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.
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 email@example.com.