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.

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

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 2, 2020

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

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

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

The Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

Initial Resolution Blocked by the House GOP

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

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

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

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

Third Times the Charm

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Back in Time

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

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

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

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

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

Aging Advocates Give Thumbs Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

The Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

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

The Pros and Cons of H.R. 3

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the Brakes on Rising Drug Costs in Rhode Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/.

NCPSSM Says It Pays Off to Delay Claiming Social Security Benefits

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 28, 2019

You have an eight-year window to choose to sign up for Social Security to collect your monthly benefit check. Some may be forced to collect Social Security at age 62, because of their finances, health and lifestyle. Others make a decision to wait until either age 66 (if you were born after 1954) or 67 (or born in 1960 or after) to collect full monthly benefits. While some even choose to wait until age 70, if they financially can, to get the maximum program benefits.

For this age 64-year old writer and to many of my older peers in their 60s, determining the right age to collect Social Security can be confusing at best. Will my decision, to make less by collecting at age 62 or more by waiting until full benefits are paid at age 66 or 67 or waiting to receive maximum benefits at age 70, provide me with adequate retirement income to pay my bills into my eighties or even nineties? The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) hopes to assist older workers to make the right decision for them through a new educational campaign, Delay & Gain.

Educational Campaign Kicks Off in Five Cities

This month, the NCPSSM kicks off a new educational campaign, Delay & Gain, to urge workers in their 60s to opt for more money, up to thousands of dollars per year in additional Social Security benefits, by working at least until their normal retirement age 66 or 67. Filing for Social Security at age 62 locks you into a lower benefit, permanently. You are not entitled to 100 percent of the benefit calculated from your earnings history unless you apply at your age 66 or 67
Launched by the Washington, DC-based NCPSSM, Delay & Gain includes a six-figure ad campaign targeting five U.S. cities where workforce participation is high, but too many workers are losing money by choosing to retire early.

According to NCPSSM, more than one-third of American workers claim Social Security at the early retirement age of 62, lowering their monthly benefits for the rest of their lives. In a recent survey of American workers, nearly half of respondents did not know that their monthly Social Security benefits will be reduced by claiming at the earliest eligible age of 62 — and boosted up to 25 percent for waiting until the full retirement age of 66. Seniors who delay claiming until age 70 receive an even larger financial bump — up to 44 percent more than if they had filed for benefits early. For the average beneficiary that can mean a difference of roughly $1,000 per month in extra income.

“We understand that not all workers have the option of working longer due to poor health, caregiving demands, age discrimination or physically demanding work. But we consistently hear from seniors who retired early because they were sick and tired of working, who soon discovered that they were more sick and tired of not having enough money in retirement,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO in an April 8 statement announcing this new initiative.

Many Benefits of Working Longer

The risks of running out of money in later life are very evident, says NCPSSM. “Some 8 percent of seniors under 70 live in poverty. But the poverty rate jumps to 12 percent for those over 85. Older women are in greater jeopardy than men, because they tend to live longer, saved less for retirement and lower Social Security benefits. Some 11 percent of all elderly women live in poverty compared to 8 percent of older men,” says NCPSSM, whose chief mission is to protect Social Security and Medicare.

“Because Social Security helps keep seniors out of poverty — and because benefits are adjusted for inflation — it’s imperative that workers maximize their future benefits,” says NCPSSM in its statement. “Retirees rely more and more on Social Security as they age. One-half of all retirees receive most of their income from Social Security. But 42 percent of seniors over age 80 depend on Social Security for almost all their cash income. With one in four 65-year-olds expected to live past 90, it’s evident why workers should try to reap the highest possible monthly benefits. As they say, you can outlive other sources of income, but not Social Security,” notes the aging advocacy group.

The Delay & Gain campaign was rolled-out in Baltimore, Maryland, Davenport, Iowa. Detroit, Michigan, Louisville, Kentucky, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 8, 2019. NCPSSM’s campaign will reach out to older workers through radio ads, videos, social media and mobile billboards while providing educational material for distribution and publication to Human Resource departments, community centers and libraries, and financial institutions. The campaign website, delayandgain.org offers additional resources including Ask Us, a free service where Social Security experts answer personal questions about benefits, filing a claim and more.

“We want seniors to be able to pursue a comfortable retirement, with the least amount of stress about paying the bills,” says Richtman. “This campaign will show older workers how to get there,” he notes.

Simply put, NCPSSM’s Delay & Gain initiative, can provide older workers with a simple strategy for planning their retirement, one that just might make their retirement years more comfortable.

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 commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Attacking Rising Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 7, 2019

The Washington, DC-based AARP timed the release of its latest Rx Price Watch report as the House Energy Commerce Committee marked up and passed a dozen bills just days ago, six that would lower prescription drug costs. The legislative proposals now go to the House floor for consideration.

AARP’s new report, a continuation of a series that has been tracking price changes for widely used prescription drugs since 2004, was circulated to House Committee members before their markup and vote and its findings sent a message to the lawmakers that they hear from their older constituents, that is the costs of pharmaceutical drugs is skyrocketing, making it difficult to fill needed prescriptions.

Poll after poll findings reflect the concerns of seniors about their ability to pay for prescribed medications. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last month, 79 percent of survey respondents view drug prices to be “unreasonable,” while just 17 percent found the costs to be “reasonable.” Twenty-four percent of these respondents found it difficult to pay the costs of their prescription drugs.

Generic Drugs Can Save Dollars

According to the new AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) report, by Leigh Purvis and Dr. Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, the average annual cost of therapy for one widely used brand-name prescription drug in 2017 was over 18 times higher than the cost of therapy for one generic drug. The cost for a generic medication used on a chronic basis averaged $365 per year. In contrast, the average annual cost for a brand-name prescription drug was $6,798. But, four years earlier the price differential between these same market baskets was substantially smaller ($4,308 verses $751 respectively).

“Generics account for nearly nine out of every 10 prescriptions filled in the U.S. but represent less than a quarter of the country’s drug spending,” said Debra Whitman, Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer at AARP, in a statement released with the PPI’s 28 page report “These results highlight the importance of eliminating anticompetitive behavior by brand-name drug companies so that we get more lower-priced generic drugs on the market,” says Whitman.

AARP’s PPI report, entitled “Trends in Retail Prices of Generic Prescription Drugs Widely Used by Older Americans,” found that retail prices for 390 generic prescription drugs commonly used by older adults, including Medicare beneficiaries, decreased by an average of 9.3 percent in 2017, compared to the general inflation rate of 2.1 percent. The decline follows two consecutive years of substantial generic drug price decreases; the previous two consecutive years saw increases in generic drug prices. All but three of the 390 generic prescription drugs analyzed in AARP’s report had a retail price change in 2017. While prices for 297 (76 percent) drug products decreased, 90 (23 percent) products had price increases.
Six commonly used generic drug products had retail price increases of greater than 70 percent, including a nearly 200 percent increase for sertraline HCL, an antidepressant, finds the AARP.

AARP’s PPI report found that with older adults taking an average of 4.5 prescription drugs every month, those using generic prescription drugs were likely to have an average annual retail cost of $1,642 in 2017.

“The gap between average annual brand-name and generic drug prices has increased dramatically—brand name drug prices were six times higher than generic drug prices in 2013 but more than 18 times higher in 2017,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Policy Institute, and co-author of the report. “As long as brand name drug prices continue to skyrocket, the value of prohibiting brand name drug company practices that slow or prevent competition from generic and biosimilar drugs cannot be overstated.”

AARP Pushes for Passage of Bills to Lower Drug Costs

Before the Committee on Energy and Commerce vote on April 3, in correspondence AARP urged Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-Ore) to enact two bills (along with four other proposals) being considered at the morning markup session. These legislative proposals would lower prescription drug costs and had previously been approved by the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee.

In the correspondence, AARP’s Nancy A. LeaMond, Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, pushed for passage of H.R., 1499. the “Protecting Consumer Access to Generic Drugs Act of 2019.” introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). This proposal would make it illegal for brand-name and generic drug manufacturers to enter into agreements in which the brand-name drug manufacturer pays the generic manufacturer to keep a generic equivalent off the market. The bill was passed by voice vote.

LeaMond also supported H.R., 965, the “Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples (CREATES) Act of 2019,” introduced by Reps. David Cicilline (D-RI), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Doug Collins (R-GA), Peter Welch (D-VT), and David McKinley (R-WV). The proposal would establish a process by which generic manufacturers could obtain sufficient quantities of brand drug samples for testing thereby deterring gaming of safety protocols that brand manufacturers use to delay or impede generic entry. The bill passed by a bipartisan vote of 51-0.

At the markup, Pallone and Walden were able to work out philosophical differences on H.R. 1499 and H.R. 965. The two lawmakers also hammered out a compromise on H.R. 1503, the “Organize Book Transparency Act of 2019,” that would ensure that the Orange book, which identifies drug products approved on the basis of safety and effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration, is accurate and up-to-date.

Washington Insiders say that Democratic control of the House will ensure the passage of these legislative proposals on the House floor and the bipartisan vote on the CREATES Act in the lower chamber creates an opportunity for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to successfully push his CREATES Act companion measure in the Senate.

Grassley says the broad, bipartisan action by the House Energy and Commerce Committee to advance the CREATES Act is a major win for consumers. “I look forward to advancing this bill because it will cut down on abuses in the system that keep prices high for patients. I’m also pleased that the committee advanced a bill to address pay-for-delay schemes. Although that bill is not identical to the bill I’ve sponsored in the Senate, the bill’s movement shows that the committee is serious about addressing the pay-for-delay problem,” says the Senator.

As They See It…

AARP’s LeaMond, says “Brand-name drug companies want to stifle generic competition to protect their monopolies and profits. AARP believes that eliminating these deliberate anticompetitive behaviors will result in a more robust generic drug market and greater savings for both patients and taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that legislation such as the CREATES Act could save taxpayers more than $3 billion over a decade, and the Federal Trade Commission estimated pay-for-delay deals cost consumers and taxpayers $3.5 billion a year.

“We have long supported the CREATES Act and banning pay-for-delay agreements, and are heartened that Congress is acting to improve access to generic drugs. These bills will promote competition driving down costs for seniors,” says Lisa Swirsky, Senior Policy Analyst, at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“Congressman Cicilline has been a leader in our caucus for putting prescription drug prices at the front of our agenda. Moving generics to market faster is an important step to lower prescription drug costs for every American,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “House Democrats have made it a top priority to lower Americans’ health costs by reducing the price of prescription drugs, and these bipartisan bills show we mean to deliver,” she says.