House Subcommittee Panel Makes Call for Expanding, Strengthening Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 23, 2019

So it goes, to the victor goes the spoils. Over a week ago, House Democratic leadership, now controlling the legislative agenda, pushed to strengthen and expand benefits for the nation’s Social Security program.

With the 116th Congress kicking off on Jan. 2, 2019, as the majority party, the Democrats took over the legislative reins of the House of Representatives from the Republicans, who had held the majority and legislative control of the lower chamber since 2011. Now being in power allows Democratic leadership to control which bills reach the floor for a vote. In this new Congress, legislation reflecting the GOP’s philosophy as to how to fix Social Security (by privatizing the retirement program, cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, even reducing cost-of-living adjustments or lowering earned benefits) would be blocked by Democratic leadership.

Congress Puts Spotlight on Social Security

Last week, Social Security got a full and fair hearing before the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee.

Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), chairing the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, held a series of panel hearings, calling for the strengthening and protecting the nation’s Social Security program.

“What we’re addressing in these hearings is that Congress hasn’t paid enough attention to Social Security to make sure it’s actuarially sound,” he said, in his opening statement for the March 12th hearing, entitled “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Enhancing Social Security to Strengthen the Middle Class.”

According to Larson, more than 62 million Americans are already receiving Social Security benefits.

“We have a responsibility to act to strengthen this program for them,” he added. “Not to act will amount to a 25 percent benefit cut come 2034. In other words, for the person who was making $50,000 a year throughout their working career, they would actually be living at a poverty level in terms of a benefit that they would receive after these cuts,” he said.

“Not only do we need to work to protect the program, but we need a solution to make the program, as the actuaries say, “sustainably solvent,” or in other words, making sure Social Security remains strong throughout this century, not just for seniors, but for millennials too,” added Larson.

Joan Ruff, AARP’s chair of the Board, testified, saying, “Social Security is the only lifetime, inflation-protected, guaranteed source of retirement income that most Americans will have. It is the foundation of retirement security that keeps millions of older Americans out of poverty and allows them to live independently. But Social Security also provides some measure of economic security for families who face a loss of income because of the disability or the death of a wage earner. We often do not think of Social Security as a family income protection plan—yet that is exactly what it is.”

Other witnesses testified on the importance of Social Security benefits and how it provides the middle class with economic security, especially women and minorities.

One day later, Larson convened a second hearing entitled, “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Benefit Enhancements.” The purpose of holding the hearings, said Larson, was to “shine a bright light on all of the proposals to secure Social Security that will help the American people.”

Democrats Unveil Fix for Social Security

Larson also used the subcommittee panel hearing as a bully pulpit to promote his legislation, H.R. 860, “The Social Security 2100 Act.” Specifically, the bill’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. Larson’s bill would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients would receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

At this time, H.R. 860 has 203 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin). Passage of the legislation requires only a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass.

But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it reach the Senate floor for consideration.

Larson’s first two hearings are the first in a series of hearings on Protecting and Improving Social Security. One more hearing will be scheduled with the date to be determined. After these hearings, H.R. 860 will most likely be marked up by the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee and full Committee before it heads to the House floor for a vote.

Enhancing Social Security Benefits

Lead-off witness Max Richtman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), restated his aging advocacy group’s support for Larson’s Social Security bill, H.R. 860, which enhances the retirement programs benefits and ensures its long-term solvency.

“Since the program’s creation 84-years ago, Social Security has been – and is- and enormously successful program which is essential to the retirement of the vast majority of Americans. While [the] benefits are modest, Social Security is still the single largest source of income for retired American’s. To ensure the program’s continued success, it is vitally important that long-term solvency be restored, and that Social Security benefits be improved to meet the needs of all Americans,” says Richtman.

Social Security Advocates joined Richtman at the witness table, too.

Elizabeth Marafino, president of the Connecticut Alliance of Retired Americans (from Larson’s home state), stated that Social Security is important to older Connecticut residents, making this statement more personal by sharing how her maternal grandmother, mother of six and a widow at the age of fifty, was glad to receive her husband’s social security check because it literally kept her out of the poor house.

Marafino noted, “The traditional three-legged stool of pension, personal savings, and social security is deteriorating. The ‘pension’ leg of the stool has been disappearing, eroding retirement security and making Social Security even more important. Along with the high cost of prescription drugs putting pressure on seniors’ finances, (these factors make) the need to increase Social Security benefits urgent.”

Abigail Zapote, Director of Latinos for a Secure Retirement, testified that boosting Social Security benefits is crucial to the Latino population, whose average Social Security checks are lower than other Americans. “Latinos depend on Social Security more than other groups because they tend to have lower lifetime income, longer life expectancies, higher incidence of disability and larger families,” she said.

Enhancing benefits can help older women, too, testified Joan Entmacher, a Senior Fellow at the
National Academy of Social Insurance. “Social Security is the foundation of retirement security for most Americans, but it is especially important for women,” she says, noting that women rely more on their Social Security checks than men do, even though their Social Security benefits are lower. She pointed out that the average retirement benefit for women is only 80 percent of men, making women even more reliant on Social Security, she said.

“Adjusting the regular benefit formula to make it more progressive would increase benefits for all workers, but lower lifetime earners, including women and people of color, would receive the largest percentage increases,” says Entmacher. To boost retirement benefits, she calls for the creation of caregiver credits (the majority of caregivers are women) who take off from their jobs to care for family members.

Finally, Donna Butts, the Executive Director of Generations United, testified that Social Security was important for all generations. ““For more than 80 years Social Security has been the premier example of a policy designed to secure and insure the well-being of individuals and their families. “For many it makes the difference between putting food on the table and deciding whether grandma or junior eat tonight,” she says.

The Beginning of an Honest Policy Debate

According to a NCPSSM blog posted on March 15th, “Republicans on the subcommittee, now in the minority for the first time in 8 years, appeared to be less combative than in the past.”

“This was a richer dialogue about the philosophical differences about Social Security than we’ve had in a long time,” observed National Committee legislative director, Dan Adcock in the blog posting. “There was a quest to figure out what each side could live with,” he says.

Stay tuned.

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Democrats Put High Drug Costs on Radar Screen

Published in Woonsocket Call on September 30, 2018

On August 21, at an afternoon Democratic Senate hearing titled “America Speaks Out: The Urgent Need to Tackle Health Care Costs and Prescription Drug Prices,” Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Ron Wyden (D-WA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tina Smith (D-MN), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Joe Manchin (D-WV), gathered to hear the personal stories of witnesses who have struggled with paying for the high cost of prescription drugs and listen to an expert who tracks price trends for prescription drugs widely used by older Americans.

In the last 18 years prescription drug prices have risen 3 times faster than physician and clinical services,” says DPCC’s chairwoman Stabenow in her opening statement. “We pay the highest prices in the world. The outrages prices force people to skip doses, split pills in half and even go without the medication they need,” she says, calling this problem a “matter of life and death,” says Stabenow.

Democrats believe health care to be a basic human right, while the GOP considers it to be a commodity to go to the highest bidder, adds Stabenow, denoting the philosophical differences of the two political parties.

Wyden, Ranking Member on the Senate Finance Committee who sits on the DPCC, recalled that two years ago when then presidential candidate Donald Trump was on the campaign trail pledged to make sure Medicare would negotiate like crazy to hold down costs for seniors and taxpayers. While Trump is well into one year and a half into his term, Americans year ad half into his term Americans believe it is crazy that we are still not negotiating to hold down the cost of medicine.

Wyden and his fellow DPCC committee members also call for Medicare to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Senate DPCCs Puts Spotlight on Rising Drug Costs

At the Senate’s DPCC’s hearing, Witness Nicole Smith-Holt, a Minnesota state employee, and mother of four children shared a tragic story about her 26-year old diabetic son, Alec, who had died because he could not afford his copay of $1,300 for diabetic supplies and insulin.

The Richfield, Minnesota resident recounted how her son tried to ration the insulin to make it last until his next paycheck, but he died as a result of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Stahis Panagides, an 80-year old Bethesda, Maryland retiree, testified that he could not afford to pay $ 400 per month for prescribed Parkinson’s medication. He could not pay for the new course of treatment, recommended by his neurologist, even with a supplemental Medicare plan, he says, so he just refused to take it.

Retired social worker John Glaser, a long-time grassroots organizer for the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, came before the Democratic committee, saying “Medicare drug benefits and the Affordable Care Act’s closing of the coverage ‘donut hole’ have made a huge difference in my life and are invaluable for the quality of my life. Without these improvements he would have spent about $5,000 one-of-pocket on prescription drugs last year, he notes.

Glaser also shared that his brother, who is afflicted with diabetes, heart problems, and kidney disease, takes over 50 pills every day. “If my brother had to pay the full price for all of those drugs, he’d be living on the street,” he says.

Marques Jones, who has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), told the Senators that his MS medication costs about $75,000 annually. Despite having robust insurance coverage, Jones’ annual out-of-pocket spending on drug co-pays and insurance premiums for his family of five is very high. This has caused the resident of Richmond, Virginia to become a vocal advocate for those who suffer from MS.

Finally, Leigh Purvis, Director, Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, a coauthor of the AARP Public Policy Institute’s annual RX Price Watch Reports, warned that today’s prescription drug price trends are not sustainable. “The current system is simply shifting costs onto patients and taxpayers while drug companies remain free to set incredibly high prices and increase them any time that they want,” says Purvis, noting that Congressional efforts to reduce prescription drug prices could save billions of dollars.

AARP Report Tracks Skyrocketing Drug Costs

One month after Senate’s DPCC’s hearing, a new AARP report, released on September 27, 2018, says that retail prices for many of the most commonly-used brand name drugs prescribed to older adults by older adults increased by an average of 8.4 percent in 2017, greater than the general inflation rate of 2.1 percent. The annual average cost of therapy for just one brand name drug increased to almost $6,800 in 2017, says the AARP researchers.

According to the new “Rx Price Watch Report: Trends in Retail Prices of Prescription Drugs Widely Used by Older Americans: 2017 Year-End Update,” released just days ago, revealed that for over a decade, brand name drug prices have “exceeded the general inflation rate of other consumer goods by a factor of two-fold to more than 100-fold.”

If retail drug price charges had reflected the general inflation rate between 2006 and 2017, the average annual cost for one brand name drug in 2017 would have been $2,178 instead of $6,798, said the AARP Public Policy report.

Taking multiple medications can be costly, says the AARP report. “For the average senior taking 4.5 medications each month, this would translate into an annual cost of therapy that is almost $21,000 less than the actual average cost of therapy in 2017 ($9,801 vs. $30,591), notes the findings of the AARP report.

“Despite years of relentless public criticism, brand name drug companies continue increasing the prices of their products at rates that far exceed general inflation,” said AARP Chief Public Policy Officer Debra Whitman, in a September 26 statement with the release of the AARP report. “It’s clear that we need long-term, meaningful policies that go beyond just hoping that the drug industry will voluntarily change its excessive pricing behavior,” adds Whitman.

“The average older American taking 4.5 prescription medications each month would have faced more than $30,000 in brand name costs last year,” adds Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, and co-author of the AARP report. “That amount surpasses the median annual income of $26,200 for someone on Medicare by more than 20 percent. No American should have to choose between paying for their drugs and paying for food or rent,” says Purvis.

Some highlights of AARP’s New Drug Cost Report

AARP report’s findings noted that brand name drug prices increased four times faster than the 2017 general inflation rate and that drug retail prices that year increased for 87 percent of the 267 brand name drugs studied.

Finally, research findings indicated that “retail prices for 113 chronic-use brand name drugs on the market since at least 2006 increased cumulatively over 12 years by an average of 214 percent compared with the cumulative general inflation rate of 25 percent between 2006 to 2017.”

In recent correspondence to the Secretary of the Health and Human Services, AARP calls for regulatory and legislative reforms that will allow the Secretary to be able to negotiate drug prices for Medicare, allowing the safe importation of lower cost drugs into the United States and ensuring that generic drugs can more easily enter the market. Now, AARP waits for a response.

Putting the breaks on the skyrocketing pharmaceutical costs might just be the bipartisan issue that the new Congress can tackle once the dust settles from the upcoming mid-term elections.

To watch DPCC’s August 21st Senate hearing, go to https://www.democrats.senate.gov/dpcc/hearings/senate-democrats-to-hold-hearing-with-americans-hurt-by-high-cost-of-prescription-drugs.

For a copy of AARP’s drug cost report, to http://www.aarp.org/rxpricewatch.