Report: Congress Warned to Shore Up Social Security Reserves

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 26, 2020

Each year, starting in 1941, the Social Security Board of Trustees has presented a required report on the financial status of the program to the Congress. Now amidst the world-wide coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forcing the shuttering of the nation’s businesses triggering the worst economic downslide since the 1930s Great Depression, the Social Security Board of Trustees releases its 276-page 2020 annual with a warning that Social Security could deplete its trust funds reserves by 2035, if Congress does not act to increase the trust fund reserves. However, because of payroll taxes, revenue to the program would ensure that at least 79 percent of benefits would be paid after 2035 if Congress fails to address solvency.

During the last five weeks, about 24 million Americans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 Pandemic. With fewer people paying payroll taxes, this will further reduce revenue to Social Security, the impact depending upon how length and severity of the economic downturn. During the pandemic, the number of Americans who pass away, become disabled or survivors will also affect the actuarial accounting of the trust fund’s finances.

“The projections in this year’s report do not reflect the potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Social Security program. Given the uncertainty associated with these impacts, the Trustees believe it is not possible to adjust estimates accurately at this time,” said Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security. “The duration and severity of the pandemic will affect the estimates presented in this year’s report and the financial status of the program, particularly in the short term.” says Saul.

“Today’s report confirms that Social Security’s financing is strong in the near term, but it will not have enough to pay 100 percent of promised benefits in long term. The report underscores why it is so important that Congress take action now to prevent a 21 percent cut from occurring in 2035, by ensuring Social Security is fully funded and strengthened for today’s seniors and future generations, who will need it even more,” said Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee in a statement.

“As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, Social Security’s role is even more important than ever. During this volatile time of economic uncertainty, Social Security remains the one constant that all current and future beneficiaries can count on. It has never missed a payment. That’s why we must act now to expand and enhance Social Security with the Social Security 2100 Act,” states Larson. “His legislation will ensure Social Security remains solvent for the next 75 plus years, while expanding benefits. Moreover, the expansion of Social Security’s steady monthly payments would be an automatic boost to the economy,” he adds.

Gauging the Financial Health of Social Security

According to the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), at the end of 2019, about 64 million people were receiving benefits: 48.2 million retired workers and their dependents; 6 million survivors of deceased workers; and 9.9 million disabled workers and their dependents. About 178 million workers had earnings covered by Social Security and paid payroll taxes in 2019.

By 2035, (which is the same as last year’s estimate) when today’s 51-year-olds reach the retirement age and today’s youngest retirees turn 78, retirees will face a 21-percent across-the board benefits cut (that could grow to 25 percent over time) if Congress does not make significant changes to revenue, benefits, or both to shore up the depleted trust fund.

This year’s report announces that Social Security has an accumulated surplus of approximately $2.9 trillion. It projects that, even if Congress took no action whatsoever, Social Security not only can pay all benefits and associated administrative costs until 2035, it is 91 percent funded for the next quarter century, 85 percent for the next half century, and 82 percent for the next three quarters of a century. At the end of the century, in 2095, Social Security is projected to cost just 5.86 percent of gross domestic product.

The newly released Trustees report notes that the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund, which pays disability benefits, will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2065, 13 years later than in last year’s report. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted and continuing tax income will be sufficient to pay 92 percent of scheduled benefits.

As to the Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund, which pays Medicare Part A inpatient hospital expenses, the Trustee’s report says that this program will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2026, the same as reported last year. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted and continuing total program income will be sufficient to pay 90 percent of total scheduled benefits.

Finally, the Trustee’s report noted that the Supplemental Medical Insurance (SMI) Trust Fund, consisting of Part B, which pays for physician and outpatient services, and Part D, which covers prescription drug benefits, is adequately financed into the indefinite future because current law provides financing from general revenues and beneficiary premiums each year to meet the next year’s expected costs. Due to these funding provisions, the rapid growth of SMI costs will place steadily increasing demands on both taxpayers and beneficiaries, says the Trustee’s report.

Social Security Advocates Weigh in

“Medicare and Social Security are more crucial than ever as Americans face the one-two punch of the coronavirus’s health and economic consequences, says AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins in a statement following the release of the Trustees report, noting that the security provided by Social Security’s guaranteed benefits and Medicare’s health coverage is indispensable.

“Today’s reports show that both programs remain strong. However, it is crucial for Congress to come together in a bipartisan way to address the long-term funding challenges to ensure individuals will get the benefits they have earned. One way to protect Medicare is to lower the cost of health care and prescription drug prices, suggests Jenkins.

“Social Security is strong. But its long-term fiscal health cannot be guaranteed if the White House and Congress continue to use the program’s financing structure for economic stimulus during the COVID-19 crisis,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO. “Those who would like to dismantle Social Security are using the pandemic to launch a stealth attack. A broad-based payroll tax cut, as the President has proposed, would interfere with Social Security’s traditional revenue stream while failing to deliver effective or equitable stimulus,” he warns.

According to Richtman, Social Security already provides more than $1.6 trillion in annual economic stimulus as seniors spend their benefits for essential goods and services in their communities. “Now is not the time – in fact, it is never the time – to tamper with a program that more than 40% of retirees rely upon for all of their income,” he says.

Richtman notes that the Trustees estimate that the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for 2021 will be 2.3 percent. However, that projection does not reflect the impact of the pandemic on inflation, and the actual COLA for next year could be lower, he says.

“We do not know the extent of the pandemic’s impact on Social Security, but we do know that seniors need a boost in their benefits. Let’s strengthen the program now by eliminating the payroll tax wage cap and demanding the wealthy pay their fair share. That way, we can expand benefits and adopt a more accurate cost-of-living inflation formula for seniors,” suggests Richtman.

As for Medicare, says Richtman, the program’s financial future is relatively unchanged from last year’s report, but the impact of the pandemic is not reflected. “The Medicare Part A Trust Fund will become exhausted by 2026, after which the program still could pay 90 percent of benefits, if Congress does nothing to strengthen Medicare’s finances,” he adds.

Adds Richtman, the Trustees estimate that the Medicare Part B premium will rise to $153.30 per month in 2021, an $8.70 increase over last years.

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works and the Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, agrees with Jenkins and Richtman that the Trustee’s report shows Social Security will remain strong through the rest of the 21st century and beyond, notwithstanding current circumstances. “Though the exact impact of today’s pandemic and economic conditions will not be clear until next year’s report, Social Security’s strength will shine through next year, as well. Social Security is built to withstand today’s events,” says Altman.

Altman believes that Social Security is a solution and the program continues to pay benefits automatically on time, especially with retiree’s 401(k)s taking a hit because of the pandemic crisis. “It is past time to increase Social Security’s modest but vital benefits, while requiring the wealthy to pay their fair share,” she says.

Stimulating the Economy by Slashing Payroll Taxes

Congress has passed payroll tax cuts –in 2011 and 2012 – in an attempt to stimulate the economy during a downturn. The recently enacted $2.2 trillion economic stimulus legislation passed last month, called the CARES Act, does allow for employers to defer their payroll tax payments but does not actually cut the levies, which are used to fund Medicare and Social Security.

Now GOP lawmakers led by President Donald Trump are using the virus pandemic as an excuse to slash payroll contributions, Social Security’s dedicated funding. Cutting the Social Security payroll taxes would reduce the amount of money withheld from employee paychecks, increasing their take-home pay.

Using a payroll tax cut to provide a financial stimulus in an effort to forestall a recession caused by COVID-19 pandemic “undermines the earned benefit nature of the program,” warns Dan Adcock, NCPSSM’s Director of Government Relations & Policy.

“Social Security is an earned benefit fully funded by the contributions of workers throughout their working lives. A payroll tax cut suspension or deferral chips away at that fundamental idea, making it easier each time it is enacted to turn to it again to meet some future crisis, until the payroll tax is not just cut but is eliminated, undermining the program in this manner would help achieve the goals of opponents of Social Security including those who would privatize the program,” says Adcock.

Adcock says that NCPSSM opposes a Congressional effort to alter the payroll tax that reduces revenue flowing into the Social Security trust fund or undermines the “earned right” nature of the benefit. “We support the enactment of tax incentives – other than cutting, suspending or deferring the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes – to encourage employers to keep their workers during this emergency,” he says.

Congressional lawmakers can extend the long-term solvency of the Social Security while improving earned benefits through passing legislation like Congressman John Larson’s H.R. 860, the Social Security 2100 Act, says Adcock. At press time, the House bill has over 208 cosponsors and its Social Security Subcommittee has held several hearings on the bill.

Several other bills to protect and expand Social Security benefits have also been introduced in both House and Senate chambers The presumptive Democratic nominee for President, former Vice President Joe Biden, has endorsed a Senate proposal sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) that would provide all Social Security beneficiaries with an extra $200/month during the coronavirus health crisis.

As to Medicare, lawmakers can take action to cut beneficiaries’ out of pocket costs and boost Medicare’s fiscal health by passing H.R. 3, The Lower Drug Costs Now Act — which would save the program some $400 billion in projected prescription drug costs by allowing the government to negotiate prices directly with Big Pharma.

Simply put, one sure method of ensuring the financial viability of Social Security is to require millionaires to pay their fair share of payroll taxes by removing or increasing the current income cap on payroll taxes, suggests Adcock.

Shoreing Up Social Security

With over 90 days until the upcoming 2020 Presidential elections, seniors might reach out to those running for Congress and the White House and call for the strengthening and expansion of Social Security. It’s time to protect the viability of the program for those currently receiving benefits and for the younger generations who follow.

View the 2020 Trustees Report at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/TR/2020/.

View an infographic about the program’s long-term financial outlook at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/policy/social-security-long-term-financial-outlook.html

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, healthcare and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

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.

Time to Change how Social Security Calculates ‘COLA’

Published in Woonsocket Call on October 23, 2016

On Tuesday, September 18, the U.S. Social Security Administration announced that the nation’s 65 million Social Security beneficiaries will be automatically be paid a minuscule 0.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to their monthly checks in 2017. The average monthly Social Security benefit next year will be $1,360, $5 more than now.

According to AARP, 153,349 Rhode Islanders received Social Security checks as of the end of 2014. Also, 22 percent of Rhode Island retirees depend on their Social Security check for 90 percent or more of their income. That’s chump change, not a lot of money for Rhode Island retirees to buy groceries, gas, or even catch up on their bills.

The federal agency detailed other changes that we can expect, too. Beginning in 2017, the amount of your earnings subject to the Social Security tax increases from $118,500 to $127,200. It’s estimated that this tax change impacts about 12 million of the 173 million people who pay into the retirement system.

Next year’s Social Security COLA increase is the smallest in a decade and comes after no increase in 2016 (zero increases also occurred in 2010 and 2011). Seventy percent of Medicare beneficiaries are protected by a hold-harmless rule, which keeps Social Security benefit payments from decreasing because of increased Medicare Part B premiums. However, 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries (including high wage earners, those enrolled in Medicare and not yet receiving Social Security, and newly enrolled in Medicare) could see cost increases in their Medicare Part B premiums that cover their visits to doctors and hospitals. The increased premium costs will be deducted directly from their Social Security check.

Chump Change COLA Won’t Pay Bills

Responding to the federal government’s disappointing COLA announcement, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, whose Washington, DC aging group represents 37 million members, charges in a statement that one major domestic issue ignored by presidential debate moderators and one that demands attention from candidates is the future of Social Security.

“Over the last five years, Social Security COLA’s have remained small or nonexistent at 1,7 percent or lower, even though every cent can matter to beneficiaries and their families. After last year’s zero COLA, this year’s announcement doesn’t offer much help to the millions of families who depend on their Social Security benefits. As prescription prices skyrocket and Medicare premiums and other health costs increase, many older Americans have understandable concerns. Along with many groups, AARP has also asked Congress to ensure that Medicare premiums and deductibles don’t skyrocket next year,” says Jenkins.

Adds Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “No one can say with a straight face that providing the average senior with an additional four dollars a month will come even close to covering the true cost of living that retirees face. The average senior spends more than $5,000 a year on healthcare costs alone. A $4 Social Security COLA doesn’t even make a dent in covering rising costs for seniors.”

Richtman asserts that next year’s tiny COLA increase only continues the trend of historically low cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. “Over the past eight years, the current COLA formula has led to average increases of just over 1%, with three of those years seeing no increase at all. For the average senior, the 2017 COLA will mean an extra $4.00 per month which would barely cover the average cost of one Lipitor pill, a prescription drug frequently prescribed to seniors,” he says.

Richtman notes, “I’ve asked seniors at town hall meetings around the country how many of them think the COLA represents their true cost of living — laughter is always the response. We should move to a COLA formula that takes a more accurate measure of seniors’ expenses, which is a CPI for the elderly. The CPI-E has been in the experimental phase since 1982. It’s time to finish the job by fully funding the development of a more accurate COLA formula.”

Congress Must Legislatively Fix COLA Formula

In media releases, Rhode Island lawmakers call for tweaking how Social Security calculates Social Security COLAs.

Democratic U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who sits on the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, calls next year’s Social Security COLA increase an “insult.” He says, “For the fifth year in a row, Washington’s outdated formula has resulted in zero or next to zero cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits. For the fifth year in a row, Rhode Island seniors will have to stretch their budgets to cover the rising cost of the basics, like food, housing, bills, and prescriptions. They didn’t bargain for this when they paid into Social Security over a lifetime of hard work. Congress needs to change the way we calculate Social Security COLAs.”

Adds, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), “This is completely unacceptable. The method for calculating cost of living adjustments is completely broken and fails to reflect the costs of gods and services seniors buy in Rhode Island and across the country.”
The Rhode Island Congressman calls for the Republican House Leadership to seriously consider pending legislation that will ensure that cost of living adjustments reflect the goods and services Rhode Island seniors actually buy. “Speaker Ryan should immediately bring the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act to the floor so we can replace this outdated method for calculating cost of living adjustments with a model that actually meets the needs of Rhode Island seniors,” said Cicilline.

During the last Congress, the Senate and House controlled GOP have consistently kept legislative proposals from being considered that were crafted to bring needed reforms to the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs. A newly elected Democratic President and a Congress controlled by Democrats might just be the political fix necessary to finally do the job that is ensuring the financial long-term solvency of these two domestic entitlement programs