A call to Congress to strengthen, expand Social Security & Medicare 

Published in Rhode Island News Today on September 6, 2021

The 2021 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI)) and the Social Security Disability trust fund (SSDI), released last week, gives Congress this stark warning: the Social Security Trust fund is heading toward insolvency in 13 years while SSDI will see its reserve funds depleted in 2057, eight years sooner than last year’s estimate. As a whole, combined, the two Social Security trust fund reserves will be depleted in 2034, a year earlier than estimated made in last year’s Trustee report.

However, there is good news. This year’s report notes that there is more than enough time for lawmakers to make up shortfalls by immediately shoring up the ailing Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) trust fund and the Social Security Disability trust fund (SSDI) by Congress increasing revenues or cutting costs to these programs.

“The theoretical combined trust funds will exhaust their reserves by 2034, when today’s 54-year-olds reach the full retirement age and today’s youngest retirees turn 75. Upon insolvency, all beneficiaries will face a 22% across-the-board benefit cut,” says a detailed analysis released by the Washington, DC-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a non-partisan, nonprofit organization committee that addresses federal budget and fiscal issues.

According to this year’s Medicare Trustee’s report, there was no change from last year’s projections that noted Medicare Hospital Insurance trust funds would be deleted in 2026. If this occurs, physicians, acute care facilities and nursing homes would not receive their full compensation of the program (only 91% of scheduled payments), pushing the uncompensated costs on the patients to pay.

Total Medicare expenditures are projected to increase in the future at a faster pace than both total workers’ earnings and the overall economy, says the newly released Medicare Trustee report.

In light of the projected insolvency of Social Security, this year’s Trustee’s report notes that beneficiaries may receive an estimated 3.1% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for benefits in 2021, the highest COLA in a decade. This large increase was triggered by higher inflation rates caused by the ongoing pandemic.

Beltway Insiders Respond

“The Trustees’ projections in this year’s report include the best estimates of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Social Security program,” said Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. “The pandemic and its economic impact have had an effect on Social Security’s Trust Funds, and the future course of the pandemic is still uncertain. Yet, Social Security will continue to play a critical role in the lives of 65 million beneficiaries and 176 million workers and their families during 2021.”

“The Trustees Report confirms that Social Security’s financing is strong in the near-term yet underscores why it is so important that Congress take action now to prevent 22% in cuts across the board on all benefits in 2034,” says House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT) in a released statement. “With the loss of traditional pensions, rising health care costs, and many people unable to save enough for retirement, there is a growing retirement crisis. 65 million Americans currently rely on Social Security benefits, yet millions are suffering and can’t make ends meet, adds Larson.

Furthermore, the Trustees Report shows that this year the cost of paying out benefits will exceed the income from the Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) payments,” states Larson.

The released 2021Trustee reports on the financial solvency of Medicare and Social Security trust funds once again identify unsustainable benefit promises in Medicare and Social Security programs, stated senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said in a released statement.

 “The Hospital Insurance trust fund [Medicare] is projected to be exhausted around 2026; there are $60 trillion of unfunded liabilities in Social Security programs; and unfunded liabilities increased by trillions of dollars over the last year alone,” adds Crapo.

Crapo urges Congress and the White House to “work closely together with a sense of urgency to address the challenges detailed in the Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports. However, “most Democrats want only to expand benefit promises further without generating sustainable trust fund solvency,” he said.

Seniors Depend on Social Security on Most of Their Income

“There is no need to sound the alarm, but now is the time to address Social Security’s long-term solvency – and provide an overdue boost in benefits. Phone calls and emails to Congress are definitely warranted at this critical juncture,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, responding to the Social Security Trustee Report released August 31.

According to Richtman, Social Security has never missed a benefit payment in its 86-year history, but remains strong. Even if no Congressional action is taken and the Trust fund becomes deleted, Social Security could still pay 79% of the benefits with revenue coming from regular worker’s payroll contributions. “But that poses a huge financial risk for the millions of retirees who depend on Social Security for most if not all of their income.  It also raises a serious political risk for members of Congress who fail to boost the program’s finances so that the trust fund remains solvent beyond 2034,” he says. 

Living on an average monthly benefit of $1,540 is tough to do, says Richtman, as retirement savings dwindle, pensions disappear and the soaring cost of senior housing and medical care.  

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works (SSW) and chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, agrees with Richtman’s assessment of Social Security’s fiscal solvency and impact on the retiree’s income. “Today’s report shows that Social Security remains strong and continues to work well, despite the once-in-a-century pandemic. That this year’s projections are so similar to last year’s proves once again that our Social Security system is built to withstand times of crisis, providing a source of certainty in uncertain times,” she says.

“We don’t have a Social Security crisis, but we do have a retirement income crisis — made worse by the pandemic, which, among other economic impacts, forced millions of workers to retire earlier than planned. The solution is to expand Social Security, as President Joe Biden has promised to do,” suggests Altman.

According to SSW, “about one out of two married senior beneficiaries and seven out of 10 unmarried senior beneficiaries and almost one out of tow unmarried beneficiaries rely on Social Security for virtually all their income.”

Mustering the Political Will 

Richtman calls for Congress to closely look at Congressman John Larson (D-CT) legislation to fix and expand the nation’s ailing Social Security program. “For over six years, Congressman John Larson has been driving efforts to strengthen Social Security by adjusting the payroll wage cap so that high income earners begin paying their fair share,” he notes.

Larson has also proposed an across-the-board boost for all retirees, enhanced benefits for the most vulnerable seniors, and a more accurate formula for calculating annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) so that benefits truly keep pace with inflation, says Richtman, noting that the Connecticut Congressman’s  proposals also align with President Biden’s initiatives to strengthen and expand Social Security. 

“Of course, the default response from conservatives will be to suggest, indirectly or otherwise that Social Security benefits must be cut to address the program’s funding shortfall,” states Richtman said. “Some will insist that Social Security be privatized, which would gamble workers’ hard-earned retirement benefits on Wall Street. Meanwhile, conservatives likely will oppose common sense revenue-side measures that would actually boost benefits, including Rep. Larson’s proposed adjustment of the payroll wage cap.”  For Congress to act to advance legislation to strengthen and expand Social Security, voters must put political pressure on their elected officials “to muster the political will to get it done,” says Richtman.

A Final Note…

It’s better to make changes to ensure Social Security’s solvency now, rather than waiting, suggests CRFB, a delay only adds more costs to fixing trust fund shortfalls in a timely fashion.“ Acting now allows more policy options, lets policymakers phase in changes more gradually, and provides more time for workers to adjust their work and savings, if necessary,” the fiscal advocacy group says.

The clock is ticking. There are almost 4,500 days until the project insolvency of the Social Security trust fund. It is now time for Congress to find viable, bipartisan solutions to fixing Social Security and Medicare, once and for all. 

The 276-page 2021 Social Security Trust Fund report is available by going to https://www.ssa.gov/oact/TR/2021/tr2021.pdf.

“There’s a New Sheriff in Town” at SSA

Published in RINewsToday on June 20, 2020

On June President Joe Biden has asked two political holdovers from the President Trump’s administration, Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul and his deputy, David Black, who had previously served as the agency’s top lawyer, to resign. Saul ultimately was fired after refusing to resign Friday, July 9, while Black resigned upon the president’s request that day. 

Biden named as acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, whom he earlier had appointed to a lower-level Social Security Administration (SSA) position, deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy. 

The White House affirmed its authority to “remove the SSA Commissioner at will” by citing a Supreme Court ruling and a legal opinion from the Justice Department. Previously, under statute, the president could only remove the SSA commissioner for “neglect of duty” or “malfeasance in office.”

Saul’s term as Social Security Administrator ended in 2025 and according to The Washington Post, he states he plans to dispute the White House firing and continue to work remotely at his New York City home.

“I consider myself the term-protected commissioner of Social Security,” Saul told The Washington Post, calling the attempt to unseat him a “Friday Night Massacre.”

Minority Members of Senate Aging Committee Oppose Firing

Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Fla..), Mike Braun (R-Ind..), Rick Scott (R-Fla..), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent a letter July 14 to President Biden urging him to reinstate and honor the Senate confirmed, six-year term of Saul as SSA Commissioner. 

Members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging find the politically motivated action especially worrisome as it will have drastic effects on SSA services that help millions of older Americans with basic expenses like housing, food and medicine. 

The letter explains “Commissioner Saul was confirmed by the Senate in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in 2019… led the agency through one of the most trying periods in its history during the COVID-19 pandemic… was confirmed by the Senate to serve a full six-year term that expires in 2025 and he should have remained in his position unless removed for cause, as written in federal law.

The committee requested the Biden administration explain what authority an acting commissioner—not confirmed by the Senate—would possess to carry out the statutorily obligated duties of the SSA commissioner. 

 On the Other Side of the Aisle…

“From the beginning of their tenure at the Social Security Administration Andrew Saul and David Black were anti-beneficiary and anti-employee. The Biden Administration made the right move to fire both Saul and Black after they refused to resign, says chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT), of the House Ways and Means Social Security Committee, who had called for Saul and Black’s removal in March 2021. “As [Supreme Court] Justice Alito recently stated, the president needs someone running the agency who will follow their policy agenda,” he says.

According to Larson, since June 17, 2019, Saul’s control over SSA policies have “disproportionately harmed vulnerable Americans like low-income seniors and persons with disabilities, immigrants and people of color.

During Saul’s tenure, Larson noted that the SSA implemented a new rule that denied disability benefits for older, severely disabled workers who are unable to communicate in English, resulting in approximately 100,000 people being denied more than $5 billion in benefits from 2020 to 2029. However, there has been considerable discussion of the misinterpretation of the intent of this change.

SSA also finalized a new regulation that dramatically reduced due process protections for Social Security appeals hearings, by allowing the SSA to use agency attorneys instead of independent judges for the hearings, says Larson.

Larson also expressed concern about SSA proposing to change the disability review process to cut off benefits for some eligible people and proposing to make it significantly harder for older, severely disabled workers to be found eligible for disability benefits. 

According to Larson, Saul also advanced the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant policies by resuming “no-match letters” to employers with even minor discrepancies between their wage reports and their employees’ Social Security records. These letters effectively serve to harass immigrants and their employers, often leading to U.S. citizens and work-authorized immigrants being fired, he said.

Finally, Larson charged that Saul embraced the Trump Administration’s anti-federal employee policies, including forcing harsh union contracts that strip employees of rights and ending telework for thousands of employees just months before the COVID-19 pandemic started – a particularly ill-fated decision given the critical role telework has played in SSA’s ability to continue serving the public during the pandemic. 

Thumbs Up from Aging Advocacy Groups 

“The Social Security Commissioner should reflect the values and priorities of President Biden, which include improving benefits, extending solvency, improving customer services, reopening field offices, and treating SSA employees and their unions fairly. That was not the case with former Commissioner Saul, and we look forward to President Biden nominating someone who meets that standard,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Adds Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works: “Today is a great day for every current and future Social Security beneficiary. Andrew Saul and David Black were appointed by former President Donald Trump to undermine Social Security. They’ve done their very best to carry out that despicable mission. That includes waging a war on people with disabilities, demoralizing the agency’s workforce, and delaying President Biden’s stimulus checks.”  

Introducing New SSA Commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi…

Kilolo Kijakazi has a Ph.D. in public policy from George Washington University, an MSW from Howard University, and a BA from SUNY Binghamton University. Kijakazi’s Urban Institute bio notes that she served as an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute, where she “worked with staff across the organization to develop collaborative partnerships with those most affected by economic and social issues, to expand and strengthen Urban’s agenda of rigorous research, to effectively communicate findings to diverse audiences and to recruit and retain a diverse research staff at all levels” while conducting research on economic security, structural racism, and the racial wealth gap. 

Kijakazi was previously employed as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a program analyst at the Food Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture, and an analyst at the National Urban League.

According to Wikipedia, before entering the Biden administration, Kijakazi was a board member of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the National Academy of Social Insurance and its Study Panel on Economic Security, the Policy Academies and Liberation in a Generation, as well as a member of the DC Equitable Recovery Advisory Group, adviser to Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap, co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Eliminating the Black-White Wealth Gap at the Center for American Progress, and member of the Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

“Kilolo has an amazing ability to find and build connections among individuals and institutions that should be working together on critical public policy issues and policy discussions are much better for that inclusionary approach,” says Margaret Simms, an Institute Fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute.