The Coronavirus and its Effect on Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 22, 2020

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the nation, the Social Security Administration (SSA) and other federal agencies strive to cope with meeting the huge challenges they face resulting from the unexpected pandemic outbreak, attempting to juggle worker safety while maintaining their daily operations.

On March 19, Key House Democratic and Republican Committee Chairs send a clear message to SSA as to the importance of minimizing any disruptions to its operations during the coronavirus crises. Throughout its 85-year history, Social Security recipients (seniors, families who have lost a breadwinner, and people with disabilities) have never missed getting their monthly check. Keeping this in mind, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) and Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX), along with Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), Ranking Member Tom Reed (R-NY), Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis (D-IL) and Ranking Member Jackie Walorski (R-IN), sent a letter on March 19 to Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Andrew Saul calling on the agency to continue their work to prioritize health and transparency in an effort to minimize disruptions as they administer vital services during the coronavirus crisis.

“We know the decision to close SSA field offices…was a difficult decision. … This move will save lives and will also protect the health of SSA frontline staff, whose public service is so critical,” the key House lawmakers wrote.

“We understand that as coronavirus spreads, you are prioritizing work that fulfills SSA’s core mission,” the letter continued. “We fully support this prioritization.”

“We are writing to urge the Social Security Administration (SSA) to vigorously safeguard the health of the public and agency employees during the coronavirus crisis, while also minimizing disruptions in services to the American people,” stated the House lawmakers. “Telework is a commonsense response to coronavirus and we urge you to maximize its use across SSA. In addition, we encourage SSA to communicate regularly and robustly with the public and with its employees about SSA’s coronavirus response. Social Security is a program that affects the lives of all Americans. As SSA’s response to coronavirus evolves, the public must be able to count on timely information about how to access benefits and services, including assistance when a problem arises.”

The members emphasized that that they stand ready to work with the agency to ensure it has the resources and authority it needs to operate effectively during the crisis while ensuring SSA remains able to send benefits on time each month.

COVID-19 Changes Way SSA Does Business

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way SSA does business across the nation. Effective Tuesday, March 17, SSA closed all local Social Security offices for in-person service. SSA says that this decision protects the population it services — older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions—and its employees during the crisis.

But SSA employees remain at their cubicles, the processing of benefits and claims continues. However, critical services can be accessed online. The agency directed the pubic to visit its website (https://www.ssa.gov/) or its toll-free number, 800-772-1213 for customer service. You can apply for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits online, check the status of an application or appeal, request a replacement Social Security card (in most areas), print a benefit verification letter, and much more – from anywhere and from any of your devices.

According to SSA, there is also a wealth of information to answer most of your Social Security questions online, without having to speak with an SSA employee in person or by phone. Visit our online Frequently Asked Questions at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ask.

However, those persons who are blind or terminally ill, or need SSI or Medicaid eligibility issues resolved related to work status can obtain in person services in local offices.

SSA also provides COVID-19 related information and customer service updates on a special website (https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/)
According to a March 19 blog posting by the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “The Ways and Means committee leaders suggest SSA allow employees to telework where possible, in accordance with federal guidelines. National Committee senior legislative representative (and former 35-year SSA employee) Webster Phillips says the agency’s teleworking capabilities have been diminished since Andrew Saul came on board as administrator – and will take time and resources to build back up.”

The NCPSSM’s blog posting noted, “SSA will discontinue several of its normal activities in order to prioritize beneficiaries’ needs. “There are workloads that they’re not going to process while this is going on, focusing exclusively on paying benefits,” says Phillips. Those include stopping all Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) and curtailing eligibility re-determinations for SSI recipients.”

Finally, “SSA also has discontinued in-person disability hearings to protect the health of claimants and employees. Instead, those hearings will take place via telephone or video conference, where possible,” adds the blog posting.

The Bottom Line…

On March 19, SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul, issued a statement to assure the 65 million Social Security recipients that SSA payments will continued to be processed. He stated, “The first thing you should know is that we continue to pay benefits.”  But Saul warned, “Be aware that scammers may try to trick you into thinking the pandemic is stopping your Social Security payments but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.”

The United States Postal Service has so far experienced only minor operational impacts in the United States as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, with Saul’s assurances and the postal service still delivering mail, you can expect to get your benefits.
Stay healthy.

AARP Tele-Town Hall Informs Seniors What They Need to Know About COVID-19

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 15, 2020

Twenty-four-hour programming on cable television, television networks, talk radio and newspapers report the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) across the nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just days ago there were about 700 confirmed and presumed U.S. cases from 38 jurisdictions, that’s 36 states and New York and D.C. There are more than 100,000 cases worldwide. CDC officials expect this count to go up. counts to go up.

At the AARP’s Coronavirus Information Tele-Town Hall event, held Tuesday, March 10, federal health experts gathered to the symptoms of COVID-19, how to protect yourself, and what it means for older adults and family caregivers. The event was moderated by AARP’s Vice President of Content Strategy and; Communications Bill Walsh and featured Admiral Brett P. Giroir, M.D., , Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Nancy Messonnier, M.D., and internist and Director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases; and Seema Verma, Administrator at the Centers for Medicare and; Medicaid Services.

The invited experts warned seniors to take heed. People age 60 and over are at high risk of catching COVID-19, it’s severity especially for those with underlying medical conditions.

Getting the Best Source of Medical Information

According to AARP’s Walsh, the Washington, DC-based nonprofit convened the tele-town hall about coronavirus in an effort to protect the public. “While we see an important role for AARP to play in providing consumer information and advocacy related to the virus, the public should be aware the best source of medical information is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” he said.

At this briefing Messonnier noted that reports out of China that looked at more than 70,000 COVID-19 patients and found that about 80 percent who had the virus had a mild case and recovered. About 15 percent to 20 percent developed a serious illness.

The COVID-19 virus affects adults, especially seniors, says Messonnier. noting that people over age 60 are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from this virus, especially if they have underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease.

Although younger people with underlying health problems are also at risk, the top official at CDC stressed that older people with health problems are the most vulnerable. She noted that her parents are in their 80s, and even though they don’t live in community reported to have the virus, she advised them to stay close to home.

CDC’s Messonnier suggested that seniors stock up on over-the-counter medications to treat fever, cough and other symptoms, as well as tissues, common medical supplies, and routine medications for blood pressure and diabetes.

Although there is no vaccine to prevent coronavirus and there are no specific medicines to treat it., there are many things you can do to prevent the illness, says Messonnier. She urged seniors to avoid contact with people who are sick. Keeping the COVID-19 virus at bay can be as simple as simply washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, or having been in a public place, she said, urging seniors to wash your hands after touching surfaces in public places. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol [if you can find it].

Messonnier warns seniors to avoid touching high-touch surfaces in public places – like elevator buttons, door handles, handrails, handshaking with people, etc. Use a tissue or your sleeve to cover your hand or finger if you must touch something. It’s difficult for many but just avoid touching your face, nose, and eyes, she says.

Messonnier also suggested that seniors to clean and disinfect their homes to remove germs: practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces (for example: tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks & cell phone). Also, avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. Your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like COVID-19 may increase in crowded, closed-in settings with little air circulation if there are people in the crowd who are sick.

Avoid all non-essential travel including plane trips, and especially avoid embarking on cruise ships, warns Messonnier.

Messonnier also called on people over age 6o to follow “social distancing strategies,” such as teleworking and avoiding crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. This might mean that if your grandchild has a fever and runny nose, it may not be the right time to visit, she says.

“If COVID-19 begins spreading in your community, keep in touch family and friends by phone or email to let them know how you are doing,” recommends Messonnier. Consider ways of getting foods brought to your house through family, social, or commercial networks. Have at least three days of household items and groceries on hand so that you will be prepared to stay at home for an extended period of time, she adds.

And if you rely on a caregiver for routine help, make arrangements for backup care in case your primary caregiver becomes sick, suggests Messonnier.

Seema Verma, who oversees the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, reported that major health insurers are now responding to the pandemic coronavirus outbreak by pledging to relax prescription refill limits on “maintenance medication” for Medicare Advantage and Part D beneficiaries.

Hot Off the Press…

“No matter what type of [Medicare] program you are in, you can get a coronavirus test with no cost sharing, Verma announced noting that she has gotten a commitment from insurance companies to also cover coronavirus tests with no cost-sharing.

Medicare now pays for telehealth services. “You can Skype with them. You can send them pictures, and all of those are covered services, so your doctor can bill for those particular services, says Verma.

If you have difficulty stocking up on your prescriptions at the pharmacy, consider refilling your medications with a mail-order service, recommends DHHS’s Giroir. Ask your physician to switch your prescription from a 30-day supply to a 90-day supply to “keep you out of the doctor’s office or a crowded grocery store or pharmacy,” he adds.

“This is not the time to panic. Stay informed, take it seriously because it can be a serious disease, stay up to date. We are committed to doing whatever we can to communicate,” says Giroir, noting that CDC’s website is a great source of information, but you want to know what is going on in your local community because that is where you get the most direct information about the risk.

For details, about COVID-19, go to https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html. Also, go to https://health.ri.gov/diseases/ncov2019/.
Here’s a transcript of the event: https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2020/tele-town-hall-coronavirus.html.

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

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 2, 2020

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

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

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

The Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

Initial Resolution Blocked by the House GOP

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

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

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

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

Third Times the Charm

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Back in Time

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

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

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

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

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

Aging Advocates Give Thumbs Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenkins: Working Senior’s Priming the Nation’s Economic Engine

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 22, 2019

In recent years, Senate Majority Leader Mich McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and even former House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have warned that the growing number of seniors is fast becoming an economic drag to the nation’s economic growth, citing the spiraling costs of Social Security and Medicare. As the 2020 presidential election looms, GOP candidates are calling for reining in the skyrocketing federal budget deficit by slashing these popular domestic programs.

In 2015, President Donald Trump declared that he would not touch Social Security and Medicare. But now some GOP insiders are saying he may cut these programs during his second term, if he wins.

But after you read the newly released AARP report, The Longevity Economy Outlook, you may just want to consider these comments about seniors being a drain on the economy as false and misleading claims, just “fake news.”

AARP’s Longevity Economy Outlook report pulls from national data detailing how much people age 50 and older spend, earn working and pay in taxes.

Just days ago, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins penned a blog article on the Washington, DC-based aging group’s website highlighting the findings of this major report. AARP’s top senior executive strongly disputes the myth that people age 50 and over are an economic drain on society. Rather the report’s findings indicate that older workers, who are getting a monthly Social Security check and receiving Medicare benefits, are priming the nation’s economic engine, she says.

“As the number of people over 50 grows, this cohort group is transforming America’s economic markets and sparking fresh ideas, and the demand for new products and services across our economy,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins notes that when older workers delay their retirement they continue to impact the economy by earning a paycheck, purchasing goods and services, and generating tax revenues for local, state and federal government.

“The economic activity of people 50-plus supports 88.6 million jobs in the U.S. generates $5.7 trillion in wages and salaries, and accounts for $2.1 trillion in combined taxes,” says Jenkins.

AARP’s economic impact study, released on Dec. 19, reports that people age 50 and older contribute a whopping $8.3 trillion to the U.S. economy, putting this age group just behind the U.S. (20.5 trillion) and China (13.4 trillion) when measured by gross domestic product. They also create an additional $745 billion in value through being unpaid family caregivers (see my commentary in the November 17/18 issues of the Woonsocket Call and Pawtucket Times).

Jenkins says, AARP ’s major report also projects the economic impact of older works to continue in the coming decades, tripling to more than $28 trillion by 2050 as younger generations (millennials and Generation Z) turn age 50 in 2031 and 2047, respectively.

With the graying of the nation’s population (predicted to be 157 million by 2050), the AARP report predicts that older persons will have more collective spending power, too, says Jenkins. “Fifty-six cents of every dollar spent in the United States in 2018 came from someone 50 or older,” she says, adding that by 2050 this amount is expected to jump to 61 cents of every dollar.

For over six years, AARP has been tracking the economic impact of older adults on the nation’s economy, Jenkins’ penned in her recently published blog article. It’s growing steadily over these years, she says.

“When AARP began researching the economic power of people 50 and older in 2013, we found that they generated $7.1 trillion in economic activity,” says Jenkins, noting that three years later it had grown to 7.5 trillion. “The 2019 report reflects an 11 percent growth in economic impact, a 6 percent growth in jobs created and a 12 percent growth in wages and salaries over the most recent three-year period,” adds Jenkins.

Older Rhode Islanders and the State’s Economy

By virtue of Rhode Island being one of the oldest states per capita in the country we have long been aware of the contribution and buying power older people contribute to the state’s economy,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “When you add in those 50-64 it becomes a big and powerful percentage of the population,” she says.

Over the years, Connell has observed more engagement with AARP in the younger end of the demographic spectrum because people in their 50s have justifiable concerns about their future. They wonder: “Will they outspend their savings? Will Social Security change in ways that will reduce their benefits? Will out-of-pocket prescription drug expenses sink the savings they hope to put away for retirement?,” she says.

“Waiting for retirement to think about these issues could well be too late,” warns Connell. “This is creating greater interest in government and politics and magnifies the importance of their vote,” she adds.

“At the same time, as older Rhode Islanders remain the workforce longer, they are keep paying taxes – a sizable plus for the state’s economy,” observes Connell. “With their extensive experience, many continue to be movers and shakers, innovators and professionals lending guidance that helps fuel economic growth,” she states.

Connell adds: “Outside the workplace, they are connected in new ways via technology and social media. The great thing is that across the range of 50 and older workers it can be said that more people are sharing the workplace adding to our cultural development and participating in civic engagement more than ever before.”

Wake Up Call to Businesses, Congress

AARP’s report should be a “wake-up call” to businesses and federal and state policymakers to rethink their attitudes, warns Jenkins in the concluding of her blog article. She calls on business leaders to “build strategies for marketing their products and services to older Americans and to embrace a multi-generational workforce.” Jenkins also urges Congress and state law makers to develop policies to support the growing number of uncompensated caregivers.

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

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

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

The Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

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

The Pros and Cons of H.R. 3

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the Brakes on Rising Drug Costs in Rhode Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Committee Moves to Rein in Skyrocketing Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 1, 2019

On Nov. 18, House Antitrust Subcommittee Chair David N. Cicilline (D-RI) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-RI) introduced The Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Through Promoting Competition Act of 2019 (H.R. 5133) to put the brakes on skyrocketing prescription drug costs. The bill attacked increasing costs by prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from engaging in anticompetitive “product hopping.”

Two days later, the Committee unanimously passed the bipartisan bill to drive down the rising costs of prescription drugs. Now H.R. 5133 goes to the House floor for a vote.

“Big pharmaceutical companies have done everything they can to increase their profits regardless of who it affects. Their CEOs make millions in bonuses ever year while hardworking folks are forced to ration their medicine just so they can put food on the table for their kids,” said Cicilline, in a released statement announcing the introduction of the bill.

Since becoming Chair of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, Cicilline has sought to take on the anticompetitive behavior in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors. “This is wrong, and it needs to stop. This bill, along with the suite of legislation to lower health care costs the House has passed already this year, will put an end to anticompetitive behavior that is driving prices up while pushing the middle class further and further down,” says Cicilline in pushing for the bill’s passage.

“This bill builds on the Committee’s strong record of bipartisan legislation to confront one of the leading drivers of high prescription drug costs—efforts by drug companies to keep generic drugs off the market so that they can preserve their monopoly profits,” adds Chairman Nadler when H.R. 5133 was thrown into the legislative hopper. “The outrageous behavior of product hopping puts profits before patients and thwarts the competition that is essential to lowering prescription drug prices,” he charges. Nadler says that H.R. 5133 would “encourage drug companies to focus on delivering meaningful innovation for sick patients rather than delivering profits to their bottom line.”

Fixing the Problem

According to Cicilline and Nadler, pharmaceutical companies use a wide array of tactics when their patent on a drug is near expiration to switch patients to another version of the drug that they have the exclusive right to sell. Called “product hopping,” this anticompetitive practice extends the manufacturer’s ability to charge monopoly prices by blocking the patient’s ability to switch to a cheaper, generic alternative. Product hopping benefits the manufacturer’s bottom line at the expense of patients who are stuck paying higher prices often for many years at a time, they say.

The two Congressmen say that there is another roadblock to lowering prescription drug costs. Although antitrust agencies have made an effort to curb product hopping, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) still faces a number of hurdles under existing law when trying to hold companies accountable for this anticompetitive conduct. The Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Through Promoting Competition Act of 2019 strengthens the FTC’s ability to bring and win cases against pharmaceutical companies that engage in all forms of product hopping.

A similar version of H.R. 5133 was considered in the Senate and it would save taxpayers an estimated $500 million according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

A week earlier, before H.R. 5133 was passed by the and Judiciary Committee, a new report was released by AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI), giving data to Congress to enact legislation to lowering prescription drug costs. The report findings indicate that brand-name drug prices rose more than twice as fast as inflation in 2018.

According to the AARP PPI report, retail prices for 267 brand-name drugs commonly used by older adults surged by an average of 5.8 percent in 2018, more than twice the general inflation rate of 2.4 percent. The annual average cost of therapy for one brand-name drug ballooned to more than $7,200 in 2018, up from nearly $1,900 in 2006.

“There seems to be no end to these relentless brand-name drug price increases,” said Debra Whitman, Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer at AARP, in a Nov. 13 statement announcing the release of the report. “To put this into perspective: If gasoline prices had grown at the same rate as these widely-used brand-name drugs over the past 12 years, gas would cost $8.34 per gallon at the pump today. Imagine how outraged Americans would be if they were forced to pay those kinds of prices,” says Whitman.

Brand-name drug price increases have consistently and substantially exceeded the general inflation rate of other consumer goods for over a decade, notes the AARP PPI data.

If brand-name drug retail price changes had been limited to the general inflation rate between 2006 and 2018, the average annual cost of therapy for one brand-name drug would be a whopping $5,000 lower today ($2,178 vs. $7,202). The report’s findings note that the average senior takes 4 to 5 medications each month, and the current cost of therapy translates into an annual cost of more than $32,000, almost 25 percent higher than the median annual income of $26,200 for a Medicare beneficiary.

“While some people will undoubtedly see a slower rate of price increases as a sign of improvement, the reality is that there is absolutely nothing to stop drug companies from reverting back to double-digit percentage price increases every year,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, and co-author of the report. “Americans will remain at the mercy of drug manufacturers’ pricing behavior until Congress takes major legislative action,” adds Purvis.

With over 340 days before the upcoming 2020 Presidential and Congressional elections, Senate Democrats say that more than 250 House-passed bills are “buried in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky) legislative graveyard.” The Senate’s top Republican}, referred to as the “Grim Reaper,” has blocked consideration on these bills (including prescription drug pricing bills) effectively killing them. As the election day gets closer this number is expected to increase.

President Trump and Republican lawmakers are loudly chanting that the Democrats are “getting nothing done in Congress.” This is just fake “political” news. Major reforms that would prop up Social Security, Medicare, and lower Prescription Drug prices get the legislative kibosh in the GOP-controlled Senate. It is now time to put these bills to an up or down vote in the upper chamber. The voters will send a message to Congress next November if they agree with the results. It’s time for McConnell to put down his reaper

For details, of AARP report, go to http://www.aarp.org/rxpricewatch.

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

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/.