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.

2020 Census Data Impacts Federal Funding Allocated to Aging Programs and Services

Published in the Woonsocket Call on January 19, 2020

By April 1, every home across the nation will receive an invitation from the U.S. Census Bureau, a nonpartisan government agency, to participate in the 2020 Census. Once this invitation arrives, it’s important for you to immediately answer the short questionnaire by either going on-line, phone, or by mail. When you respond to the census, you’ll tell the Census Bureau where you live as of April 1, 2020.

The U.S. Constitution: Article 1, Section 2, mandates that the country conduct a count of its population once every 10 years. The 2020 Census will mark the 24th time that the country has counted its population since 1790

The population statistics generated by the upcoming 2020 Census will be used to distribute over $700 billion annually in federal funds back to tribal, state and local governments. The collected census data also determines the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives, provides insight to governments, business and community planning groups for planning purposes, and finally defines congressional and state legislative districts, school districts and voting precincts

2020 Census Statistics and the Graying of America

According to a blog story published on Dec. 10, 2019, by American Counts (AC) Staff, the upcoming 2020 Census will provide the federal government with the latest count of the baby boom generation, now estimated at about 73 million. The boomer generation born after World War II, from 1946 to 1964, will turn 74 next year. When the 2010 census was taken, the oldest had not even turned 65.

Baby Boomers are also projected to outnumber children under age 18 for the first time in U.S. history by 2034, according to Census Bureau projections. With an increasing need for caregiver and health services and less family caregiver support, the boomers will be forced to depend on federally-funded support services, their allocation depending on policy decisions based on census data.

“Data from the 2020 Census will show the impact of the baby boomers on America’s population age structure,” said Wan He, who has for over 21 years overseen the Aging Research Programs for the Population Division of the U.S. Census Bureau.

AC’s blog article, part of a Census Bureau series detailing the important community benefits that come from responding to the 2020 Census questionnaire, stresses that exact count of American’s age 65 and over is important for tribal, local, state and federal lawmakers to determine how they will spend billions of dollars annually in federal funds on critical aging programs and services for the next 10 years.

While everyone uses roads, hospitals and emergency services some state and federal programs specifically target older Americans – the 2020 Census statistics will be used to distribute funding to senior centers, adult day care facilities, nutrition programs including meals on wheels, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, job-training programs, elder abuse programs, Medicare Part B health insurance and Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people including those age 65 and older.

“The census is really important to us in the aging community,” said John Haaga, of the National Institute on Aging in Washington, D.C. in the AC’s blog article. “It’s our only way to figure out how things are different across the country, what areas are aging faster, where elderly disabled people live, or where older people are concentrated, like Appalachia or West Virginia, because young people are leaving for the cities,” says Haag, noting that “Older people are remaining behind there.”

Haaga noted, “Other states, such as Florida, have large older populations because people are moving there to retire.”

“You can start to look at specifics like how many older people are living alone who are more than 10 miles from an adult day care centers,” says Haaga. “You can answer questions of access and how to improve it,” he adds, noting that census statistics helps lawmakers or business people decide where to open health clinics or senior citizen centers, among other services.

Calls for Action: Fill Out that Census Questionnaire

AARP has three main goals, according to State Director Kathleen Connell. “First,” she said, “to ensure a fair and accurate census count by educating our​ members and older adults about the census outreach efforts. Second, to provide tips and resources to encourage safe participation while protecting themselves from bad actors and census related fraud during this time. And third, to help people age 50 and over gain employment as census enumerators.”

“AARP has long been involved in informing people about the census, including the fact that the headcount is labor intensive – to the tune of 400,000 temporary staff. In the past, retired adults have made up a good portion of those who work in the decennial count of Americans, often as enumerators who go door-to-door in neighborhoods. In many communities, the Bureau will be looking for bilingual applicants.”

To be sure, Connell adds, the loss of a Congressional seat would have an impact on Medicare funding and other services that support Rhode Island’s age 50 and over population. “If a subset of people doesn’t participate in the census, the area in which they live will be represented as having fewer residents than it actually does; the costs to states and communities could be large, consequential and long-lasting. A census that is as complete and accurate as it can be – and doesn’t undercount the number of residents in a given area – is a vital resource for everyone,” she said.

Connell sits on the RI Complete Count committee and the AARP State Office is using its email list and social media in a series of reminders and encouragement to participate in the census. AARP also is reaching out to members who might consider becoming census workers.

Adds Jennifer Baier, AARP Senior Advisor, Census lead: “Many federally funded programs rely on census data to distribute billions of dollars to states and localities across the country. According to the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, Rhode Island receives about $3.8 billion per year based on Census data. That includes funds for schools, roads and hospitals and also programs that aid older Americans, such as Medical Assistance Program (Medicaid) Medicare Part B, Special Programs for the Aging, Meals on Wheels, Heart Disease Prevention Programs and more.”

“The 2020 Census is just nine questions long, and takes about 10 minutes to fill out – those ten minutes impact millions of dollars of federal funding in every state and communities across the country,” says Baier.

Ahead of Midterms, Trump Unveils His Proposal to Slash Prescription Drug Costs

Published in Woonsocket Call on October 28, 2018

With mid-term elections looming, President Trump moves to block Democrats tying the high cost of prescription drugs to an unresponsive Republican-controlled Congress and to GOP efforts to undo health care protections for people with preexisting medical conditions, one of the most popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act, referred to as Obamacare.

According to recent Roll Call poll, health care is a top issue for Democratic and Independent voters in key battle ground states while the GOP tout’s immigration and the economy and jobs as its priority.

Last Thursday, afternoon, at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with Secretary Alex Aza, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and CMS Administrator Seem Verman standing by President Trump, he announced major changes as to how Medicare pays for prescription drug to bring down costs by making prescribed medications more affordable to seniors, making pricing of U.S. drugs fairer relative to costs paid by other countries.

Bringing Down Medicare’s Skyrocketing Drug Costs

“We’re taking aim at the global freeloading that forces American consumers to subsidize lower prices in foreign countries through higher prices in our country,” said Trump at the Oct. 25 press conference in his 14-minute speech. He noted that the costs for the same pharmaceutical drug in some countries are 20 percent less than those purchased in the United States even though it was made by the same manufacturing company.

“At long last, the drug companies and foreign countries will be held accountable for how they rigged the system against American consumers,” says Trump.

Trump rattled off specific examples of how Medicare pays higher prices for the same pharmaceutical drugs that are cheaper in other developed countries. For instance, one eye medication that prevents blindness would annually cost about $187 million rather than $1 billion dollars if Medicare paid the same prices other countries pay, he said.

Another example, a highly used and very effective cancer drug is nearly seven times as expensive for Medicare as it is for other countries, said Trump, noting that “this happens because the government pays whatever price the drug companies set without any negotiation whatsoever.”

Under Trump’s unveiled proposal, a new Medicare model, the International Pricing Index (IPI), is created to bring down Medicare drug costs to ensure seniors get a “more fair deal on the discounts drug companies voluntarily give to other countries.”

Currently, Medicare sets payments for physician-administered drugs at the average sales price in the U.S. market—plus a price-based add-on fee. Trump’s proposal would allow Medicare to set the payment of these drugs at a Target Price, based on the discounts drug companies give other countries. With the model fully implemented, it is estimated that total payment for these drugs would drop by 30 percent.

Under the IPI model, described in an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Medicare’s payments for select physician-administered drugs would shift to a level more closely aligned with prices in other countries. Overall savings for American taxpayers and patients is projected to total $17.2 billion, with out-of-pocket savings potentially totaling $3.4 billion over five years.

Medicare beneficiaries not covered by the IPI model could also see their drug costs lowered, because the average price used to calculate traditional Medicare reimbursement will drop.

Trump’s drug pricing proposal still needs to be refined and put though a federal rule-making process and its impact may not be seen for years.

Is Trump’s Efforts to Lower Drug Costs Just Election Year Posturing?

“It’s hard to take the Trump administration and Republicans seriously about reducing health care costs for seniors two weeks before the election when they have repeatedly advocated for and implemented policies that strip away protections for people with pre-existing conditions and lead to increased health care costs for millions of Americans,” says U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck E. Schumer in a statement.

“Once again, the President’s plan doesn’t go far enough to bring down the costs of prescription drugs. Democrats have proposed letting the HHS Secretary negotiate the prices of all drugs covered under Medicare, as well as new tools to ensure transparency and accountability when companies try to raise their prices. Without these critical steps, the President’s plan is just more words with little substance,” says Rhode Island Congressman David N. Cicilline.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) president and CEO Stephen J. Ubl, opposes Trump’s proposal to lower Medicare’s drug costs, warning that it would “jeopardize access to medicines for seniors and patients with disabilities living with devastating conditions such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.” Trump’s proposal severely alters the Medicare Part B program by reducing physician reimbursement and inserting middlemen between patients and their physicians,” charges Ubl.

Adds, Frederick Isasi, executive director of Families USA, in his statement: “The data is clear. The way we currently pay providers and pharmaceutical companies for drugs administered in doctors’ offices and hospitals creates perverse financial incentives for providers to select extraordinarily expensive drugs that may not be best for their patients. “

“Medicare Part B is the perfect example of misaligned incentives, and the proposed rule, if implemented, could pilot significant new ways to pay for drugs that align incentives so that patients get the highest value care, they have the best outcomes possible, and costs come down, says Isasi.

Like many, Isasi hopes that Trump’s proposal of using the power of the federal government to reduce Medicare drug costs is “not just election year posturing” but truly reflects a policy shift to using federal negotiating power to get unstainable prescription drug prices under control.

Next year, after the dust settles after the mid-term elections, Congress must work together to hammer out a comprehensive legislative strategy to lower pharmaceutical drug costs and to provide health care to all Americans. Listen to the polls.