has announced the this year’s high profile speakers for the upcoming commencement season. According to website, like every year these speakers are politicians, journalists, military leaders, entertainers and business CEOs.  Here’s a sampling: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Oscar winning actors, Anthony Hopkins and Denzel Washington, Novelist and Essayist Author Salmon Rushdie, Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” and Journalist Katie Couric.

May be its time to end the practice of bringing in high-paid commencement speakers.  For this writer, regular folks will do.  Below you might just see many potential commencement speakers, just waiting for the 10 minutes of fame to stand before hundreds of graduating seniors to give their “pearls of wisdom” on living a better life. You may not recognize them on the street, but many in their community know who they are for their achievements of making their Cities and Towns a better place to live.  While not high-profile, through life’s experiences honed every day at work or in their personal worlds, they can give Rhode Island’s college graduates sound, practical advice, to live in a very challenging, and changing world.

Charles Bakst, 71, Providence, retired Providence Journal political columnist. “Stand for something and act upon it.Don’t assume someone else already has done it or will do it.  Work to advance yourself but remember there are plenty of people, even right here in Rhode Island, who have not had the advantages you’ve had. They could use a break too. Help them.”

Dave Barber, 60, East Greenwich, Reporter Capitol Television RI State House. “It’s attitude, not aptitude that will determine your altitude.  There is nothing that will serve you better in the future than a positive mental attitude.  There are two days in life that never exist; yesterday and tomorrow. Yesterday is history, tomorrow a mystery. Live in the moment. Exercise gratitude and kindness in all that you do because there has never been a statue erected of a critic.”

Rick Roth, 61, Cambridge, MA, Owner of Mirror Image.  “Read because if you don’t know anything you are no good to yourself or anybody else and reading is the key to gaining knowledge.  When you are talking (particularly about yourself) you can’t listen. You learn by listening. Try to make the world a better place Pursuit of money is an empty pursuit and will leave you unhappy and dissatisfied.”

Scott A. Davis, 58, Eastside, Owner of the Rhode Island Antique Mall. “In today’s age of information, simply having knowledge is not worth much.  The secret to success in the future will not lie so much in what you know, but in your ability to synthesize information, whether already known or newly acquired, and to draw insightful and valuable conclusions from it.”

Scott Rotondo, 41, Pawtucket, accountant at Tivoli Audio. “Always be willing to expand your intellectual toolbox. Challenge the way things are done, and your own beliefs from time to time. Take in other people’s opposing points of view not with rancor and disdain but with dignity and respect.”

Lisa A. Proctor, 55, East Providence, healer/counselor. “You can not necessarily say all things are possible with God because many do not believe, but I would say a lot of situations we find ourselves in heal when we live honestly, purely, committed and have a merciful and compassionate heart towards others.”

Rudy Cheeks, 65, a musician and columnist of Motif, Providence, “If you can find what you love and make it the center of your life, you’re doing good and will likely be happy.  Whatever you do, “building community” should be an element in your life. Meet your responsibilities (e.g. if you want to create your own family, make sure you are ready for it and committed to it). When you become an “active consumer,” be a smart and thoughtful consumer.”

Kathy Needham, 53, Rumford, Controller, of Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call. “Follow this old adage, “Autograph your work with excellence, it is a signature of who you are”.  Take great pride in all you do but always remember to be humble.  Know that success is a personal goal.”

Gayle L. Gifford, 61, Providence, a strategy consultant to nonprofits, “Be an informed citizen of the world.  Read quality news from home and abroad.  Travel. Look. Hear. Participate to create the community you want your children and grandchildren to live in. Hopefully that community is one of justice, peace and inclusion. Don’t work all day in a job that destroys what you value. Play outside.”

Crystal R. Parifitt, 41, Pawtucket, Owner of  FurBabies, a small pet salon. “Live within your means, below if you can…owning the biggest and best is overrated.  Don’t go after financial gain, choose financial stability because in 20 years you will regret the time you spent ‘chasing’ when you should have been living.”

Nancy Thomas, Cranston, President of Tapestry Communications.  “What you have done has largely been expected of you.  Now, what do you expect of yourself!  Find more than one thing you can do.  Pursue your education.  You’re not done.  Read, discuss, have opinions. Let the negative inspire you, and the positive be your lens. And, as it has always been, there is no work as important as that of raising a child.  Find your path to doing well at both.”

Barbara Peters, Newport, former AARP RI Communications Director, “Life is full of successes and disappointments. When we are young we tend to “cry” when the material things we want don’t immediately come our way. Forget the disappointments and concentrate on your successes. Nobody will hand you what you think you deserve.  [Only] hard work, dedication to your craft and sensitivity to the feelings of others will bring the rewards to you that are truly deserved.”

Cheryl Babiec, Pawtucket, Pawtucket School Teacher. “As an old saying goes….’One Man’s Junk is Another Man’s Treasure’ continues to hold true with the test of time. One of my yard sale “finds” had the following inspirational verse (though the author is unknown):‘Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.’”

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