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.