Midterm Elections Can Impact Social Security’s Long-Term Survival

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 19, 2018

After just weeks celebrating the 53rd Anniversary of Medicare to score political points, Democrats, aging groups and Social Security Advocates put 83 candles on a cake to celebrate President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935. The new Act created a social insurance program designed to pay retired workers age 65 or older a continuing income after retirement.

With the midterm elections looming, less than three months away, the Democrats are gearing up their efforts to recapture the House and Senate. Polls tell us that Social Security is being positioned as a key issue to energize voters, especially in competitive races, to control both legislative chambers.

According to the Washington, DC-based AARP, recent polling suggests Social Security and Medicare will be key issues for 50-plus voters. Recent
AARP/Politico polls found a significant majority of age 50 and over Arizona voters report Social Security (78 percent), health care (76 percent) and Medicare (75 percent) are “very important” issues to them as they head to the polls in November. Also, significant majorities of older Florida voters age 50 and older say Social Security (82 percent) and health care (78 percent) will be very important to their vote for Congress this fall. In this swing state, nearly three-quarters of Florida voters cite the future of Medicare as an important election issue.

Social Security Checks Prime States and National Economic Engine

AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) and Social Security advocates say it’s a great time to remind political candidates for House and Senate races of the popularity of Social Security and Medicare and both programs impact on the nation’s fiscal health. The Washington, DC-based NCPSSM calls Social Security and Medicare an economic generator, annually paying out more than $ 800 billion in benefits to over 57 million beneficiaries who put this money back into their local, state and federal coffers.
In the Ocean State, there are 222,851 Social Security beneficiaries, including 152,898 Retired Workers, 37,133 Disabled Workers, 11,680 Widow(er)s, 5,810 Spouses and 15,330 Children Social Security benefits that pump $3 Billion each year to state’s economy, says NCPSSM, its figures taken from the nonprofits state-by-state analysis of how much revenue Social Security contributes to the economy of every Congressional District in each state.

“Social Security has a very big footprint in Congressional districts across the country, which is a tremendous benefit not only for beneficiaries, but for entire communities,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s president, and CEO. “Yet, in the face of clear evidence of Social Security’s effectiveness, conservatives want to cut and privatize the program. Candidates in this year’s mid-term elections must ask themselves whether their communities can afford to lose billions of dollars in economic stimulus – not to mention the baseline financial security that these earned benefits provide retirees and their families. The answer for anyone who seeks to represent the people should be a resounding ‘No,’” he says.

Yet, throughout the years, GOP lawmakers sought to ensure the solvency for the Social Security program by cutting benefits, raising the retirement age and
to privatize the program. Democrats call for the raising or eliminating the payroll cap on taxable wages, now $ 118,500 a year, to bring more revenues into Social Security from the nation’s wealthy. They say Social Security must be considered an earned benefit rather than an entitlement because working Americans pay into the system each paycheck, and receive benefits when they retire or become disabled.

Key Congressional Races to Watch

And there are a lot of Congressional races to watch during the upcoming mid-term elections. According to fivethirtyeight.com, a website that focuses on
opinion poll analysis and politics, “… 39 Republicans and 18 Democrats are not running for re-election. That includes 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats who are leaving to seek another office, such as governor. Excluding them, 26 Republicans and eight Democrats are walking away from their political careers at the end of the 115th Congress. That’s the most “pure” retirements by Republicans — and the fewest by Democrats — since the 2008 election.”

NCPSSM is closely monitoring both House and Senate races, calling for voters to support candidates who commit to strengthening and expanding Social Security. “These Social Security champions can be found across the country, in both red and blue states,” says the Social Security advocacy group.
Here are just a few campaigns to watch.

NCPSSM says one of these Social Security campaigns is Kathleen Williams, a water conservation expert, who is running for the House seat in Montana currently occupied by Republican Greg Gianforte. The Republican Congressman, elected in 2017, voted for the sweeping GOP tax plan, the Tax Cuts, and Jobs Act, increasing the national debt by $ 1.9 trillion between 2018 and 2028, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The skyrocketing deficit puts Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the GOP radar screen for cuts to the nation’s debt and deficits. Gianforte’s opponent pledges to “make sure that our seniors can retire with dignity by protecting Medicare and Social Security no matter what.”

Another, in Arizona, three-term Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, formerly serving in both chambers of the State Legislature, is running for retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake’s seat, a race that could determine which political party takes control of the Senate. “Sinema says, “We can’t allow… Washington to threaten the Medicare and Social Security benefits Arizonans have earned through a lifetime of hard work.” Her likely opponent, Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally, like Congressman Gianforte, voted for the GOP tax plan and Sinema has accused her of wanting to privatize Social Security while her Congressional voting record does not reflect this charge.

Finally, in Illinois’ 12th Congressional district, where challenger Brendan Kell, serving as the state’s attorney for St. Clair County and earned a commission as an officer in the U.S. Navy opposes incumbent Mike Bost. The Republican voted for the GOP’s failed Balanced Budget Amendment – Democrats and NCPSSM considering this a backdoor strategy to slash Social Security. The Democratic challenger Kelly that “instead of cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as those in Congress currently want to do… we have to fight against that and expand the access and coverage overall.”

You Can Make a Difference

With the outcome of the midterm elections, especially in battleground state, AARP’s voter engagement multifaceted campaign “Be The Difference. Vote” is mobilizing older voters to get them to vote in primaries and in the November general election. The “get out the vote” initiative will put issues of particular importance to aging baby boomers and seniors front and center— issues like Medicare, Social Security, financial security, prescription drug costs, and family caregiving.

AARP is tracking key races, sponsoring debates, and hosting candidate forums and tele-townhall events. Election information is provided through a full-scale digital effort, including aarp.org/vote, the AARP Now app, social media outreach, graphics, and news alerts. AARP is also using direct mail, phone banks and transportation assistance to help people get to the polls.

Social Security celebrates its 83 Anniversary this month. Older voters can send a message to Capitol Hill by casting votes for candidates to strengthen and expand the program instead of voting for those who call to privatize Social to replace the federal government-administered system.

A Final Note…

Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) will release a new report from the U.S. House Democrats’ Seniors Task Force during an event at Rumford Towers in East Providence this Monday. The report outlines the history of Washington Republican efforts to attack Social Security and Medicare.

Cicilline, who serves in the House Democratic Leadership, also plans to outline the policies that Democrats will advance if they take control of the House this November. Democrats have outlined a series of proposals to lower the costs of prescription drugs and health care premiums.

“Republicans are on the side of powerful special interests. Democrats are for the people,” Cicilline told me. “When Democrats take the majority, we’re going to pass legislation giving Medicare the ability to negotiate the cost of prescription drugs. We’re going to make Social Security and Medicare a priority by requiring the wealthy to pay into the system as much as everyone else and improving cost-of-living adjustments.”

Calls for Strengthening Medicare as it Hits 53

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 5, 2018

Just before Summer recess House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) joined Seniors Task Force co-chairs Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Doris Matsui (D-CA), Democratic Policy and Communications Committee co-chair Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) and seniors’ advocates gathered in the historic Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol, one of the largest rooms on Capitol Hill, to celebrate the 53rd anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid being signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

“We usually celebrate Medicare’s anniversary at the U.S. Capitol with balloons and cake. This year, the 53rd anniversary, was a more solemn occasion because of relentless attacks on the program by the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans, says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, one of the advocacy groups in attendance.

When signing the landmark legislation into law on July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B Johnson said, “No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime. No longer will young families see their own incomes and hopes eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents.”

At the July 25 birthday commemoration, Leader Pelosi called Medicare and Medicaid “the pillars of health and security for the nation,” noting that for years these two programs have been under unrelenting and constant attacks from Republicans.

“For years, Republicans have sought to deny seniors and working families the healing miracle of medicine. Republicans want Medicare, in their words, to ‘wither on the vine.’ They want to cut and cap Medicaid into oblivion. They want to give massive tax handouts to big pharma who are denying seniors lower prescription drug prices,” says Pelosi.

According to Pelosi, the Democrats plan, A Better Deal, provides a legislative strategy for lowering the price of prescription drugs. “Our plan calls for tough new enforcement of drug price gauging, allowing Medicare part D to negotiate drug prices,” she said, noting that President Donald Trump had promised that during his presidential campaign, “We’re going to negotiate like crazy.”

Echoing Pelosi, at the press conference Rhode Island Congressman Cicilline also called for the reining in of prescription drug costs to put the brakes on rising Medicare expenditures. “Democrats believe that seniors shouldn’t have to cut pills in half to afford prescription drugs. We need a president who will work with us to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, to compel drug makers to justify cost increases, and to crack down on price gougers,” said Cicilline.

Cicilline reminded those attending that the President once promised to take on the drug companies but now has decided to appoint a former drug company executive as his Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Service. “And right now, he’s pretty much letting the pharmaceutical lobby have the run of the place,” he charged.

At the press conference, the Democratic lawmakers were joined by ten yellow t-shirted senior volunteers from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare’s Capitol Action Team (CAT), who demanded that the program be strengthened. One of the CAT members, Patricia Cotton, gave a powerful personal testimonial about the importance of Medicare in her life. Cotton, a Medicare beneficiary who suffers from a blood cancer known as Myelofibrosis, said she wouldn’t be alive today without the health care program.

“My cancer meds started at $10,000 every 30 days and have gone up twice in two years. Cancer meds are very expensive. My Medicare Part B and D premiums have gone up, and that is coming out of my Social Security check. That is why, without Medicare and Social Security, the rich will live and the poor will die,” said Cotton.
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Democratic Report Spotlights GOP’s Ongoing Attacks on Medicare

At this event, the House Democratic Seniors Task Force unveiled a new 24 page report, “The Republican Record on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security: Attacks on Benefits Seniors Have Earned and Deserve,” detailing years of Republican’s attacks on seniors and demanded the GOP take action on lowering pharmaceutical prices.

“This report shows how the passage of the GOP tax bill was just one step in a long line of Republican attacks on seniors,” says Congressman Matsui (D-CA). “In budget after budget, year after year, Republicans have reaffirmed their commitment to gutting Medicaid, scaling back Medicare, and cutting seniors’ earned Social Security benefits. Democrats are focusing on efforts that help seniors and families, like lowering drugs prices, and fighting to ensure that these vital programs are here for current and future generations.”

“The House GOP budget proposal includes more than $500 billion in Medicare cuts, a higher eligibility age, and privatization of the program through a voucher system,” the National Committee’s Max Richtman explains. “The President’s 2019 budget would inflict similar harm on Medicare. The Trump administration is undermining the program through skillfully worded enrollment information that favors private Medicare Advantage plans over traditional Medicare. These actions are contrary to the mission of Medicare so eloquently stated by President Lyndon Johnson is when he signed it into law 53 years ago,” says Richtman.

AARP Calls Medicare an Economic Engine for Rhode Island

Last year, Medicare, which helps pay the health care costs of 56 million beneficiaries, is a critical part of the country’s economic infrastructure, investing about $ 710 billion in the national economy that year, says AARP.

On July 25th, the same day that House Democratic Leadership and aging groups celebrated the 53rd anniversary of the signing of Medicare, AARP released fact sheets illustrating Medicare’s contribution to the economies of each state and the District of Columbia.

Let’s take a close look at the Ocean State.

Medicare contributes $2.5 billion to Rhode Island’s economy, equivalent to 21% of state and local government spending in the state, according to the released AARP Rhode Island fact sheet, noting that the program also covers 192,186 beneficiaries in the state. In polls, older Americans have said Medicare is one of their top issues in the 2018 mid-term elections, and AARP Rhode Island is working to encourage older Rhode Island voters to participation this election season.

“Medicare is a major economic engine in our economy security, as well as a key part of, providing health security to Rhode Islanders,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell in a statement. “Older Americans have said Medicare is one of their top issues in this election, yet too many politicians fail to recognize the contributions Medicare makes to the economy and our residents. Any candidate who fails to talk about how they would strengthen Medicare for future generations does so at their peril,” says Connell.

Below the AARP fact sheet breaks down some of Medicare’s spending in Rhode Island:
• $1.1 billion for hospitals
• $551 million for doctors
• $338 million for prescriptions and medical supplies
• $198 million for skilled nursing facilities
• $159 million for home healthcare agencies
• $92 million health professionals
• $24 million for medical equipment

Also, businesses in Rhode Island receiving Medicare dollars use them to pay employees’ salaries, rent, state and local taxes, and buy equipment, and make capital improvements to their facilities, says the AARP fact sheet.

With the mid-term elections looming, it is now time to send a clear message to Congress and President Donald Trump, “Stop Attacking Medicare.” Lawmakers on both side of the aisle must work to craft a bipartisan solution to strengthen the program for the benefit of America’s retirees. Consider sending this message when you vote…

AARP’s “Be The Difference. Vote” campaign includes a one-stop online portal – aarp.org/vote – to provide people with information (about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and aging issues} they need to. know about before voting in the upcoming November elections.

To see the House Democratic Senior Task Force report, “The Republican Record on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security: Attacks on Benefits Seniors Have Earned and Deserve,” go to
http://www.schakowsky.house.gov/uploads/Seniors%20Task%20Force%20Report%207.24.18.pdf

Obama’s Budget DOA, Thanks to GOP Gridlock

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 14, 2016

With a GOP-controlled Congress President Obama’s final budget arrives “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill.  The 182-page 2017 Fiscal Year budget, submitted on February 9, detailing $4.1 trillion in federal spending, which starts October 1, seems to be not worth the paper it’s written on.

Obama, a “lame duck” president in his last term, will not get his day in court.  Since the 1970s, a long-standing political tradition has brought the Office of Management and Budget Director and other senior administration officials, to present the president’s entire budget to Congress.  However, the Chairs of the House and Senate budget committees snubbed the Democratic President by issuing a joint statement saying, there will be no hearings before their panels this year. Sadly, political gridlock, fostered GOP Senate and House leadership, still seems to be alive and well on Capitol Hill.

Crafting the budget proposal now is in the hands of a very conservative Congress. But there a positives in Obama’s budget proposal, provisions that hopefully be placed in an enacted budget.

Obama’s budget proposal makes critical investments to fund domestic and national security priorities while adhering to the bipartisan budget agreement signed into law last fall.  It lifts sequestration in future years.  The budget proposal also attempts to drive down the federal deficit through smart savings from health care, immigration, and tax the wealthy and banks.

The Budget also seeks to tackle a multitude of domestic issues including confronting climate change, finding new clinical treatments for attacking cancer, advancing biomedical research, fighting infectious diseases, protecting the nation’s water supply and fostering clean energy initiatives, ratcheting up military readiness, revitalizing the American manufacturing sector, and funding job training and education initiatives.

Obama’s Final Budget and Seniors

But Obama’s 2017 Fiscal Year Budget has a number of budget provisions that directly impact older Americans, too.

According to  President and CEO Max Richtman, of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, like last year’s Obama recently released budget proposal proposes no changes in the way Social Security benefits are determined which is “good news for seniors.”

Richtman says that his aging organization worked tirelessly to make sure the FY 2017 budget did not include any Social Security proposals that would negatively impact benefits for current or future beneficiaries.  He notes, “The new budget proposes a substantial increase in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) budget — $13.067 billion for SSA’s FY 2017 appropriation for administrative funding.  This is a $905 million, or 7.44 percent, increase over the FY 2016 enacted level.”

Finally, Obama’s newly released budget helps SSA to improve customer service for those applying for SSA and/or disability benefits by hiring additional front-line employees for its teleservice centers and local offices as well as additional staff to reduce the backlog of disability applications that have accumulated in SSA’s hearing offices, he says.

NCPSSM also applauded the President’s budget proposal for allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

Richtman observed it has taken Congress a long time to acknowledge that the high cost of prescription drugs has hit older American’s hard in their wallets.  “Medicare spends billions providing Part D drug coverage each year while beneficiaries including seniors, the disabled and their families also face rising out-of-pocket costs and higher premiums, he says, noting that “All the while, drug makers continue to reap the profits of their price gouging.”

In his budget proposal Obama has again proposed lifting the ban preventing Medicare from negotiating prices with the drug companies, notes Richtman, warning that “Big Pharma has lobbied hard to keep the ban in place but seniors expect, this time, Congress will do the right thing and finally allow Medicare to negotiate for fair prices.”

Richtman says there are other budget provisions that benefit the nation’s seniors.  Specifically, the closing the Part D donut hole two years earlier, additional funding for in-home services, and reforms for overpayments going to private insurers in Medicare Advantage.

Meanwhile, the President’s budget was not all good news, adds Richtman, noting that “Once again, the budget proposes shifting even more healthcare costs to seniors by extending Medicare means-testing to the middle class and increasing out-of-pocket costs such as the home health care copayment and the Part B deductible.”

The President’s new funding request also targets vulnerable older Americans, by increasing funding from the 2016 Fiscal year Budget.  The President has increased last year’s budget by more than $10 million in discretionary resources for supportive services, also increasing the Congregate and Home-Delivered Nutrition Programs (like Meals on Wheels) by $14 million.  The Aging and Disability Resource Centers is also given a $2 million increase.

Other programs benefit from Obama’s budget proposal, too.  Elder Justice Initiative and Lifespan Respite Care Programs each would receive $2 increases from last year.  The Commodity Supplemental Food Program would get $14 million more.   The budget proposal also puts $10 million in for a new initiative to improve senior access to the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program.  Section 202 Housing for the Elderly also gives a bump from last year in the tune of $72 million.

But the budget request slashes funding for programs that serve low-income seniors, specifically the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Programs and the Community Development Block Grant takes huge fiscal hits.

Views from the Side Line 

             Obama’s budget proposal preserves programs for seniors, funding Social Security and Medicare, says Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, “Not many Republicans are taking this budget very seriously as they plan to write their own budget. The GOP alternative likely is going to include changes to programs affecting senior citizens, he warns.

Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation weighs in on the looming heated partisan budget debate where law makers will be toeing the part line.

Congressman David Cicilline, notes that he is disappointed that the House Budget Committee will not ‎holding hearings on President Obama’s budget proposal. “We should be discussing ways to strengthen Social Security, preserve Medicare, and ensure retirement security for every American. Unfortunately, it’s clear that House Republicans don’t want to have this discussion,” he says.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse weighed in on the brewing pre-election budget battle.  “I’m pleased to see that the President’s budget protects Social Security and Medicare from the cuts sought by many Republicans.  As the President has proposed, we should reduce the deficit by closing wasteful tax loopholes, not by compromising the programs essential to our seniors, and not after saving Rhode Island seniors $14.4 million in prescription costs thanks to the Affordable Care Act.”

Finally, U.S. Senator Jack Reed notes that the President’s budget proposal reflects a number of his ongoing efforts to support Rhode Island seniors.  “This budget blueprint proposes significant investments in the health and well-being of aging Americans, and I will work hard to champion these proposals as we work through the appropriations process this year, he says.

“I am particularly glad the President heeded my call to propose meaningful steps towards lowering the cost of prescription drugs, which is critical for middle class families,” adds the Senator.

Now the work begins as Congress starts to craft it’s 2017 Fiscal Year Budget.  Democratic Congressional lawmakers can glean and fight for provisions in Obama’s eighth and final budget that positively benefit older Americans. With Senator Reed, sitting on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Rhode Island’s Senior Senator and the state’s Congressional Delegation will play a major role in shaping the nation’s future aging programs and services.