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

Controversial move by CMS limits coverage for new Alzheimer’s drug, Aduhelm 

Published in RINewsToday on April 25, 2022

Earlier this month, amid the pleas of the Alzheimer’s Association, the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare, and other aging advocacy groups, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) made its final decision to limit their Medicare coverage of the controversial Alzheimer’s drug, ADUHELM® , for only those Medicare recipients participating in clinical studies overseen by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or in other approved clinical trials.

When releasing its decision on April 7, CMS noted from the onset, the federal agency “ran a transparent, evidence-based process that incorporated more than 10,000 stakeholder comments and more than 250 peer-reviewed documents into the determination” to make its decision.

Calls for More Rigorous Studies

According to CMS, over 6 million older Americans are believed to have Alzheimer’s, and this prevalence is expected to rise to 14 million by 2060, barring effective interventions. CMS stated that effective treatments are needed, and because of the early, but promising, evidence and the immense burden of this devastating disease on the Medicare population, the agency is finalizing Medicare coverage, calling for rigorous studies approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and NIH to help answer whether this class of drugs improves health outcomes for patients.

“Science, evidence, and stakeholder input led our team of career civil servants and clinicians through this national coverage determination process. There is potential for promise with this treatment; however, there is not currently enough evidence of demonstrating improving health outcomes to say that it is reasonable and necessary for people with Medicare, which is key consideration for CMS when making national coverage determination, said Dr. Lee Fleisher, CMS Chief Medical Officer and Director of the Center for Clinical Standards and Quality, in a statement announcing CMS’s regulatory payment decision.

“In arriving at this final decision, we looked at the unique circumstances around this class of treatments and made a decision that weighed the potential for patient benefit against the significance of serious unknown factors that could lead to harm,” added Fleisher. “If a drug in this class shows evidence of clinical benefit through the traditional FDA approval process, then CMS will provide broad access and ensure the results from the rigorous trials are generalizable for people with Medicare participating in a CMS-approved study, such as a registry,” she said, noting that this decision was made to provide CMS flexibility to respond quickly to providing coverage for any new drugs in this class showing a clinical benefit. 

Biogen, a biotechnology company that manufacturers ADUHELM®m , was quick to give its opinion about CMS’s final decision about coverage of this drug. The Cambridge, Massachusetts based company charged that “this unprecedented decision effectively denies all Medicare beneficiaries access to ADUHELM®m , the first and only FDA approved therapy in a new class of Alzheimer’s drugs. It may also limit coverage for any future approved treatment in the class. These coverage restrictions, including the distinction between accelerated approval and traditional approval, have never been applied to FDA-approved medicines for other disease areas.”

When additional data from this new class of treatments become available, Biogen urged CMS to reconsider its final decision for all FDA-approved amyloid-beta targeting therapies. The company says that it is carefully considering its options and will provide updates as the company further evaluates the business impact of this decision.

Creating Unnecessary Barriers to Care 

Calling the CMS decision wrong, the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association expressed deep disappointment, charging that it has essentially ignored the needs of people living with Alzheimer’s disease. “CMS has created unnecessary barriers for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Patients with Alzheimer’s, a fatal disease, should have FDA approved treatments covered by Medicare just as those facing other diseases do,” said Harry Johns, Alzheimer’s Association chief executive officer. 

Notably, CMS has said in its decision the only way for patients to access the first approved FDA treatment targeting amyloid in those living with Alzheimer’s is to enroll in a clinical trial. While we note CMS has expanded where those clinical trials may take place, in reality this remains an unnecessary and never before imposed barrier to access an FDA-approved treatment, says Johns.

“People living with MCI, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia deserve the same access to therapies given to those living with other conditions like cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS. They deserve the opportunity to assess if an FDA-approved treatment is right for them,” said Joanne Pike, Dr.P.H., Alzheimer’s Association president. “Drugs that treat people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s could mean more time for individuals to actively participate in daily life, have sustained independence and hold on to memories longer,” she said.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, CMS has incorporated one of its recommendations into the final rule. “Importantly, CMS has decided to utilize a registry for future treatments granted full FDA approval. The Alzheimer’s Association registry will play an important role in collecting and analyzing real-world data. This registry will monitor and report clinical and safety endpoints for patients treated with FDA-approved AD therapies, including accompanying diagnostics, to track the long-term outcomes associated with these therapies in real-world settings. Similar successful registries in heart disease and cancer have enabled researchers, clinicians, health systems and payers to track the long-term performance of therapies using a large, real-world evidence dataset,” the advocacy group says. 

The Alzheimer’s Association also expressed strong concern about the immediate impact CMS’s decision will have on Alzheimer’s and dementia research and innovation. “The agency’s decision to essentially reject the Accelerated Approval Pathway for monoclonal antibodies targeting amyloid for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is broad overreach. Accelerated approval is a pathway created by Congress and utilized by FDA to allow for earlier approval of drugs that treat serious conditions, and that fill an unmet medical need. Alzheimer’s is a deadly disease with no survivors,” stated the advocacy group.

“The decision by CMS is a step backward for families facing Alzheimer’s disease,” said Maria C. Carrillo, Ph.D., Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer. “Years of increased research funding has led to more progress and innovation than ever before, but today’s decision may halt this progress as developers question if there is a pathway forward to coverage,” she said.

Calls for Reducing Cost of Medicare Part B Premiums

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, calls on CMS to “swiftly reduce the hefty 2022 Medicare Part B premium increase ($21.60 per month), now that the agency has made its final decision to limit coverage of the controversial Alzheimer’s drug, ADUHELM®m, to patients in clinical trials.” 

“The spike in Medicare Part B premiums was partly based on the drug’s exorbitant cost (originally priced at $56,000 per year) and the potential expense of wider coverage,” says Richtman, noting that the agency is still “reviewing” Part B premiums, under previous direction from HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Medicare beneficiaries struggling to pay their bills need relief from this year’s premium increase as soon as possible, warns Richtman. .

“The Aduhelm controversy highlights the urgent need for Medicare to be able to negotiate drug prices with Big Pharma. If the price of Aduhelm had been negotiated, it is unlikely that it would have impacted Medicare premiums so dramatically in the first place,”  adds Richtman, 

For a fact sheet on Medicare coverage policy for monoclonal antibodies directed against amyloid for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, visit https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/medicare-coverage-policy-monoclonal-antibodies-directed-against-amyloid-treatment-alzheimers-disease.

To read the final NCD CED decision memorandum, visit https://www.cms.gov/medicare-coverage-database/view/ncacal-decision-memo.aspx?proposed=N&ncaid=305.

World issues pushed nursing home reform to the side in State of the Union. But it’s there

Published on March 7, 2022 in Rhode Island News Today

More than a week ago, President Joe Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind him in the House Chamber in the United States Capitol, delivered his first State of the Union Address. Harris and Pelosi made history marking the first time two women have been on the dais during a presidential address before the joint session and the American people

According to C-SPAN, Biden’s speech was the fourth-longest of the seven most recent presidents’ speeches, beating out Presidents George H.W. Bush, George H. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Amid frequent applause breaks, chanting from both sides of the aisle and heckling, Biden’s prepared remarks delivered Tuesday, March 1, 2022, totaled around 7,762 words, lasting over one hour and two minutes.

Biden spoke mostly on-script with his prepared remarks on a wide range of topics before lawmakers, Supreme Court Justices, guests, many waving small blue and yellow Ukraine flags or wearing the country’s colors to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine. While the first half touched on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the need for a global coalition to respond, the second half addressed inflationCOVID-19 and the “new normal,” increasing domestic manufacturing, health care, prescription drugs, energy and taxes, voting rights legislation, and the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court

Biden concluded his speech by proposing a “Unity agenda” calling for a fight against the opioid epidemic, pushing Congress to pass a mental health package, supporting Veterans returning from the battlegrounds of Iraq and Afghanistan and finding a cure for cancer.

The State of the Union and nursing homes

While Biden’s speech briefly touched on the quality of care in the nation’s nursing homes, his Administration is clearly making this a major domestic issue.  During the address, Biden expressed strong concerns about Wall Street firms that were taking over many nations’ nursing homes. “Quality in those homes has gone down and costs have gone up. That ends on my watch,” he told the packed chamber. “Medicare is going to set higher standards for nursing homes and make sure your loved ones get the care they deserve and expect and [they’ll be] looked at closely,” he said.

A day before the State of the Union address, the White house released a detailed document, entitled, “Fact Sheet: Protecting Seniors and People with Disabilities by Improving Safety and Quality of Care in the Nation’s Nursing Homes,” outlining dozens of proposed changes on how U.S. nursing homes are regulated and operate, including a vow to adopt federal minimum staffing requirements for facilities, step up enforcement of regulations and to eliminate overcrowded patient rooms.

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that continues to wreak havoc on the nation’s nursing homes, where 200,000 residents and workers have died from COVID-19, nearly a quarter of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States, the Biden Administration says that staffing shortages are getting worse, reducing the quality of care provided to residents

Poorly performing facilities will be held accountable for improper and unsafe care and must immediately improve their services or will be cut off from tax payor dollars. Biden calls for better information to be provided to the public to assist them in better understanding the conditions they will find in each facility and to assist them in choosing the best care options available.  

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) will begin to explore ways to reduce resident room crowding in nursing homes by phasing out rooms with three or more residents and promoting private, single occupancy rooms. Multi-occupancy rooms increase the risk of the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19.  The agency will also establish a minimum nursing home staffing requirement, the adequacy of staffing is closely linked to quality of care provided.

Meanwhile, CMS also plans to strengthen the Medicare Skilled Nursing Facility Value-Based Purchasing Program and base payment on staffing adequacy (including over weekends) and retention and the resident experience.  Although the nation has seen a dramatic decrease in the use of antipsychotic drugs in nursing homes in recent years, CMS will continue its efforts to identify problematic diagnoses and bring down “inappropriate use” of such drugs.

Enhancing accountability and oversight

The Biden Administration calls for the enhancing and accountability and oversight of the nation’s nursing homes by adequately funding inspection activities, beefing up scrutiny on more of the poorest facility performers, expanding financial penalties and other enforcement sanctions, and increasing the accountability for chain owners whose facilities provide substandard care. CMS will work with nursing homes to improve care by providing technical assistance.

To enhance transparency, CMS will create a new database that will track and identify owners and operators across states to highlight previous problems with promoting resident health and safety.  The agency will also collect and publicly report data on corporate nursing home ownership and will enhance the Nursing Home Care website. Finally, CMS will examine the role that private equity investors play in the nursing home sector.

Biden’s nursing home reforms will ensure that every nursing home has a sufficient number of adequately trained staff to provide care to the 1.4 million residents residing in over 15,500 Medicare and Medicaid facilities across the nation.  Nursing home staff turnover can be reduced by creating pathways to good-paying jobs along with ensuring staff to join a union.  CMS calls for lowering financial barriers to Nurse Assistant Training, adequate compensation and access to a realistic career ladder. The agency launches a National Nursing Career Pathways Campaign with partners including the Department of Labor.

Finally, Biden puts together his strategy to ensure emergency preparedness in nursing homes during the ongoing pandemic.  He calls for continued COVID-19 testing in nursing homes and continued COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters to be provided to residents and staff. CMS will strengthen requirements for on-site infection prevention, and make changes to its emergency preparedness requirements,   Finally, the agency will take what it has learned during the pandemic and integrate new lessons on standards of care into nursing home requirements around fire safety, infection control, and other areas, using an equity lens.

Point/Counter Point

In a released statement after Biden’s State of the Union address, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins stated: We were also encouraged to hear the President describe new actions to ensure that residents in nursing homes will receive the safe, high-quality care they deserve. For yearsAARP and AARP Foundation have sounded the alarm about problems in America’s nursing homes. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the chronic, ongoing issues with our long-term care system and emphasized the need for reform. It is a national disgrace that more than 200,000 residents and staff in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities died. AARP urges the federal government to act swiftly to ensure minimum staffing standards, increase transparency, and hold nursing homes accountable when they do not provide quality care.”

On the other hand, the nursing home industry had its views as to Biden’s call for nursing home reforms.  “The nursing home profession has always been committed to improving the quality of care our residents receive, and we appreciate the Biden Administration joining us in this ongoing effort. Over the last decade and prior to the pandemic, the sector made dramatic improvements. Fewer people were returning to the hospital, staff were providing more one-on-one care than ever before, and the unnecessary use of antipsychotic medications significantly declined,” said Mark Parkinson president and CEO of AHCA, in a released statement.

“Those who continue to criticize the nursing home sector are the same people who refuse to prioritize our residents and staff for resources that will help save and improve lives,” noted Parkinson, whose Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization represents more than 14,000 nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the nation. “Additional oversight without corresponding assistance will not improve resident care. To make real improvements, we need policymakers to prioritize investing in this chronically underfunded health care sector and support providers’ improvement on the metrics that matter for residents,” he said.

It’s time to stop blaming nursing homes for a once-in-a-century pandemic that uniquely targeted our residents and vilifying the heroic caregivers who did everything they could to protect the residents they have come to know as family,” said Parkinson. ““Long term care was already dealing with a workforce shortage prior to COVID, and the pandemic exacerbated the crisis. We would love to hire more nurses and nurse aides to support the increasing needs of our residents. However, we cannot meet additional staffing requirements when we can’t find people to fill the open positions nor when we don’t have the resources to compete against other employers,” he said.  

To read the White House Fact Sheet to improving the quality of care in the nation’s nursing homes, go to:

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/02/28/fact-sheet-protecting-seniors-and-people-with-disabilities-by-improving-safety-and-quality-of-care-in-the-nations-nursing-homes/

On Monday, March 7th at 9am, AARP Rhode Island and US Senators Reed and Whitehouse will speak on the need for lower prescription drug prices in a virtual press conference.

AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor, Volunteer State President Marcus Mitchell and Volunteer Lead Federal Liaison Dr. Phil Zarlengo will join Rhode Island US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse for a virtual news conference highlighting the need for Congress to lower prescription drug prices. AARP Rhode Island will present the Senators with a petition signed by more than16,000 Rhode Islanders calling for Congress to act now and stop unfair drug prices.

You can listen in via ZOOM at:  

https://aarp-org.zoom.us/j/98668832992?pwd=bktuTjJBMUZhUDRaVDkvN2dCSXZqUT09

Passcode: 618357

Participants will respond to on-topic media questions posted in chat.

More information about AARP’s Fair Drug Prices campaign can be found at aarp.org/rx.