Trustee Reports predict improved outlook for Social Security and Medicare

Published in RINewsToday on June 6, 2022

On June 2, 2022, following a meeting of the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees, the Social Security Administration (SSA) – joined by the Departments of Health and Human Services and Labor, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and the U.S. Department of Treasury — released a 275-page annual report giving us a snapshot of the financial health of the Social Security Trust Funds.

The Trustee reports findings

According to this year’s Trustee Reports, “Social Security and Medicare both face long-term financing shortfalls under currently scheduled benefits and financing. Costs of both programs will grow faster than gross domestic product (GDP) through the mid-2030s primarily due to the rapid aging of the U.S. population. Medicare costs will continue to grow faster than GDP through the late 2070s due to projected increases in the volume and intensity of services provided.”

The Social Security Trustees report that the combined asset reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASI and DI) Trust Funds, paying benefits to 65 million retirees, disabled people as well as survivors of deceased workers, are projected to become depleted in 2035, one year later than projected last year, with 80 percent of benefits payable at that time. The DI Trust Fund asset reserves are not projected to become depleted during the 75-year projection period.

“It is important to strengthen Social Security for future generations. The Trustees recommend that lawmakers address the projected trust fund shortfalls in a timely way to phase in necessary changes gradually,” says Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security in a statement announcing the released report. “Social Security will continue to be a vital part of the lives of 66 million beneficiaries and 182 million workers and their families during 2022,” she adds.   

The Medicare Board of Trustees note in its 263 page report that the projected depletion date for Medicare’s trust fund for inpatient hospital care (Part A), covering around 64 million retirees and disabled persons, moved from last year’s forecast of 2026 to 2028. At this time Medicare will only be able to pay 90% of the scheduled benefits when the fund is depleted.

“We are committed to running a sustainable Medicare program that provides high quality, person-centered care to older Americans and people with disabilities,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure. In a statement “Medicare trust fund solvency is an incredibly important, longstanding issue and we are committed to working with Congress to continue building a vibrant, equitable, and sustainable Medicare program,” she says.

Thoughts from senior advocacy groups

In a statement, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said that this year’s Social Security and Medicare Trustee report sends this clear message to Congress: “The Social Security and Medicare Trustees’ reports should send this “clear message” to Congress: “Despite the short-term improvement, you must act to protect the benefits people have earned and paid into both now and for the long-term. The stakes are too high for the millions of Americans who rely on Medicare and Social Security for their health and financial well-being.”

“These reports also underscore the urgent need for Congress to pass legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices, which would result in billions of dollars of savings for seniors, the Medicare program, and taxpayers,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins also calls on Congress to increase funding to fix serious long-time Social Security customer service problems, which currently impede or keep seniors and people with disabilities from getting their benefits in a timely manner.

Following the release of the Trustees Report, Executive Director Alex Lawson, of the Washington, DC-based Social Security Works, (SSW) a social welfare organization that lobbies for Social Security Reforms, also issued a statement: “Today’s report shows that our Social Security system remains strong. Protecting and expanding benefits is a question of values, not affordability. That this year’s projections are even stronger than last year’s proves once again that Social Security is built to withstand times of crisis, including pandemics.”

We don’t have a Social Security crisis, but we do have a retirement income crisis. With prices rising, seniors and people with disabilities are struggling to afford food and medicine. The solution is to expand Social Security,” says Lawson. 

According to SSW, the 2020 Social Security Trustee’s Report reported that Social Security has an accumulated surplus of about $2.85 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 90 percent funded for the next quarter century, 84 percent for the next half century, and 81 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 the gross domestic product (“GDP”), less than most other wealthy countries spend on their counterpart programs,” says SSW.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), throws in his two cents about this year’s Trustee Report. “The takeaway from the latest Social Security Trustees report is this:  Congress must strengthen the program’s finances without delay. The Trustees project that the combined Social Security retirement and disability trust fund will become depleted by 2035, one year later than projected in their previous report. At that point, every Social Security beneficiary will suffer a 20% cut to their benefits.”

“Seniors struggling to meet rising living expenses need Social Security to be boosted and strengthened. The pandemic, runaway inflation and devastating stock market losses serve to remind us how vital a robust Social Security program is to workers, retirees, the disabled and their families. The clock is running down. The time for fair, just, and equitable action that safeguards Social Security’s financial stability is now,” adds Richtman.   

While acknowledging that the trust fund insolvency date may fluctuate from year to year, the urgent need to boost the program’s financing and benefits remains consistent, says Richtman. 

NCPSSM’s Richtman says, over the years, the GOP has opposed the expansion and strengthening of Social Security and has called for raising the retirement age, privatization, and more recently, ‘sunsetting’ Social Security and Medicare every five years.  He calls for passage of Rep. John Larson’s Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust legislation that would extend trust fund solvency by requiring high wage earners to contribute their fair share through an adjustment in the payroll wage cap. 

A Washington Insider says that House Speaker’s Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) policy staff are concerned about the cost of Larson’s Social Security fix legislation and are seeking a CBO cost estimate. At press time this measure has more than 200 Democratic cosponsors in the House. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), the Task Force on Aging and Families, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus have all called on Pelosi to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote.

“Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, our economic recovery has strengthened both the Social Security and Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Funds and improved financial projections for these vital programs. But to ensure that every American worker, senior, child, and person with disabilities receives the necessary and earned benefits provided by both Social Security and Medicare, we need to act. That’s why I am an original cosponsor of legislation like Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, to not only enhance benefits for seniors and some of our most vulnerable neighbors, but to also guarantee access to these programs for generations to come,” said Congressman David Cicilline, (D-RI).  

Congress can step in to financially strengthen the Social Security and Medicare programs. A message from the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees suggest Congress pass legislation to reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in both the Social Security and Medicare. “Taking action sooner rather than later will allow consideration of a broader range of solutions and provide more time to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare,” say the Trustees.

Congress should look for “medium-term solvency” fixes to ensure that Social Security program can pay full benefits for several decades rather than for the full 75-year projection period, suggests Paul N. Van De Water, Senior Fellow at the Washington, DC-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit nonpartisan research organization and policy institute that conducts research on government policies and programs. “But shoring up the program’s financing for a substantial period of time is important for assuring both current and future beneficiaries that Social Security will be there for them in the years to come,” he says.

At a crossroad

NCPSSM’s Richtman believes Social Security’s future is now at a crossroads. “We can either cut benefits or expand benefits and pay for it by requiring the wealthiest to pay their fair share,” he says, calling on Congress to hold an up or down votes on Larson’s Social Security legislation.

Polling shows that voters support fixing Social Security and Medicare. Seniors may well go to the polls, sending a message with their vote that strengthening and expanding Social Security is important to them.   

For a copy of the 2022 Social Security Trustee Report, go to https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/TR/2022/tr2022.pdf. For a copy of the 2022 Medicare Trustee Report, go to https://www.cms.gov/files/document/2022-medicare-trustees-report.pdf

National Aging Coalition pushes to bring back House Aging Committee in DC

Published in RINewsToday on March 28, 2022

In 1992, aging advocacy groups fought unsuccessfully to keep the House Select Committee on Aging  (HSCoA) from being eliminated. The House had pulled the plug on funding for the HSCoA as a cost-cutting measure and to stream-line the legislative process at the end of the 102nd Congress without much notice in the Democratic rules package adopted in Jan.1993 during the beginning of the 103rd Congress.

As the dust settled after the dissolving of the HSCoA, Congressman Michael Bilirakis (R-FL), a former committee member, stated in an article, “Congress Eliminates Committee on Aging,” published March 31, 1993, in the Tampa Bay Times,” I honestly don’t’ think other committees would cover all aging issues.” AARP agreed with Bilirankis’s assessment. “Seniors need a specific forum,” said Tom Otwell, spokesperson for AARP. “The population is getting older, and issues are certainly not going away,” he said. 

During its 18 years of existence, its Congressional oversight on a myriad of aging issues included Social Security, Medicare, nursing homes, aging bias and elderly housing. This oversight influenced the introduction and passage of major legislation enhancing the quality of life of America’s seniors. 

Thirty years later, the Washington, DC-based Leadership Council on Aging Organizations (LCAO), representing 69 national aging advocacy groups, recognized the opportunity to bring back the HSCoA by endorsing H. Res. 583, a resolution introduced in the 117th Congress by Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) to reestablish the HSCoA when introduced Aug. 10, 2021.  The Rhode Island Congressman has also introduced this resolution during the last three congresses.

H. Res. 583 would reestablish the HSCoA without having legislative jurisdiction, this being no different when the initial permanent committee previously existed. The 214-word resolution would authorize a continuing comprehensive study and review of aging issues, such as income maintenance, poverty, housing, health (including medical research), welfare, employment, education, recreation and long-term care. These efforts assisted the House’s 12 Standing Committees in the creation and advocacy for legislation they drafted. At press time, the resolution has been referred to the House Rules Committee for consideration.

According to the Congressional Research Service, it’s quite simple to create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee in the House chamber. All it takes is a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee – giving a purpose, defining membership, 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. 

Calling for co-sponsor support

While supporting Cicilline’s proposal, LCAO went one step further by calling on House lawmakers three weeks ago, in correspondence, to become co-sponsors. LCAO asked its members to co-sponsor the bill in order to drive the House Democratic Caucus to approve it and bring it to the House floor for a vote. As a House committee, it only needs the House’s approval, where there is now a majority of Democrats.

The time is ripe for the HSCoA to be reestablished, say LCAO. “Every day, 12,000 Americans turn 60. By 2030, nearly 75 million people in the U.S. – or 20% of the country – will be age 65 and older. As America grows older, the need for support and services provided under programs like Social Security, SSI, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act also increases,” noted in correspondence signed by 30 Coalition members.

LCAO stressed that the HSCoA worked effectively in partnership with the House’s 12 Standing Committees with jurisdiction over aging programs and services. “The House Aging Committee, which flourished in the 1970s under chairperson Claude Pepper, partnered and magnified the work of the standing committees in a team effort and a bipartisan manner, holding many joint hearings with them and helping to pass the end of mandatory retirement 359-2 in the House and 89-10 in the Senate, as well as protecting Social Security, exposing nursing home abuses and setting transparency standards, expanding home health care benefits as a way older persons could often delay or avoid the need for being forced into nursing homes and so much more. Ways and Means, Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce and Space, Science and Technology were just some of the Committees who benefited from the partnership and appreciated the House Aging Committee’s help in reaching senior citizens,” stated LCAO. 

As seniors now settle into living in a post-pandemic world, passage of H. Res. 583 becomes even more important. “Historically, the HSCoA served as a unique venue that allowed the open, bipartisan debate from various ideological and  philosophical perspectives to promote the consensus that, in turn, permeated pandemic, and the coronavirus continues to take its toll, exacerbating the problem of social isolation and family separation across generations.  Addressing the needs of older Americans in a post-pandemic world will require vigilant oversight and action,” noted LCAO.

Op Ep tells the story and the need for passage of Cicilline’s resolution 

Robert Weiner, former Clinton White House spokesman and Chief of Staff of the HSCoA under Congressman Claude Pepper,(D-FL) and Ben Lasky, senior policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates News and Public Affairs, recently penned an op-ed for the Miami Herald which calls for the passage of Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline’s H. Res. 583, to reestablish the HSCOA. With threats of Social Security “reforms” (cuts) and the mishandling of Covid in nursing homes which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, the Committee is needed once again.

Weiner and Lasky say the largest part of Pepper’s congressional legacy, especially as he grew older, was chairing the HSCoA, which featured banning mandatory retirement (with Colonel Sanders as a witness), protecting nursing homes, expanding home health care, and protecting Social Security with solvency through 2034.

“Pepper’s bill that banned mandatory retirement passed 359-2 in the House and 89-10 in the Senate,” they said.

They argue, “The elderly are now threatened with Social Security reforms,” (meaning cuts). Senior citizens also disproportionately died from Covid in nursing homes in Florida, New York and around the country. More than 200,000 have died in nursing homes. Forbes called ‘The Most Important Statistic’ the fact that 42% of US Covid deaths in the first five months of the pandemic happened in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. That number later went down to around 33%. When standards, distance standards, vaccines, and transparency started to kick in (under pressure in many facilities), it got a little better but for many it was too little too late. Tens of thousands died because health care workers failed to follow the transparency, staffing, and safety standards that Pepper had passed into law in nursing homes.”

They continue, “Once vaccines became widely available in 2021, a majority of nursing home workers remained unvaccinated for six more months. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities were let off the hook by governors from Ron DeSantis (R-FL) to Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) for hiding their number of Covid deaths.”

Weiner and Lasky assert, “Older voters vote Democratic and Republican. It’s close. In 2020, while Joe Biden won the popular vote by 7 million, Donald Trump won the senior vote 52% to 47%. It’s not a matter of party. Seniors’ quality of life is not political.”

They conclude, “With Pepper’s legacy as the guide, pandemic deaths, nursing homes, home care, Social Security, and Medicare would be improved by Sunlight of Oversight.”

For the benefit of America’s seniors, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team must consider giving H. Res 583 their political support and blessing, calling for a vote in House Rules Committee, if passed allowing for swift consideration on the floor.  As Weiner remembers, “the last HSCoA was so well received and successful because of the strong relationships and bonds to the Standing committees and successful outreach to seniors.” The former HSCoA staff director notes that during his tenure membership grew from 29 to 50 members. “After the committee began, in just a few years, everyone wanted to be on it.” 

AARP’s Otwell’s observations that the nation’s population is getting older, and the issues are not going to go away  and that “Seniors ‘need a specific forum” are true even 29 years later. House lawmakers must pass H. Res. 583 for America’s seniors to give them this specific forum that they deserve.

To read the Miami Herald Op Ed, go to www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article259629314.html

AARP Rhode Island calls on Congress to act on lowering high drug costs

Published on March 14, 2022 in Rhode Island News Today

On the day before the Washington, DC-based AARP’s March 8th launch of its new ad campaign showing the impact of Congress’s failure to act on prescription drug prices, AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor, Volunteer State President Marcus Mitchell and Volunteer Lead Federal Liaison Dr. Phil Zarlengo joined Rhode Island US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse for a virtual news conference highlighting the need for Congress to act now to slash rising prescription drug costs. 

During the 26 minute and 45 second event, AARP Rhode Island, representing 132,000 members, delivered a petition signed by more than 16,114 Rhode Islanders, calling for Congress to act now and stop unfair drug prices. AARP has called for fair drug prices for years and supports legislation that passed the House in November, which would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, put a cap on out-of-pocket costs that older adults pay for their prescription drugs and impose penalties on drug companies that raise prices faster than the rate of inflation.

“Americans are fed up with paying three times what people in other countries pay for the same drugs. More than four million people across the country, including more than 16,000 here in the Ocean State, are joining AARP to demand lower prices for prescription drugs,” said Taylor in a statement announcing the petition being delivered to Reed and Whitehouse. “There will never be a better time to lower drug prices than the historic opportunity in front of Congress. Now is the time to get it done!” Taylor says.

Big Pharma makes billions from high drug costs

“Big Pharma is making billions while seniors and taxpayers are suffering,” says AARP State President Mitchell, noting that just last month Big Pharma raised the prices of 800 prescription medications.” People are sick and tired of paying three times for prescription drugs what people in other countries are paying for these drugs, “It’s outrageous and unacceptable,” Mitchell said.

According to Mitchell, “if consumer prices had risen as fast as drug prices during the last 15 years, gas would cost $12.20 a gallon and milk would cost $13 a gallon.” This gives perspective to this issue, he said.

“Big Pharma is trying again to scare lawmakers and members of AARP and everyone else with misleading claims to stop Medicare to negotiate prices, charged Zarlengo. “We, at least, know the truth. The truth is by allowing Medicare negotiation [of prices], that process will help seniors during these times of inflation by lowing their prices of drugs and putting more money in their pocket,” he said.

Zarlengo gave the two Rhode Island Senators a message from Rhode Island seniors: “Don’t let Pharma win this time, lets lower drug prices now.”

“We hear you loud and clear,” said Senator Reed, responding to the over 16,000 signees of AARP’s petition. “Congress must address this issue of drug pricing. The system continues to force families into untenable choices between their health and other basic needs. One of the simplest things to do is to allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. I have been urging administrations, both Republican and Democratic for more than a decade to do this,” he noted.

“The VA already does this,” said Senator Whitehouse told his fellow panelists and those tuning in to the March 7 news conference. “And there is a big discrepancy in what the Veterans Administration (VA) pays for drugs and what Medicare pays for drugs. We have a reconciliation bill still in the Senate; it’s something Democrats can pass with only 50 votes. The bad news is that we need all 50 members to agree on the reconciliation measure and that has proven difficult. I hope we can agree on a package that all 50 of us can sign off on… and finally, finally, finally give Americans the drug pricing relief that they need. AARP is incredibly important in this fight. All your members make a difference. Thank you for stepping up yet again,” he said.

AARP fights Big Pharma on television and with digital advertising

In AARP’s new ad campaign, Larry Zarzecki, a retired law enforcement officer with Parkinson’s Disease who was forced to sell his home in order to afford his medications, returns to the airways as a spokesperson for AARP, illustrating the impact of the high cost of prescription drugs on seniors.  The retiree first shared his story in an AARP ad three years ago, but Congress’ failure to act means he has had no relief from the high cost of his treatments. As he says in the new ad, “I shouldn’t have to decide between my home or my medicine because Congress refuses to act. I’m tired of waiting for Congress.”

AARP’s seven-figure ad buy includes television and digital advertising in the DC area, and television in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.

Responding to AARP’s new ad campaign, AARP Rhode Island’s Taylor said: “Larry Zarzecki was forced to sell his home in order to afford his medications.  He is but one example of Congress’ failure to act. No one should have to give up a home in order to pay for over-priced prescription medicines.  She called on Congress to put a stop to “spiraling price increases” by giving Medicare the authority to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices.

“If the Veterans Administration can do so – paying roughly half as much for brand name prescription drugs as does Medicare Part D – then why can’t Medicare?” says Taylor.  “For a decade, Big Pharma has spent more on stock buybacks and dividends than on research and development; it’s outrageous that drug makers are charging Americans three times what people in other countries pay for the same drugs and justifying it with lies and scare tactics that simply don’t hold up,” she  added.

AARP has called for lower drug prices for years and is urging the Senate to pass legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, put a cap on out-of-pocket costs that older adults pay for their prescription drugs and impose penalties on drug companies that raise prices faster than the rate of inflation.

“Americans are sick and tired of Congress’ broken promises to bring down the price of prescription drugs,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer announcing the launching of this ad campaign. “As Americans pay more and more for many consumer goods, Congress has an historic opportunity to lower drug prices and help seniors like Larry to afford their medications and other essentials,” she said.

It’s time to act NOW

According to AARP, without congressional action, pharmaceutical companies will continue to set high prices for prescription drugs and raise them without any warning or justification. The Washington, DC based advocacy group representing 38 million members recently released a report showing that 75 of the 100 brand name drugs with the highest total Medicare Part D spending have already increased their  list prices in the first month of 2022.

During the State of the Union, President Biden called for Congress to bring down the price of prescription drugs as a way to help consumers manage rising prices. The House of Representatives passed several prescription drug measures as part of the Build Back Better Act in November, but the Senate has yet to pass similar legislation.

It’s time for the Senate to put the welfare of the nation’s seniors first by passing legislation to put the brakes to spiraling prescription drug costs. This will be a hot campaign issue in the upcoming mid-term elections, just 230 days from now.