Cicilline Hopes Dems Take Senate

Published in Pawtucket Times on November 9, 2020

On Saturday, November 7, at 11:45 a.m. (eastern Standard Time), as the Trump campaign called for legal challenges looming over ballot counting, CNBC projected Joe Biden to win the U.S. Election, making him president-elect.  As the dust settles over this very divisive election, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes propelled Biden over the 273 electoral votes needed to win.

With the Democrats now taking control of the White House and maintaining control of the House, even with a loss of seats, the battle for control of the Senate now turns to Georgia with one regular and one special election scheduled to fill a vacancy take place on January 5.  

With garnering less than 50 percent of the vote, in accordance with Georgia law, GOP Sen. David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff meet again at a January 5 runoff election.  Rev. Raphael Warnock, the democratic challenger, and governor-appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who replaced Sen. Johnny Isakson when he retired last year, battle in the Peach State for a Senate seat in special-election runoff.

Democrats now have a long-shot of taking control of the Senate with Kamala Harris being elected vice president and if they win the two Senate races in Georgia’s upcoming election. By winning the Senate, both parties will each have 50 seats, Harris tipping the balance of power to the Democrats. 

McConnell, Oversees “Least Productive” Congress in its History

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) says that the Democratic-controlled House has had one of the most productive Congresses in the institution’s history. “We’ve passed more than 600 bills in the House, but there are more than 375 of them stuck on Mitch McConnell’s desk, many of them bipartisan,” notes Cicilline, who serves as Co-Chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

“Obviously, both Georgia senate races are hanging in balance and it’s important we win them.  A Democratic majority in the Senate will allow for the passage of the “For the People” agenda which creates jobs, raises wages, lowers health care costs and increases access to affordable prescription drugs.  These bills are good for Rhode Islanders and all Americans,” states Cicilline.

“I look foward to working with the Biden Administration to put together a robust agenda for the first 100 days and get to work passing bills that will help Rhode Island’s economy, workers and seniors,” adds Cicilline.

With the release of its 2020 Democracy Scorecard in September, Aaron Sherb, director of legislative affairs for the Washington, DC based Common Cause, documents how a Republican-controlled Senate has resulted in legislative gridlock.  “What the 2020 Democracy Scorecard makes plain is the blatant disregard for democracy reforms in the Senate. “The House of Representatives passed nearly 10 democracy reform bills, often with bipartisan support, this session, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blocked debate and mark-ups on all of these bills and refused to allow a vote,” he said.

In fact, the Senate’s inaction has the 116th Congress on tract to be the least productive in history, with just one percent of the bills becoming law,” charges Sherb. author of the 2020 Democracy Scorecard,

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) strongly agrees with Sherb’s assessment of McConnell’s successful efforts to block Democratic and bipartisan-sponsored common-sense legislation critical to protecting the health and well-being of Americans.  Seniors will not be better off with a GOP-controlled Senate, warns NCPSSM, calling for the Democrats to win the Georgia Senate special elections to take over the control of the Senate.

According to NCPSSM, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group with a mission to protect Social Security and Medicare, “Since 2019, the Democratic-controlled House has served as a firewall against Trump’s efforts to defund, cut and privatize Security and Medicare.  But as long as Republicans control the Senate, legislation to protect and expand seniors’ earned benefits will remain in limbo. Under a Democratic majority, though, seniors would likely see real progress where their financial and health security are concerned.”

NCPSSM charges Senate majority leader McConnell, who gave himself the nickname, the “Grim Reaper,” has buried hundreds of House-passed bills during the 116th Congress that would have benefitted America’s seniors.  He even refused to take up last May’s House-passed COVID-passed relief bill, and the lower chambers recently passed COVID-19 legislation, as the nation’s public health officials battled the spread and spiking of the deadly virus. 

McConnell also blocked consideration of H.R. 3, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which the House passed almost a year ago, says NCPSSM. 

H.R. 3 would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription prices with Big Pharma, which would save the government and seniors nearly $350 billion in drug costs. The bill would also expand traditional Medicare by adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits.

NCPSSM says that the GOP Senate Leader will not even allow a bipartisan crafted bill, the S 2543, the “Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act, introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), to be considered on the Senate floor.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, this legislation would save taxpayers $95 billion, reduce out-of-pocket spending by $72 billion and finally reduce premiums by $1 billion.

The eyes are now on the Supreme Court, where three Trump-appointed Justices will rule on legal issues coming before the nation’s highest court. “If the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, which strengthens Medicare’s finances and included enhanced benefits for seniors (not to mention protecting older patients with pre-existing conditions), a Democratic House and Senate could replace or revise it,” notes NCPSSM. 

House Democrats are considering HR 860, The Social Security 2100 Act, to strengthen and expand Social Security.  The landmark legislation, introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), referred to the Subcommittee on Social Security would keep the program financially healthy through the end of the century, while boosting benefits for all retirees. NCPSSM notes that president-elect Joe Biden has incorporated many of the proposals in this bill into his own plan. 

NCPSSM adds that a Democratic-controlled House and Senate could reduce the financial impact on COVID-19 on current and future retirees’ Social Security benefits.  Under Democratic Senate leadership, notes the Washington, DC-based advocacy group, the upper chamber could work with the House to increase the tiny 1.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to 3 percent for 2021.  which would be welcome news for older Americans who were laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic that sweep the nation, forcing many into early retirement

Finally, NCPSSM says that a Democratic-controlled House and Senate could prevent aging Baby Boomers born in 1960 (and possibly 1961, as well) from suffering a lifetime reduction in their future benefits caused by a COVID-related drop in average wages.

A Final Note:  Let’s Bring Back House Aging Committee

During the last two Congresses, Cicilline introduced a resolution three times to re-establish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. Two of the times a GOP-controlled Congress blocked consideration.  Democrat House efforts to impeach President Donald Trump and a continual battle over policy issues with the Trump Administration and the Republican-controlled Senate put Cicilline’s resolution on hold the third time.  

The previous House Aging Committee was active from 1974 to 1993 (until it was disbanded because of budgetary issues) put the spot light on an array of senior issues including elder abuse, helped increase home care benefits for older adults and helped establish research and care centers for Alzheimer’s disease.  

After introducing his resolution this Congress, Cicilline says that a reestablished House Aging Committee could initiate comprehensive studies on aging policy issues, funding priorities, and trends.  Like its predecessor, its efforts would not be limited by narrow jurisdictional boundaries of the standing committee but broadly at targeted aging policy issues, he notes.

According to Cicilline, the House can easily create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other aspects.  Funding would be up to the Appropriations Committee. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

During the 117th Congress, as the House begins its debates on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the Older Americans Act, and other issues of importance to older adults, it will be important to have a House Aging Committee that once again puts the spotlight and attention on America’s aging issues. 

Trump Spending Priorities Would Fray Social Safety Net Programs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Trump Budget Proposal Puts Senior’s Earned Benefits at Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortchanging Seniors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Woonsocket Call on November 11, 2018

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

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

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

What Issues Are Important to Older Voters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phone App Informs Older Voters on Aging Issues

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

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

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

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

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

Send a Message to Congress

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

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