Trustee Reports predict improved outlook for Social Security and Medicare

Published in RINewsToday on June 6, 2022

On June 2, 2022, following a meeting of the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees, the Social Security Administration (SSA) – joined by the Departments of Health and Human Services and Labor, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and the U.S. Department of Treasury — released a 275-page annual report giving us a snapshot of the financial health of the Social Security Trust Funds.

The Trustee reports findings

According to this year’s Trustee Reports, “Social Security and Medicare both face long-term financing shortfalls under currently scheduled benefits and financing. Costs of both programs will grow faster than gross domestic product (GDP) through the mid-2030s primarily due to the rapid aging of the U.S. population. Medicare costs will continue to grow faster than GDP through the late 2070s due to projected increases in the volume and intensity of services provided.”

The Social Security Trustees report that the combined asset reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASI and DI) Trust Funds, paying benefits to 65 million retirees, disabled people as well as survivors of deceased workers, are projected to become depleted in 2035, one year later than projected last year, with 80 percent of benefits payable at that time. The DI Trust Fund asset reserves are not projected to become depleted during the 75-year projection period.

“It is important to strengthen Social Security for future generations. The Trustees recommend that lawmakers address the projected trust fund shortfalls in a timely way to phase in necessary changes gradually,” says Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security in a statement announcing the released report. “Social Security will continue to be a vital part of the lives of 66 million beneficiaries and 182 million workers and their families during 2022,” she adds.   

The Medicare Board of Trustees note in its 263 page report that the projected depletion date for Medicare’s trust fund for inpatient hospital care (Part A), covering around 64 million retirees and disabled persons, moved from last year’s forecast of 2026 to 2028. At this time Medicare will only be able to pay 90% of the scheduled benefits when the fund is depleted.

“We are committed to running a sustainable Medicare program that provides high quality, person-centered care to older Americans and people with disabilities,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure. In a statement “Medicare trust fund solvency is an incredibly important, longstanding issue and we are committed to working with Congress to continue building a vibrant, equitable, and sustainable Medicare program,” she says.

Thoughts from senior advocacy groups

In a statement, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said that this year’s Social Security and Medicare Trustee report sends this clear message to Congress: “The Social Security and Medicare Trustees’ reports should send this “clear message” to Congress: “Despite the short-term improvement, you must act to protect the benefits people have earned and paid into both now and for the long-term. The stakes are too high for the millions of Americans who rely on Medicare and Social Security for their health and financial well-being.”

“These reports also underscore the urgent need for Congress to pass legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices, which would result in billions of dollars of savings for seniors, the Medicare program, and taxpayers,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins also calls on Congress to increase funding to fix serious long-time Social Security customer service problems, which currently impede or keep seniors and people with disabilities from getting their benefits in a timely manner.

Following the release of the Trustees Report, Executive Director Alex Lawson, of the Washington, DC-based Social Security Works, (SSW) a social welfare organization that lobbies for Social Security Reforms, also issued a statement: “Today’s report shows that our Social Security system remains strong. Protecting and expanding benefits is a question of values, not affordability. That this year’s projections are even stronger than last year’s proves once again that Social Security is built to withstand times of crisis, including pandemics.”

We don’t have a Social Security crisis, but we do have a retirement income crisis. With prices rising, seniors and people with disabilities are struggling to afford food and medicine. The solution is to expand Social Security,” says Lawson. 

According to SSW, the 2020 Social Security Trustee’s Report reported that Social Security has an accumulated surplus of about $2.85 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 90 percent funded for the next quarter century, 84 percent for the next half century, and 81 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 the gross domestic product (“GDP”), less than most other wealthy countries spend on their counterpart programs,” says SSW.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), throws in his two cents about this year’s Trustee Report. “The takeaway from the latest Social Security Trustees report is this:  Congress must strengthen the program’s finances without delay. The Trustees project that the combined Social Security retirement and disability trust fund will become depleted by 2035, one year later than projected in their previous report. At that point, every Social Security beneficiary will suffer a 20% cut to their benefits.”

“Seniors struggling to meet rising living expenses need Social Security to be boosted and strengthened. The pandemic, runaway inflation and devastating stock market losses serve to remind us how vital a robust Social Security program is to workers, retirees, the disabled and their families. The clock is running down. The time for fair, just, and equitable action that safeguards Social Security’s financial stability is now,” adds Richtman.   

While acknowledging that the trust fund insolvency date may fluctuate from year to year, the urgent need to boost the program’s financing and benefits remains consistent, says Richtman. 

NCPSSM’s Richtman says, over the years, the GOP has opposed the expansion and strengthening of Social Security and has called for raising the retirement age, privatization, and more recently, ‘sunsetting’ Social Security and Medicare every five years.  He calls for passage of Rep. John Larson’s Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust legislation that would extend trust fund solvency by requiring high wage earners to contribute their fair share through an adjustment in the payroll wage cap. 

A Washington Insider says that House Speaker’s Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) policy staff are concerned about the cost of Larson’s Social Security fix legislation and are seeking a CBO cost estimate. At press time this measure has more than 200 Democratic cosponsors in the House. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), the Task Force on Aging and Families, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus have all called on Pelosi to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote.

“Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, our economic recovery has strengthened both the Social Security and Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Funds and improved financial projections for these vital programs. But to ensure that every American worker, senior, child, and person with disabilities receives the necessary and earned benefits provided by both Social Security and Medicare, we need to act. That’s why I am an original cosponsor of legislation like Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, to not only enhance benefits for seniors and some of our most vulnerable neighbors, but to also guarantee access to these programs for generations to come,” said Congressman David Cicilline, (D-RI).  

Congress can step in to financially strengthen the Social Security and Medicare programs. A message from the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees suggest Congress pass legislation to reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in both the Social Security and Medicare. “Taking action sooner rather than later will allow consideration of a broader range of solutions and provide more time to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare,” say the Trustees.

Congress should look for “medium-term solvency” fixes to ensure that Social Security program can pay full benefits for several decades rather than for the full 75-year projection period, suggests Paul N. Van De Water, Senior Fellow at the Washington, DC-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit nonpartisan research organization and policy institute that conducts research on government policies and programs. “But shoring up the program’s financing for a substantial period of time is important for assuring both current and future beneficiaries that Social Security will be there for them in the years to come,” he says.

At a crossroad

NCPSSM’s Richtman believes Social Security’s future is now at a crossroads. “We can either cut benefits or expand benefits and pay for it by requiring the wealthiest to pay their fair share,” he says, calling on Congress to hold an up or down votes on Larson’s Social Security legislation.

Polling shows that voters support fixing Social Security and Medicare. Seniors may well go to the polls, sending a message with their vote that strengthening and expanding Social Security is important to them.   

For a copy of the 2022 Social Security Trustee Report, go to https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/TR/2022/tr2022.pdf. For a copy of the 2022 Medicare Trustee Report, go to https://www.cms.gov/files/document/2022-medicare-trustees-report.pdf

Medicare slow to fix equity issue for seniors’ access to at-home COVID test kits

Published on Feb. 7 in Rhode Island News Today

Today home test kits were made available in a variety of ways – but, for Medicare recipients, it was a different story, being forced to go thru a different purchasing and payment process than those having private insurance, or no insurance. That process required the oldest and most at-risk population to take more than several steps, put up their own money, do a lot of paperwork, to seek reimbursement.

The White House made changes in testing so that at-home tests are now fully covered by health insurances. Those insured can pick up their test kits in a store and have them paid for at the time of purchase by their insurance, at no cost to the person. They aren’t required to visit their physician or get a prescription to obtain the free test. They have a limit of 8 test kits per month.

But, when the program began, this was not the plan for those insured through the government’s Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans.

Red Tape… Upfront Charges for COVID-1

Jane, a 65-year old Medicare beneficiary from Warwick went through the steps to get a kit after a relative she had seen found out she was exposed to COVID.  Before Medicare announced easing up on the purchasing process of COVID-19 test kits, she expressed frustrations to this writer about the regulatory hoops she faced because she was on Medicare – purchasing the test kits and getting reimbursed for the upfront charges. “First, I had to request a prescription from my physician and say that I had either been exposed to someone who had COVID, or I was having symptoms, myself,” recalls the frustrated Medicare beneficiary.  “Once my physician sent the prescription over to CVS, I was notified that it would take a couple of days before I could pick up the kits and that I would only be given two kits per prescription”, she fumed, knowing that sometimes it takes 4 or 5 days of testing to test positive, but was only eligible to receive two, and she might have to go through the whole process again in a few days.

“Three days later CVS finally left me a message saying these kits were in. I used the drive-up window for pickup and the cashier asked me for $46,” Jane remembered.  “When questioning this charge, a pharmacist came to the window to assist and told me that I had to pay for the kits upfront and then seek reimbursement,” she added.

Paying for the kits, Jane went home, and called Blue Cross, her Medicare supplement company and was told she needed to request a copy of the prescription which took hours to finally request with the back and forth phone calls to her busy doctor’s office. It was almost two weeks later she finally got a copy of the receipt detailing her $46 payment for the kits. She was then able to upload the copy of the prescription and a copy of her receipt to a BCBS reimbursement screen on her computer (or she could have printed the form out and mailed the whole package in). At press time, Jane is still waiting for her reimbursement, being told it will take from 4 to 6 weeks to receive a check.

It’s better late than never, says Jane, when she heard that Medicare would now cover free over-the-counter COVID-19 tests. “Not everyone can put out $46 and wait two months to get it back, home health tests were made available in a variety of ways – but, for Medicare recipients, there was a different process. More concerning was all the steps I had to take to complete the process they had originally intended for us to do. How many people would really complete all those steps?” she says. “We talk a lot about equity, but seniors need equitable healthcare processes, too.”

Just days ago, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that beneficiaries in either Original Medicare or Medicare Advantage will be able to get over-the-counter COVID-19 tests at no cost starting in early spring, estimated to be in April. Under the new CMS initiative, Medicare beneficiaries will be able to access up to eight over-the-counter COVID-19 tests per month for free. Tests will be available through eligible pharmacies and other participating entities. This policy will apply to COVID-19 over-the-counter tests approved or authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A prescription will not be required.

CMS Unveils New Medicare Benefit

According to CMS, this new initiative will enable payment from Medicare directly to participating pharmacies and other participating entities to allow Medicare beneficiaries to pick up tests at no cost. This is the first time that Medicare has covered an over-the-counter test at no cost to beneficiaries.

CMS’s announcement follows last month’s announcement that the Biden-Harris Administration would be requiring commercial health insurance companies to cover at-home COVID tests for free.

Until the new benefit kicks in, Medicare beneficiaries can access free tests through a number of channels established by CMS, too. Now, they can request four free over-the-counter tests for home delivery at covidtests.gov. Or beneficiaries can access COVID-19 tests through health care providers at over 20,000 free testing sites nationwide. Many cities and towns are also giving out free test kits at drive-up handout programs as the state receives supplies.

CMS’s Feb. 3 statement noted that Medicare beneficiaries can also access lab-based PCR tests and antigen tests performed by a laboratory when the test is ordered by a physician, non-physician practitioner, pharmacist, or other authorized health care professional at no cost. In addition to accessing a COVID-19 lab test ordered by a health care professional, people with Medicare can also already access one lab-performed test without an order, also without cost sharing, during the public health emergency, says CMS.

In addition, CMS says that Medicare Advantage plans may offer coverage and payment for over-the-counter COVID-19 tests as a supplemental benefit in addition to covering Medicare Part A and Part B benefits. Medicare beneficiaries covered by Medicare Advantage should check with their plan to see if it includes such a benefit.

Finally, all Medicare beneficiaries with Part B are eligible for the new benefit, whether enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan or not.

“AARP applauds today’s announcement that will guarantee access to at-home over-the-counter COVID-19 tests at no cost for Medicare’s 64 million beneficiaries and we thank [Health and Human Resources]Secretary Becerra and CMS Administrator Brooks-LaSure for their diligence in addressing this issue. Expanded access to no-cost testing will help protect seniors who have been hit hardest by the pandemic and ensure they can remain connected with their loved ones and community.,” says AARP Executive vice president and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond in a statement issued with CMS’s Feb. 3rd announcement of the new Medicare benefit.

“Every American should have an easy way to get at-home COVID tests. We know that people 65 and older are at much greater risk of serious illness and death from this disease – they need equal access to tools that can help keep them safe. The cost of paying for tests and the time needed to find free testing options are barriers that could discourage Medicare beneficiaries from getting tested, leading to greater social isolation and continued spread of the virus, adds LeaMond.

Successfully Advocating the Seniors

Last month, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) along with 17 of their  Senate colleagues including Rhode Island Democratic Senators Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse wrote to HHS Secretary Becerra and  CMS Administrator Brooks-LaSure urging them to expand Medicare coverage of free at-home rapid COVID-19 testing.

Aging groups also joined the Senators in pushing Medicare to offer the new testing kick benefit.  “It is clear that regular testing is a crucial part of managing the spread of COVID-19. That’s why AARP has been calling for coverage of at-home tests, says AARP’s LeaMond, noting that the nation’s largest aging advocacy group “will continue to watch for details about when and how at-home COVID tests are made available to those in Medicare.”

Thankfully CMS quickly heeded their calls.

For more information, please see these Frequently Asked Questions, https://www.cms.gov/files/document/covid-19-over-counter-otc-tests-medicare-frequently-asked-questions.pdf (PDF)

Stay tuned for free N95 masks to be made available to all coming up soon.

It’s time. Staff vaccinations required for nursing homes as 10 RI facilities see new COVID cases

Published in Rhode Island News Today on August 24, 2021

With the COVID-19 Delta variant spiking across the country especially among the unvaccinated, last Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced at an afternoon address at the White House that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will require nursing homes to require all workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding.

According to federal data, of the 1.6 million nursing home workers across the  nation, about 540,000 — 40 percent of the work force — are unvaccinated.  

Since the spread of the Delta variant, there has been a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, especially in those states that have low rates of vaccinated workers. Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) data confirm a strong relationship between the increase of COVID-19 cases among nursing home residents and the rate of vaccination among nursing home workers.

These new emergency federal regulations, crafted  by CDC and CMS, would apply to nearly 15,000 nursing home facilities, which employ approximately 1.6 million workers and serve approximately 1.3 million nursing home residents.

Rhode Island Gov. Dan J. McKee, along with other states, has already taken a similar step to protect nursing home residents by requiring all staff to be vaccinated and the new federal mandate will ensure consistent and equitable standards throughout the country. 

At a COVID-19 update held at the state the state capitol in early August, McKee called for the new vaccine mandate (as a term of employment) to take effect on Oct. 1st.

On August 23rd, Pfizer’s vaccine was fully approved by the FDA. Approvals of Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and booster shots are expected to follow soon.

According to CMS, the new mandate is a key component of protecting the health and safety of nursing home residents and staff by ensuring that all nursing home staff receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Over the past several months, millions of vaccinations have been administered to nursing home residents and staff, and these vaccines have shown to help prevent COVID-19 and have proven to be effective against the Delta variant.

“Keeping nursing home residents and staff safe is our priority. The data are clear that higher levels of staff vaccination are linked to fewer outbreaks among residents, many of whom are at an increased risk of infection, hospitalization, or death,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure in a statement announcing the new vaccine mandate.  “We will continue to work closely with our partners at the CDC, long-term care associations, unions, and other stakeholders to advance policies that keep residents and staff safe. As we advance these new requirements, we’ll work with nursing homes to address staff and resident concerns with compassion and by following the science,” she said.

CMS says that it’s requiring all nursing home staff to be vaccinated is in keeping with the federal agency’s authority to establish requirements to ensure the health and safety of individuals receiving care from all providers and suppliers participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. About 62% of nursing home staff are currently vaccinated as of August 8 nationally, and vaccination among staff at the state level ranges from a high of 88% to a low of 44%. The emergence of the Delta variant in the United States has driven a rise in cases among nursing home residents from a low of 319 cases on June 27, to 2,696 cases on August 8, with many of the recent outbreaks occurring in facilities located in areas of the United States with the lowest staff vaccination rates.

Last May, CMS issued new regulations that require Long-Term Care (LTC) facilities and Intermediate Care Facilities for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities (ICFs/IID) to educate residents, clients, and staff about COVID-19 vaccination and, when available, offer a COVID-19 vaccine to these individuals. These regulations also mandate that LTC facilities report weekly COVID-19 vaccination data for residents and staff to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN).

CMS will continue to analyze vaccination data for residents and staff from the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) data as an additional method of compliance monitoring and in keeping with current practice, as well as deploy the Quality Improvement Organizations (QIOs)—operated under the Medicare Quality Improvement Program—to educate and engage nursing homes with low rates of vaccinations.

CMS strongly encourages nursing home residents and staff members to get vaccinated as the Agency undergoes the necessary steps in the rule-making process over the course of the next several weeks. CMS expects nursing home operators to act in the best interest of residents and their staff by complying with these new rules, which the Agency expects to issue next month.  CMS also expects nursing home operators to use all available resources to support employees in getting vaccinated, including employee education and vaccination clinics, as they work to meet this staff vaccination requirement.

Rhode Island Long Term Care Facilities with new cases in the last 14 days (as of 8/14/2020):

These RI nursing homes are on the RI Dept. of Health list with increased cases –

Alpine – Coventry – 5-9 cases

Avalone – Warwick – less than 5

St. Antoine – North Smithfield – less than 5

Woonsocket Health – Woonsocket – less than 5

All America Assisted Living – Warwick – less than 5

Anchor Bay – Johnston – less than 5

Smithfield Woods – Smithfield – less than 5

Sunrise House – Providence – less than 5

Bridge at Cherry Hill – Johnston – 5-9

Tockwotton – Providence – less than 5

AARP Strongly Supports Biden’s Vaccine Mandate in Nursing Homes 

In response to the Biden Administration directing all nursing homes that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds to require vaccinations for all staff, Nancy A. LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, stated:  

“The Administration’s announcement today requiring vaccinations for nursing home staff is a significant step in the fight against this pandemic. Around 30% of COVID deaths have been among residents and staff in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, even though they represent less than 1% of the population. As the new variants are emerging, facilities cannot let preventable problems be repeated. Increasing vaccination rates in nursing homes is one of the most common sense and powerful actions we can take to protect the lives of vulnerable older adults.”

The AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the dashboard to provide snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff, with the goal of identifying specific areas of concern at the national and state levels in a timely manner.

Don’t Just Single Out Nursing Homes 

“We appreciate the Administration’s efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccinations in long term care. Unfortunately, this action does not go far enough. The government should not single out one provider group for mandatory vaccinations. Vaccination mandates for health care personnel should be applied to all health care settings. Without this, nursing homes face a disastrous workforce challenge,” warns Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) 

“Focusing only on nursing homes will cause vaccine hesitant workers to flee to other health care providers and leave many centers without adequate staff to care for residents. It will make an already difficult workforce shortage even worse. The net effect of this action will be the opposite of its intent and will affect the ability to provide quality care to our residents. We look forward to working with the Administration in the coming days to develop solutions to overcome this challenge,” says Parkinson.

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available at www.aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard. For more information on how COVID is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes.