Seniors with student loans: AARP’s new online tool to manage debt

Published in RINewsToday on April 5, 2021

Over the years, AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) has tracked the staggering amount of student loan debt that seniors are shouldering to help their children and grandchildren finance their higher education. Many people age 50 also take on student loan debt themselves, seeking more education at colleges and universities to sharpen up their skills to get a raise or a higher paying job.  

AARP national CEO, Ann Jenkins, in a July 3, 2019 blog posting, “Student Loan Debt is Crippling too Many Families,” urged Congress and state legislatures to increase public investment in colleges and universities. “The cost of attending a four-year college more than doubled, even after adjusting for inflation, as state and local funding for higher education per student has decreased,” she said, noting that family incomes haven’t come close to matching that increase.” 

Jenkins warned that the rising cost of student loan debt is “crippling too many families” and “threatens to crush the financial security of millions of Americans over age 50.” According to a PPI report, released May 2019, entitled “The Student Loan Debt Threat: An Intergenerational Problem,” cited by Jenkins in her blog article, Americans of all ages owed $1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt as of Dec. 2018. Compare this to people ages 50 and older who owed 20 percent of this debt, or $289.5 billion of that total, up from $47.3 billion in 2004, she said, noting “that’s a fivefold increase since 2004.”

Most troubling, this 2019 PPI analysis, found that 25 percent of private student loan cosigners age 50 and older had to make a loan payment because the student borrower failed to do so.

The 2019 PPI analysis findings also indicated the obvious – that is, taking on student loan debt  can quickly deplete a senior’s retirement egg nest. The data revealed that many older student loan borrowers racked up debt by running a balance on a credit card (34 percent) and taking out a Parent PLUS loan, federal money borrowed by parents (26 percent). Other types of borrowing included taking out a home equity loan (12 percent), refinancing of their homes (10 percent), and taking out a loan against their retirement savings (8 percent).

Jenkins also noted that for seniors who defaulted in paying their monthly student loan payments, the federal government can recoup this money by taking a number of steps to collect, among them taking a portion of federal or state income tax refunds, withholding a percentage of Social Security retirement or disability benefits, or even garnishing some of the borrower’s wages.

Today, America’s seniors are still feeling the overwhelming financial weight of having to pay off student loan debt.  

Updated Student Loan Data Released 

Last week, AARP’s PPI released a new report updating data on older student loan borrowers. Like its 2019 analysis, the newly released data in the report, “Rising Student Loan Debt Continues to Burden Older Borrowers”, revealed that student loan debt is still a staggering problem across generations: Americans 50 and older held $336.1 billion, or 22 percent, of the $1.6 trillion in student loan debt in 2020. In 2004, older borrowers accounted for 10 percent of the $455.2 billion student loan debt.

“Student loan debt is becoming a burden for all generations, ensnaring more older adults and delaying or battering the retirement plans for many,” said Gary Koenig, AARP Vice President, Financial Security, in an AARP statement released on March 31, 2021. “Paying for higher education was never meant to last a lifetime.

That is why AARP is helping individuals take charge of their debt and financial security,” he said.

AARP’s newly released PPI analysis found that millions of borrowers – including as many as seven million individuals ages 50-plus – have had their payment suspension extended through September due to the pandemic. However, around a fifth of student loan debt – more than $300 billion – is not included in the current suspension.

Managing Your Student Loan Debt

To help individuals manage their student debt, AARP and Savi unveiled last week a new student loan repayment tool to help individuals identify the best payment options, with special features for the 50-plus population. The Savi Student Loan Repayment Tool provides a free, personalized assessment of student loan repayment options. It can also help individuals identify loan forgiveness opportunities based on employment, and assistance in preparing and filing paperwork.

“We’ve seen the generational impact of student loan debt, and we’re excited to work with AARP in helping older borrowers access immediate and long-term relief,” said Tobin Van Ostern, co-founder of Savi. “This is about changing the narrative and providing freedom from the burdens of student debt to those who need it most,” he notes.

“This new AARP resource provides a means for Rhode Islanders to form a clearer picture of student loan repayment that could help many clear up uncertainties and avoid potential additional costs,” said AARP Stated Director Kathleen Connell. “I urge older Rhode Islanders to get the Information they need, especially those whose retirement savings might be impacted.” 

Any adult with student loans may use the on-line tool at no cost, after registering at AARP.org/studentloans. AARP worked with Savi to customize the tool for older borrowers and includes: Options for dozens of national and state repayment and forgiveness programs; synchronized federal and private loans across all loan servicers easily with industry standard security; support from student loan experts; and access to free educational resources.

According to AARP’s statement announcing the new online tool, the Washington, DC – based aging advocacy group has worked with Savi to provide this resource to low-income older adults at no cost through the AARP Foundation. As older adults are the largest growing age group of student loan borrowers, AARP, and Savi are committed to helping them access the tools they need to begin tackling their student loan debt.

AARP’s statement makes it very clear that its collaboration with Savi does not involve or promote student loan refinancing of any.

Age Discrimination, Workplace Issues at House Hearing

Published in RINewsToday.com on March 22, 2021

Just days ago, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), chairperson of the House Committee on Education and Labor and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) introduced, H.R. 2062, the bipartisan “Protection Older Workers Against Discrimination Act” (POWADA), a bill that would strengthen federal anti-discrimination protections for older workers. The legislation was introduced March 18, 2021, the same day of a joint House Education and Labor Subcommittee hearing, held to address a variety of workplace issues.  POWADA has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor for consideration.

The reintroduction of POWADA is timely.  As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, older workers are attempting to keep their jobs, working more and longer than they ever have. When seniors lose their jobs, they are far more likely than younger workers to join the ranks of the long-term unemployed. And unfortunately, discrimination appears to be a significant factor in older workers’ long-term unemployment.

A 2018 survey conducted by the Washington, DC-based AARP found that 3 in 5 workers age 45 and older had seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. The 2018 survey also found that three-quarters of older workers blame age discrimination for their lack of confidence in being able to find a new job.

Congress Gears Up to Again Fight Age Discrimination

Reps. Scott and Davis were joined by seven Republicans and 14 Democrats, including Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee Chair Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chair Alma Adams (D-NC) to support H.R. 2062.

Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline has also requested to be a co-sponsor of this legislation.

POWADA was first introduced in Congress after an adverse 2009 Supreme Court decision, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, made it much more difficult for older workers to prove claims of illegal bias based on age. Under Gross, plaintiffs seeking to prove age discrimination in employment are required to demonstrate that age was the sole motivating factor for the employer’s adverse action.  The Supreme Court ruling upends decades of precedent that had allowed individuals to prove discrimination by showing that a discriminatory motive was one of the factors on which an employer’s adverse action was based.

Scott’s reintroduced POWADA returns the legal standard for age discrimination claims to the pre-2009 evidentiary threshold, aligning the burden of proof with the same standards for proving discrimination based on race and national origin.

“Everyone– regardless of their age – should be able to go to work every day knowing that they are protected from discrimination. Unfortunately, age discrimination in the workplace is depriving older workers of opportunities and exposing them to long-term unemployment and severe financial hardship, says chairperson Scott, noting that the reintroduced bipartisan bill would finally restore the legal rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which covers workers age 40 and over.

Republican Rep. Rodney Davis puts aside political differences and has stepped up to the plate with a handful of GOP lawmakers to co-sponsor Scott’s POWADA legislation. “Every American, including older Americans, deserves to work in a workplace or jobsite that is free from discrimination. That’s why I’m proud to team up with chairperson Bobby Scott and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in introducing the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act. Our bipartisan bill provides workplace protections for older workers by removing barriers they have to filing discrimination claims, ensuring their workplace rights can be enforced, says Davis, pledging to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to finally get the bill passed,” he says.    

Oregon Rep. Bonamici, who chairs the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services, notes that her state has a rapidly aging population, and age discrimination in the workplace remains disturbingly pervasive.  She joins Scott in cosponsoring POWADA.

“I’ve heard from Oregonians who were denied or lost a job because of their age, but the bar for proving discrimination is very high and the outcomes are uncertain. The bipartisan Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act makes it clear that unlawful discrimination in the workplace is unacceptable and holds employers accountable for discriminatory actions,” says Bonamici.

Adams, who chairs the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, joins Bonamici in cosponsoring POWADA.  The North Carolina Congresswoman states: “Labor law must protect the dignity of all workers and it must recognize that discrimination against older Americans is discrimination all the same,” says Adams, who chairs the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. The North Carolina Congresswoman notes that POWADA ensures that older workers will be fairly treated in the job market, returning the legal standard for proving discrimination back to its original intent. There is no place for disparate treatment based on age in the workforce.”

“Labor law must protect the dignity of all workers and it must recognize that discrimination against older Americans is discrimination all the same,” says Adams, who chairs the Subcommittee on Workforce. The North Carolina House Lawmaker says that POWADA ensures that older workers will be fairly treated in the job market, returning the legal standard for proving discrimination back to its original intent. There is no place for disparate treatment based on age in the workforce.

“The introduction of this bill is a crucial step to strengthening the law and restoring fairness for older workers who experience age discrimination,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive vice president and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer. “It sends a clear message that discrimination in the workplace – against older workers or others – is never acceptable.

“Age discrimination in the workplace, like any other kind of discrimination, is wrong.,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. That’s why AARP is fighting all forms of age discrimination in the hiring process and on the job, including an unfair court decision that makes age discrimination more difficult to prove than race- or sex-based discrimination. “Rhode Islanders are living and working longer and experienced workers bring expertise, maturity, and perspective,” Connell added. “Yet negative stereotypes and mistaken assumptions mean that older people are often treated unfairly in the workplace. We need bipartisan Congressional action to address this stubborn and persistent problem.”

Tackling Workforce Issues

Over two-hours, four witnesses testified at a joint Zoom hearing, “Fighting for Fairness: Examining Legislation to Confront Workplace Discrimination,” held before the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services and the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. The morning hearing addressed an array of workforce issues including race and longstanding gender inequities and barriers and pregnancy discrimination at the workplace. A spotlight was also put on the rampant increase of age discrimination that older workers are now facing in the job market and the need to pass POWADA to reverse the detrimental impact of a 2009 Supreme Court decision.

Lauren McCann, senior attorney at AARP Foundation, pointed out to the attending House lawmakers that age discrimination in the workplace remains “stubbornly persistent” and urged a House Education and Labor hearing to “re-level the playing field” by passing strong anti-bias legislation.

McCann told the committee that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems faced by older workers, who have left the labor force in the last year at twice the rate during the Great Recession.

McCann testified that passage of POWADA, sponsored by Scott, the Chair of the House Committee of Education and Labor, is crucial to reverse the 2009 Supreme Court decision in the Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. case. McCann said that the high court’s 2009 decision abruptly changed the standard — from the longstanding requirement under the ADEA that a worker prove that age is just one motivating factor in adverse treatment on the job — to a much higher and tougher to prove standard: that age is the standard motive.

“Older workers now always bear the burden of persuasion in ADEA cases,” McCann emphasized.

According to McCann, House hearing comes at a time when older workers have been battered by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Unemployment for workers age 55 and older more than doubled between Feb. 2020, just before the pandemic began, and last month, based on AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) analysis of federal data.

The number of age 55 and over unemployed has also doubled, up from one million in February 2020, to 2 million last month, according to PPI.

Turning to the Senate…

At press time, a senior Senate aide for Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging, says the Senator is posed to follow the House by throwing the Senate’s POWADA Senate companion measure into the legislative hopper Monday. 

The Pennsylvania Senator clearly understands why he again must push for the passage and enactment of POWADA.  “As more Americans are remaining in the workforce longer, we must recognize and address the challenges that aging workers face. We must make it clear to employers that age discrimination is unacceptable, and we must strengthen antidiscrimination protections that are being eroded,” says Sen. Casey. “POWADA would level the playing field for older workers and ensure they are able to fight back against age discrimination in the workplace.”

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.