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.
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“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.

Report: Congress Warned to Shore Up Social Security Reserves

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 26, 2020

Each year, starting in 1941, the Social Security Board of Trustees has presented a required report on the financial status of the program to the Congress. Now amidst the world-wide coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forcing the shuttering of the nation’s businesses triggering the worst economic downslide since the 1930s Great Depression, the Social Security Board of Trustees releases its 276-page 2020 annual with a warning that Social Security could deplete its trust funds reserves by 2035, if Congress does not act to increase the trust fund reserves. However, because of payroll taxes, revenue to the program would ensure that at least 79 percent of benefits would be paid after 2035 if Congress fails to address solvency.

During the last five weeks, about 24 million Americans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 Pandemic. With fewer people paying payroll taxes, this will further reduce revenue to Social Security, the impact depending upon how length and severity of the economic downturn. During the pandemic, the number of Americans who pass away, become disabled or survivors will also affect the actuarial accounting of the trust fund’s finances.

“The projections in this year’s report do not reflect the potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Social Security program. Given the uncertainty associated with these impacts, the Trustees believe it is not possible to adjust estimates accurately at this time,” said Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security. “The duration and severity of the pandemic will affect the estimates presented in this year’s report and the financial status of the program, particularly in the short term.” says Saul.

“Today’s report confirms that Social Security’s financing is strong in the near term, but it will not have enough to pay 100 percent of promised benefits in long term. The report underscores why it is so important that Congress take action now to prevent a 21 percent cut from occurring in 2035, by ensuring Social Security is fully funded and strengthened for today’s seniors and future generations, who will need it even more,” said Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee in a statement.

“As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, Social Security’s role is even more important than ever. During this volatile time of economic uncertainty, Social Security remains the one constant that all current and future beneficiaries can count on. It has never missed a payment. That’s why we must act now to expand and enhance Social Security with the Social Security 2100 Act,” states Larson. “His legislation will ensure Social Security remains solvent for the next 75 plus years, while expanding benefits. Moreover, the expansion of Social Security’s steady monthly payments would be an automatic boost to the economy,” he adds.

Gauging the Financial Health of Social Security

According to the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), at the end of 2019, about 64 million people were receiving benefits: 48.2 million retired workers and their dependents; 6 million survivors of deceased workers; and 9.9 million disabled workers and their dependents. About 178 million workers had earnings covered by Social Security and paid payroll taxes in 2019.

By 2035, (which is the same as last year’s estimate) when today’s 51-year-olds reach the retirement age and today’s youngest retirees turn 78, retirees will face a 21-percent across-the board benefits cut (that could grow to 25 percent over time) if Congress does not make significant changes to revenue, benefits, or both to shore up the depleted trust fund.

This year’s report announces that Social Security has an accumulated surplus of approximately $2.9 trillion. It projects that, even if Congress took no action whatsoever, Social Security not only can pay all benefits and associated administrative costs until 2035, it is 91 percent funded for the next quarter century, 85 percent for the next half century, and 82 percent for the next three quarters of a century. At the end of the century, in 2095, Social Security is projected to cost just 5.86 percent of gross domestic product.

The newly released Trustees report notes that the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund, which pays disability benefits, will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2065, 13 years later than in last year’s report. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted and continuing tax income will be sufficient to pay 92 percent of scheduled benefits.

As to the Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund, which pays Medicare Part A inpatient hospital expenses, the Trustee’s report says that this program will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2026, the same as reported last year. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted and continuing total program income will be sufficient to pay 90 percent of total scheduled benefits.

Finally, the Trustee’s report noted that the Supplemental Medical Insurance (SMI) Trust Fund, consisting of Part B, which pays for physician and outpatient services, and Part D, which covers prescription drug benefits, is adequately financed into the indefinite future because current law provides financing from general revenues and beneficiary premiums each year to meet the next year’s expected costs. Due to these funding provisions, the rapid growth of SMI costs will place steadily increasing demands on both taxpayers and beneficiaries, says the Trustee’s report.

Social Security Advocates Weigh in

“Medicare and Social Security are more crucial than ever as Americans face the one-two punch of the coronavirus’s health and economic consequences, says AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins in a statement following the release of the Trustees report, noting that the security provided by Social Security’s guaranteed benefits and Medicare’s health coverage is indispensable.

“Today’s reports show that both programs remain strong. However, it is crucial for Congress to come together in a bipartisan way to address the long-term funding challenges to ensure individuals will get the benefits they have earned. One way to protect Medicare is to lower the cost of health care and prescription drug prices, suggests Jenkins.

“Social Security is strong. But its long-term fiscal health cannot be guaranteed if the White House and Congress continue to use the program’s financing structure for economic stimulus during the COVID-19 crisis,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO. “Those who would like to dismantle Social Security are using the pandemic to launch a stealth attack. A broad-based payroll tax cut, as the President has proposed, would interfere with Social Security’s traditional revenue stream while failing to deliver effective or equitable stimulus,” he warns.

According to Richtman, Social Security already provides more than $1.6 trillion in annual economic stimulus as seniors spend their benefits for essential goods and services in their communities. “Now is not the time – in fact, it is never the time – to tamper with a program that more than 40% of retirees rely upon for all of their income,” he says.

Richtman notes that the Trustees estimate that the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for 2021 will be 2.3 percent. However, that projection does not reflect the impact of the pandemic on inflation, and the actual COLA for next year could be lower, he says.

“We do not know the extent of the pandemic’s impact on Social Security, but we do know that seniors need a boost in their benefits. Let’s strengthen the program now by eliminating the payroll tax wage cap and demanding the wealthy pay their fair share. That way, we can expand benefits and adopt a more accurate cost-of-living inflation formula for seniors,” suggests Richtman.

As for Medicare, says Richtman, the program’s financial future is relatively unchanged from last year’s report, but the impact of the pandemic is not reflected. “The Medicare Part A Trust Fund will become exhausted by 2026, after which the program still could pay 90 percent of benefits, if Congress does nothing to strengthen Medicare’s finances,” he adds.

Adds Richtman, the Trustees estimate that the Medicare Part B premium will rise to $153.30 per month in 2021, an $8.70 increase over last years.

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works and the Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, agrees with Jenkins and Richtman that the Trustee’s report shows Social Security will remain strong through the rest of the 21st century and beyond, notwithstanding current circumstances. “Though the exact impact of today’s pandemic and economic conditions will not be clear until next year’s report, Social Security’s strength will shine through next year, as well. Social Security is built to withstand today’s events,” says Altman.

Altman believes that Social Security is a solution and the program continues to pay benefits automatically on time, especially with retiree’s 401(k)s taking a hit because of the pandemic crisis. “It is past time to increase Social Security’s modest but vital benefits, while requiring the wealthy to pay their fair share,” she says.

Stimulating the Economy by Slashing Payroll Taxes

Congress has passed payroll tax cuts –in 2011 and 2012 – in an attempt to stimulate the economy during a downturn. The recently enacted $2.2 trillion economic stimulus legislation passed last month, called the CARES Act, does allow for employers to defer their payroll tax payments but does not actually cut the levies, which are used to fund Medicare and Social Security.

Now GOP lawmakers led by President Donald Trump are 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.

Using a payroll tax cut to provide a financial stimulus in an effort to forestall a recession caused by COVID-19 pandemic “undermines the earned benefit nature of the program,” warns Dan Adcock, NCPSSM’s Director of Government Relations & Policy.

“Social Security is an earned benefit fully funded by the contributions of workers throughout their working lives. A payroll tax cut suspension or deferral chips away at that 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 not just cut but is eliminated, undermining the program in this manner would help achieve the goals of opponents of Social Security including those who would privatize the program,” says Adcock.

Adcock says that NCPSSM opposes a Congressional effort to alter the payroll tax that reduces revenue flowing into the Social Security trust fund or undermines the “earned right” nature of the benefit. “We support the enactment of tax incentives – other than cutting, suspending or deferring the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes – to encourage employers to keep their workers during this emergency,” he says.

Congressional lawmakers can extend the long-term solvency of the Social Security while improving earned benefits through passing legislation like Congressman John Larson’s H.R. 860, the Social Security 2100 Act, says Adcock. At press time, the House bill has over 208 cosponsors and its Social Security Subcommittee has held several hearings on the bill.

Several other bills to protect and expand Social Security benefits have also been introduced in both House and Senate chambers The presumptive Democratic nominee for President, former Vice President Joe Biden, has endorsed a Senate proposal sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) that would provide all Social Security beneficiaries with an extra $200/month during the coronavirus health crisis.

As to Medicare, lawmakers can take action to cut beneficiaries’ out of pocket costs and boost Medicare’s fiscal health by passing H.R. 3, The Lower Drug Costs Now Act — which would save the program some $400 billion in projected prescription drug costs by allowing the government to negotiate prices directly with Big Pharma.

Simply put, one sure method of ensuring the financial viability of Social Security is to require millionaires to pay their fair share of payroll taxes by removing or increasing the current income cap on payroll taxes, suggests Adcock.

Shoreing Up Social Security

With over 90 days until the upcoming 2020 Presidential elections, seniors might reach out to those running for Congress and the White House and call for the strengthening and expansion of Social Security. It’s time to protect the viability of the program for those currently receiving benefits and for the younger generations who follow.

View the 2020 Trustees Report at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/TR/2020/.

View an infographic about the program’s long-term financial outlook at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/policy/social-security-long-term-financial-outlook.html

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

LCAO Calls for Fourth Stimulus Bill to Protect the Health and Well-Being of Seniors

Published in the Wooonsocket Call on April 19, 2020

As part of the Economic Impact Payment provision in the recently enacted $ 2.2 trillion stimulus bill, at press time about 80 million Americans have already received their $ 1,200 stimulus check ($2,400 for joint filers) through direct deposit. But for those 70 million Americans waiting for this payment by paper check, this Congressional handout may not be delivered to their mail box by early May, predict a Democratic Senator.

While the U.S. Treasury Department denies that embossing President Donald Trump’s signature on the “memo” section of the check will delay the delivery of paper checks, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.) disagrees.

A Break in Protocol

In an April 15 statement, Wyden stated: “Donald Trump is further delaying cash payments to millions of Americans struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table to feed his ego. Only this president would try to make a pandemic and economic catastrophe all about him.”

According to an article published in the Washington Post on April 14, “It will be the first time a president’s name appears on an IRS disbursement, whether a routine refund or one of the handful of checks the government has issued to taxpayers in recent decades either to stimulate a down economy or share the dividends of a strong one.”

The Washington Post article, penned by Reporter Lisa Rein, reported that Trump had initially approached Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who oversees the Internal Revenue Service, to be allowed to sign the checks. “But the president is not an authorized signer for legal disbursements by the U.S. Treasury. It is standard practice for a civil servant to sign checks issued by the Treasury Department to ensure that government payments are nonpartisan,” says the article.

Political insiders say that we can expect to see a fourth stimulus package hammered out between the Democratic-controlled House, the GOP-led Senate and Trump, to pump billions to jumpstart the nation’s sputtering economy. A second round of cash payments may well be part of this economic stimulus package, they say.

“We could very well do a second round,” said President Donald Trump at a White House news conference held over a week ago. “It is absolutely under serious consideration,” he said.

Last week’s commentary publicized Max Richtman, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, call to Congress to protect seniors in a fourth stimulus package (go to https://herbweiss.blog/2020/04/12/congress-must-protect-seniors-in-phase-four-stimulus-package/).

The continuing political battle over crafting the fourth stimulus bill has been put on hold for now with Democratic and WRepublican congressional leaders extending recess. After conferring with public health experts, the House and Senate will not come back into session until, Monday, May 4th.

Calling on Congress to Protect Seniors During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In an April 8 letter, the Washington, DC-based Leadership Council on Aging Organizations (LCAO), representing 69 national nonprofit organizations, urged Congressional lawmakers to ensure that a fourth stimulus package will protect the health and wellbeing of seniors and their families. LCAO’s 19-page communication provides over 50 recommendations (in the areas of housing services, income security and health and community resources) that are key to helping and providing the needed support to assist seniors cope with the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Specially, LCAO calls on Congress to put funding for affordable housing in a fourth stimulus bill, by funding $ 1.4 billion for federally assisted housing supports to make up for vacancies along with decreased rents from HUD-and USDA-assisted older adult residents, and for emergency housing assistance. Investing $1 billion for new Section 202 Homes would result in short-and long-term jobs as well as 3,800 affordable homes becoming available with service coordinators, says LCAO. Congress was also requested to allocate $450 million in emergency assistance for HUD-assisted senior housing communities, too.

LCAO opposes any attempts to weaken the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs. The aging group strongly resists any efforts to include a provision in the stimulus bill that would eliminate the payroll contributions to these programs and pushes for the expansion of Social Security and Supplemental (SSI) benefits to enhance the income security of America’s retirees.

Over 10 million workers and retirees have earned benefits under multiemployer pension plans, says LCAO, urging Congress in their letter to allocate sufficient funds to protect the “hard-earned benefits” of these retirees.

With a growing number of the nation’s seniors relying on the support of caregivers, LCAO calls for support of older adult caregivers and children through the expansion of the refundable tax credit for “other dependents.”

Within the next five years, 25 percent of the workforce will be age 55 and over, says LCAO, noting that it becomes crucial to provide adequate funding to the Senior Community Service Employee Program for workforce training.

It’s important to protect seniors from confusing and unfair billing hospitals and payment scams. This can be accomplished by establishing standards for billing that will help seniors manage the aftermath of health care costs due to the pandemic.

Each year, Medicare loses $60 billion to fraud and abuse. LCAO also requests $20 million for the Senior Medicare Patrol to educate Medicare beneficiaries on combating fraud and abuse scams.

LCAO’s letter also asked Congress for adequate funding of mass testing for COVID-19, data collection and accelerate Medicare enrollment to provide seniors and people with disabilities with access to needed medical treatment, two populations with the highest risk for being afflicted by the devastating virus. Congress must also ensure access and affordability to prescription drugs, says the Washington, DC-based aging advocacy group.

LCAO urged Congress to give states sufficient Medicaid funding to keep hundreds of thousands of Medicaid recipients from losing health coverage, which would increase the risk of these individuals spreading the COVID-19 virus.

The need to social distancing may force day care centers to close. LCAO says that a fourth stimulus bill package might add language within the Medicare and Medicaid Home and Community Based Service funding to authorize states to apply retainer payments to adult day care centers for the purpose of providing services to seniors outside the physical center.

LCAO also made a recommendation to prevent the unnecessary transfers of seniors to hospitals and nursing homes and support those recovering from COVID-19 by increasing beneficiary access to home health care by eliminating Medicare’s requirement that they be home bound to quality for this benefit.

LCAO’s letter supported the expanded access to hospice care by allowing physician assistants to certify need and to create a federal fund to identify and set up alternative care sites to nursing homes that meet the same minimum federal standards of care.

LCAO pushed for an additional $50 million to fund the Medicare State Health Insurance Program, a program providing unbiased, free and personalized information to assist seniors to chooses Medicare products, to help seniors understand their specific health care coverage needs under this COVID emergency.

The fourth stimulus bill, says LCAO, must also include funding to ensure providers in health care facilities and at community-based programs, be given personal protective equipment. These providers should be provided free child care and sick leaved during this crisis, too.

Considered “a frontline resource in the battling the pandemic,” LCAO calls for the adequate funding to Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program, administered by the Health Resources Administration.

LCAO, noting the importance of federal programs that assist seniors to stay at home (including the Older Americans Act that directly serve seniors and caregivers, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the largest federal nutrition program), asks Congress to increase funding, benefits and streamline the application process to these programs to address healthcare and food needs during this pandemic.

With the COVID-19 virus spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities, LCAO calls for more funding to the nation’s long-term care ombudsman program for remote online training and education of nursing facility staff and volunteers, and to the National Ombudsman Resource Center for training materials.

With elder abuse and neglect cases in the community reaching 63,000 in 2018 and an expected surge in incidences due to the pandemic, LCAO calls for funding of $ 120 million for the nation’s state and local Adult Protective Services programs in the next stimulus bill. Also, allocating $4.1 billion for the Social Service Block Grant Program can provide critical services to vulnerable seniors through adult protective services, adult day care and in-home support services, congregate and home delivered meals, case management programs.

Finally, in a fourth economic response package, LCAO calls on lawmakers to include $15 million for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and $10 million for the Senior Companion program to provide volunteer opportunities for seniors in their communities during the pandemic crisis. Congress might also consider “easing or suspending the current age requirements for participation,” to allow younger seniors to participate.

Remember Your Older Constituents

With the Trump Administration and GOP lawmakers pushing to put billions of dollars into the fourth stimulus bill to support the nation’s large corporations and small businesses, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for Congress to not forget the needs of the nation’s seniors. If you run into your Congressman or Senator, make sure you urge them to seriously consider the needs of their older constituents.

To get a copy of LCAO’s letter to Congress, go to https://www.lcao.org/files/2020/04/LCAO-April-2020-Letter-for-COVID-19-Package-4-FINAL.docx.pdf .

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.

In re-establishing House Aging Committee, hopefully the third time is indeed the charm

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 2, 2020

Twenty-six years after the House Democratic Leadership’s belt-tightening efforts to save $1.5 million resulted in the termination of the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging, U.S. Congressman David N. Cicilline reintroduces legislation to reestablish the House Aging panel, active from 1974 until 1993. Initially the House panel had 35 members but would later grow to 65 members.

According to Cicilline, the House can readily authorize the establishment of a temporary ad hoc select committee by just approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee – describing the purpose, defining members and detailing other issues that need to be addressed. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

At press time, for the third time, Cicilline’s resolution (House Resolution 821; introduced Jan. 30, 2020) to re-establish the House Aging Committee has been introduced and referred to the House Committee on Rules for mark up and if passed will be considered by the full House.

The Nuts and Bolts

The House Resolution (just over 245 words) reestablishes a Permanent House Select Committee on Aging, noting that the panel shall not have legislative jurisdiction, but it’s authorized to conduct a continuing comprehensive study and review of the aging issues, such as income maintenance, poverty, housing, health (including medical research), welfare, employment, education, recreation, and long-term care.

Cicilline’s House Resolution would have authorized the House Aging Committee to study the use of all practicable means and methods of encouraging the development of public and private programs and policies which will assist seniors in taking a full part in national life and which will encourage the utilization of the knowledge, skills, special aptitudes, and abilities of seniors to contribute to a better quality of life for all Americans.

Finally, the House Resolution would also allow the House Aging Committee to develop policies that would encourage the coordination of both governmental and private programs designed to deal with problems of aging and to review any recommendations made by the President or by the White House Conference on aging in relation to programs or policies affecting seniors.’

Initial Resolution Blocked by the House GOP

On March 1, 2016, Cicilline had introduced House Resolution 758 during the 114th Congress (2015-2016) to reestablish the House Aging Committee. It attracted Rhode Island Congressman James R. Langevin (D-RI) and 27 other cosigners (no Republicans) out of 435 lawmakers. Seniors Task Force Co-Chairs, U.S. Congress Women Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) also signed onto supporting this resolution.

However, it was extremely obvious to Cicilline and the Democratic cosigners that it was important to reestablish the House Aging Committee. Correspondence penned by the Rhode Island Congressman urged House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the House Republican leadership to support House Resolution 758. But, ultimately no action was taken because Ryan had blocked the proposal from being considered.

At that time, Cicilline remembers that many of his Democratic House colleagues didn’t think House Resolution 758 would gain much legislative traction with a Republican-controlled House. However, things are different today with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) controlling the legislative agenda in the chamber.

During the 115th Congress (2017-2018), Cicilline continued his efforts to bring the House Select Committee on Aging back to life. On March 01, 2017, he threw House Resolution 160 into the legislative hopper. Twenty-Four Democratic lawmakers became cosponsors and but no Republicans came on board. House Speaker Ryan again derailed the Rhode Island Congressman’s attempts to see his proposal passed.

Third Times the Charm

Since a Republican-controlled Congress successfully blocked Cicilline’s simple resolution from reaching the floor for a vote in 2017, the Democratic lawmaker has reintroduced his resolution in the current Congress with the Democrats controlling the chamber’s legislative agenda.

Cicilline is working to get support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and has approached the House leadership for support. He plans to again reach out to aging advocacy groups for support, including the Leadership Council on Aging Organizations, consisting of some 70 national organizations, whose leadership includes the AARP, the National Council on Aging, the Alliance for Retired Americans, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“Our nation’s seniors deserve dedicated attention by lawmakers to consider the legislative priorities that affect them, including Social Security and Medicare, the rising cost of prescription drugs, poverty, housing issues, long-term care, and other important issues,” said Cicilline in a statement announcing the reintroduction of his House resolution to bring back the House Aging Committee. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation today on behalf of seniors in Rhode Island and all across America,” says the Rhode Island Congressman who serves on the House Democratic leadership team as Chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

According to Cicilline, for nearly two decades, the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Aging was tasked with “advising Congress and the American people on how to meet the challenge of growing old in America.” The Select Committee did not have legislative authority, but conducted investigations, held hearings, and issued reports to inform Congress on issues related to aging.

“The re-establishment of the Permanent Select Committee will emphasize Congress’s commitment to current and future seniors. It will also help ensure older Americans can live their lives with dignity and economic security,” says Cicilline.

Looking Back in Time

In 1973, the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging was authorized by a vote of 323 to 84. While lacking legislative authority to introduce legislation (although its members often did in their standing committees), the House Aging panel would begin to put the spotlight on specific-aging issues, by broadly examining federal policies and trends. Its review of legislative issues was not limited by narrow jurisdictional boundaries set for the House standing committees.

In 1993, Congressional belt-tightening to match President Clinton’s White House staff cuts and efforts to streamline its operations would seal the fate of the House Aging Committee. House Democratic leadership cut $1.5 million in funding to the House Aging Committee forcing it to close its doors (during the 103rd Congress) because they considered it to be wasteful spending because the chamber already had 12 standing committee with jurisdiction over aging issues.

Even the intense lobbying efforts of a coalition of Washington, DC-based aging advocacy groups including AARP, National Council on Aging, National Council of Senior Citizens, and Older Woman’s League could not save the House Aging Committee. These groups warned that staff of the 12 standing committees did not have time to broadly examine aging issues as the select committee did.

Aging groups rallying in the support of maintaining funding for the House Aging Committee clearly knew its value and impact. In a March 31, 1993 article published in the St. Petersburg Times, reporter Rebecca H. Patterson reported that Staff Director Brian Lutz, of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Retirement Income and Employment, stated that “during its 18 years of existence the House Aging Committee had been responsible for about 1,000 hearings and reports.”

As an advocate for the nation’s seniors, the House panel prodded Congress to act in abolishing forced retirement, investigating nursing home abuses, monitoring breast screening for older woman, improving elderly housing and bringing attention to elder abuse by publishing a number reports, including Elder Abuse: An Examination of a Hidden Problem and Elder Abuse: A National Disgrace, and Elder Abuse: A Decade of Shame and Inaction. The Committee’s work would also lead to increased home care benefits for the aging, and establishing research and care centers for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Aging Advocates Give Thumbs Up

“The Senate has had the wisdom to keep its Special Committee on Aging in business which has meant a laser-like attention on major issues affecting seniors including elder abuse, especially scams and other forms of financial exploitation,” says Bill Benson, former staff director of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Housing and Consumer Interests. The House has been without a similar body now for decades, he notes.

Benson adds, “With ten thousand Americans turning 65 each day we are witnessing the greatest demographic change in human history. It is unconscionable to not have a legislative body in the House of Representatives focused on the implications of the aging of America.”

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, served as staff director for the Senate Special Committee on Aging from 1987 to 1989. He agrees that it’s time once again for the House to have its own committee dedicated to older Americans’ issues.

With the graying of America it is more important now than ever that seniors’ interests are represented as prominently as possible on Capitol Hill, says Richtman. “There is so much at stake for older Americans today, including the future of Social Security and Medicare, potential cuts to Medicaid, and the myriad federal programs that lower income seniors rely upon for everything from food to home heating assistance. We fully support Rep. Cicilline’s efforts to re-establish the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging,” he states.

“We enter 2020 in the midst of the predicted aging of America including the fact that all boomers are now over age 55, says Robert Blancato, president of Matz, Blancato and Associates, who was the longest serving staff person on the original House Aging Committee, from 1978 to 1993.

“We need the specific focus that only a select committee can offer to the myriad of issues related to aging in America,” adds Blancato, noting that it would be a coveted Committee to be named to from both a policy and political perspective.

Four years after the death of Congressman Claude Pepper, (D-Florida) in 1989, the former Chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging, serving as its chair for six years, would have turned in his grave with the House eliminating his beloved select committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might honor the late Congressman who was the nation’s most visible spokesperson for seniors, by bringing the House Select Committee on Aging back this Congressional session.

Democratic House Passes Landmark Legislation to Drive Down Spiraling Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 16, 2019

Just days ago, the Democratic House leadership successfully pushed for passage of landmark legislation, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3), that would give Medicare the power to negotiate directly with drug companies to bring down pharmaceutical prices and make those savings available to seniors.

House Democrats passed Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s sweeping legislation on Dec. 12 to lower the cost of prescription drugs on a largely party-line vote. The bill, which passed 230 to 192 with unanimous Democratic support and the backing of two Republicans, Reps Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn) and Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash), is considered “dead on arrival” in the Senate. The White House has indicated President Trump would veto H.R. 3 it if it came to his desk.

The House Republicans fought to block passage of H.R. 3 by releasing their own legislative proposal, H.R. 19, to lower drug costs. The bill, consisting of bipartisan legislative provisions to lower drug costs that had already been adopted, would have achieved lower drug prices without imposing government price controls that House Republicans believed would decrease research and development spending for new drug cures.

Although House Republican Whip Steve Scalise called on the Democratic leadership to bring H.R. 19, with 135 sponsors and no Democrats, to the House Floor, the GOP proposal did not receive a vote on its own. It was offered by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) as an amendment to H.R. 3 and failed by a vote of 201 to 223, getting eight Democrat votes.

The Nuts and Bolts

H.R. 3 would put the brakes of spiraling drug cost by giving power to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate directly with drug companies to force real price reductions while also ensuring that seniors never lose access to the medicines they need. The legislation also expands access to the lower, negotiated drug prices to persons with private insurance, not just Medicare beneficiaries.

The 320-page House bill also prevents pharmaceutical companies from price gouging patients by capping the maximum price for a negotiated drug at the average price people in countries similar to the U.S. pay. It would create a brand new, $2,000 out-of-pocket limit on prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries and even delivers vision, dental, and hearing benefits to Medicare beneficiaries for the first time.

H.R. 3 also increases the number of low-income seniors eligible for assistance with their drug costs and cost sharing for hospital and doctor visits. By extending guaranteed issue protections to disabled beneficiaries and to individuals who want to switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare, the legislation improves access to private supplemental coverage that helps fill in Medicare’s gaps for beneficiaries in traditional Medicare.

“The U.S. House of Representatives resoundingly defied Big Pharma today by-passing historic legislation to lower prescription drug prices for America’s seniors and their families. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3) accomplishes what we and other advocates have long demanded — that Medicare be empowered to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, which the CBO says will save more than $450 billion in drug costs. It also caps Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket prescription drug costs at $2,000 per year, says Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, in a statement.

The Pros and Cons of H.R. 3

Richtman says that it is time for the Senate Chamber to act. Drug pricing legislation that passed by the Senate Finance Committee has not been brought up for a vote on the Senate floor. “We insist that the Senate follow the House’s lead and act now to lift the burden of crushing prescription drug prices. Seniors who have been rationing pills or foregoing other necessities in order to afford crucial medications have waited long enough,” he says.

In a statement released following House passage of H.R. 3, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond, called the legislation” a bold step toward lowering prescription drug prices and high out-of-pocket costs for millions of older Americans.”
“High drug prices disproportionately hurt older Americans, particularly Medicare Part D enrollees, who take between four and five prescription medications each month and have an average annual income of just over $26,000 a year. The average annual price of a specialty drug used on a chronic basis is now $79,000. Medications cannot work if they are unaffordable, says LeaMond.

Adds AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, “Drug companies are price-gouging older Americans and taxpayers– who pay the highest drug costs in the world,” noting that “AARP is proud to support H.R. 3, which would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and cap out-of-pocket costs for Part D enrollees. The bill also enhances Medicare by improving access and adding needed dental, hearing, and vision coverage.”

Opposing the passage of H.R. 3, the White House says in a statement, “Heavy-handed government intervention may reduce drug prices in the short term, but these savings are not worth the long-term cost of American patients losing access to new lifesaving treatments.” Noting that lowering the price of prescription drugs is major concern for seniors, the White Houses warned that H.R. 3 is the wrong approach to address this issue, “especially when bipartisan legislative alternatives that encourage innovation while lowering prescription drug

During a briefing with reporters over two months ago, President and CEO Stephen Ubl, of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), warned the passage of H.R.3 would trigger “nuclear winter” for biotech innovation. Fiercely opposing passage, PhRMA has called on the Senate to “stop H.R. 3 in its tracks.”

Putting the Brakes on Rising Drug Costs in Rhode Island

“We all know someone who has been forced to ration the medication they need to live so that they can afford to keep a roof over their family’s heads or put food on the table. In America, in 2019, this should never be the case,” said Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-RI), who voted to pass the measure. “Pharmaceutical companies have abused American patients and taxpayers to increase their profits hand over fist without recourse for too long. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act will put an end to the price gouging by big pharma that sees American patients and taxpayers paying more for their prescription drugs than people in other countries, says the Rhode Island Congressman representing the state’s first congressional district.

In his 2016 campaign, President Donald J. Trump supported the government to negotiate drug prices. Cicilline calls on the president to honor this promise and urges Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring a companion measure to the Senate floor for consideration. At press time more than 300 House passed bills are stuck in the Senate (about 275 are bipartisan).

According to Cicilline, the out-of-pocket savings to Rhode Islanders will be substantial. “This year alone, more than 1,000 women in the state will be diagnosed with breast cancer, 550 people will be told they have prostate cancer, and 190 folks will be diagnosed with leukemia. H.R. 3 will lower the average costs of many popular medications for these and other cancer treatments. The cost of Ibrance for treating breast cancer will be reduced by as much as 65 percent. Zytiga, a common prescription for people with prostate cancer, will be reduced by as much as 66 percent. And the cost of Tasigna, which is commonly prescribed to people with leukemia, will go down by as much as 71 percent,” says Cicilline, who serves as the Democratic Policy and Communication Committee Chair.

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Congressman released information detailing how much more Rhode Islanders with diabetes pay for their insulin than people in other countries. Currently, 8.6 percent of Rhode Islanders, just over 83,000 people, have diabetes. They pay from $1,200 to $20,000 per year for the most commonly used insulin medications. Under the newly passed H.R. 3, the average total cost of NovoLOG Flexpen, a common insulin medicine, would decrease by as much as 76 percent. Under H.R. 3, Rhode Islanders could spend 3.5 times less on insulin, and some of the commonly used insulins could cost as little as $400 per year.

According to Cicilline, seniors in his Congressional District will see Medicare improvements if H.R. 3 becomes law. At this time, Medicare does not provide coverage for: oral exams for 71 percent of beneficiaries, eye exams for 66 percent of beneficiaries, hearing exams for 66 percent of beneficiaries, dental exams for 75 percent of beneficiaries, eye glasses for 75 percent of beneficiaries, and hearing aids for 86 percent beneficiaries.

Under H.R. 3’s Medicare expansion, 93 percent of beneficiaries (98,800 people) stand to gain from adding a dental benefit, 75 percent of beneficiaries stand to gain from adding a vision benefit, and 97 percent (102,700 people) of beneficiaries stand to gain from adding a hearing benefit.

On December 6, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released an updated version of their bipartisan Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 201. Will McConnell, who controls its legislative fate, allow it to be considered on the Senate floor? Can a conference committee iron out the different between a Senate bill and H.R. 3, that can be pass both chambers and be signed by the president?

The legislative clock is ticking. It’s 324 days until the upcoming 2020 presidential election and the voters are demanding Congress to put aside philosophical policy differences and come up with a compromise that will truly put the brakes on rising drug costs. We’ll see.

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.