Seniors would benefit in President Biden’s $6 trillion budget

Published in RINewsToday on June 14, 2021

On May 28, with the release of a $6 trillion budget for fiscal year (FY) 2022, President Joe Biden outlined his values and vision as to how he proposes to revive the nation’s sputtering economic engine as it emerges from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 72-page budget document, “Budget of the United States,” (with more than a 1,400-page appendix) details his spending priorities that begin next Oct. 1. Biden’s generous budget depends on increasing taxes on America’s corporations (from 21 to 28 percent) and high earners, who received significant tax breaks from the President Trump/GOP tax cuts of 2017.

With the FY 2022 Budget pushing federal debt to the highest levels since World War 1I, Republican lawmakers quickly called the proposal “dead on arrival” in Congress.  However, Cecilia Rouse, chair of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors says the Biden Administration is willing to live with a budget deficit to invest in the economy now, especially with low interest rates to borrow; deficits can be reduced later. 

President Biden’s new spending under the just released proposed FY 2022 budget, recognizing his Administration’s priorities, reflects the major proposals already outlined under the administration’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan and $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. Provisions in these two proposals would overhaul the nation’s aging infrastructure and invest in education, childcare, paid family and medical leave, fight climate change. 

President Biden’s spending plan also recognizes priorities outlined in the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year as well as the Administration’s “skinny” discretionary budget request released in April. Most importantly, it reflects a commitment from the president to safeguard Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Loving It or Hating It Depends on Where You Sit

In remarks delivered Thursday in Cleveland, President Biden made the case for his budget request and what he describes as an investment in the country’s future. “Now is the time to build [on] the foundation that we’ve laid to make bold investments in our families and our communities and our nation,” he said. “We know from history that these kinds of investments raise both the floor and the ceiling over the economy for everybody.”

In the FY 2020 Budget proposal’s “Message from the President”, Biden says, “The Budget invests directly in the American People and will strengthen the nation’s economy and improve our long run fiscal health. It reforms our broken tax code to reward work instead of wealth while fully paying for the American Jobs and American Family Plans over a 15- year period. It will help us build a recovery that is broad-based, inclusive, sustained, and strong,”

Of course, response to Biden’s Spending plan depends on which side of the aisle you are sitting.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) released a statement strongly endorsing Biden’s fiscal blueprint. “Congressional Democrats look forward to working with the Biden-Harris Administration to enact this visionary budget, which will pave the path to opportunity and prosperity for our nation. The Biden Budget is a budget for the people,” she said.

On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strongly opposing Biden’s Budget proposal. “Americans are already hurting from far-left economics that ignores reality,” said McConnell, in a statement. “The Administration’s counterproductive ‘COVID relief bill’ has slowed rehiring. Families are facing painful inflation, just as experts warned the Democrats’ plans might cause. And the Administration wants to triple down on the same mistakes?” said the six-term Republican Kentucky Senator.

With the Democrats holding the slim majorities in the House and Senate and controlling the White House, Biden’s FY 2022 Budget proposal will have more weight than if the Republicans were in the majority, says Dan Adcock, Government Relations and Policy Director at the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM).

According to Adcock, Biden’s funding numbers will change as his FY 2022 budget proposal goes through the appropriation process in the upcoming months. With its release, Congress can now begin negotiating funding levels and spending bills. Competition for a finite amount of funding will ultimately result in funding level ultimately allotted to programs and agencies by each of the 12 appropriations under their jurisdiction. Funding for most programs important to older Americans is under the jurisdiction of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

“With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day – and the number of seniors projected to double by 2050 – it’s clear that President Biden understands the need to safeguard the older Americans he calls ‘pillars of every community – now and into the future.” Says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO.

Slashing Drug Costs to Pay for Expanding Medicare Coverage

Richtman says that Biden’s fiscal blueprint calls on Congress to allow Medicare to negotiate prices for certain high-cost, life-saving drugs that many seniors currently cannot afford and to require manufacturers to pay rebates when drug prices rise faster than inflation. These reforms could yield over half a trillion in federal savings over 10 years, which could help pay for coverage expansions and improvements, including access to dental, hearing, and vision coverage in Medicare,” he notes. Today, traditional Medicare does not cover routine care like dental checkups or hearing aids.

According to Richtman, President Biden’s budget also includes more than $400 billion in new spending over ten years to expand Home and Community-based Services (HCBS) for low-income seniors and people with disabilities who prefer to receive skilled care in the comfort of their homes and communities, even moreso after the devastation COVID wrought on nursing homes.  

In states that have not taken advantage of Affordable Care Act (ACA) opportunities to expand Medicaid, the budget proposes providing premium-free, Medicaid-like coverage through a federal public option, along with incentives for states to maintain their existing expansions. 

Biden’s FY 2022 budget also urges Congress to improve customer service for Social Security beneficiaries to prescription drug pricing reform to expanded HCBS, adds Richtman.  It also proposes a $1.3 billion (or 9.7%) funding increase for the Social Security Administration.  The increase seeks to improve customer service, including services at SSA’s field offices, state disability determination services, and teleservice centers.

 The Older Americans Act (OAA) provides funding for a wide range of home and community-based services, such as meals-on-wheels and other nutrition programs, in-home services, transportation, legal services, elder abuse prevention and caregivers’ support. These programs help seniors stay as independent as possible in their homes and communities. 

For details about Biden’s FY 2022 Budget proposal and OAA funding levels, made available from the Washington, DC-based National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, go to: https://www.n4a.org//Files/FY22%20PresBudget%20and%20historical%20Labor-HHS%20Appropriations%20Chart.pdf

 Stay Tuned 

The House continues its work on hammering out appropriation bills through subcommittees in June and in the full House in July.  The Senate’s work is expected to begin in mid-Summer and to continue well into September. If the appropriate bills are not passed and signed into law by Oct. 1, Congress will need to pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government into the first months of FY 2022.

Like most Budget proposals, especially in a partisan Congress, Biden’s spending plan will need to be rewritten to win support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. However, it will serve as a roadmap for a Democratic controlled Congress in crafting 12 appropriation spending bills. Partisan bickering during the appropriations process may well force passage of a continuing resolution before Oct. 1 to block a government shutdown. 

Using Savings from Drug Pricing Reform to Expand Medicare

Published in RINewsToday on June 7, 2021

Ahead of President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28 and as the Democratic administration considers policies to slash rising drug costs, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 65-page report finding that the U.S. pays more than two to four times higher prices for a selected sample of 20 single source, brand name drugs than Australia, Canada and France. The latest GAO report, commissioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), found that Americans, suffering from blood clots, bronchitis, emphysema and Hepatitis C, were paying more for life-saving treatments than patients in these industrialized countries. 

“This important GAO study confirms what we all already know: the pharmaceutical industry is ripping off the American people,” said Sen. Sanders in a statement announcing the March 29th release of the GAO report, “Prescription Drugs: US Prices for Selected Brand Drugs Were Higher on Average Than Prices in Australia, Canada and France.”

“The time is long overdue for the United States to do what every major country on earth does: negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies to lower the outrageous price of prescription drugs. I would urge the president to put this proposal in the American Families Plan and use the savings to expand and improve Medicare for older Americans. We can no longer tolerate the American people paying, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” says the Vermont Senator who chairs the Senate’s Budget Committee.

U.S. Paying Outrageous Drug Prices

The GAO study found that in 2020, the U.S. paid 4.36 times more than France, 4.25 times more than Australia and 2.82 times more than Canada for the selected drugs, which represent a sample of the drugs with the highest Medicare Part D expenditures and use. The researchers noted that the publicly available data for the comparison countries were gross prices that did not reflect potential discounts. As a result, the actual differences between U.S. prices and those of the other countries were likely much larger than GAO estimates.

According to the GAO report, while France and Australia operate universal, publicly funded health systems that include prescription drug coverage, both Canada and the U.S. have a significant number of people who do not have prescription drug coverage. But even when comparing the full cash retail prices of selected drugs, the prices quoted to individuals without prescription drug coverage, GAO found that prices were two to eight times higher in the U.S. than the same drugs from pharmacies in Canada. 

For instance, GAO found that the cash price of Epclusa (28 tablets), which treats Hepatitis C, or an infection that attacks the liver, is $36,743 in the U.S. but $17,023.63 in Canada. The cash price of Harvoni (28 tablets), which also treats Hepatitis C, is $46,570.33 in the U.S. but $19,084.54 in Canada. In another example, GAO cited that the cash price of Incruse Ellipta Inhalation Powder (30 inhalations), which treats chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a group of lung diseases which block airflow and make it difficult to breath, is $411.33 in the U.S. but $53.31 in Canada.

Because France and Australia have universal health systems that cover prescription drugs, Australians would pay up to a $28.09 copay for a month supply of these medicines, while patients in France would pay anywhere from $0 to $34.03 for the drugs. The maximum copay that high income seniors with prescription drug coverage in Ontario, Canada would pay for the drugs is $4.67.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

On April 23, 48, organizations, led by Indivisible, Social Security Works and Public Citizen, called on Biden to include bold drug pricing reforms in American Families Plan to expand Medicare, and the result of a new polls supports this legislative action. 

Drug pricing reform will produce upward of $450 billion in savings over 10 years, note the organizations, urging Biden to use these savings to reinvest in Medicare. The call for adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare, lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 and creating an out-of-pocket cap for medical expenses.

Alongside the letter, the organizations released the findings of a new poll from Data for Progress, widespread public support across party lines for expanding and improving Medicare. The poll’s findings noted that 86% of Americans, including 82% of Republicans, support adding dental, hearing and vision benefits to Medicare. It also found that three-quarters of Democrats, a majority of independents, and nearly half of Republicans support lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 55. 

“Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices down saves money for the federal government, which is the largest buyer of prescription drugs in the world,” said Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works. “We must pump those savings back into Medicare to expand eligibility and add benefits that equalize Medicare with private insurance,” he says.

“Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50, capping out-of-pocket costs, and expanding benefits to include dental, hearing, and vision would improve access to care for millions of Americans. Far too many Americans have lost their insurance or put off needed care due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Eagan Kemp, Health Care Policy Advocate for Public Citizen. “The Biden Administration and Congress have a chance to deliver important progress at a crucial time,” he says.

Adds Mary Small, Legislative Director for Indivisible, “With the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic still being felt in our communities, now is a crucial moment to expand public health care coverage and deliver savings on prescription drug prices to the American people. Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 will be an essential step toward reducing the racial health inequities by increasing coverage to communities of color and low-income folks.”  She adds, “Allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and then reinvesting those savings back into the program to expand services further strengthens our path toward universal coverage for all.” 

Last Thoughts

Garnering applause, Biden put high drug costs on his Administration’s radar screen at his recent address before Congress. “Let’s give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices. It won’t just help people on Medicare. It will lower prescription drug costs for everyone,” said the 46th President of the United States. “We’ve talked about it long enough. Democrats and Republicans, let’s get it done this year,” he said.

But actions speak louder than words, say Washington Insiders.  They note that Biden’s American Families Plan, did not include any proposal to slash pharmaceutical costs or lower the Medicare eligibility age. Is it possible for Biden to lower the drug prices in the United States, making the prices more comparable to other industrialized countries and to even expand Medicare, in the face of fierce opposition from Republicans, moderate Senate Democrats and pharmaceutical companies?  

According to the latest KFF Health Tracking Poll released June 3, 2021, the findings indicate that “nearly nine in 10 (88%) favor allowing the federal government to negotiate for lower prices on medications, including three-fourths (77%) of Republicans, nine in 10 independents (89%) and 96% of Democrats.” However, support dwindles “when the public hears argument made by pharmaceutical companies that it could lead to less research and development for new drugs, or that access to newer prescriptions could be limited,” say the researchers.

Will political pressure sway a divided Congress before the upcoming midterm elections to hammer out a bipartisan solution to put the brakes to the nation’s skyrocketing drug costs and to provide more American’s affordable health care through an expanded Medicare program. Its wait and see.

Rhode Island Senate must take a stand against hatred

Published in RINewsToday on May 31, 2021

“In recent days, we have seen that no community is immune. We must all stand together to silence these terrible and terrifying echoes of the worst chapters in world history, and pledge to give hate no safe harbor.” — Statement of President Joe Biden on the rise of antisemitic attacks, May 28, 2021

Over two decades ago, “Never Again” was on the mind of the Rhode Island General Assembly. Lawmakers in both chambers geared up to fight antisemitism by passing the companion legislative proposals, “Genocide and Human Rights Education Act,” sending the bill Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Almond for his signature.  The enacted legislation required the Rhode Island Department of Education to “develop curricular material on genocide and human rights issues and guidelines for the teaching of that material. 

In 2011, Rhode Island lawmakers passed the “Genocide Education in Secondary Schools Act which called for genocide curriculum materials being available, that put a spotlight on the Holocaust, Armenian, Cambodia, and Darfur.  Six years later, enacted legislation would require that the Holocaust and genocide be taught in the state’s public middle and high schools. 

House bill raises awareness of the Holocaust and Genocide

Just weeks ago, 73 Rhode Island House lawmakers (2 choosing not to vote) passed H-5650, a legislative proposal sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D-District 4, Providence) to create a Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission to raise awareness of the Holocaust and Genocide. The legislation formalizes a commission to implement a 2016 law introduced by now House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-District 63, East Providence) and Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-District 3, Providence) to require public middle and high schools to teach students about Genocide and the Holocaust.  

“So many Rhode Islanders’ families are from communities that have been impacted by Genocides. Listening to each other’s stories and learning about those diverse histories will help us see the humanity in one another and build stronger communities. This bill will establish a commission to provide support to our educators and raise awareness of genocides that have affected Rhode Islanders and have shaped our communities’ histories,” said Kislak.  

Under Kislak’s bill, the Holocaust and Genocide Education Commission will gather and disseminate Holocaust and genocide information, work with the Department of Education to update and promote statewide Holocaust and genocide education programs and promote public awareness of issues relating to Holocaust and genocide education.

As hate crimes have been rising in our own country over the last few years, it’s particularly important that students are taught about the catastrophic atrocities that have been committed when the seeds of hate are planted,” said Kazarian, who is cosponsoring this bill. All eight of the East Providence lawmaker’s great-grandparents are survivors of the Armenian genocide. “My family’s own history involving the Armenian genocide has shown me that these events in history should never be forgotten. It is important that our children recognize and understand how such terrible events can occur in society, and more importantly, how to stop them from happening,” she says.

Rep. Nathan W. Biah Sr. (D-Dist. 3, Providence), who fled Liberia in 1991 at age 20 to escape a war in which genocide occurred, is also a cosponsor.

“I have experienced the horrors of genocide firsthand. It’s a very tragic fact that genocide continues around the world today. Our students are citizens of the world and need to understand the impacts of genocide on their brothers and sisters wherever it occurs,” said Biah.

According to Marty Cooper, Chair of the Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Coalition, Rhode Island was one of the first states in the nation to require Holocaust and genocide education in its schools. “It is now in a position to be one of the first states to establish a formal commission to oversee Holocaust and genocide education as well as establish a Holocaust and genocide awareness month,” he says. 

“The establishment of a formal Rhode Island Commission on Holocaust and Genocide Education will ensure accountability and credibility. It will also establish a mechanism to disseminate information and material to schools and educators in regard to Holocaust and genocide issues. Equally important is the ability to monitor and assist in enforcing school compliance on the issue of Holocaust and genocide studies with students,” says Cooper.

“More importantly, a commission will stimulate much needed dialogue and discussion to address the issue of genocide. What atrocities, for instance, should be studied as a genocide?” adds Cooper. 

“After World War II, a strong mantra of “Never Again” came about in hopes of ending atrocities that left millions dead and misplaced because of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, atrocities still take place. We need more than the words “Never Again” to help end this madness. Education is significant element to hopefully bring an end to such hate, bullying and racism,” states Cooper. “Then “Never Again” can become a reality.”

S-840 Sub A held for further study 

As the 2021 General Assembly’s legislation session conclusion comes closer, lawmakers are considering a flurry of bills. While the House chamber has passed its measure, the Senate Education Committee recently recommended that S-840 Sub A, Godin’s companion measure, co-sponsored by Senators Joshua Miller (D-District 28, Providence/Cranston), Hanna Gallo (D-District 27, Cranston), Thomas Paolino (R- District 17, Lincoln, North Providence, and North Smithfield) and Meghan Kallman (D-District 15, Pawtucket) be held for further study.  Often times, this may be the polite way to kill this measure.  Closed door “horse-trading” between House and Senate leadership may resurrect the legislative proposal.  

“I look forward to the bill coming out of the senate education committee and coming up for a favorable vote,” said Cooper

According to a recently released Pew Center survey, nine out of ten American Jews say there is at least “some antisemitism in the U.S.,” and that 75 percent believe there is more antisemitism in the U.S. than there was five years ago. The survey also found that more than half of Jews surveyed say they personally feel less safe as a Jewish person in the U.S. than they did just five years ago.

The Pew survey findings are in line with a recent survey of Jewish American experiences with antisemitism fielded by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) earlier this year, says Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO and National Director. “The ADL survey found that well over half of Jewish Americans have either experienced or directly witnessed some form of antisemitic incident in the last five years, with 63 percent of respondents having either experienced or heard antisemitic comments, slurs or threats targeting others, an increase from 54 percent a year earlier,” he says.

“ADL is working closely with members of Congress to ensure that there is more funding for bolstering community security, training law enforcement in identifying and responding to hate crimes, and has partnered with community organizations, such as SCN, working to protect Jewish institutions.”

“We hope that this [Pew] report serves as a wake-up call to leaders across the country and on both sides of the aisle that antisemitism is still a harsh reality today and so we must continue to fight this ancient hatred through education, advocacy, enhanced security and greater awareness of the problem. ADL remains firmly and fully committed to rooting out antisemitism and hatred in all forms.”

Senate leaders must follow ADL to “root out antisemitism and hatred in all forms” in the Ocean State. One way is to pass S-840 Sub A.