Bipartisan Fix Needed to Ensure Solvency of Social Security, Medicare

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 10, 2018

On June 5, 2018, the Social Security and Medicare trustees released their annual report to Congress providing a snapshot of the long-term financial security of Medicare and Social Security, two of the nation’s two large entitlement programs. It was not good news for lawmakers. Nor for the 67 million people who receive retirement, or disability benefits from Social Security and for 58.4 million on Medicare.

The 2018 Social Security Trustee’s Report to Congress, prepared by nonpolitical actuaries and economists, warned that the combined asset reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Funds are projected to become depleted in 2034, the same as projected in last year’s Annual Report, with 79 percent of benefits payable at that time.

According to the Annual Report’s findings, the OASI Trust Fund is projected to become depleted in late 2034, as compared to last year’s estimate of early 2035, with 77 percent of benefits payable at that time. The DI Trust Fund will become depleted in 2032, extended from last year’s estimate of 2028, with 96 percent of benefits still payable.’

As to Medicare, the Medicare trustee’s report predicted that the Medicare hospital program will not be able to pay full benefits in 2026. The Trustees, for a second year in a row, issued a Medicare funding warning due to general revenue funding expected to exceed 45 percent of total Medicare outlays within 7 years, triggering a requirement for the President to submit to Congress in 2019 legislation to address warning to be considered on an expedited basis.

Released Report Triggers Discussion on Social Security, Medicare, Solvency

Media across the country reported the Social Security and Medicare trustees warning about long-term financial issues facing Social Security and Medicare. Just read the New York Time’s headline: “Medicare’s Trust Fund is Set to Run Out in 8 Years. Social Security.” Here’s CNN’s take: “Social Security Must Reduce Benefits in 2034 if Reforms Aren’t Made.” Or take a look at the New York Daily News’s attention-grabbing headline, “Social Security and Medicare Head Toward the Skids.”

With the release of the 2018 Annual Report, the powerful House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX), called for ensuring the financial solvency of Social Security and Medicare. “The time is now to come together in a bipartisan manner to address these real challenges, he said.

Health Subcommittee Chairman Peter Roskam (R-IL) also gave his two cents. “The Medicare Trustees paint an even bleaker picture than last year, pointing to the need for commonsense reforms to ensure this critical safety net program continues to deliver health care to our nation’s seniors and individuals with disabilities,” said Roskam. “The solutions are not elusive as was demonstrated in part earlier this year when Congress acted on key Medicare reforms contained in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 to improve access and quality in the Medicare program, but more work remains to be done. This warning from the Trustees is a sobering marker of the work ahead to ensure this program is around for our children and grandchildren,” he said.
Looking at the Glass Half-Full, not Half-Empty

Even with the bleak findings, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and other aging advocacy groups have their take.

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), notes the released Annual Report confirms that the Social Security’s trust fund is “still very much intact, with $2.89 trillion in assets – or $44 billion more than last year.”

There is still time for Social Security fixes, says Richtman. “The Trustees have confirmed that Congress has ample time (16 years) to enact modest and manageable changes to Social Security to address the fiscal shortfall. Most Americans agree that raising the payroll wage cap is the easiest and most effective way to strengthen Social Security’s finances, negating the need for harmful benefit cuts like means testing or raising the retirement age,” he said.

According to NCPSSM, since 2013 there has been a growing number of aging groups [along with Democratic lawmakers] calling to lift the wage cap and increase Social Security benefits. The Washington, DC-based NCPSSM’s Boost Social Security Now campaign endorses legislation in Congress introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and others, which keeps the Social Security Trust Fund solvent well into this century, while boosting benefits and cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).

On Medicare, the Trustees report shows that the Part A Trust Fund will be able to pay full benefits until 2026, at which point payroll taxes are estimated to be sufficient to cover 91% of benefits – if nothing is done to bolster the system’s finances, says Richtman, noting that NCPSSM supports several measures to keep Medicare financially sound, including a genuine push to allow the program to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

NCPSSM calls for restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies formerly paid the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual-eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid), in addition to innovation in the delivery of care and in the way, care is paid for – to keep Medicare fiscally sound for future beneficiaries.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins urges Congress to work “in a bipartisan manner to strengthen these vital social insurance programs to ensure they can meet their benefit promises for current and future generations.” She agrees with Richtman about the need to rein in rising Medicare pharmaceutical costs. “In particular, we need to take further steps to lower the cost of health care, especially the ever-rising price of prescription drugs. No good reason exists for Americans to continue paying the highest brand name drug prices in the world. High-priced drugs hurt Americans of all ages, and seniors, who on average take 4.5 medications a month, are particularly vulnerable,” she said.

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works and the Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, calls for strengthening and expanding Social Security not cutting it.

The Social Security program is “fully affordable,” says Altman, noting that “poll after poll shows that the American people overwhelmingly support expanding the program’s benefits.” Politicians are listening, too, she said.

“Social Security is a solution to our looming retirement income crisis, the increasing economic squeeze on middle-class families, and the perilous and growing income and wealth inequality. In light of these challenges and Social Security’s important role in addressing them, the right question is not how we can afford to expand Social Security, but, rather, how can we afford not to expand it,” says Altman.

It’s Time for a Bipartisan Fix

As the mid-term election approaches, it’s time for the Republican congressional leaders to work with their Democratic colleagues to craft bipartisan legislation to make permanent long-term fixes to Social Security and Medicare to ensure these program’s fiscal solvency for future generations.

It is projected roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 today, and about 10,000 more will cross that threshold every day for the next 19 years. By the time the last of this generation approaches retirement age in 2029, 18 percent of the U.S. will be at least that age, reports the Pew Research Center.

With the graying of American, the hand writing is on the wall. With the release of this year’s report by the Social Security and Medicare trustees, Congress must decisively act now to ensure that Social Security and Medicare are strengthened, expanded and benefits not cut. As Chairman Brady, of the House Ways and Means Committee, says, it is now time to address these real challenges. Hopefully, his House colleagues and lawmakers in the upper chamber will agree.

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Trump’s Budget Proposal Comes ‘Dead on Arrival’ to Aging Groups

Published in Woonsocket Call on February 18, 2018

Last Monday, President Donald Trump released his 2019 budget proposal, “An American Budget,” providing guidance to Congress on how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in new federal spending plan authorized by the Bipartisan Budget Act recently passed into law. Trump’s federal spending wish list clearly shows that many programs and services for older Americans will take a huge hit if any of these proposals are picked up by the Republican-controlled Congress.

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) expresses concern that Trump’s budget proposal contains many of the same harmful proposals that the Administration and Republican-controlled Congress has pushed before, including $1.4 trillion in Medicaid cuts, $490 billion in Medicare cuts, and repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Social Security on the Chopping Block

According to the NCPSSM’s analysis released this month, the President’s budget blue print calls for deep cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance, breaking his campaign promise not to touch Social Security.

Trump proposes to slash up to $64 billion from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits through eight demonstrations “ostensibly” geared toward helping disability beneficiaries to stay at work or return to work, says NCPSSM, noting that these Social Security Administration’s (SSA) demonstration projects, established in 1980, had only “a modest effect on beneficiaries’ workforce participation.”

NCPSSM’s analysis warns that the President’s proposed budget also calls for other benefit cuts for disabled seniors, including limiting the retroactivity of applications for disability benefits from 12 months to six months. It would also deny unemployment compensation payments to SSDI beneficiaries who work but get laid off. Social Security Income recipients that live together, even with families, would see their benefits reduced, too.

The Trump Administration also proposes $12.393 billion for SSA’s FY 2019 appropriation for administrative funding, says NCPSSM, warning that this $89 million funding cut will result in longer waits for decisions on initial disability claims and time to speak to a representative from SSA’s 800 number. “With 10,000 baby boomers reaching age 65 every day, SSA needs substantial yearly increases just to keep pace with increased workloads, says NCPSSM.

President Trump’s budget plan only funds production and mailing of only 15 million Social Security statements. “This proposal is part of SSA’s overall plan to limit sending statements only to individuals who are 60 or older rather than sending them to all workers every five years,” says the aging advocacy group, urging the Administration “to send these important financial planning documents to all workers, as is required in section 1143 of the Social Security Act.”

Medicare Takes a Blow

President Trump’s draconian budget calls for over $500 billion in cuts to Medicare, many of these savings coming from cuts to Medicare providers and suppliers. This is another campaign promise broken.

NCCPSSM warns that President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal also includes policy changes to the prescription drug benefit that would impact Medicare’s spending and beneficiary costs. It would create an out-of-pocket maximum for Part D. Medicare t beneficiaries with very high drug costs would no longer have cost sharing responsibility once they hit the catastrophic threshold. This would add $7.4 billion in costs over 10 years.

Trump’s budget proposal would also change the way the threshold for moving out of the coverage gap or “donut hole”” is calculated that would make it more costly to seniors to move through it. “Taken together with an out-of-pocket cap, it will mean savings for some seniors with very high drug costs, but costs will climb for a larger number of seniors. This saves $47.0 billion over 10 years,” reports NCPSSM.

Finally, Trump’s 2019 budget proposal saves $210 million over 10 years by eliminating the cost-sharing on generic drugs for low-income beneficiaries.

Hurting Medicaid Recipients

In FY 2015, federal and state governments spent about $158 billion or 30 percent of Medicaid spending on long-term services and supports (LTSS). The federal and state partnership pays for about half of all LTSS for older adults and people with disabilities.

The President’s 2019 budget proposal slashes the program’s funding by changing the structure of the program into either a per capita cap or Medicaid block grant, with a goal of giving states more flexibility of managing their programs. Through 2028, the president’s budget would cut $1.4 trillion from the Medicaid program through repealing the Affordable Care Act, restructuring the program.

NCPSSM expresses concern that if states lose money under per capita caps or block grants, state law makers would have to make up the funding themselves if federal funds do not keep up with their Medicaid population’s needs. This can happen by either by cutting benefits and/or limiting eligibility, requiring family members to pick up more nursing home costs, or scaling back nursing home regulations that ensure quality, service and safety protections.

And That’s Not All

NCPSSM’s analysis says that Trump’s budget proposal also calls for the elimination of the Older Americans Act Title V Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). The program, funded $ 400 million in FY 2017. provides job training to nearly 70,000 low-income older adults each year.

Community Services Block Grants ($715 million), the Community Development Block Grant ($3 billion) and the Social Services Block Grant ($1.7 billion) programs are also targeted to be eliminated. Some Meals on Wheels programs rely on funding from these federal programs, in addition to OAA funding, to deliver nutritious meals to at-risk seniors.

Trump’s 2019 Budget proposal would also eliminate funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) This program received $3.39 billion in FY 2017. “Of the 6.8 million households that receive assistance with heating and cooling costs through LIHEAP each year, 2.26 million or one-third are age 60 or older,” says NCPSSM.

Trump’s budget plan also eliminates funding for Senior Corps programs including the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions. Current Senior Corps funding at the FY 2017 level is $202.1 million. “These programs enable seniors to remain active and engaged in their communities, serving neighbors across the lifespan, and benefitting their own health in the process. In 2016, 245,000 Senior Corps volunteers provided 74.6 million hours of service,” says NCPSSM. .

Finally, research into cancer, Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s and other diseases affecting older persons will be negatively impacted with $ 46 million in funding cuts to National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Aging advocacy groups view Trump’s second budget “flawed,” jam-packed with “damaging policies” for Congress to enact with an aging population. It’s “Dead on Arrival.” If Trump and GOP lawmakers choose not to listen to their older constituents, the results of the upcoming mid-term elections might just get their attention.

GAO Study Reports New Trends Push Older Women into Poverty

Published in Pawtucket Times, March 7, 2014

Following on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week on March 5, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to put a Congressional spotlight on the alarming increase of older Americans becoming impoverished.  The GAO policy analysts concluded that a growing number of the nation’s elderly, especially women and minorities, could fall into poverty due to lower incomes associated with declining marriage rates and the higher living expenses that individuals bear.

As many as 48 percent of older Americans live in or on the edge of poverty. “While many gains have been made over the years to reduce poverty, too many seniors still can’t afford basic necessities such as food, shelter and medicines,” said Aging Committee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL).

Senate Aging Committee Looks at Income Security for Elders

Policy experts told Senate lawmakers on Wednesday that millions of seniors have been spared from abject poverty thanks to federal programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, and food stamps.  The testimony contrasted with the picture painted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) earlier this week, who produced a report that labeled the federal government’s five-decade long war on poverty a failure.

Appearing before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, Patricia Neuman, a senior vice president at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, stressed the importance of federal anti-poverty programs.

“Between 1966 and 2011, the share of seniors living in poverty fell from more than 28 percent to about 9 percent, with the steepest drop occurring in the decade immediately following the start of the Medicare program,” said Neuman.  “The introduction of Medicare, coupled with Social Security, played a key role in lifting seniors out of poverty.”

Neuman’s remarks were echoed by Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law              Center, who credited food stamps, unemployment insurance and Meals on Wheels, along with Social Security, for dramatically reducing poverty among seniors.  The report was highly critical of many programs designed to help the poor and elderly saying they contribute to the “poverty trap.”  Ryan and other House lawmakers have long proposed capping federal spending and turning Medicaid, food stamps and a host of other programs for the poor into state block grants.

Older Women and Pension Benefits

GAO’s Barbara Bovbjerg also brought her views to the Senate Select Committee on Aging hearing. Bovbjerg, Managing Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues, testified that the trends in marriage, work, and pension benefits have impacted the retirement incomes of older Americans.

Over the last five decades the composition of the American household has changed dramatically, stated Bovbjerg, noting that the proportion of unmarried individuals has increased steadily as couples have chosen to marry at ever-later ages and as divorce rates have risen.  “This is important because Social Security is not only available to workers but also to spouses and survivors.  The decline in marriage and the concomitant rise in single parenthood have been more pronounced among low-income, less educated individuals and some minorities,” she says.

As marriage and workforce patterns changed, so has the nation’s retirement system, adds Bovbjerg.  Since 1990, employers have increasingly turned away from traditional defined benefit pensions to defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, she says, this ultimately shifting risk to individual employees and making it more likely they will receive lump sum benefits rather than annuities.

These trends have affected retirement incomes, especially for women and minorities, says Bovbjerg, that is fewer women today receive Social Security spousal and survivor benefits than in the past; most qualify for benefits on their own work history. While this shift may be positive, especially for those women with higher incomes, unmarried elderly women with low levels of lifetime earnings are expected to get less from Social Security than any other demographic group.

According to Bovbjerg, these trends have also affected household savings Married households are more likely to have retirement savings, but the majority of single-headed households have none. Obviously, single parents in particular tend to have fewer resources available to save for retirement during their working years.  With Defined Contribution pension plans becoming the norm for most, and with significant numbers not having these benefits, older Americans may well have to rely increasingly on Social Security as their primary or perhaps only source of retirement income.

Inside the Ocean State

Although the GAO report findings acknowledge a gender-based wage gap that pushes older woman into poverty, Maureen Maigret, policy consultant for the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island and Coordinator of the Rhode Island Older Woman’s Policy Group, observes that this inequity has been around since the 1970s when she chaired a legislative commission studying pay equity. “Progress in closing the gender wage gap has stagnated since 2000 with the wage ratio hovering around 76.5 percent”, she says.

GAO’s recent findings on gender based differences in poverty rates are consistent with what Maigret found researching the issue for the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island in 2010.  She found that some of the differences in the Ocean State can be attributed to the fact that older women are far less likely to be married than older men.  Almost three times as many older women are widowed when compared to men.

Maigret says that her research revealed that older women in Rhode Island are also less likely to live in family households and almost twice as likely as older men to live alone. Of those older women living alone or with non family members an estimated one out of five was living in poverty. For Rhode Island older women in non-family households living alone, estimated median income in 2009 was 85% that of male non-family householders living alone ($18,375 vs. $21,540).

Finally, Maigret’s report findings indicate that around 11.3 percent of older Rhode Island women were living below the federal poverty level as compared to 7.3 percent of older men in the state. Older women’s average Social Security benefit was almost 30 percent less than that of older men and their earnings were only 58 percent that of older men’s earnings.

             There is no getting around peoples’ fears about outliving their savings becoming a reality if they live long enough,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “One thing that the latest statistics reveals [including the GAO report] is the critical role Social Security plays when it comes to the ability of many seniors to meet monthly expenses. Social Security keeps about 38 percent of  Rhode Islanders age 65 and older out of poverty, according to a new study from the AARP Public Policy Institute.”

“Nationally, figures jump off the page,” Connell added. “Without Social Security benefits, 44.4 percent of elderly Americans would have incomes below the official poverty line; all else being equal; with Social Security benefits, only 9.1 percent do, she says, noting that these benefits lift 15.3 million elderly Americans — including 9.0 million women — above the poverty line.”

“Just over 50 percent of Rhode Islanders age 65 and older rely on Social Security for at least half of their family income—and nearly 24 percent rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their family income” states Connell.

             “Seniors trying to meet the increasing cost of utilities, prescription drugs and groceries would be desperate without monthly Social Security benefits they worked hard for and planned on. As buying power decreases, protecting Social Security becomes more important than ever. Older people know this; younger people should be aware of it and become more active in saving for retirement. Members of Congress need to remain aware of this as well,” adds Connell.

Kate Brewster, Executive Director of Rhode Island’s The Economic Progress Institute, agrees with Maigret that older women in Rhode Island are already at greater risk of poverty and economic security than older men.   “This [GAO] report highlights several trends that make it increasingly important to improve women’s earnings today so that they are economically secure in retirement.  Among the “policy to-do list” is shrinking the wage gap, eliminating occupational segregation, and raising the minimum wage. State and federal proposals to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit more women than men, demonstrating the importance of this debate to women’s economic security today and tomorrow.”

House Speaker Gordon Fox is proud that the General Assembly in the last two legislation sessions voted to raise minimum wage to its current level of $8 per hour.  That puts Rhode Island at the same level as neighboring Massachusetts, and we far surpass the federal minimum wage of $7.25, he said.  He says he will carefully consider legislation that has been introduced to once again boost the minimum wage.

“Bridging this gap is not only the right thing to do to ensure that women are on the same financial footing as men, but it also makes economic sense”, says Rep. David N. Cicilline.  At the federal level, the  Democratic Congressman has supported the ‘When Women Succeed, America Succeeds’ economic agenda that would address issues like the minimum wage, paycheck fairness, and access to quality and affordable child care. “Tackling these issues is a step toward helping women save and earn a secure retirement, but we also have to ensure individuals have a safety net so they can live with dignity in their retirement years,” says Cicilline.

With Republican Congressman Ryan in a GOP-controlled House, captured by the Tea Party, leading the charge to dismantle the federal government’s 50 year war on poverty, the casualties of this ideological skirmish if he succeeds will be America’s seniors.  Cutting the safety net that these programs created will make economic insecurity in your older years a very common occurrence.

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