Cicilline Pushes for House Aging Committee

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 4, 2021

Yesterday, the 116th Congress came to an end, with the new Congressional session convening that day with the swearing in of lawmakers elected on Nov. 3, 2020.   Some political observers say that legislative gridlock during this Congress made it the least productive in the last fifty years.  GovTrack.us, reported that of 16,587 bills thrown into the legislative hopper, 252 became enacted laws, and 712 resolutions were passed.

During a Fox interview last February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) candidly admitted he prevented the consideration of hundreds of bills passed by the House that were sent over to the Senate for consideration.   McConnell’s “Legislative Graveyard” created by his controlling the legislative agenda by blocking debate, markup and refusing to allow a vote on House proposed legislation, was widely reported by the media and documented in a 33-page report, “2020 Democracy Score Card,” released last September by Common Cause, a watch dog advocacy group.

The results of tomorrow’s Georgia Senate runoff will determine if the GOP can maintain legislative control of the Senate. If Senate Democratic candidates win their seats, the Senate Democratic caucus will have the majority with 50 Senate seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris having a tie breaking vote. But if McConnell, called “the Grim Reaper” by his critics, continues to maintains political control of the upper chamber, Democratic legislative proposals introduced to improve the quality of life of America’s seniors and to help those struggling to financially make ends meet, would be rejected.  

Legislative Proposals to be Reconsidered by New Congress

During the116th Congress, Washington, DC-based aging advocacy groups, including the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) , AARP, Social Security Works, Leadership Council on Aging, and National Council on Aging, pushed for passage of legislative proposals to enhance the quality of life of America’s seniors and to strengthen and expand Social Security and Medicare, to keep these programs fiscally sound.  As the new Congress begins, lawmakers might consider bringing back legislative proposals that were not enacted in the previous Congressional session because of a Republican-controlled Senate.  Here are a few legislative proposals that have some merit and I hope to see reintroduced this year:

Congressman John Larson (D-Conn.) called on Congress to finally address the Social Security “Notch” issue. By ignoring this issue, workers born in 1960 and 1961, would likely see lower Social Security retirement benefits in the future, charged NCPSSM.  Last session, Larson, who chairs the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, introduced the “Social Security COVID Correction and Equity Act,” to increase benefits for those born in 1960 and 1961 without impacting the benefits for any other beneficiary. 

Larson also introduced the “Social Security 2100 Act” to strengthen and expand Social Security.  The landmark legislation would keep the program financially healthy for more than 75 years, while boosting benefits for all retirees. Congress must work during the 117th session to protect and expand the nation’s Social Security program.

The late Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Chair of the House Oversight Committee, introduced the “Lower Drug Costs Now Act” which the House passed last session, would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription prices with Big Pharma, which would save the government and seniors nearly $350 billion in drug costs. The bill would also expand traditional Medicare by adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits. 

Additionally, a bipartisan crafted bill, the “Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act,” introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), was not allowed to be considered on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader McConnell.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, this legislation would save taxpayers $95 billion, reduce out-of-pocket spending by $72 billion and finally reduce premiums by $1 billion.

Almost three months ago, the Social Security Administration announced that approximately 70 million Americans would see a meager 1.3 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) increase to Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income.  With retirees experiencing financial difficulties during the pandemic, a $20 increase in their monthly check might not help them to pay for spiraling health care and drug costs, along with the expenses of purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to keep them safe. 

Following the announcing of the 2021 COLA, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation Committee, introduced the “Emergency Social Security COLA for 2021 Act” to provide Social Security beneficiaries with a 3 percent increase (or a $250 per month flat increase) which would reduce the impact of the small 2021 COLA increase. 

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act,” to provide needed resources to facilities to protect frail residents and staff. Residents in these facilities are among the most vulnerable because of their age and underlying medical conditions.  Days after the introduction of the Senate bill, Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), signed on as a cosponsor of the House version.  

This legislative proposal would help states implement strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings, including through the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and to support nursing home workers with premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits.

New Push to Reestablish House Aging Committee

“After a lifetime of hard work, seniors should be able to enjoy their retirement years with dignity and peace of mind,” says Rhode Island’s Cicilline. “It’s the best way to secure the future of Medicare and Social Security, bring down the cost of prescription drugs, and find solutions for housing, transportation and long-term care issues that are especially important to Rhode Island seniors,” he says.

A long-time advocate for seniors, Cicilline announces in this weekly commentary his intentions of reintroducing a House resolution in the 117th Congress to reestablish the House Aging Committee

During the previous three Congressional sessions, Cicilline, representing the state’s first legislative district, introduced a House Resolution (just 245 words) to reestablish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. Two of the times a Republican-controlled House blocked consideration of the House Resolution. 

According to Cicilline, the House can easily create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by just approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other aspects.  Funding would be up to the Appropriations Committee. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

The previous House Aging Committee was active from 1974 to 1993 (until it was disbanded because of budgetary issues) put the spot light on an array of senior issues including elder abuse, helped increase home care benefits for older adults and helped establish research and care centers for Alzheimer’s disease.  

Cicilline noted that a House Aging Committee would perform comprehensive studies on aging policy issues, funding priorities, and trends.  Like its predecessor, its efforts would not be limited by narrow jurisdictional boundaries of the standing committee but broadly at targeted aging policy issues, he notes.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get the job done,” says Cicilline.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Updated on Jan. 4, 2021

Democrats Will Have to Compromise if They Lose Georgia Senate Run-Off

With Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden taking the White House, the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) called on Congressional lawmakers to address the needs of older Americans during lame-duck session ending Jan. 3 and throughout President Biden’s first 100 days in office.  Can Congressional lawmakers put aside political differences to pass a last-ditch Stimulus package compromise, a defense bill, and consider aging legislation piling up in just 27 days when the lame-duck session ends?  Will there be political grid lock after President Biden takes office on Jan. 20 if the GOP maintains control of the Senate block Congress from taking up legislation impacting older Americans?

Legislation Piling Up in Lame-Duck Session

“Though this is normally a time when expectations for Congressional action are low, the National Committee expects our elected representatives to act on behalf of seniors and other struggling Americans hit hard by the pandemic,” says NCPSSM president and CEO Max Richtman, in correspondence sent to Congress on Dec. 3.

Across the nation seniors are the hardest hit age group by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  “Eight out of 10 deaths from COVID in the U.S. have been in adults 65 years old and older. Whether as part of an omnibus funding bill, continuing resolution or COVID relief package, The National Committee is urging lawmakers to pass urgently needed measures for seniors,” says Richtman.

Richtman calls on Congress to address the Social Security “Notch” issue. He warns that if Congress doesn’t take action, workers born in 1960 and 1961, will see lower Social Security retirement benefits in the future. According to the Chief Actuary of Social Security, this will sharply reduce benefits for those born in 1960 compared to the benefits received by people born just one year earlier, creating an effect known as a “notch,” notes NCPSSM’s correspondence.

Congress can correct this notch in Social Security benefits by passing Rep. John Larson’s (D-CT) H.R. 7499, the “Social Security COVID Correction and Equity Act,” says Richtman.  The legislative proposal would increase benefits for those born in 1960 and 1961 without impact the benefits for any other beneficiary. 

In October, the Social Security Administration announced that approximately 70 million Americans would see a meager 1.3 percent increase Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income. “More than half of seniors receive over one-half of their income from Social Security, and it provides at least 90 percent of income for more than one-in-five seniors.  These seniors are dependent on a reasonable COLAs to maintain even a modest standard of living in retirement,” said Richtman.

With retirees experiencing financial difficulties during the pandemic, a $20 increase in their monthly check might not help them to pay for spiraling health care and drug costs, along with the expenses of purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to keep them safe. 

Richtman’s correspondence also pushes for passage of Rep. Peter DeFazio’s H.R. 8598, “Emergency Social Security COLA for 2021 Act,” to provide Social Security beneficiaries with a 3 percent increase (or a $250 per month flat increase) which would reduce the impact of the small 2021 COLA increase. 

Protecting the Fiscal Viability of Social Security

Last August, NCPSSM and aging advocacy groups opposed President Trump’s signed executive order that would allow employers to defer workers’ payroll tax contributions for the rest of the year.  Between Jan. 1, 2021 and April 30, 2021, these employees will be required to pay back their deferred payroll taxes, doubling their FICA taxes for the first four months of 2021.  The National Committee has supported efforts to ease the burden for those affected by this hardship. 

NCPSSM correspondence also called on Congress to extend a protection to lower-income Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, including ‘Money Follows the Person’ (which provides funding for states to help skilled nursing care patients to remain in their homes) and impoverishment protections for the spouses of Medicaid recipients receiving long-term care.

Finally, Richtman requested extending the funding for Medicare Low-Income and Enrollment Assistance, which provides funding for State Health Insurance Assistance Programs and Area Agencies on Aging to assist low-income seniors access programs such as the Medicare Prescription Drug Program Part D Low-Income Subsidy.

NCPSSM’s “wish list”, detailed in Richtman’s correspondence, could easily be rolled into a continuing resolution that Congress must pass by Dec. 11 to get the federal government operational. But, any of the legislative proposals pushed by The National Committee would be bottled up in the Senate, by GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, referred to as the “grim reaper,” he Republicans maintain control of the Senate during the 117th Congress.

GOP ‘Grim Reaper’ Keeps Democratic Bills from Consideration

Last February, on Fox News Friday, anchor Bret Baier asked McConnell to confirm Democratic charges that House passed and Senate proposed legislation would never see the light of day on the Senate Floor.  At the time of this interview, the GOP Senator, controlling his chamber’s legislative agenda, confirmed that 395 bills sitting in his chamber would not be passed.

“It is true,” admitted McConnell during the Fox News interview.  “They’ve been on full left-wing parade over there, trotting out all of their left-wing solutions that are going to be issues in the fall campaign. They’re right. We’re not going to pass those.,” he said, recognizing the politics of a divided government. 

McConnell’s ‘Legislative Graveyard’ created by his blocking debate, markup and refusing to allow a vote on Democratic proposed legislation is well documented in the press and by a report released last September by Common Cause, a watch dog advocacy group with chapters in 35 states. “In fact, the Senate’s inaction has the 116th Congress on track to be the least productive in history, with just one percent of the bills becoming law [between] January 3, 2019 to September 16, 2020],” said Aaron Scherb, Common Cause’s director of legislation and author of the 2020 Democracy Scor

During an interview published on Sept. 16, 2020 in Newsweek, Scherb said, “There have been hundreds [of bills] that have been passed by the House at this point.  There have only been 158 enacted laws by this 116th Congress to this point.  Yet there are hundreds of bills that have passed the House but continue to sit in Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s desk, or his ‘legislative graveyard’ as it’s been called.”

With McConnell winning his reelection, the senator from Kentucky can only maintain control of the Senate’s legislative agenda if he can keep two GOP Senate seats up for grabs in next month’s Senate runoff in Georgia.  A Democratic win will give the party a majority 50 Senate seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie.

In order to pick up the two GOP Senate seats, held by incumbent Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Democrats must successfully mobilize voters and adequately fund the campaigns of Democrat Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnoc. At press time, millions of campaign dollars are pouring into Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, with the two GOP Senators bringing in more campaign donations because of Republican super-PACs giving them the spending edge. The Democrats are receiving their political contributions through small donors.

Even with the Democrats controlling the White House and House of Representatives, if McConnell maintains control of the Senate, legislative gridlock in the upper chamber will most certainly continue.  This will make it more difficult for the NCPSSM and other Washington, DC-based aging advocacy groups to successfully push for passage of legislation to ensure the financial security and health of seniors

Seniors Can Expect Small Increase in Their 2020 Social Security COLA

Published in the Woonsocket Call on Oct. 27, 2019

The Social Security Administration (SSA) announces Oct. 10 that Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for nearly 69 million Americans will increase 1.6 percent in 2020 (Some recipients receive both Social Security and SSI benefits).

Social Security and SSI recipients will be notified about their new benefit amount by mail in early December. This COLA notice can also be viewed online through their my Social Security account. People may create or access their my Social Security account online at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.

According to SSA, the 1.6 percent COLA increase will begin with benefits payable to more than 63 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2020. Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin December 31, 2019. The Social Security Act ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as calculated by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase from $132,900 to $137,700, says SSA.

The earnings limit for workers who are younger than “full” retirement age (age 66 for people born in 1943 through 1954) will increase to $18,240. SSA will deduct $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $18,240.

The earnings limit for people turning age 66 in 2020 will increase to $48,600. SSA will deduct $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $48,600 until the month the worker turns age 66.)

There is no limit on earnings for workers who are “full” retirement age or older for the entire year.

COLA Not Keeping Up with Rising Cost of Living

Over the years, Social Security’s COLA has not provided financial protection against rising costs, charge aging advocacy groups.

Social Security checks in 2019 are as much as 18 percent lower due to the impact of extremely low COLAs over the past 10 years, says an analysis recently released by the Arlington, Virginia-based The Senior Citizens League (TSCL). TSCL’s Social Security policy analyst, Mary Johnson authored this analysis.

Johnson’s analysis noted that from 2000 to 2010, COLAs routinely averaged 3 percent
annually. People who have been receiving Social Security checks since 2019, have only seen a COLA higher than 2,8 percent one time (in 2012), she said, noting that Social Security benefits have lost 33 percent of buying power since 2000.

Johnson’s findings reported that in 2010, 2011, and 2016 there was no COLA payable at all and, in 2017, the COLA was just 0.03 percent. However, in 2018, the COLA was 2 percent, but rising Part B premiums consumed the entire increase for roughly half of all beneficiaries.

Calls for Strengthening the COLA

According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the upcoming COLA change will give a whopping $24 per month increase for the average beneficiary. With Medicare Part B premiums expected to rise around $8 next year, the net cost-of-living adjustment for most seniors will be only $16 per month. The new COLA brings the average monthly retirement benefit up to $1,503 — it’s just a $288 yearly raise for seniors living on fixed incomes.

NCPSSM notes that roughly half of America’s seniors rely on Social Security for at least 50 percent of their income, and 1 in 4 depending on the program for at least 90 percent of their income, the 2020 COLA increase does not go very far in helping these recipients pay their bills. A $16 per month probably won’t cover typical expenses, such as the cost of a single prescription copay, a month’s medical supplies, or transportation to a doctor’s appointment, adds the Washington, DC- advocacy group whose goal is to protect Social Security and Medicare.

“It’s ironic that as billionaires and big corporations continue to profit from the $1.5 trillion in Trump/GOP tax cuts, America’s seniors are to get by with a meager $24 monthly raise,” says Max Richtman in a statement after SSA announced the 2020 COLA increase. NCPSSM’s President and CEO. “The negligible 2020 COLA illustrates why seniors need a more accurate formula for calculating the impact of inflation on their Social Security benefits. For years, we have urged the government to adopt the CPI-E (Consumer Price Index for the Elderly), which reflects the spending priorities of seniors, including health care, as opposed to the current formula based on younger urban wage earners’ expenses,” says Richtman.

If the CPI-E were adopted, beneficiaries would see a 6 percent overall increase in benefits over 20 years compared to the current formula used, which yielded a zero cost-of-living adjustment three times during the past decade — and a mere 0.3 percent in 2017, says Richtman, noting that health care costs have increased about 6 percent in 2019 alone.

“The prices of the most commonly prescribed drugs for seniors on Medicare rose ten times the rate of inflation from 2013-2018. The cost of senior living facilities is growing at 3 percent annually – which adds up quickly over time,” adds Richtman.

Adds Webster Phillips, NCPSSM’s Senior Legislative Representative, “COLAs are out of sync with seniors’ actual expenses. Retirees have been living on very tight cost-of-living adjustments for a number of years now, which forces them to make hard decisions about their monthly budgets.”

In a statement, AARP chief executive officer Jo Ann Jenkins said, “Social Security’s annual COLA amount typically does not keep pace with all the increases in living expenses that most seniors face, including the costs of housing, food, transportation and, especially, health care and prescription drugs. AARP’s recent Rx Price Watch report found that retail drug prices increased by twice the rate of inflation during 2017, and have exceeded the inflation rate for at least 12 consecutive years,” she says.

“AARP will continue our advocacy for bipartisan solutions to help ensure the long-term solvency of the Social Security program, as well as adequate benefits for recipients. We will also continue to fight for lower health care and prescription drug costs, which are eating up a growing share of Social Security benefits,” adds Jenkins.

TSCL’s Mary Johnson says that her group calls on Congress to require a minimum COLA of no less than 3 percent every year, even in years when inflation falls below that amount. “Strengthening the COLA,” she says, “would help slow the drain of retirement savings and help keep older Americans out of poverty.”

For information about Social Security benefits and claiming strategies, those approaching retirement age may visit AARP’s Social Security Resource Center, at https://www.aarp.org/retirement/social-security/.