Seniors Can Expect Small Increase in Their 2020 Social Security COLA

Published in the Woonsocket Call on Oct. 27, 2019

The Social Security Administration (SSA) announces Oct. 10 that Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for nearly 69 million Americans will increase 1.6 percent in 2020 (Some recipients receive both Social Security and SSI benefits).

Social Security and SSI recipients will be notified about their new benefit amount by mail in early December. This COLA notice can also be viewed online through their my Social Security account. People may create or access their my Social Security account online at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.

According to SSA, the 1.6 percent COLA increase will begin with benefits payable to more than 63 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2020. Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin December 31, 2019. The Social Security Act ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as calculated by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase from $132,900 to $137,700, says SSA.

The earnings limit for workers who are younger than “full” retirement age (age 66 for people born in 1943 through 1954) will increase to $18,240. SSA will deduct $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $18,240.

The earnings limit for people turning age 66 in 2020 will increase to $48,600. SSA will deduct $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $48,600 until the month the worker turns age 66.)

There is no limit on earnings for workers who are “full” retirement age or older for the entire year.

COLA Not Keeping Up with Rising Cost of Living

Over the years, Social Security’s COLA has not provided financial protection against rising costs, charge aging advocacy groups.

Social Security checks in 2019 are as much as 18 percent lower due to the impact of extremely low COLAs over the past 10 years, says an analysis recently released by the Arlington, Virginia-based The Senior Citizens League (TSCL). TSCL’s Social Security policy analyst, Mary Johnson authored this analysis.

Johnson’s analysis noted that from 2000 to 2010, COLAs routinely averaged 3 percent
annually. People who have been receiving Social Security checks since 2019, have only seen a COLA higher than 2,8 percent one time (in 2012), she said, noting that Social Security benefits have lost 33 percent of buying power since 2000.

Johnson’s findings reported that in 2010, 2011, and 2016 there was no COLA payable at all and, in 2017, the COLA was just 0.03 percent. However, in 2018, the COLA was 2 percent, but rising Part B premiums consumed the entire increase for roughly half of all beneficiaries.

Calls for Strengthening the COLA

According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the upcoming COLA change will give a whopping $24 per month increase for the average beneficiary. With Medicare Part B premiums expected to rise around $8 next year, the net cost-of-living adjustment for most seniors will be only $16 per month. The new COLA brings the average monthly retirement benefit up to $1,503 — it’s just a $288 yearly raise for seniors living on fixed incomes.

NCPSSM notes that roughly half of America’s seniors rely on Social Security for at least 50 percent of their income, and 1 in 4 depending on the program for at least 90 percent of their income, the 2020 COLA increase does not go very far in helping these recipients pay their bills. A $16 per month probably won’t cover typical expenses, such as the cost of a single prescription copay, a month’s medical supplies, or transportation to a doctor’s appointment, adds the Washington, DC- advocacy group whose goal is to protect Social Security and Medicare.

“It’s ironic that as billionaires and big corporations continue to profit from the $1.5 trillion in Trump/GOP tax cuts, America’s seniors are to get by with a meager $24 monthly raise,” says Max Richtman in a statement after SSA announced the 2020 COLA increase. NCPSSM’s President and CEO. “The negligible 2020 COLA illustrates why seniors need a more accurate formula for calculating the impact of inflation on their Social Security benefits. For years, we have urged the government to adopt the CPI-E (Consumer Price Index for the Elderly), which reflects the spending priorities of seniors, including health care, as opposed to the current formula based on younger urban wage earners’ expenses,” says Richtman.

If the CPI-E were adopted, beneficiaries would see a 6 percent overall increase in benefits over 20 years compared to the current formula used, which yielded a zero cost-of-living adjustment three times during the past decade — and a mere 0.3 percent in 2017, says Richtman, noting that health care costs have increased about 6 percent in 2019 alone.

“The prices of the most commonly prescribed drugs for seniors on Medicare rose ten times the rate of inflation from 2013-2018. The cost of senior living facilities is growing at 3 percent annually – which adds up quickly over time,” adds Richtman.

Adds Webster Phillips, NCPSSM’s Senior Legislative Representative, “COLAs are out of sync with seniors’ actual expenses. Retirees have been living on very tight cost-of-living adjustments for a number of years now, which forces them to make hard decisions about their monthly budgets.”

In a statement, AARP chief executive officer Jo Ann Jenkins said, “Social Security’s annual COLA amount typically does not keep pace with all the increases in living expenses that most seniors face, including the costs of housing, food, transportation and, especially, health care and prescription drugs. AARP’s recent Rx Price Watch report found that retail drug prices increased by twice the rate of inflation during 2017, and have exceeded the inflation rate for at least 12 consecutive years,” she says.

“AARP will continue our advocacy for bipartisan solutions to help ensure the long-term solvency of the Social Security program, as well as adequate benefits for recipients. We will also continue to fight for lower health care and prescription drug costs, which are eating up a growing share of Social Security benefits,” adds Jenkins.

TSCL’s Mary Johnson says that her group calls on Congress to require a minimum COLA of no less than 3 percent every year, even in years when inflation falls below that amount. “Strengthening the COLA,” she says, “would help slow the drain of retirement savings and help keep older Americans out of poverty.”

For information about Social Security benefits and claiming strategies, those approaching retirement age may visit AARP’s Social Security Resource Center, at https://www.aarp.org/retirement/social-security/.

Advertisements

Report on Falls, Injuries Released

PUblished in Woonsocket Call on October 20, 2019

Last Wednesday morning in Dirksen Senate Office Building 562, the U.S. Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to put a spotlight on the economic consequences on falls and to explore ways to prevent and reduce falls and related injuries. At the one hour and 55-minute hearing, titled “Falls Prevention: National, State, and Local Level Solutions to Better Support Seniors,” its annual report, Falls Prevention: Solutions to Better Support Seniors, was released.

According to the Senate Aging Committee, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults that incur $50 billion annually in total medical costs. That number is expected to double to $100 billion by 2030, and the majority of these costs are borne by Medicare and Medicaid.

“Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for older Americans, often leading to a downward spiral with serious consequences. In addition to the physical and emotional trauma of falls, the financial toll is staggering,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate Aging Committee. “Now is the time, and now is our opportunity, to take action to prevent falls. Our bipartisan report includes key recommendations to take steps to reduce the risk of falls,” the Maine Senator noted in an Oct. 16 statement.

Pushing for Positive Change in Releasing Fall Report

“We must dispel our loved ones of the stigma associated with falling so that they can get the help they need to age in place – where they want to be – in their homes and communities,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.). “I am hopeful that our work over the past year will propel the research community to do more, get more dollars invested into supporting home modifications and encourage more older adults to be active,” said the Special Committee’s Ranking Member.

At the hearing, the Committee unveiled a comprehensive report that provides evidence-based recommendations on ways to reduce the risk of falling. The Committee received input from multiple federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Food and Drug Administration. In addition, approximately 200 respondents representing falls prevention advocates, hospitals, community organizations, home health agencies, and others shared their expertise on this issue.

The 34-page Aging Committee’s report made recommendations as how to raise awareness about falls-related risks, prevention and recovery at the national, state and local levels. It suggested ways of improving screening and referrals for those at risk of falling so that individuals receive the preventive care necessary to avoid a fall or recover after one. It noted ways of targeting modifiable risk factors, including increasing the availability of resources for home safety evaluations and modifications, so that older adults can remain in their homes and communities. Finally, it called for reducing polypharmacy so that health care providers and patients are aware of any potential side effects that could contribute to a fall.

Increasing Medicare Funding for Bone Density Testing

In an opening statement, Collins noted that falls are often times attributed to uneven sidewalks or icy stairs, medications, medical reasons or muscle strength. But one key cause of falling is osteoporosis, which can be especially dangerous for people who are completely unaware that they suffer from low bone density, she says.

According to Collins, although Medicare covers bone density testing, reimbursement rates have been slashed by 70 percent since 2006, resulting in 2.3 million fewer women being tested. “As a result, it is estimated that more than 40,000 additional hip fractures occur each year, which results in nearly 10,000 additional deaths,” she said, noting legislation, Increasing Access to Osteoporosis Testing Beneficiaries Act that she has introduced with Sen. Ben Cardin,” to reverse these harmful reimbursement cuts.

Casey stated, “I am particularly interested in sharing this report with the relevant agencies and learning how the recommendations will be implemented. Not just put in a report. Implemented,” adds Casey.

Peggy Haynes, MPA, Senior Director, of Portland-based Healthy Aging, MaineHealth that offers A Matter of Balance, an evidence-based falls prevention program, came to the Senate hearing to share details about its impact. “The health care community has a critical role to play in fall prevention – beginning with screening for falls, assessing fall risk factors, reviewing medications and referring to both medical and community-based fall prevention interventions. Our health system is focused on preventing falls in every care setting,” says Haynes.

“The need for a range of community-based options led MaineHealth to be a founding member of the Evidence Based Leadership Collaborative, promoting the increased delivery of multiple evidence-based programs that improve the health and well-being of diverse populations,” adds Haynes.

Haynes noted that older participants attend eight two-hour sessions to help them reduce their fear of falling, assisting them to set realistic goals for increasing their activity and changing their home environment to reduce fall risk factors. A Matter of Balance is offered in 46 states reaching nearly 100,000 seniors.

Virginia Demby, an 84-year-old visually-impaired retired nurse who is an advocate for Community and Older Adults, in Chester, Pennsylvania, came to the Senate hearing to support the importance of fall prevention programs. Despite living with low vision, Demby remains physically active by participating in exercises classes for older adults at the Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Chester. She is an advocate for older adults and now helps the local senior center wellness manager recruit more seniors to take falls prevention classes and find new places to offer the classes.

Kathleen A. Cameron, MPH, Senior Director, Center for Healthy Aging, of the Arlington, Virginia-based National Council on Aging, discussed the work of the National Falls Prevention Resource Center, which helps to support evidence-based falls prevention programs across the nation and highlighted policy solutions to reduce falls risk.

Finally, Elizabeth Thompson, chief executive officer, Arlington, Virginia-based National Osteoporosis Foundation, testified that bone loss and osteoporosis are fundamental underlying contributors to the worst consequences of falls among older Americans: broken and fractured bones. Osteoporotic fractures are responsible for more hospitalizations than heart attacks, strokes and breast cancer combined, she noted.

For details of the Senate Aging Committee report, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/SCA_Falls_Report_2019.pdf.

Senators Seek to Identify Subpar Nursing Homes

Published in the Woonsocket Call on July 14, 2019

Last month, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) succeeded in prodding the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to publicly release the April listing of underperforming nursing homes across the nation that require closer regulatory scrutiny but are not receiving any. Before CMS released the listing of candidates to the Special Focus Facility (SFF) program, the federal agency, charged with overseeing the care and quality in nursing homes, had not publicly identified these troubled facilities.

Less than 6 percent (88 facilities) out of more than 15,700 nursing homes nationwide are participants of the SFF program. CMS publicly identifies these facilities to the public. But an additional 2.5 percent (or approximately 400 facilities) qualify as candidates for the program because of having a “persistent record of poor care” but are not selected because of limited resources at CMS, according to a 26-page report, “Families’ and Resident’s Right to Know: Uncovering poor care in America’s Nursing Homes,” released in June 2019 by Pennsylvania’s two U. S. senators.

Nursing homes that are part of the SFF program have 12 to 18 months to correct any deficiencies and have two clean CMS surveys. If a facility fails to meet that target, it is are subject to increased regulatory enforcement, including being dropped from the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Calls for Transparency

On March 4, 2019, Casey and Toomey wrote to CMS requesting information on its oversight of nursing homes in the SFF program. In that letter, the Senators requested the federal agency to provide the names of the 400 SFF candidates, calling for details about programs operations, scope and overall effectiveness. On May 3, 2019, CMS provided a written response and two weeks later, on May 14, the Senators received the listing of SFF candidates for April 2019. The names of these SFF candidates were not made public until Cassy and Toomey forced the issue by releasing this information in their report on June 5.

In CMS administrator Seema Verna’s May 14 letter to the two senators, Rhode Island-based participants and candidates in the SFF program were identified. They are: Charlesgate Nursing Center (SFF Candidate); Hebert Nursing Home (SFF Candidate); Oak Hill & Rehabilitation Center (SFF); St. Elizabeth Manor East Bay (SFF Candidate); and Tockwotton on the Waterfront (SFF Candidate).

In responding to the senators, Verma said that regardless of whether a nursing home is part of the SFF program, “any facility that performs poorly on surveys and continues to jeopardize residents’ health and safety will be subject to CMS enforcement,” which includes civil money penalties, denial of payment for new admissions or termination from the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Verma also stressed that in addition to her agency’s regulatory oversight, its Nursing Home Compare website has been improved to include “new, more reliable sources for obtaining staffing and resident census data, as well as including more claims-based quality measures.”

“Regardless of participation in the SFF program, any facility that performs poorly on surveys and continues to jeopardize residents’ health and safety will be subject to CMS enforcement remedies, such as civil money penalties, denial of payment f-or new admissions, or termination,” adds Verma.

Casey and Toomey believe that the list of SFF candidates is information that must be publicly available to individuals and families seeking nursing care for their loved ones. For that reason, the Senators have released the April 2019 list of SFF candidates and are continuing to work with CMS to make future lists public.

Through the release of the SFF candidate list and the Senate report, which details preliminary findings from surveys and public information about these candidate facilities, the Senators aim to provide Americans and their families with the transparency and information needed to choose a nursing home that would provide quality care to a loved one.

CMS Inquiry Identifies Issues

Casey and Toomey’s CMS inquiry into the SFF program put the spotlight on several issues. It became apparent to the two senators that a nursing home’s participation in the SFF program was not easily understandable to the public or would-be residents and their families. It became clear that CMS’s Nursing Home Compare, the agency’s online website, was not consistently updated to reflect any changes in the SFF program. “For example, in March 2019, the small icon used to indicate that a facility is an SFF participant was not on the webpage of five of the 17 newly-added SFF participants,” noted the Senate report. Most important, CMS’ website did not identify SFF candidates.

According to the released Senate report, only CMS and the state regulatory agency in which the nursing home is located and the facility itself, had knowledge of who is an SFF candidate. While CMS requires every nursing home to notify residents and its community of its regulatory SFF participant designation, these requirements do not apply to SFF candidates.

Aside from CMS recently updating its Nursing Home Compare webpage to more clearly indicate which nursing homes are SFF participants, it lacks details about the SFF program. There is no information explaining the reason for a facility’s participation in the program, the length of time it has been in the program or whether it has fixed the care issue. Most important, CMS does not include information on facilities that routinely cycle in and out of the SFF program, says the Senate report.

“There are few decisions more serious or life-altering than that of choosing a nursing home. I am pleased that CMS has taken the work that I have done with Senator Toomey seriously and is heeding our call to release the list of nursing facilities that are nominated to the Special Focus Facility program,” said Casey. “Our bipartisan work will ensure that families have all the information at their fingertips when choosing a nursing home. Now we must work in a bipartisan fashion to ensure the SFF program is working properly and that CMS has the funding it needs to improve underperforming nursing homes nationwide,” he says.

Adds, Toomey, “Ensuring that families have all the information they need about a nursing home will improve the quality of care at facilities across the country.”

Trump Spending Priorities Would Fray Social Safety Net Programs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 16, 2019

Last Monday, President Donald Trump released his proposed FY 2020 budget request to Congress. Lawmakers, who rejected many of these budgetary spending requests in the president’s previous two submitted budgets proposals, consider his latest to be “dead-on-arrival.”

But, Trump’s $4.7 trillion fiscal blueprint, outlined in the 150-page “Budget for a Better America,” gives us a clear picture of his spending priorities and policies he seeks to implement through executive orders and regulator changes.

Trump’s FY 2020 spending plan proposes funding increases for combating the opioid epidemic, improving veteran’s health care, fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure ($200 billion increase), even giving the Pentagon a 5 percent increase in spending exceeding what the military asked for. White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump successfully pushed for the FY 2020 budget to include $750 million to establish a paid parental leave program and a $1 billion one-time fund to provide childcare to under served populations.

Trump’s budget proposal makes a commitment of $291 million to eliminate the spread of HIV within a decade, it slashes the National Institutes of Health’s funding by 12 percent, and the budget for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention by about 10 percent.

Trump does not back away from his controversial stance of building a wall, putting in an additional $8.6 trillion for the construction of a U.S. Mexico border barrier. Congress had earlier opposed his demand for $5.7 billion for the construction project.

Trump Budget Proposal Puts Senior’s Earned Benefits at Risk

In 2016, Presidential candidate Trump had pledged not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, but he does in his submitted FY 2020 budget proposal.

Trump calls for a 5 percent cut in non-defense federal agencies, including a whopping $ 1.5 trillion in Medicaid over 10 years. The budget plan instead allocates $1.2 trillion to create “market-based health care grants,” (a.k.a block grants) for states that would start in 2021. This gives states the power to set their own rules for this program.

Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would be eliminated by Trump’s FY 2020 budget proposal by ending ACA’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions and causing millions of people to join the ranks of the uninsured. About 15 million more Americans have joined Medicaid since the ACA expansion was enacted.

Trump’s budget proposal also cuts Medicare by $845 billion over the next decade by cutting payments to hospitals and physicians, rooting out fraud and abuse, and by lowering prescription drug costs.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Disability Insurance program takes a huge budgetary cut of $25 billion and the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget is slashed by 1 percent, at a time when the agency is working hard to ratchet up its customer service provide to SSA beneficiaries.

Trump’s budget proposal would cut $220 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly referred to as the food stamp program. The program currently serves 39 million people. Under this budget, beneficiaries would be required to be employed for 20 hours a week to be eligible for assistance and replacing the EBT-debit card used to purchase groceries with the delivery of a “Harvest Box” filled with non-perishable foods like cereal and pasta, canned goods and surplus dairy products.

Housing and Urban Development’s 202 housing program for seniors and people with disabilities takes a $36 million hit, says long-time aging advocate Bill Benson, principal of Washington, D.C.-based Health Benefits ABC, in the March 15th issue of Aging Policy and Public Health News.

According to Benson, several Older Americans Act programs including the Family Caregiver Support program would be cut in Trump’s budget proposal. The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program would be cut by $1 million. Elder Justice Programs would also be cut under the President’s budget including a $2 million cut to the Elder Justice Initiative at Administration for Community Living.

” Cruelest of all [budgetary cuts] is the proposed out-right elimination of the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) which is the only source of sustained federal funding to states for Adult Protective Services (APS),” says Benson. Some 37 states use SSBGs to support their APS programs. SSBG is also used by states for a number of other services benefiting older adults including home-delivered meals and case management.

Shortchanging Seniors

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) warns that Trump’s budget proposal shortchanges seniors. “In combination with 2017’s tax cuts for the wealthy and the administration’s failure to allow Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma, the Trump budget shows that his administration is not plugged into the realities of being elderly in America,” he says.

Richtman says that Trump’s budget plan also proposes to eliminate federal grants that help pay for programs under the Older Americans Act, such as Meals on Wheels and home heating assistance for the elderly poor.”

According to Richtman, the 116th Congress gives seniors hope with introduced legislation that would boost Social Security benefits and expand Medicare coverage to include dental, hearing and vision services, changes that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. He calls on Congress to “quickly reject this callous budget proposal — and take decisive action to enhance the well-being of older Americans.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sees Trump’s newly released budget proposal as very troubling, too. “It sharply cuts funding in the part of the budget that invests in future economic growth through education and training, scientific research, infrastructure, and the like,” he says.

“It reverses progress in making affordable health care available to people who don’t have employer coverage or can’t afford private coverage. It cuts basic assistance substantially for families, children, and elderly and disabled people who are in need and struggle to get by. And, it doubles down on policies that take away health care, food, and housing when adults aren’t able to meet a work requirement,” says Greenstein.
“Despite bemoaning deficits, it calls for making the costly 2017 tax cuts — which largely benefit those who already have high incomes and wealth — permanent,” he adds.

Richtman believes that Trump’s 2020 spending proposal serves as a warning of what the administration would do if it were not for the firewall known as the Democratic-led House of Representatives. “These draconian ideas – though rejected by voters in the 2018 mid-terms – remain in the conservative political bloodstream, requiring continued advocacy on the part of seniors and their champions in Congress,” he says.

The release of Trump’s FY 2020 budget program begins the Democratic party’s efforts to retake the White House and Senate in the 2020 presidential election, just over 598 days away. By making major cuts in Social Security and Medicare and turning Medicaid into a state block grant program, Trump is giving Democratic challengers in the 2020 presidential election fodder to create politically-charged themes for ads to turn senior voters against him for seeking cuts in these popular domestic programs.

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.

Government Shutdown Hurts Seniors, Too

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 21, 2019

At press time, the federal government has been partially shut down for over 29 days because of Democrats and Republicans being at odds over President Trump’s ask for $5.7 billion to be included in continuing spending resolutions for the Oct. 1 start of the new federal fiscal year. Trump calls for billions of dollars to build a border wall along the 234 miles of the nation’s southern border.

The partial shutdown began on Dec. 22 because Congress had not passed legislation, signed by the President, to fund nine federal departments, so these departments do not have funding to operate. The department’s include Agriculture (USDA), Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Interior, State, Transportation and Treasury.

During the partial government shutdown, Trump has so refused to retreat from his request for funding to build a wall. With strong Democratic opposition the political standoff has made this partial shutdown the longest one of its kind in the nation’s history. There have been 21 shutdowns since 1976.

Local media has widely reported that this shutdown has left 800,000 federal workers furloughed without pay, as well as those working in several federal agencies. But half of these employees are still working, being recalled but without being pay. But Trump has signed legislation this week to pay these employees retroactively once a funding bill is enacted.

What About Aging Programs and Services?

According to AARP’s Senior Writer Dena Bunis in a Jan. 18th web article, “Essential Services Stay in Place Despite Massive Federal Employee Furloughs,” the government shutdown does not impact major domestic programs, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security but other programs and services for seniors are affected.
Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will continue operating and not be disrupted by the shutdown because these programs are funded by an advance appropriations and Social Security [ an earned benefit] is separately funded, says Bunis.

Bunis adds, even with the shutdown aging veterans will still have access to VA hospitals, medical centers and clinics because the Department of Veterans Affairs is funded.

Retirees will find many of the nation’s 400 national parks open but having limited services. Park rangers are furloughed and volunteers are stepping up to help where needed, says Bunis, noting that with employees not reporting for work, bathrooms and other facilities remain unattended with trash piling up and vandalism reports are increasing.

Although flights are not affected and air traffic controllers remain working, Transportation Security Administration’s airport security screeners are calling in sick in large numbers, increasing waiting times, notes Bunis. She says that Federal Aviation Administration has brought back thousands of safety inspectors and engineers to keep the planes in the air flying safely.

Seniors receiving SNAP (formerly called food stamps) from the USDA can expect getting their February benefits, says Bunis, but Meals on Wheels and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program food-box deliveries will be available through March.

Bunis notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has brought back nearly 150 furloughed employees without pay “to resume safety inspections on certain drugs, medical devices and high-risk foods, such as cheese, fruits and vegetables, and infant formula.”

The current government shutdown has closed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Those workers age 40 and over who file age discrimination claims may experience difficulties in applying and getting these claims processed, says Bunis.

USDA loans for low- and moderate-income Americans who live in rural areas have stopped because of the shutdown, says Bunis. “The Federal Housing Administration is not issuing the needed paperwork for reverse mortgages to get approved. More than 1,000 contracts between HUD and landlords who provide rental assistance to low-income tenants have expired, and hundreds more will expire in February,” she notes.

Meanwhile, USDA has recalled 2,500 Farm Service Agency employees to temporarily assist agricultural producers with existing farm loan payments to ensure they get the tax documents necessary to file their returns, says Bunis.

It’s tax season…Bunis says that although the Internal Revenue Service is affected by the shutdown because it is part of the Treasury Department, over 46,000 furloughed employees have been called back to work to process income-tax returns and refunds. Filing season officially begins on Jan. 28.

Casey Calls on Trump to Reopen Government

Last week, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, urged Trump to end the partial shutdown charging that the federal government’s closing jeopardizes the transportation, housing, and nutrition needs of older Americans and people with disabilities.

“I am particularly concerned about the adverse impact of the shutdown on seniors, people with disabilities and their families,” stated in Jan 15 correspondence to the President. Food assistance programs administered through the UDSA, rental assistance payments from HUD, transportation services through the Department of Transportation (DOT), and frauds and scams investigations and enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are all negatively impacted during the shutdown, said Casey.

“Elected and appointed officials in Washington have a sacred responsibility of ensuring seniors can age with dignity and people with disabilities can live independently. I request you direct the USDA, HUD, DOT, FTC and FCC to provide additional information to Congress on the steps they will take to mitigate the harmful impact this shutdown will have on seniors and people with disabilities. And, I urge you to reopen the government so that the health and financial security of our aging loved ones are no longer put in jeopardy,” Casey adds.

For a copy of Casey’s correspondence, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/press-releases/casey-to-trump-the-shutdown-hurts-seniors_.

Midterm Elections are Here: Your Vote Sends a Message to Congress

Published in the Woonsocket Call on November 11, 2018

The mid-term elections are here and Americans have an opportunity, if they choose to vote, to send a strong message to Capitol Hill about what policy issues are important to them. All 435 Congressional seats are on the ballot including 35-Senate seats. The outcome of these political races will ultimately impact older Americans. Will Congressional lawmakers work to ensure the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, or protect those with pre-existing conditions? Or will they put political differences aside to craft legislation that will put the brakes to spiraling prescription drug costs.

Last month, AARP released, a 52-page report, “2018 Mid-Term Election Voter Issue Survey,” that found that the majority of those surveyed say the following issues will help them make their voting decisions in days: lowering health care costs (79 percent), strengthening and reforming Social Security (75 percent) and Medicare, (70 percent) and putting the brakes to skyrocketing prescription drug costs (74 percent).

AARP’s survey data were collected by Alan Newman Research (ANR) between July 7 and July 18, 2018. ANR conducted a total of 802 telephone interviews of registered likely voters age 50 and older. All data were weighted by education, race/ethnicity, age, gender, and census division according to Current Population Survey statistics provided by AARP.

What Issues Are Important to Older Voters?

Let’s take a closer look at AARP’s July telephone survey findings…

The top issue for the Democratic survey respondents was health care costs, Social Security, drug costs and Medicare while Republicans identified national security as their issue.

People become eligible for health insurance through Medicare when they turn age 65. Democrats responding to the AARP survey (77 percent) were more likely to support giving those age 50 to 64, the option to buy health insurance through Medicare than the responding Republicans (57 percent).

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and other lawmakers have proposed a national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single
government plan (called Medicare-for-All). The researchers noted that Democratic respondents gave the thumbs up (75 percent) to supporting this legislative policy while only 34 percent of the Republican respondents supported the health care policy.

The AARP survey also found that 66 percent of the respondents supported allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug costs to increase the solvency of the program.

Last year, Congress passed legislation that required pharmaceutical companies to contribute more to contribute more to close the Medicare Part D coverage gap to reduce the high out-of-pocket cost of drug costs. The pharmaceutical lobby is working to reverse this requirement. The AARP survey found that 78 percent of the age 50 and over respondents support the existing requirement to contribute more to close the Medicare Part D coverage gap.

Federal law prohibits insurance companies from charging those with pre-existing conditions more for health coverage. While some want to repeal this law because they believe the person should pay more, others say that paying a higher premium is unfair. The AARP survey found that 84 percent of the women and Democrats surveyed were more likely to say that the higher costs of health care is unfair for those with preexisting conditions.

Current federal law allows insurance companies to charge up to three times more for health insurance for those over age 50. Some Congressional lawmakers propose increasing this charge up to five times more for health insurance. Eighty three percent of the older survey respondents oppose this, calling any changes unfair.

Over half of the age 50 older survey respondents have caregiving experiences. Two in five of these respondents believe they will become caregivers. The survey found that 75 percent of the respondent’s support employer requirements for family caregiving. The requirements include: ensuring that employees can not be fired for taking time off for caregiving; allowing the use of existing sick leave for caregiving activities; allowing a limited amount of unpaid and paid leave for use by caregivers.

Eighty seven percent of the AARP survey respondents believe Congress should pass laws to protect caregivers from being fired for taking time off to care for a loved one. Most of these respondents (88 percent) also believe that stronger laws are needed to protect older workers from age discrimination.

Currently, there is discussion on Capitol Hill about the need for a rule that requires professional financial advisors, when giving advice to their older clients about their retirement savings accounts, to give advice that is in the best interest of these individuals. The AARP survey found that 69 percent of the survey respondents agree to this rule.

Phone App Informs Older Voters on Aging Issues

The Washington, DC-based AARP today launches “Raise Your Voice,” the nation’s first comprehensive advocacy and voting app for smart speakers (works on Amazon Alexa and Google Home) . The voice-enabled experience is designed to help older voters to use smart speakers to become educated on a wide range of aging issues — including Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs, Medicaid and caregiving.

“This groundbreaking skill empowers voters at a time when people are looking for trustworthy, accessible sources of information,” said John Hishta, AARP Senior Vice President of Campaigns, in a statement announcing the Oct. 11 release of the phone app.

To invoke the app, the user simply says their smart speaker’s wake command, followed by “Open Raise Your Voice.” With days before the upcoming midterm elections, the user can direct “Raise Your Voice” to look up polling information and send it directly to the user’s cell phone. Similarly, the user can command the app to provide information on AARP issues.

“Traditional voter education is laudable and important work, but it’s a leap forward to develop technology that better supports voters as they seek out the location of their polling place, information on key issues, and the ability to contact their elected officials,” said Sami Hassanyeh, AARP Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy and Membership. “

The app is available at http://www.aarp.org/raiseyourvoice.

Send a Message to Congress

Robert Roach, Jr., President of the Washington, DC-based Alliance for Retired Americans, calls on older voters to “Know your rights before heading to the polls.” Your state’s Secretary of State’s website can provide details about voter identification requirements and other laws. If you are encountering problems with voting or suspect voter rights at your polling site, seek out an elected official to discuss, suggests Roach. Also, call the voting rights hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683).

“Bring a snack, a book and even a chair if you think there may be a line. Don’t go home until your vote has been counted,” says Roach. “An unfortunate election result could lead to health insurers charging people aged 50-64 five times more than younger consumers for the same coverage. A good result could lead to an expansion of your earned Social Security benefits,” he says.

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.