Senate Aging Committee Tackles COVID-19’s Devastating Impact on Seniors

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 24, 2020

In the midst of bipartisan bickering on Capitol Hill as to what should be included in the fifth coronavirus (COVID-19) stimulus package, the Senate Aging Committee holds Congress’s first hearing in Senate Russell Office Building 301 on the disproportionate toll the COVID pandemic is having on the nation’s seniors, particularly those who reside in nursing homes.

Adults ages 65 years and older represent two out of every five hospitalizations and eight out of every 10 deaths from the virus. The 1.5 million nursing home residents and seniors residing in group care settings (including assisted living facilities) are especially at risk. Nationwide, residents and workers in nursing homes and other long-term care settings represent more than one-third of all COVID-19 deaths. According to reports, to date more than 34,000 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19.

COVID-19’s Deadly Toll on Seniors

The Senate hearing, “Caring for Seniors Amid the COVID-19 Crisis,” held on Thursday, March 21, 2020, explored what can be done to better protect this vulnerable population. Over two hours, Senators heard testimony from a panel of experts who are supporting older adults in hospitals, nursing homes, home health settings, and the community. (Due to the limited access to the Capitol Complex, the public is only able to view the morning hearing live on the committee’s website at https://www.aging.senate.gov/hearings/caring-for-seniors-amid-the-covid-19-crisis.

“COVID-19 has brought tremendous hardship and tragedy, placing a heavy burden on the frontline workers, straining our healthcare and distribution systems, and imposing a deadly toll on our seniors in particular,” said Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate Aging Committee. “Those in nursing homes and congregate care centers are especially at risk. Nationwide, nursing home residents represent one-third of all coronavirus deaths. In Maine, the toll on nursing home residents is even higher,” adds Collins.

“Our nation is facing the greatest public health crisis it has seen in a century. This terrible virus is causing death and destruction at lightning speed, especially among older Americans who are most vulnerable for complications from COVID-19,” added Ranking Member Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). “We have added unprecedented amounts of funding to purchase personal protective equipment, testing and ensure seniors in the community have access to home and community-based services that keep them out of congregate settings, but this is not nearly enough. We cannot stop working we cannot stop legislating, we cannot stop appropriating dollars to help our seniors,” says Casey.

“This unprecedented time calls for equally unprecedented action. The Administration has to do more and Congress has to do more to help our seniors and their families at every turn,” said Casey. During the hearing, the Senator highlighted his bill (S.3768), the Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act, introduced with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island, which would help mitigate the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on nursing homes by helping states purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and fund premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits for nursing home workers.

Taking a Look at Universal Testing of Nursing Home Residents

Collins directed her first question at the hearing to Dr. Tamara Konetzka, a professor of health services research at the University of Chicago, who has conducted research on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on nursing home residents and staff. She asked Dr. Konetzka to explain how universal testing can protect residents and eventually allow family members to safely visit their loved ones.

“Dr. Konetzka, I want to have you expand a little bit more on what we can do,” said Collins. “I believe that you recommended universal testing for every nursing home resident and staff, which I think is a good idea and have been recommending. How often, however, would you have to do that, and would that allow family members who have been tested to finally be able to visit their loved ones?”

“[I]t is very important to test all residents, and not wait until residents are…symptomatic, because by then it’s too late,” replied Dr. Konetzka. “[W]hat I’ve heard from geriatricians is generally weekly [testing] would be good or at least biweekly, so that residents can then be separated and the transmission can be stopped.”

Collins also emphasized that testing was needed at every long-term care facility, since even the highest rated nursing homes have been susceptible to outbreaks.

At the hearing, Senator Collins called for the release of additional health care provider funding that was made available through the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act.

“[T]he ratings by CMS, the number of stars, has not proven to be a reliable indicator of which nursing homes are safest in this environment. And indeed, one of the worst outbreaks in Maine was at a nursing home that had five stars,” remarked Collins. “[W]hen we hear the statistics, which are so devastating…my heart just goes out not only to these patients, but to their families and to the staff of nursing homes and other assisted living facilities, congregate care settings. They’re all praying that COVID-19 does not find its way into their facility,”she said.

As the chief infectious disease specialist for New York University, Dr. Mark J. Mulligan oversees the treatment of COVID-19 patients at the University’s health system hospitals. At the hearing, he explained that seniors are at increased risk due to aging-related decline of the immune system as well as chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes, and that older adults who reside in nursing homes are the most vulnerable.

Medical Countermeasures to Combat COVID-19

Dr. Mulligan provided an overview of the medical countermeasures under development—diagnostics, monoclonal antibodies, and potential treatments such as remdesivir.

“For physicians, scientists, and leaders, the virus has continued to humble us. There’s so much we don’t know yet about diagnosis, prevention, and treatment,” said Dr. Mulligan. “The nurses and doctors I have worked with are incredibly dedicated and caring, but they have not had the medical countermeasures needed to effectively help many vulnerable seniors who have died of this disease,” he adds.

Finally, the final panelist, Dr. Steven Landers, the President and CEO of Visiting Nurse Association Health Group who oversees a team of 3,000 caregivers that cares for 9,000 people daily, provided a home health perspective on the public health crisis. According to Landers, maintaining this a supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is both challenging and expensive. “We are using over 17,000 surgical masks and over 3,500 N95 masks each week and we are also using thousands of isolation gowns, gloves, goggles and face shields. We have had to pay 7-10 times the usual prices and reach out to vendors all over the world, vendors who we couldn’t fully vet and verify, sometimes just hoping that shipments would arrive,” he say, calling on Congress to find ways prioritize home health and hospice agencies getting needed PPE.

“I have never seen the system so strained, but I also have never felt prouder of the skilled, compassionate, and courageous people I work with,” he said.

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.

Social Security – the Third Rail in Politics

Published in RINewsToday.com on May 17, 2020

As Congress begins to hammer out the fifth coronavirus stimulus package to continue its efforts to jump start the nation’s economy, President Donald Trump warns he will not sign any bill that does not include a payroll tax cut.

“We’re not doing anything without a payroll tax cut,” President Trump said at a two-hour “virtual town hall” event hosted by Fox News, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. According to Nielson Media Research, nearly 4 million viewers tuned into this the town hall, titled “America Together: Returning to Work,” on May 3rd, that focused on COVID-19 and the reopening of the nation’s economy.

Aging advocates and Democratic lawmakers charge that President Trump is using the virus pandemic as an excuse to slash payroll contributions, Social Security’s dedicated funding. Cutting the Social Security payroll taxes would reduce the amount of money withheld from employee paychecks, increasing their take-home pay. Republican lawmakers see it as a much-needed relief for hurting Americans. And so it goes…

Payroll Tax Cuts: Reducing Social Security’s Financial Stability

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) quickly released a statement warning that removing the payroll tax by a provision in the next COVID-19 stimulus package will ensure the fiscal insolvency of Social Security. 64 million Americans depend on Social Security benefits in their retirement years.

“President Trump set off alarm bells for America’s seniors and their advocates by insisting once again on eliminating Social Security payroll taxes – both employer and worker contributions. The President even threatened to hold hostage the next phase of badly needed Coronavirus relief legislation unless he gets his reckless payroll tax cuts. Make no mistake: by pushing to cut off the program’s funding stream, President Trump is taking the first step toward dismantling Social

“While we agree that providing tax relief to middle class Americans is an important consideration as we respond to the coronavirus pandemic, we do not believe that cutting, eliminating or deferring the Social Security payroll tax is an appropriate way to accomplish this goal, says Richtman, reminding the president in a letter that Social Security is an earned benefit fully funded by the contributions of workers throughout their working lives.

He pointed out that a payroll tax cut is an assault on that fundamental idea, equally true even if the funds are replaced by general revenues from the Treasury.

In his correspondence, Richtman suggests that a payroll tax cut should not be viewed as an economic stimulus because it leaves out large segments of the population. “Large numbers of federal, state and local government workers do not pay into Social Security, and therefore would not benefit from the payroll tax cut. Ironically, the senior population, those who are directly affected by taking their money from the trust fund, will not see a single dime of relief since most of them are not working,” he notes.

Richtman identified alternatives to the payroll tax cut that he believes would be more targeted and effective to fire up an economy slowed by the spread of the coronavirus. “Another one-time payment by the federal government can put money in the hands of taxpayers quickly, and the Making Work Pay Tax Credit can be passed by Congress rapidly as can an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Spending in other programs that directly help those who lose employment as a result of the virus can be the most targeted relief of all,” he suggests.

“In light of the recent Social Security Trustees report, it is clear that Social Security needs more revenue – not less,” observes Richtman, who served as a former staff director of the Senate Special Aging Committee.

While Democratic lawmakers push for strengthening and expanding the Social Security Program, GOP lawmakers are signaling their opposition to risking political capital on supporting the effort to cut the payroll tax. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate Finance Committee chair, responded, when asked by Politico, if he supports the tax cut, “Right now, not much.”

“I’m going to give it due consideration, if I can see a strong group of people who think it’s the right thing to do,” added Grassley, whose Senate committee oversees federal tax policy.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is not ruling out payroll tax cuts, he is focusing his efforts to put liability protections provisions in the next major stimulus package to protect businesses against virus-related lawsuits from workers, stockholders, and consumers.

Political insiders consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia states that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.”

Can President Trump politically survive, keeping his loyal voter base, if he steps on the “third rail” by continuing his efforts to cut payroll taxes, some say seen as pushing the Social Security program toward fiscal insolvency? When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2020 elections, we’ll see if the older voters consider Social Security an untouchable program.

Can Trump Politically Survive Cutting Social Security’s Payroll Tax?

Published in the Pawtucket Times on May 11, 2020

As Congress begins to hammer out the fifth coronavirus stimulus package to continue its efforts to jump start the nation’s economy, President Donald Trump warns he will not sign any bill that does not include a payroll tax cut.

“We’re not doing anything without a payroll tax cut,” Trump bluntly warns at a two-hour “virtual town hall” event hosted by Fox News, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. According to Nielson Media Research, nearly 4 million viewers tuned into this the town hall, entitled “America Together: Returning to Work,” aired on May 3, that focused on COVID-19 and the reopening of the nation’s economy.

Aging advocates and Democratic lawmakers charge that trump is using the virus pandemic as an excuse to slash payroll contributions, Social Security’s dedicated funding. Cutting the Social Security payroll taxes would reduce the amount of money withheld from employee paychecks, increasing their take-home pay.

Payroll Tax Cuts: Reducing Social Security’s Financial Stability

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) quickly released a statement warning that Trump’s efforts to remove the payroll tax by a provision in the next COVID-19 stimulus package will ensure the fiscal insolvency of Social Security, threatening the program’s ability to continue paying benefits to 64 million Americans who depend on those benefits to financially survive their retirement years.

“President Trump set off alarm bells for America’s seniors and their advocates by insisting once again on eliminating Social Security payroll taxes – both employer and worker contributions. The President even threatened to hold hostage the next phase of badly-needed Coronavirus relief legislation unless he gets his reckless payroll tax cuts. Make no mistake: by pushing to cut off the program’s funding stream, President Trump is taking the first step toward dismantling Social Security, says NCPSSM’s president and CEO, Max Richtman in a statement.
.
“While we agree that providing tax relief to middle class Americans is an important consideration as we respond to Coronavirus pandemic, we do not believe that cutting, eliminating or deferring the Social Security payroll tax is an appropriate way to accomplish this goal, says Richtman.

In an April 24 correspondence to Trump, NCPSSM’s top official reminded the president that Social Security is an earned benefit fully funded by the contributions of workers throughout their working lives. He pointed out that a payroll tax cut is an assault on that fundamental idea, equally true even if the funds are replaced by general revenues from the Treasury.

In his correspondence, Richtman suggests that a payroll tax cut should not be viewed as an economic stimulus because it leaves out large segments of the population. “Large numbers of federal, state and local government workers do not pay into Social Security, and therefore would not benefit from the payroll tax cut. Ironically, the senior population, those who are directly affected by taking their money from the trust fund, will not see a single dime of relief since most of them are not working,” he note.

Richtman also identified alternatives to the payroll tax cut that he believes would be more targeted and effective to fire up an economy slowed by the spread of the coronavirus. “Another one-time payment by the federal government can put money in the hands of taxpayers quickly, and the Making Work Pay Tax Credit can be passed by Congress rapidly as can an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Spending in other programs that directly help those who lose employment as a result of the virus can be the most targeted relief of all,” he suggests.

“In light of the recent Social Security Trustees report, it is clear that Social Security needs more revenue – not less,” observes Richtman, who served as a former staff director of the Senate Special Aging Committee.
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“The President’s campaign to eliminate payroll taxes is a violation of his patently false promises to seniors ‘not to touch’ Social Security. This proposal goes way beyond ‘touching.’ Choking off Social Security’s funding stream is an existential threat to seniors’ earned benefits,” charges Richtman.

Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, came out swinging when she heard Trump stating that he will block all coronavirus response measures unless they include cuts to the payroll tax, whose revenue is dedicated to Social Security.

In a statement, Altman stated: “More than 30 million Americans are newly unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Their paychecks are gone, but their rent, utility, grocery bills and other expenses still must be paid. Seniors in nursing homes are dying at alarming rates. Hospitals are desperate, as are state and local governments.”

Dead on Arrival on Capitol Hill????

“Trump made it clear weeks ago that his obsession with cutting payroll contributions has nothing to do with the coronavirus or the resulting economic fallout,” says Altman, noting that he said he’d like a “permanent” reduction in payroll contributions, and that he’d support it “regardless” of the current situation. He has also said he wants to cut Social Security once he is re-elected, she added.

While Democratic lawmakers push for strengthening and expanding the Social Security Program, GOP lawmakers are signaling their opposition and aversion to risking political capital on supporting Trump’s efforts to cut the payroll tax. Trump’s calls for this tax policy change are falling on deaf ears. According to Politico, when asked if he supports Trump’s ultimatum that a payroll tax must be placed in the next stimulus package, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate Finance Committee chair, responded, “Right now, not much.”

“I’m going to give it due consideration, if I can see a strong group of people who think it’s the right thing to do,” added Grassley, whose Senate committee oversees federal tax policy, in the May 5 Politico article. “The president proposes, we dispose,” he quips.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-Kentucky) is not ruling out payroll tax cuts, he is focusing his efforts to put liability protections provisions in the next major stimulus package to protect businesses against virus-related lawsuits from workers, stockholders, and consumers.

Stepping on the “Third Rail”

Political insiders consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia states that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.”

At an Iowa campaign rally in 2016, Republican presidential candidate Trump boasted that his loyal voter base would still standby him even if he shot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York City. Many political pundits responded to his comment by rolling their eyes and chuckling.
Can Trump politically survive, keeping his loyal voter base, if he steps on the “third rail” by continuing his efforts to cut Social Security’s payroll taxes, pushing the program toward fiscal insolvency. When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2020 elections, we’ll see if the older voters consider Social Security an untouchable program.