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

Published in the Woonsocket Call on November 11, 2018

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

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

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

What Issues Are Important to Older Voters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phone App Informs Older Voters on Aging Issues

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

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

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

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

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

Send a Message to Congress

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

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

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GAO Report Reveals Social Security Benefits Gap between Rich, Poor

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 1, 2016

We intuitively know that there is a growing income gap between America’s rich and poor. We heard it for months during the presidential democratic debates. But a newly released GAO report documents this charge, the disparities and their impact on Social Security Benefits.

Growing disparities in life expectancy between America’s rich and poor is eroding the progressive nature of Social Security. A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Shorter Life Expectancy Reduces Projected Lifetime Benefits for Lower Income,” requested by Senator Bernie Sanders, shows that low-income American men (making about $20,000 a year) will lose 11 percent to 14 percent of their lifetime Social Security benefits while high-income men (making $80,000 annually) will see a 16 percent to 18 percent benefit boost due to this growing gap.

Life Expectancy Impacts SSA Benefits

The GAO study, released on April 4, 2016, found that raising the Social Security retirement age would result in even fewer benefits for lower-income groups. Lower-income men are living between 4 and 13 fewer years than higher-income men, and lower-income women are living between 2 and 14 fewer years than higher-income women.

“Poverty should not be a death sentence,” said Sanders, who serves as ranking member on the Primary Health and Retirement Security Subcommittee. “When over half of older workers have no retirement savings, we need to expand, not cut, Social Security so that every American can retire with the benefits they’ve earned and the dignity they deserve,” he says.

According to 64 page GAO report, the wealthiest Americans are not only living longer and collecting more in Social Security benefits, they are also contributing less of their income toward Social Security. Almost all of the income gains over the past three decades have gone to those earning above the $118,500 earnings cap and have therefore been exempt from Social Security taxes, costing the Social Security Trust Fund over $1.1 trillion, says the report.

“Today, the wealthiest Americans contribute less to Social Security than at any other time in recent history. We must reject calls to raise the retirement age and instead strengthen Social Security by ensuring millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share,” Sanders said.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), says that the GAO report is especially important when you consider the push in Congress to raise Social Security’s retirement age to reduce benefits. “Forcing average Americans to delay retirement until 70, as suggested by some in Washington, would mean even smaller benefits for lower-income groups,” he says.

Richtman notes that NCPSSM has long opposed increasing the Social Security retirement age, stating that it is “nothing but a cruel cut in benefits” The GAO report shows exactly how cruel it would be, he says.

Instead of cutting Social Security, Richtman calls on Congress to boost benefits so that retirement income program can continue to fulfill its promise providing an adequate base of income for America’s seniors.

Lawmakers Push to Protect Social Security

Sanders, a presidential Democratic candidate, has introduced legislation that would ensure that Social Security would be able to pay every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 58 years. His plan would increase benefits by more than $1,300 a year for seniors with less than $16,000 in annual income. This includes boosting yearly cost-of-living adjustments by making the consumer price index better reflect seniors’ rising costs for health care and prescription medicine.

To shore up the retirement program’s trust fund, the Senator would lift the cap on taxable income so everyone who makes more than $250,000 a year would pay the same percentage of their income into Social Security as middle-class working families.

“This report reinforces the importance of strengthening Social Security and preserving the guarantee of Medicare, especially for working and middle class Rhode Islanders,” said Congressman Cicilline (D-RI), who is a co-sponsor of the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act. “After a lifetime of hard work, Rhode Islanders should be able to retire with economic security and peace of mind, he says, pledging to continue his efforts to support “commonsense” legislation that strengthen Social Security benefits.

The GAO study is a warning that proposals to raise the retirement age “would fall hardest on those who can least afford it,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). As a founding member of the Defending Social Security Caucus, Whitehouse plans to explore ways to strengthen the Social Security, “the bedrock of American retirement security.”

GAO made no recommendations in this report. However, in comments the Social Security Administration (SSA) agreed with GAO’s finding that it is important to understand how the life expectancy in different income groups may affect retirement income. The federal agency sees financial literacy as a key factor in preparing for a “secured retirement.”

According to a SSA official, “Social Security offers one of the best tools for the public to plan for their retirement and educate themselves about their benefits – a my Social Security account which is a secure, personalized online account that can be created at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount. With a my Social Security account, people can check their Social Security Statement to learn about future Social Security benefits, verify annual earnings, and plan for their financial future. More than 23 million people have already created secure, convenient accounts,” he says.

In recent years Congress has looked for ways to keep the Social Security program afloat by adjusting Social Security tax contributions, increasing retirement age, and reducing benefit amounts. Now with the release of the new report findings, the message is clear. Congress must not tinker with Social Security until it understands the unanticipated impact on those receiving the benefit checks, especially on the lower-income retirees.

For more information, contact Charles Jeszeck at (202) 512-7215 or jeszeckc@gao.gov.