Social Security, Medicare Are Solvent…at least for Now

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 16, 2017

Just days ago, a released annual federal report, the 2017 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds, says the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs continue to work, are fiscally solvent, but future fixes will be needed to maintain their long-term actuarial balance.

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) annual snap shot of the fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare, two of the nation’s largest entitlement programs, released on July 13, is important to millions of beneficiaries. According to the federal agency, in 2017 over 62 million Americans (retired, disabled and survivors) received income from programs administered by SSA, receiving approximately $955 billion in Social Security benefits.

The Good News

The trustee’s report projects that Social Security will be financially solvent until 2034 (unchanged from last year), after which SSA can pay 77 percent of benefits if there are no changes in the program. The 269-page report also noted that the Medicare Trust Fund for hospital care has sufficient funds to cover its obligations until 2029, one year longer than projected last year, then 88 percent afterward if nothing is done to strengthen the system’s finances

The trustees report says that there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year — and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.

Social Security Administration efficiently manages its entitlement program, says the trustee report. The cost of $6.2 billion to administer to program in 2016 was a very low 0.7 percent of the total agency’s expenditures.

The trustee’s project a 2.2 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security beneficiaries in 2018, the largest increase in years. In addition, Medicare Part B premiums will also remain unchanged next year. Most beneficiaries pay a monthly premium of $134 (this amount increases for those with higher incomes.)

Social Security is “Stable and Healthy for Now”

According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security (NCPSSM), the recently released trustee’s report confirms that the federal entitlement program is “stable and healthy for now,” while acknowledging there will be future challenges if “corrective action is not taken.”

“Forty percent of seniors (and 90 percent unmarried seniors) rely on Social Security for all or most of their income. The average monthly retirement benefit of $1,355 is barely enough to meet basic needs, and the Trustees’ latest projected cost-of-living increase of 2.2 percent will not keep pace with seniors’ true expenses. Under these circumstances, any benefit cuts (including raising the retirement age to 70 as some propose) would be truly painful for our nation’s retirees,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s president and CEO, in a statement responding to the release of the federal report.

“Opponents of Social Security may once again try to use this report as an excuse to cut benefits, including raising the retirement age,” warns Max Richtman. “We must, instead, look to modest and manageable solutions that will keep Social Security solvent well into the future without punishing seniors and disabled Americans,” he says.

Depending on what the final Senate health bill looks like, the legislation could reduce the solvency of Medicare by two years, say Richtman. “The National Committee opposes the GOP health plan and rejects efforts to privatize Medicare. We advocate innovation and continuing efficiencies in the delivery of care, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies used to pay the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual-eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid) – in order to keep Medicare in sound financial health,” he says.

Safeguarding and Expanding Social Security Benefits

In a statement, Richard Fiesta, Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based Alliance of Retired Americans, notes that the Trustees project that the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) trust will be fully solvent until 2028, five years longer than last year’s report. “In light of this data, it makes no sense that the President’s FY 2018 budget seeks to cut Social Security Disability Insurance funding by $63 billion,” he says.

Despite the trustees’ strong report, Fiesta believes that improvements can be made that would benefit all workers and retirees. His organization supports safeguarding and expanding Social Security benefits, providing a more accurate formula for cost-of-living adjustments, and lifting the cap on earnings for the wealthiest Americans.

Fiesta adds, “reining in the prices of prescription drugs would strengthen Medicare for the future and reduce costs to retirees.”

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, in a statement, calls for bipartisan action in Congress and the Trump administration to ensure the strong fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare programs. “Social Security should remain separate from the budget. Medicare can improve if we reduce the overall cost of health care, rather than impose an age tax, and if we lower prescription costs, instead of giving tax breaks to drug and insurance companies,” she says.

Finally, in a statement, Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works, also chairing the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, says that this year’s trustee’s report clearly indicates that the nation can fully afford an expanded Social Security. Altman says that polling continues to show that Americans support expanding the program’s benefits.

Altman believes the Social Security program can solve the nation’s “looming retirement income crisis, the increasing economic squeeze on middle-class families, and the perilous and growing income and wealth inequality.” So, when confronting these challenges, she says, “the question is not how can we afford to expand Social Security, but, rather, how can we afford not to expand it.”

Ensuring the Long-Term Solvency of Social Security

Those nearing retirement or retired will be assured existing Social Security benefits, promises the 2016 Republican Party Platform. “Of the many reforms being proposed, all options should be considered to preserve Social Security. As Republicans, we oppose tax increases and believe in the power of markets to create wealth and to help secure the future of our Social Security system,” says the Platform. Simply put, the GOP opposes the raising of payroll taxes on higher income taxpayers to stabilize or expand Social security and supports privatization, allowing Wall Street to control your Social Security benefits.

On the other hand, last year’s Democratic Party Platform opposed Social Security cuts, privatization or the weakening of the retirement program, along with GOP attempts to raise the retirement age, slash benefits by cutting cost-of-living adjustments, or reducing earned benefits. The Democratic Platform called for taxing people making above $250,000 will bring additional funding into the entitlement program.

Congressional gridlock has not blocked legislation from being introduced to fix the nation’s Social Security program. According to Social Security Works, over 20 Social Security expansion bills have been introduced in the House and Senate since 2015. Recently, the Social Security 2100 Act, introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), has 162 House cosponsors —around 85 percent of all Democratic representatives. Similarly, around 90 percent of Senate Democrats are on record in favor of expanding, not cutting Social Security.

Many consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia notes that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.” With the Social Security and Medicare programs now on firm financial footing, it is now time for Congress to seriously consider legislative actions to ensure the longevity and expansion of these programs. When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2018 elections, we’ll see if Social Security is truly “a third rail.”

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Trump Budget Proposal Makes Draconian Cuts to Aging Programs

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 19, 2017

Since his inauguration, GOP President Trump/s controversial and surprising Cabinet picks, some who have even called for the elimination of federal agencies that they were appointed to oversee, has sent a chilling message to the nation. That is business as usual is over inside the Washington Beltway, especially as to how federal dollars will be spent. The release of Trump’s first budget proposal, for fiscal year 2018, reveals draconian cuts throughout the federal government, this causing alarm among aging advocacy groups.

Trump Slashes Funding for Aging Programs and Services

James Firman, President and CEO, of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Aging (NCOA), notes Trump’s 62 page $.15 trillion budget proposal to remake the nation’s federal agencies and the programs they provide eliminates the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which provides job training and placement for adults 55 and over who have limited incomes and are trying to make ends meet. “Last year under SCSEP, 70,000 older adults received on-the-job training while providing nearly 36 million hours of staff support to 30,000 organizations, he says, noting that the value of this work exceeded $800 million, or nearly twice the program’s appropriations.

Trump’s budget proposal also zeros out the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides assistance to low-income households to meet the costs of electricity, heating, and cooling, says Firman, noting that about a third of the nearly 7 million households receiving LIHEAP benefits include an older adult aged 60 or older.

Finally, Trump’s budget proposal eliminates the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which funds volunteer programs that serve distressed communities and vulnerable population, says Firman, noting that three Senior Corps programs (the Foster Grandparent Program, Senior Companion Program, and Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), will lose funding. “Together, these programs provide the nation with approximately 96 million hours of service, with a value of $2.1 billion,” he says.

“While the President’s budget blueprint does not cut Social Security Administration (SSA) funding (unlike the drastic reductions in non-defense discretionary spending), the 0.2% increase for SSA does little to solve serious customer service deficiencies for Social Security beneficiaries,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM). “Seven years ago, the SSA’s budget was cut by 10% (after adjusting for inflation), just as waves of Baby Boomers were beginning to retire and place a strain on the agency’s resources,” he says.

Richtman noted that while the numbers of Social Security beneficiaries were increasing, SSA was forced to implement a hiring freeze in 2016 and was not able pay its workers overtime. As a result, hold times on the SSA toll-free customer service number are now an average 15 minutes, more than 60 SSA field offices around the country have been shuttered, and the average wait time for a disability hearing has climbed up to 590 days.

Richtman points out that one million people are awaiting their scheduled disability hearing. “The disability case backlog and customer service will only get worse under the flat operating budget proposed by the President. To make up for previous cuts and restore vital services, the National Committee supports a 7% increase in the SSA’s operating budget,” he says.

NCPSSM’s Richtman warns that Trump’s “skinny budget” may keep millions of vulnerable seniors from participating in the Meals on Wheels program. As Meals on Wheels America has pointed out, Trump’s budget blueprint eliminates the U.S. Department of Human Development’s (HUD) Community Services Block Grant and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), on which some local Meals on Wheels programs rely on to deliver nutritious meals, safety checks, and friendly visits to seniors who need these services. (The President’s budget blueprint does not mention the Older Americans Act, which provides 35 percent of Meals on Wheels funding nationally.)

Richtman calls on President Trump to ride along with a Meals on Wheels delivery van and see for himself how seniors thrive on the meals they receive and the much-needed human interaction that comes with the food. “Maybe then he would move to protect – rather than cut – this vital program for our nation’s seniors,” he says.

Budget Proposal Puts Food Delivery Program on Budgetary Chopping Block

Trump’s elimination of HUD’s CDBG program in his proposed budget proposal will drastically impact many Meals on Wheels programs across the nation, but, fortunately Meals on Wheels of RI (MOWRI) will not be hit as hard, says Heather Amaral, executive director of Meals on Wheels of RI. But, Rhode Island’s only non-profit home-delivered meal program, will be indirectly impacted by Trumps CDBG cuts, she worries, noting that other programs that support her work receive these HUD funds, specifically, community centers that house our Capital City Café sites or local drop-off sites for the Home Delivered program. The Senior Community Service Employment Program that provides staff for several of our Café sites is also slated for elimination in President Trump’s “Skinny Budget.”

Amaral also is concerned about Trump cutting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ budget by 18 percent. “Our Older Americans Act Title III funding flows through this department. It is safe to assume that this significant cut will result in a reduction of our funding—funding that has remained at stagnant for over 10 years,” she says.

“It is impossible to predict any service cuts until a final federal budget is approved and any cuts to MOWRI are known. Any funding reductions will have a negative impact on her nonprofit agency’s ability to keep up with the increased demand of Rhode Island’s growing senior population,” says Amaral.

“Our programs directly address issues that are critical to Rhode Island’s vulnerable homebound seniors,” she says, noting that last year, MOWRI delivered 345,262 meals to over 2,560 homebound residents.

Last Thursday, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney defended the Trump budget proposal cuts to the widely popular Meals on Wheels program. He told reporters that the program “sounds great” but is “not showing any results.”

Amaral counters by saying that research is providing the tremendous benefits of participating in the meals and wheels program — for seniors, homebound, family members, municipalities and the Rhode Island

The Brown University “More than a Meal” Report (published 2015), a randomized, controlled study of Meals on Wheels Programs across the country, reported that those who received daily-delivered meals experienced the greatest improvements in health and quality of life indicators,” says Amaral. The most vulnerable of our recipients, those who live alone, were more likely to report decreases in worry about being able to remain in home and improvements in feelings of isolation and loneliness, she noted.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Administration on Aging (AoA) Study, published in September 2105, found that those receiving daily-delivered meals are more likely to report improvements in mental and physical health, reductions in feelings of isolation and anxiety about being able to remain at home, and lower rates of hospitalization and falls, adds Amaral.

“In that same report, AoA statistics show that a home delivered meal program can deliver a year’s worth of meals to a senior for the same cost as one day in the hospital, or one week in a nursing home, notes Amaral.

Speaking at the Hubert Humphrey Building dedication in Washington, D.C. on November 1, 1977, former U.S. Vice President (1965-69) Hubert Humphrey stated “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” A quick read of the Trump’s budget proposal revealing huge cuts for domestic programs, it’s clear to many that his Administration has failed it’s test.

If you want to learn more about MOWRI, sign up for meals, volunteer or donate, please visit http://www.rimeals.org or call 401-351-6700.

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.

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.

Social Security Recipients Thirsty for COLAs

Published in Pawtucket Times on October 19, 2015

With Christmas fast approaching, almost 65 million people who collect Social Security checks will get hit hard in their pocketbooks. On Thursday, the Social Security announced that there will be no cost of living adjustments (COLA) for 2016. It’s the third time this has happened in over 40 years. .

Unless Congress promptly acts to change the law to give COLAS, Medicare premiums will also be increasing dramatically for almost one-third of Social Security recipients. “The average American senior simply can’t afford a triple-digit increase for their Medicare coverage, says Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) in a statement. The Washington, D.C.-based organization has lobbied Congress to pass legislation to address this urgent policy issue. “For millions of seniors, this large Medicare hike is devastating and a result of a well-intended “hold harmless” provision that left out too many Medicare beneficiaries,” he says.
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According to Richtman, “All of this was triggered by a zero COLA increase in Social Security for 2016, confirming yet again, that the current Social Security COLA formula isn’t accurately measuring seniors’ expenses. Seniors across this nation understand how important having an accurate measure of the increase in their real costs is to their day-to-day survival.”

House Democrats Rally for a COLA

Just one day before SSA’s announcement of no COLA next year, Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-RI), and 55 Democratic House members had sent a letter to the Social Security Administration (SSA) calling for the federal agency to find a way to provide a COLA for 2016. Not surprisingly Cicilline was not joined by House GOP lawmakers. Only Congressional action can revise this decision.

In the Ocean State, there are 153,349 beneficiaries who received $266,541,000 in total benefits in December 2014. In January 2015, beneficiaries received a 1.7% COLA, which averaged $29.55 per month, or $354.58 per year.

“Seniors, who are relying on Social Security for their retirement, have seen the costs of everything go up and deserve a COLA so they can have their basic needs met,” said Cicilline. “I hear from Rhode Islanders every day who are living on Social Security about their struggles with the rising costs of housing, food, and medicine. In fact, it seems everything is going up, except their Social Security check and this is dead wrong.”

SSA’s announcement on October 14 clearly shows that the current method of calculating COLA’s for Social Security beneficiaries negatively impacts the recipients, says Cicilline. The Democratic Congressman calls on Congress to quickly fix this problem now. The lawmaker has co-sponsored H.R. 1811, the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act, to do just that.

Cicilline charges that the Social Security Administration has used the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) to determine whether the cost-of-living has increased. According to the Washington Post, the “biggest reason retirees aren’t getting a raise” is due to lower fuel prices, even though medical, housing, and food costs have increased.

It’s time to change the way COLAs are calculated, says Cicilline. Critics to the existing formula charge that fuel prices are less important in determining cost of living for the nation’s seniors – individuals ages 65 and older make up only 16% of all licensed drivers in the United States. To fix formula glitch, Cicilline has signed on as a co-sponsor of the CPI-E Act, which would replace CPI-W with the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly. CPI-E more accurately reflects cost of living for today’s older persons by weighting the cost of housing and medical care more compared to CPI-W. It also de-emphasizes fuel and transportation costs.

Blunting the Pain of Medicare Premium Hikes

Promptly responding to SSA’s double whammy of no COLA for 2016 and hikes in Medicare premiums, AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy organization in a letter called on Congress to “pass a fix.”

In her correspondence, Nancy LeaMond AARP’s EVP and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, asks Congress to protect all Medicare beneficiaries from sharply increased out-of-pocket costs in light of the COLA announcement, requesting specifically that Congress “reduce. the impact of the sudden, sharp increases in the Part B premiums and deductible as soon as possible. Ideally, all Medicare beneficiaries should be held-harmless in the face of no Social Security COLA adjustment.”

LeaMond’s letter notes that 16.5 million Americans face sharp premium increases and that “all Medicare beneficiaries will see their Part B deductible increase 52 percent…from $147 to $223.” Additionally, AARP reiterates its opposition to the Chained Consumer Price Index (CPI), noting that “the Social Security COLA would be even more inaccurate and benefits would be even less adequate if recent proposals to adopt a Chained CPI had been enacted.

AARP has opposed all Administrative and Congressional attempts to enact a Chained CPI, and says it will continue to do so, says LeaMond, because the Chained CPI would further under reported inflation experienced by Social Security beneficiaries, and further erode their standard of living, cutting an estimated $127 billion in Social Security benefits from current and near retirees in the next ten years alone.”

With Capitol Hill polarized by political a House and Senate captured by ultra conservatives, Social Security beneficiaries will have to find ways to stay financially afloat until Congress can reduce the damaging impact of the Part B premium increases with no COLA increase to reduce the pain. Aging groups push for holding beneficiaries harmless to Medicare premium increases. With the election over a year off, law makers might just listen or face the wrath of older Americans who just exercises their right to vote at the polls.

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

Is it Really a Happy Birthday for Social Security?

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 23, 2015

With the stroke of his pen, over 80 years ago, on August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law.  Over the last eight decades, this domestic program has become one of the most popular federal programs, paying $848 billion to 59 million beneficiaries at the end of calendar year 2014.  During that year, an estimated 166 million people had earnings covered by Social Security and paid taxes.

Celebrating the 80th birthday of Social Security over two weeks ago, AARP released the results of its anniversary survey.  The August 2015 survey followed earlier surveys conducted during previous milestone anniversaries in 1995 (60th), 2005 (70th) and 2010 (75th).  The latest 29 page report found that Americans of all ages continue to have strong feelings of support for Social Security, and this latest survey found several key themes.

According to the national survey of adults detailed in “Social Security 80th Anniversary Survey Report: Public Opinion Trends,” Social Security remains a core part of retirement security, it also remains popular across the generations and political ideologies.

“As we celebrate Social Security on its 80th anniversary, our survey found that it remains as important as ever to American families,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins. “We also found that although most want to continue living independently as we age, obstacles to saving often continue to occur in our lives. However, Social Security continues to help generation after generation to diminish these obstacles.”

“When it comes to how important Social Security is to Rhode Islanders, the numbers speak for themselves,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “210,975 is the number of Social Security beneficiaries in the state; 23.7% say that Social Security provides 90% or more of their total income. And about half say that Social Security represents 50% or more of their income. Without Social Security, many retirees would be living below the poverty line.

“It is plain to see that protecting this key earned benefit is critical. A recent AARP survey found 68% of respondents express at least some concern that they won’t have enough savings to last their lifetime. Imagine if they are given reason to worry more about the viability of Social Security. People who are working toward retirement need to make themselves heard and – as we approach the 2016 elections – hold politicians to their promises to protect Social Security.”

Social Security Key to Surviving Old Age

            Older American’s look to rely on their Social Security checks to pay bills, say the researchers.  Four in five adults (80%) rely or plan to rely on Social Security benefits in a substantial way.  Survey respondents (33%) say that Social Security is the source of income that they rely on or plan to rely on most during their retirement years.

The study finding’s reveal that Social Security has broad support, even across political ideologies and America’s generations, too.  Sixty six percent believe that this domestic program is one of the most important government programs when compared to others. This view has remained consistent over time in similar AARP anniversary surveys taken in 1995, 2005, and 2010.  According to the study, the vast majority of Americans (82%) also believe it’s important to contribute to Social Security for the “common good.”

Like aging baby boomer and seniors, even younger Americans value this program. Specifically, nine in ten adults under 30 (90%) believe Social Security is an important government program, and nearly nine in ten (85%) want to know it will be there for them when they retire.

The survey respondents also want to live independently in their communities at home. The findings indicate that four out of five adults (83%) consider it extremely important to have the ability to stay at home as long as they want; although 64% believe they won’t be able to do so as they age and become frail. Additionally, while 68% feel it extremely important to have family around, 80% want to be able to financially take care of themselves so their children and other relatives won’t have to support them financially.

While recognizing the importance of financial planning, survey respondents say they face a multitude of challenges that keep them from effectively putting away money for their retirement.  Specifically, 69% note that they must focus their income on current financial needs, while 47% believe they do not have enough money left over to put into their retirement savings after paying their monthly bills.  Survey respondents (39%) says health issues and family problems keep them from saving for retirement.

SS Trustee Report Gives Nation a Warning

The six member Social Security Board of Trustees issued its 2015 report, on July 22, giving the nation a snapshot of the fiscal health of the nation’s retirement and disability program.

Within the 257 page report, the Trustees gave a dire warning to Congress.  “Taken in combination, Social Security’s retirement and disability programs have dedicated resources sufficient to cover benefits for nearly two decades, until 2034.  However, the projected depletion date for the separate Social Security’s Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund is only a little more than one year away, in late 2016,” says the widely anticipated federal report.  “After the DI trust fund exhaustion, annual revenues from the program’s dedicated payroll and taxation of Social Security benefits will be sufficient to fund about three-quarters of scheduled benefits through 2089.”

According to the Social Security Administration, there were about 10.4 million Americans who received benefits from the DI Trust Fund in 2014, including roughly 42,429 in the Ocean State.  In order to qualify, these beneficiaries are required to have worked in a job covered by Social Security, and must have been unable to work for a year or more due to a disability. If Congress fails to act to direct more funding into the DI trust fund, disabled workers throughout the nation and in Rhode Island will be hit hard financially right in their wallets.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins offered her observation about the released Social Security Trustees report. “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 approximately two more decades, we know that if no action is taken, benefits will be cut by nearly 25% in 2034.  As the campaign season gets underway, we will be urging all Presidential candidates to share their plans for the long term solvency and adequacy of Social Security.”

Democrats are calling for an easy fix to shoring up the DI Trust Fund, specifically shifting a small percentage of the Social Security payroll tax from the retirement fund to the disability trust fund.  This has occurred 11 times in the past with bipartisan support.  But, with the 2016 presidential elections now catching the attention of politicos, GOP Senators have threatened to block any transfer of funds, charging that following this strategy is just a way to push the political “hot potato” issue down the road.  Political observers say that this year’s Republican opposition to quickly fixing the DI Trust Fund is a way to force Democrats to the negotiation table to get concessions on higher Social Security payroll taxes or to cut program benefits.

Now, it’s time for Congress to pull together to fix the ailing Social Security program to ensure its future solvency and to adequate fund the DI Trust Fund.  Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle must stop their political bickering and craft a compromise to keep Social Security’s retirement and disability trust funds well-funded and up and running for years to come.  For the sake of older Americans who now rely on their meager Social Security benefits to survive, our elected federal elected officials must begin to act like Statesmen not simple-minded politicians.  Hopefully, the voters will push for this change in thinking when they go into the polls in 2016.

 

 

AARP: Social Security is an Economic Generator

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 4, 2013

For those who view Social Security bennies as just a drain on the nation’s economy, just adding the nation’s spiraling deficit, AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group has always seen it differently. Now, according to a new report, released by AARP’s Public Policy Institute on Oct. 1, 2013, researchers found that for each dollar paid to Social Security beneficiaries generates nearly two dollars in spending by individuals and businesses, adding about $1.4 trillion in total economic output to the U.S. economy in 2012. More over, the report’s findings indicate that $762 billion paid in Social Security benefits in 2012 helped Americans keep or find more than nine million jobs.

If Congress is successful in putting Social Security on the budgetary chopping block, the economy will take a hit, warns the AARP report. According to the reports analysis, “reducing benefits by 25 percent across the board in 2012 (by $190 billion), which the Social Security will project will occur around the year 2033, could cost the U.S. economy about 2.3 million jobs, $349 billion in economic output, about $194 billion in GDP, and about $83 billion in employee compensation.”

A Multiplier Effect When Benefits Spent

The 25 page report, Social Security’s Impact on the National Economy, authored by Gary Koening of AARP’s Public Policy Institute, and Al Myles, of Mississippi State University, details the powerful multiplier effect created when Social Security recipients spend their benefits and the companies which receive those dollars spend their profits and pay their employees, who in turn spend their wages. The report provides both national and state-level data.

The researchers use an economic modeling system known as IMPLAN to calculate the multiplier effect and trace the impact of Social Security spending through the national and state economies.

“This report tells us that any adjustments Washington makes to Social Security will have a profound effect on individuals of all ages, businesses and our economy as a whole,” said AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond. “That’s why AARP is fighting the chained CPI and calling for a national conversation about the future of Social Security – so those who paid into the system can have a voice in the debate and so future generations get the benefits they’ve earned.”

Social Security benefit payments in 2012 supported more than $370 billion in salaries, wages and compensation for workers. Of the more than nine million jobs supported by Social Security spending, about four million were in just ten industries. Nationally, the largest employment impacts were seen in the food services, real estate, health care and retail industries.

In addition to illustrating Social Security’s vital role in supporting national and local economies, jobs and workers’ incomes, this report reiterates the importance of Social Security as a vital source of income for millions of Americans. Social Security benefits keep 22 million people out of poverty, including more than 15 million older Americans, and serve as the foundation of a secure retirement for millions more.

AARP’s Public Policy Institute calls the Social Security Program critical in promoting the income stability among the nation’s seniors, by providing a steady stream of income to replace wages lost due to retirement. “About 1 out of 6 Americans – 57 million people – receive Social Security benefits, including 9 out of the 10 individuals aged 65 and older,” says the Washington, DC-based policy institute.

According to the Social Security Administration, the program is a key source of retirement income for the nation’s retirees, noting that “it is the only inflation-protected, guaranteed income they have. Among the age 65 and over recipients, 23 percent of the married couples and 46 percent of the unmarried couples rely on the program for 90 percent or more of their income. Also, 53 percent of the married couples and 74 percent of those unmarried in this age group receive 50 percent or more of their income from Social Security.

Experts Weighing in on AARP Report

According to Lisa Mensah, Executive Director, of the Aspen Institute’s Initiative on Financial Security, “The AARP study fills a key void in the debate around Social Security. Social Security is not only important for individual financial security but also it has a major impact supporting jobs and economic activity in every state. When weighing Social Security as a budget matter, the fiscal coin has two sides—what it costs and what it delivers—and too often what Social Security delivers for the broader economy is poorly understood.”

Adds, Dean Baker, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research,
“In a context where the economy is below full employment, as is clearly the case today, Social Security provides an important boost to demand. The report it released showed the importance of Social Security in each of the 50 states. When the economy is near full employment, the demand generating by Social Security may not be needed, but for now and the foreseeable future this demand will be providing an important boost to growth.”

Impact on State Economies

The AARP report details the spending of Social Security checks on the economy on all fifty states. Of course, California, the state with the largest economy in the nation, has the largest impact. In this state along, Social Security benefits supported 888,000 jobs, $147.4 billion in output, and $8.7 billion in state and local revenues.

Meanwhile, for the littlest state in the nation, “People need to consider a Rhode Island economy without Social Security benefits,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Could the state live without $2.9 billion a year in federal money being spent on medications, rent, food, utilities, clothing and services?

“When a person spends Social Security benefits, the lawn gets mowed, the driveway gets plowed, CVS sells toilet paper, and the corner market sells milk. Someone gets paid and then spends that money – which means retailers and service providers are getting paid. And then they spend. It’s a cycle, and each step along the way, sales tax is collected by the state – more than $280.7 million,” says Connell. The AARP study shows that this spending supports 33,000 jobs in the Ocean State. So, Social Security makes life better for retirees and people with disabilities, it supports Rhode Island jobs and Rhode Island taxpayers benefit significantly, she says.

“Social Security was engineered with this in mind. The money paid into the system is not doing much if it stays in the Treasury,” observes Connell. “Social Security allows people to live more comfortably, improves their health and quality of life, and benefits the economy,” she adds.

“Seen this way, what would we be saving if we cut Social Security benefits?” quips Connell.

Congressman David Cicilline notes, this report confirms that almost 80 years after it was established, Social Security strengthens Rhode Island’s economy and provides significant benefits for families across this state.” Cicilline, representing the Ocean State’s 1st Congressional District, states that while other lawmakers propose Social Security benefit cuts of one kind or another; he has introduced legislation to protect the program by strongly opposing the use of chained CPI to calculate cost of living increases.

In Conclusion

Inside the Washington, DC beltway, Congressional lawmakers continue to seek out ways to rein in rising Social Security program costs. Some call for a combination of reducing program benefits while raising revenues. Others support only benefit cuts warning that raising the payroll tax or bringing other forms of additional revenue would hurt the nation’s fragile economy.

After the Federal Shutdown, when Congress comes back to continue the people’s business and begins to seriously debate policies for reforming Social Security, it becomes crucial for these lawmakers to bring the AARP Policy Institute’s economic impact study findings into their discussions. Slashing benefit checks will hurt financially vulnerable seniors, but as shown by the findings of this recently released report it can also have a drastic impact on fragile state economies by slowing job growth, and reducing retail and other spending, even lowering tax revenues at the local, state and the federal levels.

For a copy of the report, go to http://www.aarp.org/work/social-security/info-09-2013/social-security-impact-on-the-national-economy-AARP-ppi-econ-sec.html.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.