“Gray voting block” watching Congress

Published in Rhode Island News Today on September 14, 2021

With recess ending, budget reconciliation begins in the House and Senate as lawmakers come back to Capitol Hill to begin crafting a budget. Last month a $ 3.5 trillion budget resolution bill was passed which gave instructions in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 budget resolution to allow up to $1.75 trillion of the package to come from new borrowing. It also gave instructions to both the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means to reduce deficits by at least $1 billion each. With lawmakers promising that the package be fully paid for, both Committees must come up with offsets for the full $1.74 trillion of borrowing in addition to any new spending and tax breaks proposed. 

The 11 Senate authorizing committees and 12 House authorizing committees are currently in the process of writing text for their respective portions of the reconciliation bill with a nonbinding completion deadline of Sept. 15. The reconciliation process allows for each chamber’s Budget Committee to combine each part into one reconciliation bill, to be given a floor vote in each chamber.   

The House also has on its legislative agenda a scheduled vote on a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill (H.R. 3684) on Sept. 27. With the 2021 fiscal year up at the end of September, Congressional leaders must vote on a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government running. 

Don’t Forget Support Service for Seniors

As Congress crafts and finalizes its budget, don’t forget to provide adequate support and services to America’s seniors, warns the LeadingAge, representing 5,000 nonprofit providers across the nation. The Washington, DC-based aging advocacy group announced the results of poll in June that shows an overwhelming majority of Democratic and Republican voters call on Congress to support programs and services to seniors – and they believe that this should happen now.

The findings from an online survey finding, gleaned from the responses of 800 U.S. adults ages 18 and over from June 15 to June 20, 2021, also revealed that Americans are very concerned about how seniors are treated and believe that elected officials have failed them.

“American families are in crisis. Millions of us are growing older without access to the affordable care and support we need, and demand is surging for critical services,” said Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge in a statement announcing the release of the polling results. “Americans agree that for too long our country has ignored and underfunded our aging services systems,” she says.

Sloan adds, “Americans will no longer accept that millions of older adults living at home can’t get the care and services they need, from help getting in and out of bed to bathing and eating meals,” Sloan added. 

According to Sloan, a large number of seniors can’t access the needed services to age in place in their homes. They are “stuck on affordable housing waiting lists for years, are living in places they cannot afford, are skipping meals and medicine to pay rent or are experiencing homelessness,” she says.

 “Millions of family members and friends are struggling to balance the demands of caring for loved ones—and are increasingly stressed, stretched and in unsustainable situations. It’s time for our elected officials to listen to Americans from both parties and act now to support older adults,” said Sloan.

Here’s a Sampling of Key Findings

LeadingAge’s poll findings revealed that 85 % of the respondents agree that now is the right time to think about building a better aging services system for seniors. This belief is bipartisan, with 91% of Democrats, 83% of Independents and 80% of Republicans, agreeing that now is the time to begin improving programs and services for seniors. This view is also consistent regardless of where people live, with 85% of urban Americans, 87% of suburban Americans and 82% of rural Americans agreeing.

The poll’s findings also call on Congress to make a greater investment in services for seniors, this view is overwhelmingly bipartisan. Eighty six percent say the government must make a bigger investment in services and care for seniors. This includes 92% of Democrats, 80% of Republicans and 84% Independents.

The poll’s respondent’s overwhelmingly support proposed investments for older adults that are currently being considered by Congress. Eighty-nine percent support public investment in affordable home care services to help older adults with essential needs like bathing and dressing, medication management, transportation, and basic daily chores. Eighty-six percent support public investment in housing and support for low-income older adults to address the shortage and waiting lists that lead to homelessness, instability and skipping meals and medicine to pay rent. Finally, 83% support public investment in broadband internet to ensure equitable access for older adults who need this basic utility for telehealth and other care services, and to fight social isolation.

According to the poll’s findings, Government plays a critical role to ensuring that appropriate care and services are available to seniors. Eighty five percent of respondents agree that every person has a right to receive a basic level of housing,  and essential support regardless of age. Regardless of political party affiliation support is robust: 92% of Democrats, 85% of Independents, and 75% of Republicans agree.

More than half of all respondents say that seniors are not treated well in the United States. Eighty-three percent says that elected officials have failed older adults and the people who care for them by ignoring and underfunding America’s aging services for decades. This belief is consisted across communities, with 85% of Americans in rural settings, 83% in urban settings and 83% in suburban areas agreeing.

It’s just 421 days before the midterm elections. LeadingAge’s poll findings should be a stark warning to lawmakers who underfund and ignore the needs of their older constituents. If things stay the same, the gray voting block may well just send a message of their discontent at the polls.

For poll survey details, go to https://bit.ly/393hBRs

A call to Congress to strengthen, expand Social Security & Medicare 

Published in Rhode Island News Today on September 6, 2021

The 2021 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI)) and the Social Security Disability trust fund (SSDI), released last week, gives Congress this stark warning: the Social Security Trust fund is heading toward insolvency in 13 years while SSDI will see its reserve funds depleted in 2057, eight years sooner than last year’s estimate. As a whole, combined, the two Social Security trust fund reserves will be depleted in 2034, a year earlier than estimated made in last year’s Trustee report.

However, there is good news. This year’s report notes that there is more than enough time for lawmakers to make up shortfalls by immediately shoring up the ailing Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) trust fund and the Social Security Disability trust fund (SSDI) by Congress increasing revenues or cutting costs to these programs.

“The theoretical combined trust funds will exhaust their reserves by 2034, when today’s 54-year-olds reach the full retirement age and today’s youngest retirees turn 75. Upon insolvency, all beneficiaries will face a 22% across-the-board benefit cut,” says a detailed analysis released by the Washington, DC-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a non-partisan, nonprofit organization committee that addresses federal budget and fiscal issues.

According to this year’s Medicare Trustee’s report, there was no change from last year’s projections that noted Medicare Hospital Insurance trust funds would be deleted in 2026. If this occurs, physicians, acute care facilities and nursing homes would not receive their full compensation of the program (only 91% of scheduled payments), pushing the uncompensated costs on the patients to pay.

Total Medicare expenditures are projected to increase in the future at a faster pace than both total workers’ earnings and the overall economy, says the newly released Medicare Trustee report.

In light of the projected insolvency of Social Security, this year’s Trustee’s report notes that beneficiaries may receive an estimated 3.1% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for benefits in 2021, the highest COLA in a decade. This large increase was triggered by higher inflation rates caused by the ongoing pandemic.

Beltway Insiders Respond

“The Trustees’ projections in this year’s report include the best estimates of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Social Security program,” said Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. “The pandemic and its economic impact have had an effect on Social Security’s Trust Funds, and the future course of the pandemic is still uncertain. Yet, Social Security will continue to play a critical role in the lives of 65 million beneficiaries and 176 million workers and their families during 2021.”

“The Trustees Report confirms that Social Security’s financing is strong in the near-term yet underscores why it is so important that Congress take action now to prevent 22% in cuts across the board on all benefits in 2034,” says House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT) in a released statement. “With the loss of traditional pensions, rising health care costs, and many people unable to save enough for retirement, there is a growing retirement crisis. 65 million Americans currently rely on Social Security benefits, yet millions are suffering and can’t make ends meet, adds Larson.

Furthermore, the Trustees Report shows that this year the cost of paying out benefits will exceed the income from the Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) payments,” states Larson.

The released 2021Trustee reports on the financial solvency of Medicare and Social Security trust funds once again identify unsustainable benefit promises in Medicare and Social Security programs, stated senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said in a released statement.

 “The Hospital Insurance trust fund [Medicare] is projected to be exhausted around 2026; there are $60 trillion of unfunded liabilities in Social Security programs; and unfunded liabilities increased by trillions of dollars over the last year alone,” adds Crapo.

Crapo urges Congress and the White House to “work closely together with a sense of urgency to address the challenges detailed in the Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports. However, “most Democrats want only to expand benefit promises further without generating sustainable trust fund solvency,” he said.

Seniors Depend on Social Security on Most of Their Income

“There is no need to sound the alarm, but now is the time to address Social Security’s long-term solvency – and provide an overdue boost in benefits. Phone calls and emails to Congress are definitely warranted at this critical juncture,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, responding to the Social Security Trustee Report released August 31.

According to Richtman, Social Security has never missed a benefit payment in its 86-year history, but remains strong. Even if no Congressional action is taken and the Trust fund becomes deleted, Social Security could still pay 79% of the benefits with revenue coming from regular worker’s payroll contributions. “But that poses a huge financial risk for the millions of retirees who depend on Social Security for most if not all of their income.  It also raises a serious political risk for members of Congress who fail to boost the program’s finances so that the trust fund remains solvent beyond 2034,” he says. 

Living on an average monthly benefit of $1,540 is tough to do, says Richtman, as retirement savings dwindle, pensions disappear and the soaring cost of senior housing and medical care.  

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works (SSW) and chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, agrees with Richtman’s assessment of Social Security’s fiscal solvency and impact on the retiree’s income. “Today’s report shows that Social Security remains strong and continues to work well, despite the once-in-a-century pandemic. That this year’s projections are so similar to last year’s proves once again that our Social Security system is built to withstand times of crisis, providing a source of certainty in uncertain times,” she says.

“We don’t have a Social Security crisis, but we do have a retirement income crisis — made worse by the pandemic, which, among other economic impacts, forced millions of workers to retire earlier than planned. The solution is to expand Social Security, as President Joe Biden has promised to do,” suggests Altman.

According to SSW, “about one out of two married senior beneficiaries and seven out of 10 unmarried senior beneficiaries and almost one out of tow unmarried beneficiaries rely on Social Security for virtually all their income.”

Mustering the Political Will 

Richtman calls for Congress to closely look at Congressman John Larson (D-CT) legislation to fix and expand the nation’s ailing Social Security program. “For over six years, Congressman John Larson has been driving efforts to strengthen Social Security by adjusting the payroll wage cap so that high income earners begin paying their fair share,” he notes.

Larson has also proposed an across-the-board boost for all retirees, enhanced benefits for the most vulnerable seniors, and a more accurate formula for calculating annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) so that benefits truly keep pace with inflation, says Richtman, noting that the Connecticut Congressman’s  proposals also align with President Biden’s initiatives to strengthen and expand Social Security. 

“Of course, the default response from conservatives will be to suggest, indirectly or otherwise that Social Security benefits must be cut to address the program’s funding shortfall,” states Richtman said. “Some will insist that Social Security be privatized, which would gamble workers’ hard-earned retirement benefits on Wall Street. Meanwhile, conservatives likely will oppose common sense revenue-side measures that would actually boost benefits, including Rep. Larson’s proposed adjustment of the payroll wage cap.”  For Congress to act to advance legislation to strengthen and expand Social Security, voters must put political pressure on their elected officials “to muster the political will to get it done,” says Richtman.

A Final Note…

It’s better to make changes to ensure Social Security’s solvency now, rather than waiting, suggests CRFB, a delay only adds more costs to fixing trust fund shortfalls in a timely fashion.“ Acting now allows more policy options, lets policymakers phase in changes more gradually, and provides more time for workers to adjust their work and savings, if necessary,” the fiscal advocacy group says.

The clock is ticking. There are almost 4,500 days until the project insolvency of the Social Security trust fund. It is now time for Congress to find viable, bipartisan solutions to fixing Social Security and Medicare, once and for all. 

The 276-page 2021 Social Security Trust Fund report is available by going to https://www.ssa.gov/oact/TR/2021/tr2021.pdf.

House passes Budget resolution – Seniors would benefit

Published in Rhode Island News Today on August 30, 2021

During a late-night negotiating session held Monday, Aug. 23, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mended fences and brought centralist Democrats led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), back to the fold. The next day, a united Democratic caucus adopted the Senate-passed $3.5 trillion budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 14) for fiscal year 2022, by a party vote of 220-212.

In order to push the budget resolution over the goal line, Pelosi had hammered out an agreement with 9 Democrat moderates, some representing swing states, to schedule a nonbinding vote on a separate, Senate bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure package. Once the Senate bill is passed by the House chamber and signed by President Biden, the new law would authorize new federal spending to repair the nation’s highways, bridges, waterways, encourage transition of gas to electric cars, modernize airports, expand high speed internet and to protect the nations to electric grid. President Joe Biden considers the legislation to be “a once-in-a-generation investment in our infrastructure.”

“We are committed to passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill. We have long had an eye to having the infrastructure bill on the president’s desk by Oct. 1, the effective date of the legislation,” says House Speaker Pelosi.

The passage of the House budget resolution also clears the way for a vote on legislation what would restore portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required localities with histories of voter suppression to get federal clearance before making changes to election laws. 

The Budget resolution, advancing President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, also included reconciliation instructions to provide Senate Democratic leadership with the means to pass a comprehensive reconciliation package, without the threat of a Republican filibuster, with just 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the usual 60 votes. 

Now it is sausage making time as 13 House Committees and 12 Senate Committees begin to craft legislative text, allocating the $3.5 trillion to various investment priorities, to fulfill the reconciliation instructions with a tentative deadline to submit tax and spending legislation by Sept. 15. Committees begin marking up their contributions to the Budget reconciliation package during the week of Sept. 6.

House Adopts Sweeping Legislative Reforms

“The historic passage of this budget resolution puts Congress on track to pass some of the most sweeping legislative reforms in more than a half-century. As President Biden likes to say, ‘Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value,” stated Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI) in a statement released after the budget resolution’s passage.

“This budget paves the path for the Build Back Better Plan to make historic investments in lowering costs for health care, prescription drugs, and childcare while cutting taxes for middle class families and creating millions of new jobs to tackle the existential threat of climate change,” said the Rhode Island lawmaker. Even better, it’s completely paid for by making sure the wealthiest Americans and largest corporations pay their fair share in taxes, he says.

“The transformative investments in women and families – including childcare, paid leave, home-based care and universal free pre-K – will unlock the full economic potential of parents in the workforce and boost our economy. This is the first step in the process, but I’m hopeful this investment in hardworking American families will be able to make our country stronger than ever before America’s seniors will see the strengthening of the nation’s social safety net by allocating billions for affordable housing, home, adds Cicilline. 

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) slammed the passage of the House budget resolution which included a provision to allow Democrats to bypass debate and a separate vote on the Senate-passed budget for fiscal year 2022, which includes reconciliation instructions to usher in $3.5 trillion in new federal spending on socialist-style programs.

“I am astounded by the irresponsible manner in which Speaker Pelosi operated the House this week, simply because she could not get members of her own party in line and on board with her will and wishes,” states Cole. “As a result, Speaker Pelosi had the House skip critical debate and an individual vote on a consequential budget resolution solely intended to trigger $3.5 trillion worth of radical tax-and-spend legislation. Instead of going through the normal process, the reckless budget was buried in another measure to ensure its adoption, whether a majority of support actually existed within the Democratic Caucus,” adds Cole.  

Strengthening the Nation’s Social Safety Net

According to a blog posting, “The House-passed Budget Resolution Holds Historic Promise for Seniors,” on the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare’s (NCPSSM) website, the House budget resolution expands Medicare benefits by adding dental, vision and hearing coverage to traditional Medicare. “This expanded coverage is crucial to seniors overall health, since the absence of proper dental, vision and hearing care can increase the risk of grave medical consequences – from dementia to disabling injuries. Seniors have not seen their Medicare benefits expanded since 2003, with the passage of the significant but flawed D prescription drug program,” says NCPSSM.

NCPSSM says that the Democratic budget blueprint “will aim to correct the main shortcomings in Medicare Part D by allowing the program to negotiate drug prices directly with Big Pharma.  This will save beneficiaries an estimated $102 billion over 10 years.

NCPSSM adds that the budget resolution would allocate billions of new federal Medicaid dollars to support Home and Community-based Services (HCBS).  This historic new level of funding would allow seniors to age in place in their community rather than being institutionalized. “Research has shown that older people have better health outcomes when they can remain in their homes and communities. Meanwhile, the pandemic has only highlighted the risks of putting seniors into nursing homes, notes the blog article.

It’s Wait and See

Will Sens. Kysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D.V.), who are concerned over the cost of the emerging reconciliation bill, stay with their Democratic colleagues when a vote takes place? There is no wiggle room for passage if they choose not to cast their votes with the Democratic caucus.

With a slim Democratic majority in both the House and Senate chambers, the political necessity of keeping their caucuses unified in passing legislation may well result in paring down spending levels. We may well see a smaller expansion of Medicare and less funding for HCBS.

Stay tuned.