Congress Must Protect Seniors in ‘Phase Four’ Stimulus Package

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 12, 2020

Just weeks after Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the $2.2 trillion emergency stimulus package signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, lawmakers continue to look for ways to jump start the nation’s economy by passing another stimulus package. Lawmakers had previously passed two bipartisan stimulus bills to lessen the economic impact of the virus pandemic. Now, Congress is looking to hammer out another emergency stimulus bill to follow up the historic CARES Act.

Days ago, Senate Democrats successfully blocked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) efforts to pass a $250 billion in small business coronavirus relief funds to put more money into the CARE Act’s Paycheck Protection Program, expected to quickly run out of money.

McConnell sought to pass the GOP crafted bill without negotiating with Senate Democrats. The Democrats had no objection to passage but wanted some loans reserved for businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans. They also wanted their priorities like unemployment benefits, foods stamps and community health centers to be added to the bill. Even if the legislation passed in the Senate it would have difficulty passing in the House without including Democratic priorities.

Providing for Seniors in Next Emergency Stimulus Package

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), calls for more to be done in the fourth stimulus package to help seniors survive the COVID-19 pandemic, both physically and financially.

On April 7, Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s president and CEO, sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers not to forget seniors as they begin to craft new Coronavirus relief legislation. He called for provisions to be put in the legislative package to boost Social Security benefits and to expand Medicare and Medicaid services to help seniors survive the pandemic crisis.

“We have been aggressively working to improve seniors’ programs for many years, but the pandemic has ratcheted their needs to the top of the list. Older Americans are among the most vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. Their struggles are significantly aggravated by the crisis. It makes sense to expand and protect the health and income security for older citizens, who in turn contribute so much to the economy and our quality of life,” says Richtman.

Richtman called on Congress to increase by $250 the monthly benefit for all Social Security, Veterans, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries through the end of 2021. He pushed for the enactment of the improvements in Rep. John Larson’s Emergency Social Security Benefits Act, including an increase in widows’ and widowers’ benefits for lower-and-middle-income beneficiaries, and raising the threshold for the minimum benefit to 125 percent of the federal poverty line.

Richtman also lobbied for creation of a new Medicaid grant for states to boost their home and community-based long-term care services and to extend the 90-day prescription refill rule applied to Medicare in the CARES Act to all patients. He asked Congress to ensure all prescription drugs for COVID-19 be provided at no cost for all individuals whether they are insured or not.

Protecting the Fiscal Viability of Social Security

“A Marshall Plan for the beleaguered Social Security Administration (SSA) is what is need, considering all of the workloads that currently are being deferred,” says Richtman.

This could be accomplished by appropriating additional $400 million for the SSA’s operating budget to help the agency cope with the increase in coronavirus-related claims, including expected survivors’ benefit applications, he says.

During the economic 2011 and 2012 economic downturns, Congress passed SSA payroll tax cuts to reduce the amount of money withheld from employees’ paycheck to increase take-home pay. Lasts month, President Trump successfully pushed Congress to include a payroll tax cut provision in the recently passed CARES Act to stimulate the economy during the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 epidemic.

Seeking to protect Social Security’s fiscal viability, Richtman called on lawmakers to oppose any attempts to allocated Social Security Trust Funds for the “purposes for which they not intended, such as a means to stimulate the economy. “A payroll tax cut, suspension or deferral chip away at the fundamental idea, making it easier each time it is enacted to turn to it again to meet some future crisis, until the payroll tax is permanently eliminated,” he added.

Richtman reminded Congressional lawmakers that many low-income seniors will no longer be able to eat at the local senior and day care programs, or at charitable mean programs while they shelter in place. “That’s why Congress should increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by 15 percent of the duration of the downturn,” he said, noting that a small increase (around $100) per month would help to put food on the table while boosting the economy.

Millions of seniors will require assistance as public health officials attempt to but the brakes to the skyrocketing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths. Congress must not forget that seniors especially those with severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes are at a higher risk in developing the more serious complications from COVID-19 illness. Congress lawmakers must not forget seniors as they begin their efforts craft the next COVID-19 relief legislation.

Tune in on Next Tuesday’s Senor Telephone Townhall

Congressman David N. Cicilline will host a telephone town hall this Tuesday, April 14th at 2pm on how seniors can best access benefits included in the $2.2 trillion of relief passed by Congress. The Democratic Congressman will be joined by Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging Director Rosamaria (“Rose”) Amoros Jones. The event is the third in Cicilline’s “Relief for Rhode Island” series on how folks can get the assistance they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cicilline’s Seniors Telephone Town Hall is free and open to the public and members of the media. Those interested in joining the telephone town hall this Tuesday at 2pm can do so by dialing 855-962-1055.

Millions of seniors will require assistance as public health officials attempt to but the brakes to the skyrocketing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths. Congress must not forget that seniors especially those with severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes are at a higher risk in developing the more serious complications from COVID-19 illness. Congress lawmakers must not forget seniors as they begin their efforts craft the next COVID-19 relief legislation.

The Coronavirus and its Effect on Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 22, 2020

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the nation, the Social Security Administration (SSA) and other federal agencies strive to cope with meeting the huge challenges they face resulting from the unexpected pandemic outbreak, attempting to juggle worker safety while maintaining their daily operations.

On March 19, Key House Democratic and Republican Committee Chairs send a clear message to SSA as to the importance of minimizing any disruptions to its operations during the coronavirus crises. Throughout its 85-year history, Social Security recipients (seniors, families who have lost a breadwinner, and people with disabilities) have never missed getting their monthly check. Keeping this in mind, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) and Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX), along with Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), Ranking Member Tom Reed (R-NY), Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis (D-IL) and Ranking Member Jackie Walorski (R-IN), sent a letter on March 19 to Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Andrew Saul calling on the agency to continue their work to prioritize health and transparency in an effort to minimize disruptions as they administer vital services during the coronavirus crisis.

“We know the decision to close SSA field offices…was a difficult decision. … This move will save lives and will also protect the health of SSA frontline staff, whose public service is so critical,” the key House lawmakers wrote.

“We understand that as coronavirus spreads, you are prioritizing work that fulfills SSA’s core mission,” the letter continued. “We fully support this prioritization.”

“We are writing to urge the Social Security Administration (SSA) to vigorously safeguard the health of the public and agency employees during the coronavirus crisis, while also minimizing disruptions in services to the American people,” stated the House lawmakers. “Telework is a commonsense response to coronavirus and we urge you to maximize its use across SSA. In addition, we encourage SSA to communicate regularly and robustly with the public and with its employees about SSA’s coronavirus response. Social Security is a program that affects the lives of all Americans. As SSA’s response to coronavirus evolves, the public must be able to count on timely information about how to access benefits and services, including assistance when a problem arises.”

The members emphasized that that they stand ready to work with the agency to ensure it has the resources and authority it needs to operate effectively during the crisis while ensuring SSA remains able to send benefits on time each month.

COVID-19 Changes Way SSA Does Business

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way SSA does business across the nation. Effective Tuesday, March 17, SSA closed all local Social Security offices for in-person service. SSA says that this decision protects the population it services — older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions—and its employees during the crisis.

But SSA employees remain at their cubicles, the processing of benefits and claims continues. However, critical services can be accessed online. The agency directed the pubic to visit its website (https://www.ssa.gov/) or its toll-free number, 800-772-1213 for customer service. You can apply for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits online, check the status of an application or appeal, request a replacement Social Security card (in most areas), print a benefit verification letter, and much more – from anywhere and from any of your devices.

According to SSA, there is also a wealth of information to answer most of your Social Security questions online, without having to speak with an SSA employee in person or by phone. Visit our online Frequently Asked Questions at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ask.

However, those persons who are blind or terminally ill, or need SSI or Medicaid eligibility issues resolved related to work status can obtain in person services in local offices.

SSA also provides COVID-19 related information and customer service updates on a special website (https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/)
According to a March 19 blog posting by the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “The Ways and Means committee leaders suggest SSA allow employees to telework where possible, in accordance with federal guidelines. National Committee senior legislative representative (and former 35-year SSA employee) Webster Phillips says the agency’s teleworking capabilities have been diminished since Andrew Saul came on board as administrator – and will take time and resources to build back up.”

The NCPSSM’s blog posting noted, “SSA will discontinue several of its normal activities in order to prioritize beneficiaries’ needs. “There are workloads that they’re not going to process while this is going on, focusing exclusively on paying benefits,” says Phillips. Those include stopping all Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) and curtailing eligibility re-determinations for SSI recipients.”

Finally, “SSA also has discontinued in-person disability hearings to protect the health of claimants and employees. Instead, those hearings will take place via telephone or video conference, where possible,” adds the blog posting.

The Bottom Line…

On March 19, SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul, issued a statement to assure the 65 million Social Security recipients that SSA payments will continued to be processed. He stated, “The first thing you should know is that we continue to pay benefits.”  But Saul warned, “Be aware that scammers may try to trick you into thinking the pandemic is stopping your Social Security payments but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.”

The United States Postal Service has so far experienced only minor operational impacts in the United States as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, with Saul’s assurances and the postal service still delivering mail, you can expect to get your benefits.
Stay healthy.

AARP Tele-Town Hall Informs Seniors What They Need to Know About COVID-19

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 15, 2020

Twenty-four-hour programming on cable television, television networks, talk radio and newspapers report the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) across the nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just days ago there were about 700 confirmed and presumed U.S. cases from 38 jurisdictions, that’s 36 states and New York and D.C. There are more than 100,000 cases worldwide. CDC officials expect this count to go up. counts to go up.

At the AARP’s Coronavirus Information Tele-Town Hall event, held Tuesday, March 10, federal health experts gathered to the symptoms of COVID-19, how to protect yourself, and what it means for older adults and family caregivers. The event was moderated by AARP’s Vice President of Content Strategy and; Communications Bill Walsh and featured Admiral Brett P. Giroir, M.D., , Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Nancy Messonnier, M.D., and internist and Director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases; and Seema Verma, Administrator at the Centers for Medicare and; Medicaid Services.

The invited experts warned seniors to take heed. People age 60 and over are at high risk of catching COVID-19, it’s severity especially for those with underlying medical conditions.

Getting the Best Source of Medical Information

According to AARP’s Walsh, the Washington, DC-based nonprofit convened the tele-town hall about coronavirus in an effort to protect the public. “While we see an important role for AARP to play in providing consumer information and advocacy related to the virus, the public should be aware the best source of medical information is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” he said.

At this briefing Messonnier noted that reports out of China that looked at more than 70,000 COVID-19 patients and found that about 80 percent who had the virus had a mild case and recovered. About 15 percent to 20 percent developed a serious illness.

The COVID-19 virus affects adults, especially seniors, says Messonnier. noting that people over age 60 are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from this virus, especially if they have underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease.

Although younger people with underlying health problems are also at risk, the top official at CDC stressed that older people with health problems are the most vulnerable. She noted that her parents are in their 80s, and even though they don’t live in community reported to have the virus, she advised them to stay close to home.

CDC’s Messonnier suggested that seniors stock up on over-the-counter medications to treat fever, cough and other symptoms, as well as tissues, common medical supplies, and routine medications for blood pressure and diabetes.

Although there is no vaccine to prevent coronavirus and there are no specific medicines to treat it., there are many things you can do to prevent the illness, says Messonnier. She urged seniors to avoid contact with people who are sick. Keeping the COVID-19 virus at bay can be as simple as simply washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, or having been in a public place, she said, urging seniors to wash your hands after touching surfaces in public places. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol [if you can find it].

Messonnier warns seniors to avoid touching high-touch surfaces in public places – like elevator buttons, door handles, handrails, handshaking with people, etc. Use a tissue or your sleeve to cover your hand or finger if you must touch something. It’s difficult for many but just avoid touching your face, nose, and eyes, she says.

Messonnier also suggested that seniors to clean and disinfect their homes to remove germs: practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces (for example: tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks & cell phone). Also, avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. Your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like COVID-19 may increase in crowded, closed-in settings with little air circulation if there are people in the crowd who are sick.

Avoid all non-essential travel including plane trips, and especially avoid embarking on cruise ships, warns Messonnier.

Messonnier also called on people over age 6o to follow “social distancing strategies,” such as teleworking and avoiding crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. This might mean that if your grandchild has a fever and runny nose, it may not be the right time to visit, she says.

“If COVID-19 begins spreading in your community, keep in touch family and friends by phone or email to let them know how you are doing,” recommends Messonnier. Consider ways of getting foods brought to your house through family, social, or commercial networks. Have at least three days of household items and groceries on hand so that you will be prepared to stay at home for an extended period of time, she adds.

And if you rely on a caregiver for routine help, make arrangements for backup care in case your primary caregiver becomes sick, suggests Messonnier.

Seema Verma, who oversees the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, reported that major health insurers are now responding to the pandemic coronavirus outbreak by pledging to relax prescription refill limits on “maintenance medication” for Medicare Advantage and Part D beneficiaries.

Hot Off the Press…

“No matter what type of [Medicare] program you are in, you can get a coronavirus test with no cost sharing, Verma announced noting that she has gotten a commitment from insurance companies to also cover coronavirus tests with no cost-sharing.

Medicare now pays for telehealth services. “You can Skype with them. You can send them pictures, and all of those are covered services, so your doctor can bill for those particular services, says Verma.

If you have difficulty stocking up on your prescriptions at the pharmacy, consider refilling your medications with a mail-order service, recommends DHHS’s Giroir. Ask your physician to switch your prescription from a 30-day supply to a 90-day supply to “keep you out of the doctor’s office or a crowded grocery store or pharmacy,” he adds.

“This is not the time to panic. Stay informed, take it seriously because it can be a serious disease, stay up to date. We are committed to doing whatever we can to communicate,” says Giroir, noting that CDC’s website is a great source of information, but you want to know what is going on in your local community because that is where you get the most direct information about the risk.

For details, about COVID-19, go to https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html. Also, go to https://health.ri.gov/diseases/ncov2019/.
Here’s a transcript of the event: https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2020/tele-town-hall-coronavirus.html.