Senate Health Bill Vote Expected Next Week

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 25, 2017

The long-awaited Senate health bill text crafted by a group of 13 GOP senators (all male) appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to replace and repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act of 2017 (ACA), popularly, called Obamacare, was unveiled days ago. Republican lawmakers have worked for over seven years to dismantle the Democratic president’s landmark health care law. Supporters say that ACA brought health care coverage to an estimated 20 million Americans, covered between marketplace, Medicaid expansion, young adults staying on their parent’s plan, and other coverage provisions. Critics charge that Obamacare imposed too many costs to business owners.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats lashed out at GOP Senate leadership charging that the Senate health bill, titled “Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017,” was written behind closed doors without a single committee hearing being held or draft bill text being circulated to the public. Some Republican senators also expressed frustration for not seeing the details of the GOP bill before its release on June 22, 2017.

Like Senate Democrats, Health and Human Secretary Tom Price was left in the dark, too. At a Senate hearing before the release of the Senate bill the Trump Administration’s top health official stated that he had not seen any legislative language.

Senate Health Bill “Meaner” than House Version

Despite President Trump’s campaign pledge not to touch popular entitlement programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, he strongly endorsed the House Republican passed health bill, the American Health Care Act of 2017 (AHCA). At the eleventh hour, Trump twisted the arms of reluctant GOOP House members to gain their support of the controversial health care bill. Celebrating the passage of AHCA at the White House Rose garden, the president told the attending Republican lawmakers and guests that the GOP health bill was a “great plan,” adding that it was “very, very, incredibly well-crafted.” It was reported weeks later, after a closed-door luncheon with 15 Republican Senators, Trump had called AHCA “mean” and urged the attending Senators make their legislative proposal “more generous.”

With the release of the Senate health bill, Senate Minority Leader Schumer called the bill “meaner” than the House passed version, stressing its negative impact was far worse than AHCA. Trump called the House health bill “mean.” Schumer views the Senate’s version “meaner.”

GOP Senate leadership is pressing for a floor vote before the upcoming July 4th Congressional recess. To meet this deadline, this vote must take place by the end of next week, either Thursday or Friday, after 20 hours of debate. Early next week the Congressional Budget Office will release its score, detailing cost and coverage impact, on the Senate health bill. Moderate Republican senators might just be influenced not to vote for the bill if reduces health coverage for millions of Americans.

It usually takes 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate. But, GOP Senate leadership is using a technical parliamentary procedure, referred to as reconciliation, to allow the Senate health bill to pass with only 50 votes, including the Vice President as a tiebreaker.

At press time, there are four conservative senators (Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin) and one moderate senator (Dean Heller of Nevada)., who have publicly expressed their opposition to the Senate health bill. With all Democratic and Independent senators in their caucus opposing passage of the bill, GOP Senate leadership can only afford the defection of two Republican senators if they want their bill to pass.

Meanwhile, a 100-year old organization, Planned Parenthood, is gearing up to fight a provision of the Senate health bill that would cut $555 million in funding. Two moderate GOP Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are on the fence voting for the bill if cuts are made to Planned Parenthood.

Aging Groups See Writing on Wall if Senate Passes Health Bill

The released 142-page GOP Senate health bill, written hastily behind closed doors, will overhaul the nation’s health care system, impacting on one-sixth of the nation’s economy. Dozens of aging, health care and medical groups, including AARP, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the American Medical Association, and the American Hospital Association, are voicing their strong opposition to the GOP Senate’s health care fix.

And this list keeps growing as next week’s Senate vote approaches.

The Washington, DC-based AARP, representing a whopping 38 million members, vows to hold GOP Senators accountable for a bill that hurts older Americans. The nonprofit group charges that “the legislation imposes an “Age Tax” on older adults – increasing health care premiums and reducing tax credits [that made insurance more affordable under Obamacare], makes cuts to both Medicaid funding, and yet gives billions of dollars in take breaks to drug and insurance companies.”

“AARP is also deeply concerned that the Senate bill cuts Medicaid funding that would strip health coverage from millions of low-income and vulnerable Americans who depend on the coverage, including 17 million poor seniors and children and adults with disabilities. The proposed Medicaid cuts would leave millions, including our most vulnerable seniors, at risk of losing the care they need and erode seniors’ ability to live in their homes and communities,” says
AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement.

“The Senate bill also cuts funding for Medicare which weakens the programs ability to pay benefits and leaves the door wide open to benefit cuts and Medicare vouchers. AARP has long opposed proposals that cut benefits or weaken Medicare, adds LeaMond.

LeaMond says, “As we did with all 435 Members of the House of Representatives, AARP will also hold all 100 Senators accountable for their votes on this harmful health care bill. Our members care deeply about their health care and have told us repeatedly that they want to know where their elected officials stand. We strongly urge the Senate to reject this bill.”

Another Washington-DC based organization, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group whose mission is to protect Social Security and Medicare, issued a stinging statement criticizing the Senate health bill.

“The Senate’s version of AHCA is an exercise in political expediency that does nothing to safeguard access to quality healthcare for older Americans. President Trump rightly called the House-passed bill ‘mean’ and lacking ‘heart.’ Unfortunately, the Senate bill is only marginally less mean in some ways, and even more heartless in others, says Max Richtman, President & CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Adds, Richtman, “The Senate health bill is “a lose-lose for seniors and the American people. The biggest loss is that the AHCA ends the Medicaid program as we know it. Astoundingly, the Senate bill makes even deeper cuts to Medicaid than the House did. This is devastating news for today’s and tomorrow’s seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s, cancer, the after-effects of stroke and other serious conditions who depend on Medicaid to pay for long-term care. Millions will lose Medicaid coverage over the next ten years.”

“Despite some tweaks to premium subsidies, the Senate legislation will make healthcare unaffordable for many near seniors aged 50-64. The legislation allows insurers to charge older Americans five times as much as younger adults. Though the Senate bill nominally protects people with pre-existing conditions, the waiver of essential benefits means older patients with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease will pay sky-high premiums [making these premiums unaffordable to most]. Finally, the bill weakens Medicare by reducing the solvency of the Part A Trust fund,” notes Richtman.

Looking at a Crystal Ball

Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, says that the Senate health bill does not fix the issues critics had with the House version. “It moves Medicaid from an entitlement to a discretionary program. It uses a longer phase-in period than the House, but imposes deeper cuts on the program. This is very problematic from the standpoint of poor and disabled people who need help,” says West.

According to West, Republican Senators from more moderate states already have said they will not support the current version. There also are conservative Senators who feel the bill does not go far enough in repealing Obamacare. If those positions hold up, it doesn’t look like the bill will pass.

West warns those who oppose the passage of the Senate health bill to not underestimate Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “He is willing to negotiate with individual Senators to get their votes so it is premature to call the bill dead. McConnell knows the Senate well and understands what compromises need to be made to get to 50 votes,” notes West.

If Senate Republicans pass their health care bill next week, I predict they might just find out that they have “awakened a sleeping giant,” the Democrats. When the dust settles after the 2018 mid-term elections we will find this out.

Can Our Nation Survive Trump and the GOP’s Control of Capitol Hill?

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 8, 2017

Almost two months ago when GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump trounced his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton and his party took control of both chamber of Congress. Trump’s surprising victory stunned both voters and political commentators and pundits covering the heated presidential race. According to a November 16, 2016 Gallup Poll, 80 percent of Trump’s voters are “excited,” while 76 percent of Clinton’s voters say they are “afraid.” A large majority of the respondents (75 percent) shared one reaction: “surprise.”

Days after the tumultuous election, Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, penned his thoughts about how president-elect Trump might govern the divided nation. His posting, “Four Scenarios for a Trump Presidency,” can be found on the Brooking’s FixGov blog, written on November 14, 2016.

Speculating on Trump’s White House Governance

In his 1,286 word blog, West, an American author, political scientist, pollical commentator who formerly taught political science at Brown University for 26 years, says that Trump might choose to govern as a traditional Republican endorsing tax cuts, deregulation and repealing Obamacare. Like other GOP politicians he would call for reinstituting law and order, fighting ISIS and other extremist militant groups, and controlling illegal immigration from coming into this country. “These typical GOP positions might resolve his philosophical differences on “entitlement reform and free trade,” says West, an author or co-author of 22 books.

Trump just might even turn over the reins of the presidency to Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, says West, these individuals “becoming the de facto prime minister.”

According to West, like president-elect Trump did during the presidential campaign, he might take on the role of a “popular rogue.” A “populist Trump could break conventional political rules and “attack the political establishment to represent the little guy,” notes West’s blog posting.

West also suggests that Trump might ultimately fail as president. After all he lost the popular vote by 2 percentage points or nearly three million votes and alienated women, millennials, minorities and immigrants with his insulting comments. Scandals and disclosures about his personal behavior and continuing concerns about serious financial conflicts of interest could derail his “honeymoon” phase at the beginning of his presidential term and negatively impact his popularity ratings, he says.

West also speculates in his blog that policy backlashes due to millions losing health care coverage by his push to repeal Obamacare, privatizing Medicare or gutting Social Security, a slow-down in the economy or even Trump’s continued liking of Russian President Vladimir Putin, might make him a one term president, like President Jimmy Carter.

Finally, public outcry and violent protest may turn Trump into an authoritarian leader. If this happens West expresses concerns smear campaigns (waged by White House Strategist Steve Bannon), the use of federal agencies to “attack adversaries” and the use of local police to “crack down” on protestors. “Firing top intelligence officials would suggest that Trump wants compliant people who will do his bidding against foreign and domestic adversaries,” he says.

Big Changes with the GOP in Charge

“It is a scary time in American politics,” says West, who expects to see big changes on Capitol Hill in 2017. The Brookings political pundit predicts that a Trump White House with a GOP controlled Congress will tackle large tax cuts, corporate tax reform, repealing Obamacare (but not having anything to replace it with), and reversing the Dodd Frank financial regulation bill. With the Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress he does not expect gridlock during the first six months of the 115th Congress.

West predicts that in the long-run many of the GOP president and Republican Congressional leadership policy initiatives will be problematic. “They are governing as if they have a clear mandate even though they lost the popular vote, he says.

West, like some political observers, expect many of the GOP’s conservative policy proposals to hurt the people who voted for Trump. The tax cuts go disproportionately to the top one percent and proposed changes in Medicare and Medicaid will limit medical care, he said.

“In a couple of years, the economy probably will be much weaker than it is today, which will undermine the very rationale of Trump’s candidacy,” says West, noting that if this happens the newly elected president could have a 30 percent job approval rating by 2018. “Of course, that is when he really will become dangerous! The risk is he may try things to improve his poll numbers, such as identifying scapegoats or confronting adversaries,” warns West.

“GOP Congressional leaders have plans to privatize Medicare and block grant Medicaid to the states. This will impose limitations on medical care and make it more difficulty for needy people to get the help they need,” adds West, who also sees Republicans moving to reduce home care and medical assistance to America’s elderly.

West sees the “GOP legislative initiatives as being very contentious politically, and will reinforce perceptions of the GOP as cold and heartless [to Americans].”

“Democrats will not be able to pass legislation. Their main power will be trying to block things they don’t like or stop nominations at confirmation hearings that they find problematic,” says West, noting that they will be put in a defensive posture. “They will seek to protect certain gains made during the Obama administration. However, Congressional Democratic leadership may well be able to work together on infrastructure investments,” he says.

West believes that Trump’s fix for the economy will not work. “In the longer-run, there is a risk that inflation will go up. Interest rates already have risen in anticipation of this,” he says.

“The market is expecting Trump to spend a lot of money and not be able to corral spending by the same amount. That will increase deficits and drive up inflation. It will be hard to blame this on Democrats since there has been low inflation for years now. It will be pretty obvious that GOP policies are responsible for the rate increases,” West adds.

Democrats Mobilize, Video Sends Message to Congress

As president-elect Trump’s inauguration approaches, President Obama traveled to Capitol Hill last week to urge Congressional Democrats to block the GOP president and the Republican Congressional leadership’s efforts to dismantle Obamacare, the outgoing president’s signature healthcare reform law and to fight their legislative policy initiatives. Behind closed doors Obama urged Democratic lawmakers to not “rescue” the Republicans by passing replacement measures. He suggested calling the GOP’s new plan, “Trumpcare,” to ensure that they are held responsible for any disruptions in health coverage. At press time there seems to be no GOP health care plan to consider.

After Obama’s meeting Democrats lawmakers have begun using the phrase, “Make America Sick Again, tying into Trump’s wildly recognized campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Hollywood is moving to block Trump’s policy initiatives. Almost a week ago documentarian Liz Garbus unveiled her one minute and 49 second video (#StandUpForUS), released by Humanity for Progress, to urge Congress to block any legislative initiatives pushed by Trump and his GOP allies that attack groups he marginalized during last year’s presidential campaign. Celebrities and activists lined up to participate in this video. They included Rosie Perez, Keegan-Michael Key, Tavi Gevinson, Lea Delaria, Sally Field, Steve Buscemi, Zoe Kazan, Jeffrey Wright, and Janet Mock, among others.

“The majority of Americans, regardless of who they voted for, did not vote for racism, for sexism, or for xenophobia. And yet Donald Trump won,” notes the video. At the end of the video, viewers are asked to email the video to members of Congress, as well as to sign a petition on http://www.MoveOn.org, to resist Trump and the GOP agenda,

Stay Tuned

The aftermath of the 2017 presidential election has politically split our nation. Although Trump won the Electoral College, Clinton, the former secretary of state, pulled in over 64 million votes. Even without a clear legislative mandate President-elect Trump and Republican Congressional leadership are moving at a quick pace to make major policy and systemic changes during the first 100 days of the 115th Congress. Democrats are now forced to play the loyal opposition for the next four years and fight against GOP policies rammed through the legislative process. Will GOP legislative fixes push American in the right direction? Or will the nation survive these changes? Stay tuned.

Let Rhode Island’s Social Security Debate Begin

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 21, 2016

It’s less than 80 days before the upcoming 2016 presidential election. At press time, Social Security has been placed on the backburner as the GOP standard bearer Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, turn their attention to crime, national security, health care and the economy.

On the sideline, nearly 218,000 Rhode Islanders who collect Social Security benefits, including 155,710 seniors, 37,476 disabled workers, and 17,802 survivors of a deceased spouse or parent, are closely watching one of the nation’s nastiest political campaign unfold. Political insiders and aging groups know that whoever takes over the White House and controls Congress will control in the year’s to come how retiree’s receive their retirement checks.

Putting a Spotlight on Social Security

Earlier this week David N. Cicilline (D-RI) and John B. Larson (D-CT) came to the Rumford Towers in East Providence to put the spotlight on Social Security, both stressing how important it is to keep Social Security solvent through the end of this century. The two Democratic lawmakers called on GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan to move their introduced legislation, “Social Security 2100 Act,” from House Committee to floor vote.

“Social Security is a promise that after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity, economic security, and peace of mind. It’s critical that Congress act expeditiously to preserve and strengthen this promise for years to come,” said Cicilline to over 80 attendees at the 90 minute event.

Larson noted that Social Security is not an entitlement but benefits that have been earned by hard-working Americans who have paid into the retirement system their whole lives. “Two-thirds of retirees rely on Social Security for the majority of their income, and it is a lifeline for the disabled and those who have lost a loved one,” he said, calling those pushing for Social Security cuts as “fundamentally misguided.”

The Nuts & Bolts

The “Social Security 2100 Act,” introduced by Cicilline and Larson in 2015, expands Social Security benefits, cuts taxes for 11 million seniors, provides stronger cost of living adjustments, and requires millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share. The legislative proposal also provides an immediate increase equivalent to 2% of the average benefit for all Social Security recipients. This change is projected to yield an annual increase for the typical retiree of $300.

The Democratic lawmakers Social Security fix also improves the annual cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) formula to reflect the prices of goods and services seniors actually buy – especially housing, health care, and transportation – to ensure that seniors aren’t asked to go without a COLA to protect against inflation. In three of the past seven years, Rhode Island seniors did not receive a COLA as a result of the inadequate formula that is used today.

Finally, the Cicilline-Larson Plan also lifts the cap on payroll taxes for individuals making more than $400,000 each year, requiring the wealthiest 0.4% of Americans to pay the same rate as all other workers. The increased revenue generated as a result will provide a tax cut for 11 million seniors and establish a new minimum benefit so that no one who has worked hard and played by the rules is asked to retire into poverty. Tax relief for Social Security beneficiaries due to an increase in the threshold for taxation of Social Security benefits to $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for joint filers, up from $25,000 and $32,000 respectively.

While current projections indicate that the Social Security Trust Fund will begin generating annual deficits in 2019 and stop paying out full benefits in 2033, the Cicilline-Larson Plan expands the lifeline of Social Security through the end of this century by gradually phasing in an increase in the contribution rate equivalent to 50 cents per week for the average worker.

NCPSSM Gives Thumbs Up

In an endorsement letter, Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), calls the Cicilline-Larson Plan “a bold step on behalf of seniors and all Americans by strengthening and safeguarding Social Security for future beneficiaries while at the same time making important improvements in the adequacy of the benefits the program provides.”

According to Richtman, the “Social Security 2100 Act” strengthens the retirement programs “financial foundations.” He says: “First, it extends the payroll tax to all wages paid to workers that are in excess of $400,000. Over time, the bill would completely eliminate the cap on Social Security payroll taxes. Second, the “Social Security 2100 Act” implements a small,
gradual increase in workers’ and employers’ contributions to Social Security. Because the increase is phased in over a long period of time, the average worker would see his or her annual contributions to the Social Security program increase by about 50 cents per week.”

In this presidential election cycle, Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, sees Democrats making a “big push” to strengthen and expand the Social Security program. “This will not likely happen as long as there is a Republican Congress as many members of the GOP want to cut the future rate of growth of Social Security and increase the retirement age,” he says, predicting that there is a good chance Democrats will get the Senate back.

West adds, “whether the GOP regain control of the House will depend on how big the presidential victory is. If Clinton wins big, she may sweep in enough Democrats to have control of that chamber. In that situation, this legislation has much better prospects. A President Clinton could very well be interested in this proposal and be willing to sign it into law.”

Where’s the Beef?

Political newcomer and GOP challenger H. Russell Taub, calls on Cicilline, his Democratic opponent in the 1st Congressional District race, to not attach new benefits to Social Security, a self-funded program. Taub wonders how new federal expenditures to pay for added Social Security benefits will impact the heavily burdened retirement program.

Taub sees a need to have a “serious public discourse” on the nation’s budget. “When we’ve come to a conclusion lets craft meaningful legislation to get the law to reflect that decision. Let’s not drop flash-in-the-pan, headline grabbing false initiatives just because it’s an election year. Our Constituents in the First District deserve much better than that shabby treatment,” he says.

“AARP Take a Stand volunteers and members of our staff were on hand to listen to what the Congressmen had to say,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Having candidates for office outlining their specific plan for making the necessary changes to preserve Social Security is what Take a Stand is all about. We are not at this time endorsing specific proposals, but we are engaging our members to keep asking for substantive answers. We’ve been saying ‘sound bites aren’t good enough.’ The Congressmen, indeed, go beyond a sound bite by presenting this plan in a public venue open to the media. People deserve to know how the plans will affect our families, what it will cost, and how they’ll get it done.

“Doing nothing is not an option.” Connell continued. “Every time the candidates dodge the question, our families pay the price.

If our nation’s leaders don’t act, future retirees stand to lose up to $10,000 a year. And every year our leaders wait and do nothing, finding a solution grows more and more difficult.”

Rhode Island voters are now able to see Cicilline’s fix for strengthening Social Security and expanding its benefits, detailed in his introduced legislative proposal, “Social Security 2100 Act.” GOP challenger Taub must throw in his two cents for strengthening the nation’s retirement program, but give us the details. Do you favor the GOP approach for privatizing Social Security? What is your position on raising the cap on Social Security payroll contributions to address the retirement program’s projected shortfall? Do you support raising the retirement age? What are your thoughts about slowly increasing the payroll contribution rate by 1/20th of one percent over 20 years to strengthen the program’s financial condition? Or even changing the current COLA formula.

While the presidential candidates put the economy, crime, and national security in the spotlight at their rallies, town meetings and speeches, Social Security receives little coverage. Let the serious debate begin in the Ocean State. Hopefully, this act will spread like wild fire across the country.