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.

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We Need Congress to Step Up and Fix Social Security, Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 3, 2016

Expect the nation’s Social Security program to be fully funded for nearly two decades, and Medicare’s solvency to continue courtesy of health care reforms. Social Security beneficiaries may even get a very small .2 percent cost of living (COLA) adjustment next year but will get wacked with a Medicare premium increase. These facts are reported in the recently leased 262 page report issued by the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare funds, transmitted to Congress and President Obama. This is the 76th report issued by the Trustees that financially reviews these two of the nation’s largest entitlement programs.

This 2016 Trustee Report, released on Jun 22, should be of interest to Rhode Island’s retirees who receive checks from Social Security, According to AARP, 153,349 Rhode Islanders received Social Security checks as of the end of 2014. Also, 22 percent of Rhode Island retirees depend on their Social Security check for 90 percent or more of their income. Their average benefit is $1,341 per month.
The Devils in the Details

The recently released 2016 Trustees Report notes there is now $2.81 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $23 billion more than last year and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.

Meanwhile, Social Security remains well-funded. In 2016, as the economy continues to improve, Social Security’s total income is projected to exceed its expenses. In fact, the Trustees estimate that total annual income will exceed program obligations until 2020.

The Trustees say that Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until the year 2034, the same as projected in last year’s Report. After that, Social Security will still have sufficient revenue to pay about 79% of benefits if no changes are made to the program.

Although the Trustees project a .2% Cost of Living Adjustment increase, retirees will be hit with a premium increase next year. Medicare Part B premiums are projected to increase by only a very small amount for about 70 percent of beneficiaries in 2017 from $104.90 to $107.60. The standard monthly premium is projected to increase from $121.80 to $149.00 while the annual deductible is projected to increase from $166 to $204 for all beneficiaries.

The Trustees peg Medicare solvency to the passage of healthcare reform, with the program paying full benefits until 2028, 11 years later than was projected prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act. However, this is two years earlier than projected in 2015.

Congress Must Step to the Plate

Responding to the Social Security Trustees report, recently released report, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, said, “While the Trustees once again report that the combined Old Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance Trust can pay full retirement, survivor and disability benefits for some time, we know that if no action is taken, benefits could be cut by nearly 25 percent in 2034, and families could lose up to $10,000 per year in benefits.”

“Social Security remains a critical part of the fabric of our lives to protect us from both expected and unexpected challenge,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins calls on Presidential candidates and those running for Congress and the Senate to make a commitment to strengthening Social Security and outline their plans for the fix. “Throughout the 2016 election, we’ll continue to push candidates to take action if elected,” she says.

As to Medicare, Jenkins adds, “This year’s Medicare Trustees report reinforces the recent progress that has been made through greater Medicare savings and lower costs per enrollee. The report also highlights the financial challenges that continue to face the Medicare program, which is projected to provide critical health coverage to 64 million Americans by 2020.”

“A typical senior today has an annual income of just under $25,000 and pays roughly one out of every six dollars of this in out-of-pocket health care costs. The more than 55 million older Americans who today depend on Medicare for guaranteed, affordable health coverage simply cannot afford more than they already pay,” says Jenkins.

The Solution Could Be Simple

Jenkins urges Congress to make simple solutions to bring stability to the nation’s Medicare program. She suggests Congress find ways to reduce high prescription drug costs, improve the nation’s health care outcomes, eliminate unnecessary diagnostic testing, curb excess paperwork, and identify waste and fraud in the program.

Adds, Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “What’s likely to be missing in headlines about today’s Social Security Trustees Report is that the program remains well-funded with total income, again, projected to exceed expenses. However, in order to head off a benefit cut in 2034 Washington should embrace the growing movement to lift the payroll tax cap and expand benefits for the millions of seniors struggling to get by on an average $1,300 retirement benefit.

The Trustees also project a tiny .2% cost of living adjustment next year yet Medicare premiums will increase in 2017, says Richtman. “Seniors continue to see their modest Social Security benefits eaten away by growing healthcare costs which illustrates, once again, that the current Social Security COLA formula isn’t accurately measuring seniors’ expenses. Congress needs to adopt a fully developed CPI for the elderly (CPI-E) and begin work on the many Social Security expansion bills now languishing in the House and Senate,” he adds.

This [Trustee’s] report reinforces the importance of ensuring that Social Security and Medicare are preserved and guaranteed, especially for working and middle class Rhode Islanders,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) who is a co-sponsor of the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act. “Reasonable measures, such as raising the cap on high-income contributions, should be considered by Congress to extend the solvency of these programs. I will continue to advocate for commonsense legislation that strengthens benefits for working families and ensures the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare,” he says.

RI. Reps Protect Social Security

Like Cicilline, Rep. Jim Langevin and Democratic Senators Jack Reed (D and Sheldon Whitehouse both view Social Security as an earned benefit and the primary source of income to millions of retirees that must be protected. The Rhode Island Congressional Delegation has fought off Republican efforts to privatize Social Security and have supported legislation to strengthen this program and Medicare.

It is very clear to aging advocates and to the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds that the next President and Congress put political differences aside to make legislative fixes to strengthen and ensure the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare.

The Trustees say this very clearly in their report, “Lawmakers have many policy options that would reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare. Lawmakers should address these financial challenges as soon as possible. Taking action sooner rather than later will permit consideration of a broader range of solutions and provide more time to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare.”

Political compromise will be the way to hammer out Social Security and Medicare reforms. When the dust is settled after the upcoming November president elections hopefully this message was delivered at the ballet box.

Calling on Congress to Increase Alzheimer’s Funding

Published in Woonsocket Call on February 21, 2016

Three weeks before President Obama released his Fiscal Year 2017 Budget on February 9,  Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), who chairs the U.S. Select Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) along with seven of their colleagues, called on the Democratic President to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research as part of his last proposed budget request. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who sits on the Senate Aging Panel, was among the cosigners.

In the bipartisan January 28 correspondence,  the cosigners said, “If nothing is done to change the trajectory of Alzheimer’s, the number of Americans afflicted with the disease is expected to more than triple between 2015 and 2050,” the Senators wrote.  Already our nation’s costliest disease, Alzheimer’s is projected to cost our country more than $1 trillion by 2050… Surely, we can do more for Alzheimer’s given the tremendous human and economic price of this devastating disease.”

Furthermore, cosigners warned that “$2 billion per year in federal funding is needed to meet the goal of preventing or effectively treating Alzheimer’s by 2025.” 

 Aging Groups Express Disappointment

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), says that the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, (P.L.114-113) provided $936 million in FY 2016 (a $350 million or 59.7% increase over FY 2015) for Alzheimer’s disease research at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the nation’s leading funder of Alzheimer’s disease research.

Richtman expressed disappointment that Obama’s budget proposal did not recommend funding about the FY 2016 level for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia research, it was essentially flat funded.

“Scientists have estimated that spending at least $2 billion a year on research is necessary to accomplish the national Alzheimer’s plan goal of preventing or effectively treating Alzheimer’s disease by 2025,” says Richtman.

According to NCPSSM’s 2016 Legislative Report, “the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia is expected to skyrocket over the next few decades because many people are living longer and the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease increases with age.”

Richtman says “making a significant investment in funding towards finding a cure and appropriate treatments for persons with Alzheimer’s disease and dementias is key to reducing the massive financial drain this disease will impose on the future of the Medicare program, along with the devastating emotional and financial toll exacted on the millions of Alzheimer’s victims and their family members and caregivers.”

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) also expressed disappointment in the proposed $337 million cut in research funding at NIA, contained in Obama’s 2017 Fiscal year budget proposal. “The Administration has been a champion in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease; however, we are disappointed that, in his final budget, the President is retreating,” said CEO and President Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr., of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA). “We were hoping President Obama would take the dramatic step necessary to confront the dementia crisis in this country head-on. We will continue to work with Congressional appropriators to ensure we are on the path to a cure,” says Fuschillo, Jr.

Like NCPSSM, Cicilline, Reed, Whitehouse, and many members of congress, the New York-based AFA urged the Administration to build on the historic 60 percent increase in Alzheimer’s research funding that was included in this year’s budget that provided an additional $1 billion in research funding in the upcoming federal budget.  If done, total federal spending would reach almost $ 2 billion, an amount that Alzheimer’s experts say is necessary to finding a cure or meaningful treatment by 2025 (detailed in the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease.

According to AFA, currently Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with studies indicating it could actually be as high as the third-leading caused.  But this devastating disorder is the only disease in the top 10 for which there is neither a cure nor impactful treatment.  Furthermore, “even with the Fiscal Year 2016 funding increase, funding for Alzheimer’s lags far behind HIV/AIDS, cancer and heart disease.

On the Home Front

Congressman David N. Cicilline, who successfully led the effort in the House to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research by more than 50% last year, sees a need for increased funding a necessity in the Fiscal Year 2017. “Alzheimer’s disease afflicts 22,000 Rhode Islanders and their families each year,” the Democratic congressman representing Congressional District 1.

With Congress poised to begin hammering out next year’s federal budget, Cicilline plans to continue his efforts in the House to fight for an increase federal funding for a treatment and a cure of the devastating disorder.  He urges for Alzheimer’s disease research remain a major funding priority for policymakers at every level of government.

Senator Jack Reed, serving as a member of the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, says, “Last year, we successfully included a $350 million boost in new spending for Alzheimer’s research, a 60% increase over the previous year.  Looking ahead to the coming fiscal year, we still have our work cut out for us in this challenging budgetary climate, but I am pushing to secure additional resources to help prevent, treat, and cure Alzheimer’s, as well as for education and outreach.”

“More and more Americans are being impacted by Alzheimer’s disease and we need a serious national commitment to finding cures and treatments.  That means making strategic investments now that will help save lives and future dollars in the long-term,” notes the Senator.

A Call for Action

Experts tell us an impending Alzheimer’s disease epidemic is now upon us. Federal and state officials are scrambling to gear up for battle, developing national and state plans detailing goals to prevent or treat the devastating disease by 2025.

According to the Rhode Island Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated five million Americans over age 65 are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013.  The prevalence may well triple, to over 16 million, if research does not identify ways to prevent or treat the cognitive disorder, says the Rhode Island nonprofit.  By 2050, it’s noted that the estimated total cost of care nation-wide for persons with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to reach more than $1 trillion dollars (in today’s dollars), up from $172 billion in 2010.

Congress must not act “penny wise and pound foolish” when it ultimately comes to determining the amount of federal dollars that will be poured into Alzheimer’s research in next year’s fiscal budget.  Less dollars or level funding will only increase state and federal government’s cost of care for Alzheimer’s care in every municipality in the nation.  A total of 469 seats in the Congress (34 Senate seats and all 435 House seats) are up for grabs in the upcoming presidential election in November.  Lawmakers must remember that every voter may be personally touched, either caring for a family member with the cognitive disorder or knowing someone who is a caregiver or patient.  That ultimately becomes a very powerful message to Capitol Hill that it is important to increase the funding to NIA to find the cure.

 

 

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.

Susan Sweet Takes the Reins of AARP’s Community Educational Initiative

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 11, 2013 

            Accepting the challenge offered by organizers of Rhode Island AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say”, veteran advocate and organizer, Susan L. Sweet, has come out of semi-retirement, stepping to the plate to coordinate a series of “community conversations”  to continue efforts of promoting dialogue throughout the OceanState on the future of Social Security and Medicare.

             After years of paying into Medicare and Social Security, AARP, a Washington, D.C.-based group representing 40 million Americans, believes that age 50 plus aging baby boomers and older persons deserve a voice in the Inside the Beltway debates that impacts their future retirement years.  “You’ve Earned a Say” is a AARP-led national conversation committed to providing people with critical information about the domestic policy proposals being debated in Congress — simply put without the political jargon and spin.

             Regional events to be held in Warwick, Pawtucket and elsewhere – free and open to all — will be scheduled throughout the summer into the fall as Congress and  President Barack Obama begin to weigh in on policy changes for these critical domestic programs.

             “Susan has a remarkable knack for encouraging people to become actively engaged in matters that deserve public attention and involvement,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “We are fortunate that she has agreed to take this on. She will bring great energy to AARP’s ‘You’ve Earned a Say’ outreach and engagement efforts. The fate of Social Security and Medicare is important to all Rhode Islanders and we hope many will take part in our forums. Working with our staff and other AARP volunteers, Susan will be a tremendous asset. She is a force of nature.”   After seeing her in action for over 18 years this columnist agrees.

             A veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, Sweet joined the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in 1972, where she founded and led numerous Rhode Island Division of Women’s programs.  She worked with the General Assembly to secure the first state funding for Domestic Violence Shelters.  While at the DCA, she also wrote a grant, funded by federal dollars, to establish community health centers throughout the state.

             In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Sweet was Associate Director of the R. I. Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA), creating and developing a number of award winning programs, including the RI Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Elderly Program, popularly known as RIPAE.  She initiated a first in the nation statewide Elder Housing Security program and various legislative and programmatic initiatives to assist elders in the state.

             Sweet, a Rumford resident, earned the monikor as the mother of RIPAE by initiating, planning, organizing, managing and finally directing the state program that would ultimately assist 32,000 Rhode Island  limited income seniors with state co-payment assistance for prescription drugs. After leaving the DEA, three attempts were made by sitting governors (both Independent and Republican) to eliminate the program and the advocate led all three successful efforts to restore RIPAE funding in the state budget.

             After retiring as DEA’s Associate Director in 2000, Sweet has been a consultant and lobbyist on Smith Hill for nonprofit agencies and an advocate for vulnerable populations and issues such as immigrants, domestic violence, homeless and seniors. Her clients have included the Senior Centers Directors Association, the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, International Institute, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and others.

             On a personal note, Sweet, 72, cares for five adopted cats, all abandoned or abused, putters in her large backyard garden, spends time with two children and two grandchildren.  Being an expert on Roman history she reads many tomes on that era, and on world archeology and history.

Social Security on the Chopping Block

               Democratic President Obama and a Democrat-controlled Senate and a GOP House of Representatives are trying to reach a budget deal in the coming months. President Obama has proposed a change that would slash $127 billion from Social Security benefits over the next ten years, hurting many older beneficiaries who are already living on very tight budgets stretched far to thin by costly prescriptions, rising utilities, and increased health care costs. AARP and other aging groups are pushing hard against these cuts, mobilizing their troops to oppose. 

             Social Security is a self-financed program, not a piggy bank for deficit reduction, noting that aging baby boomers and seniors have paid into this pension program their entire working lives.  According to AARP polls, older Americans expect their elected representatives in Washington to fiscally secure Social Security for future generations and keep the promise Congress made 78 years ago: that this retirement program would provide a financial safety network in their later years.

             According to Sweet, the proposed chained CPI is a flawed policy that will hit Social Security beneficiaries in their pocketbook. Each year the Social Security Administration (SSA) makes the determination, based on market prices, whether to adjust the Social Security payment to beneficiaries and, if so, by how much.  The chained CPI is a formula that assumes that people will simply buy cheaper products.  “But that is not the case for seniors, whose greatest expenses are health care, utilities and other costs that can’t often be replaced,” So, the chained CPI is just a term that means that the average senior will lose more than $2,000 in the next 10 years and even more after that.  It also means that people reaching retirement age and/or planning for retirement will have even more of a reduction.

             Furthermore, Sweet finds it extremely disappointing that a Democrat President would offer, as an opening gambit in the budget process, a reduction in Social Security benefits by using a new and inappropriate method for computing Cost Of Living Adjustments (COLAs).  In fact, Social Security, a program that pays for itself and has never run a deficit, should not be used to offset deficits in other programs. We should be talking about how to strengthen the program, not reducing it, she states.

 State Pension Changes Hits Retirees, Too

             But, with Social Security COLA cuts looming if Congress takes legislative action to endorse chained CPIs, aging baby boomers in the OceanState who will shortly retire or those already receiving their municipal or state pension checks will see less retirement income because of actions of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

                 “Any additional loss of retirement income is certainly a concern for public employees who, as a result of the 2011 slashes in their promised retirement income,” said AARP’s Connell. “Lawmakers need to understand that there are earned benefits. People plan their retirement based on what they are told they can count on – whether it is a public or private pension, or Social Security. As we have said for the past two years, Congress and the President should not address the deficit by pursuing harmful cuts to Social Security and Medicare.” 

             Sweet agrees stating that “Rhode Island was at the very front of the attack on older folks with an extraordinary coup which stripped public service retirees and workers of hard earned compensation for their work. They called it “pension reform”, but that is not what it was.  Everyone knows that it is not fair to change the rules in the middle of the game and certainly not after the game is over.  But that is what is happening around the country, in private and public employment.”

             Social Security and other pensions are not “entitlement programs” but more like insurance programs that you pay into with the promise and expectation of a certain coverage, notes Sweet. The aging advocate asks: “Should the insurance company be allowed to change the benefits upon payout? Should government (state or federal) cut benefits to retirees absent the most pressing of circumstances?”

             But, certainly in the case of Social Security, there is no emergency, but rather a timely need to insure that the program can continue to fulfill its mission, she says.

             Robert A. Walsh, Jr., Executive Director of NEA, National Education Association Rhode Island, representing 12,000 members in education and in city and state government, refers to the recalculation of COLAs by using chained CPIs as “voodoo economics.”  While supporters of this recalculation policy note it reins in Social Security costs, they should at least be honest about the fact that it personally hits the retiree financially, right in their checks, he says.  “If you’re going to cut people’s COLAs, just be honest about it,” he says.

             Many of Walsh’s union members only receive their city or state pension as they are not eligible for Social Security benefits. People retired with certain expectations [as to what retirement income they had] and to make pension changes after they retire is patently unfair, says Walsh, noting they had no opportunity to plan for the decreased income.

             Throughout the nation there is a growing movement of aging baby boomers and seniors, fueled by AARP’s educational efforts, who tell Congress to simply  “Leave Social Security Alone”.  Strengthen it for future generations, they say.

             Sweet and millions of others tell Washington politicians that “Social Security is not a cookie jar to fund other programs.”   Sweet says you can make this known to Rhode Island’s Congressional Delegation, Senators Reed and Whitehouse, Representatives Cicciline and Langevin, by attending the upcoming “community conversations.”  Support their position opposing the change in the COLA and urge them to support Social Security by leaving it out of any budget deal, she urges. 

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

Critics of Chained CPI Call It a “Flawed Policy”

 Published in the Pawtucket Times, July 5, 2013

            With President Barack Obama’s fiscal blueprint unveiled almost three months ago, on April 10, 2013, that included a chained consumer price index (CPI) for the purpose of calculating Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), Rhode Island aging advocates go on the offensive opposing the suggested way as to how the federal government would calculate inflation.

             In June 12, 2013, Rhode Island AARP State Director, Kathleen S. Connell, a former secretary of state and one-time teacher, and State President Alan Neville, of Cumberland, along with AARP staff and volunteers from every other state in the nation, traveled to Inside the Beltway to Capitol Hill, on June 12, 2013, to urge Congress to just say “No” to a tying a chained CPI to Social Security.

             Continuing to protest, early this week Connell, Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Langevin and Cicilline, joined over 150 people who voiced strong concerns over Congress’s consideration of a chained CPI.  The Rhode Island Alliance of Retired Americans, the organizer of Tuesday’s protest, called it a “flawed policy,” charged that “switching to a chained CPI would compound benefit reductions dramatically over time, resulting in an annual benefit cuts.” 

            AARP Rhode Island is also planning to host “You’ve Earned a Say” discussions at seniors centers across the state this summer and into the fall to get its membership to rally against changing how Social Security cost of living adjustments are calculated.

 

Critics Take Aim at Chained CPIs

             President Obama’s push in his proposed budget request to rein in Social Security costs (a concession to GOP leadership), through the use of the chained CPI, pushed liberal Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. David Cicilline, representing Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, to strongly oppose President Obama or any Congressional efforts to put Social Security on the chopping block to lower the nation’s federal deficit, through changing the way COLAs are calculated.

            Rather than tinkering with the CPI linked to Social Security to rein in the nation’s huge federal deficient, Rep. Cicilline called for reforming the nation’s tax code by ending subsidies for “Big Oil,” along with “making responsible target spending cuts,” to slash the nation’s huge federal deficit

 

            Referring to the Social Security’s 2012 Annual Report in April (see my June 1, 2012 Commentary in the Pawtucket Times) , Sen. Whitehouse stated that Social Security is fully solvent for the next 20 years and has not contributed to the nation’s budget deficit and has no place in the debate over federal spending. 

             Senator Whitehouse called it “a [Social Security] benefit cut disguised behind technical jargon.”  The Senator and other critics argue that the current CPI shortchanges older persons by placing too much emphasis on products that these individuals are less likely to buy, like “smart phones” and “computers.”  He noted that in 2010 and 2011, Social Security beneficiaries did not receive a COLA, even though prices for food and beverages, medical care, gasoline and fuel oil increased.

             According to the Washington, D.C.-based, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the Obama Administration sees this [chained CPI] switch as just “a technical adjustment.” Aging group warn that using the chained CPI will substantially reduce the Social Security benefits of current and future beneficiaries.  “If it is adopted, a typical 65 year-old would see an immediate decrease of about $130 per year in Social Security benefits.  At age 95, the same senior would face a 9.2 percent reduction—almost $1,400 per year,” notes NCPSSM.

             While all beneficiaries will feel the impact of this change, its effect will be greatest on those who draw benefits at earlier ages (e.g., military retirees, disabled veterans and workers) and those who live the longest, says NCPSSM, especially “women who have outlived their other sources of income, have depleted their assets, and rely on Social Security as their only lifeline to financial stability.”

 What’s the Impact???

             Washington-DC-based, AARP, representing 40 million members, has rolled out an educational campaign, to put the face who loses most if changes are made in how COLAs are calculated. 

 

              Fact Sheets, placed on AARP’s heavily traveled website (http://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/info-04-2012/youve-earned-a-say.html), tells how a federal policy shift would impact specific demographic groups in their pocketbook.

             Retired women can least afford using the chained CPI calculation because they earn less on average than men (that is $4,000), are more likely to have a part-time job and have gaps in their employment due to leaving the workforce to take care of their children.  With women living longer the chained CPI would slash their benefits more with every year they live.  Older women also rely on their Social Security Pension checks because they are less likely to have other sources of retirement income, this check even keeping 38 percent of them out of poverty compared to 32 percent of older men, the says the AARP fact sheets.

             AARP’s fact sheets, also details the impact on older disabled Americans, noting that 37 percent are dependent on Social Security benefits for nearly all their family income, that is around $13,560 annually.  Many begin getting Social Security checks at a young age.  For instance, a 35-year-old disabled worker who receives average disability benefits would see his or her benefits reduced each year by $886 at 65 and $1,301 at 80.   Finally, Social Security keeps about 40 percent of people with disabilities age 18 and over and their families out of poverty.  Cutbacks in benefits due to tying the chained CPI to the Social Security program would force the persons already living on a very tight budget impacted by rising drug costs, increased utilities and health care expenses to cut back on vital needs.

             Finally, one of AARP’s fact sheets charge that older veterans would be financially slammed, sort of a double whammy.  With almost 1.5 million veterans living below the poverty level, each dollar cut, like older person’s who are disabled, will get hit hard in their pocket book as the years roll by.  Because a chained CPI would cut both Social Security and Veterans’ benefits, this group gets the budget ax thrown at them twice. “A veteran who’s 65 today would have veterans benefits reduced annually by $1,029 and Social Security benefits by $1,422 at 95, when benefits are needed the most,” states the fact sheet.

 Congressional Fight Looming

             Rhode Island’s Senator’s Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have signed on as co-sponsors of SR 15, with over a dozen Senators, a Resolution Rejecting the chained CPI expressing “the sense of Congress that the chained CPI should not be used to calculate cost of living adjustments for Social Security and Veterans benefits.”

             Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, a resolution, HR 34, was introduced by Rep. Cicilline, cosponsored by Rep. James Langevin along with 111 other Democrats, also opposing President Obama and GOP attempts to rein in the Social Security budget through the use of a chained CPI calculation.

             With nonbinding resolutions expressing opposition to the use of a chained CPI index now introduced in both chambers of Congress, union and aging groups are urging rallying support for passage.

            AARP’s Kathleen S. Connell and her colleagues around the nation are gearing up to send a message loud and clear, once and for all to Congress.  Simply put, Connell says:  “Chained CPI is not only harmful and illogical; it is also out-of-place in the discussion of deficit reduction.  As a self-financed program providing earned benefits, Social Security has not caused the deficit—and it should not be turned into an ATM for politicians trying to address it.  We deserve a separate national conversation about how to protect Social Security for today’s seniors and responsibly strengthen it for our children and grandchildren.”

            Congress might well choose to tread lightly on giving the thumbs up to using a chained CPI in calculating Social Security Colas. The anticipated fiscal impact (detailed by AARP and aging group critics, along with the Rhode Island Congressional delegation) resulting from this federal policy change will hit the nation’s elderly right where it hurts, the most, in their wallets.  Increased bipartisan efforts can find better solutions to trimming the nation’s huge federal deficit and improving the fiscal viability of the nation’s Social Security Program.

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