Social Security – the Third Rail in Politics

Published in RINewsToday.com on May 17, 2020

As Congress begins to hammer out the fifth coronavirus stimulus package to continue its efforts to jump start the nation’s economy, President Donald Trump warns he will not sign any bill that does not include a payroll tax cut.

“We’re not doing anything without a payroll tax cut,” President Trump said at a two-hour “virtual town hall” event hosted by Fox News, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. According to Nielson Media Research, nearly 4 million viewers tuned into this the town hall, titled “America Together: Returning to Work,” on May 3rd, that focused on COVID-19 and the reopening of the nation’s economy.

Aging advocates and Democratic lawmakers charge that President Trump is using the virus pandemic as an excuse to slash payroll contributions, Social Security’s dedicated funding. Cutting the Social Security payroll taxes would reduce the amount of money withheld from employee paychecks, increasing their take-home pay. Republican lawmakers see it as a much-needed relief for hurting Americans. And so it goes…

Payroll Tax Cuts: Reducing Social Security’s Financial Stability

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) quickly released a statement warning that removing the payroll tax by a provision in the next COVID-19 stimulus package will ensure the fiscal insolvency of Social Security. 64 million Americans depend on Social Security benefits in their retirement years.

“President Trump set off alarm bells for America’s seniors and their advocates by insisting once again on eliminating Social Security payroll taxes – both employer and worker contributions. The President even threatened to hold hostage the next phase of badly needed Coronavirus relief legislation unless he gets his reckless payroll tax cuts. Make no mistake: by pushing to cut off the program’s funding stream, President Trump is taking the first step toward dismantling Social

“While we agree that providing tax relief to middle class Americans is an important consideration as we respond to the coronavirus pandemic, we do not believe that cutting, eliminating or deferring the Social Security payroll tax is an appropriate way to accomplish this goal, says Richtman, reminding the president in a letter that Social Security is an earned benefit fully funded by the contributions of workers throughout their working lives.

He pointed out that a payroll tax cut is an assault on that fundamental idea, equally true even if the funds are replaced by general revenues from the Treasury.

In his correspondence, Richtman suggests that a payroll tax cut should not be viewed as an economic stimulus because it leaves out large segments of the population. “Large numbers of federal, state and local government workers do not pay into Social Security, and therefore would not benefit from the payroll tax cut. Ironically, the senior population, those who are directly affected by taking their money from the trust fund, will not see a single dime of relief since most of them are not working,” he notes.

Richtman identified alternatives to the payroll tax cut that he believes would be more targeted and effective to fire up an economy slowed by the spread of the coronavirus. “Another one-time payment by the federal government can put money in the hands of taxpayers quickly, and the Making Work Pay Tax Credit can be passed by Congress rapidly as can an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Spending in other programs that directly help those who lose employment as a result of the virus can be the most targeted relief of all,” he suggests.

“In light of the recent Social Security Trustees report, it is clear that Social Security needs more revenue – not less,” observes Richtman, who served as a former staff director of the Senate Special Aging Committee.

While Democratic lawmakers push for strengthening and expanding the Social Security Program, GOP lawmakers are signaling their opposition to risking political capital on supporting the effort to cut the payroll tax. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate Finance Committee chair, responded, when asked by Politico, if he supports the tax cut, “Right now, not much.”

“I’m going to give it due consideration, if I can see a strong group of people who think it’s the right thing to do,” added Grassley, whose Senate committee oversees federal tax policy.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is not ruling out payroll tax cuts, he is focusing his efforts to put liability protections provisions in the next major stimulus package to protect businesses against virus-related lawsuits from workers, stockholders, and consumers.

Political insiders consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia states that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.”

Can President Trump politically survive, keeping his loyal voter base, if he steps on the “third rail” by continuing his efforts to cut payroll taxes, some say seen as pushing the Social Security program toward fiscal insolvency? When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2020 elections, we’ll see if the older voters consider Social Security an untouchable program.

Can Trump Politically Survive Cutting Social Security’s Payroll Tax?

Published in the Pawtucket Times on May 11, 2020

As Congress begins to hammer out the fifth coronavirus stimulus package to continue its efforts to jump start the nation’s economy, President Donald Trump warns he will not sign any bill that does not include a payroll tax cut.

“We’re not doing anything without a payroll tax cut,” Trump bluntly warns at a two-hour “virtual town hall” event hosted by Fox News, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. According to Nielson Media Research, nearly 4 million viewers tuned into this the town hall, entitled “America Together: Returning to Work,” aired on May 3, that focused on COVID-19 and the reopening of the nation’s economy.

Aging advocates and Democratic lawmakers charge that trump is using the virus pandemic as an excuse to slash payroll contributions, Social Security’s dedicated funding. Cutting the Social Security payroll taxes would reduce the amount of money withheld from employee paychecks, increasing their take-home pay.

Payroll Tax Cuts: Reducing Social Security’s Financial Stability

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) quickly released a statement warning that Trump’s efforts to remove the payroll tax by a provision in the next COVID-19 stimulus package will ensure the fiscal insolvency of Social Security, threatening the program’s ability to continue paying benefits to 64 million Americans who depend on those benefits to financially survive their retirement years.

“President Trump set off alarm bells for America’s seniors and their advocates by insisting once again on eliminating Social Security payroll taxes – both employer and worker contributions. The President even threatened to hold hostage the next phase of badly-needed Coronavirus relief legislation unless he gets his reckless payroll tax cuts. Make no mistake: by pushing to cut off the program’s funding stream, President Trump is taking the first step toward dismantling Social Security, says NCPSSM’s president and CEO, Max Richtman in a statement.
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“While we agree that providing tax relief to middle class Americans is an important consideration as we respond to Coronavirus pandemic, we do not believe that cutting, eliminating or deferring the Social Security payroll tax is an appropriate way to accomplish this goal, says Richtman.

In an April 24 correspondence to Trump, NCPSSM’s top official reminded the president that Social Security is an earned benefit fully funded by the contributions of workers throughout their working lives. He pointed out that a payroll tax cut is an assault on that fundamental idea, equally true even if the funds are replaced by general revenues from the Treasury.

In his correspondence, Richtman suggests that a payroll tax cut should not be viewed as an economic stimulus because it leaves out large segments of the population. “Large numbers of federal, state and local government workers do not pay into Social Security, and therefore would not benefit from the payroll tax cut. Ironically, the senior population, those who are directly affected by taking their money from the trust fund, will not see a single dime of relief since most of them are not working,” he note.

Richtman also identified alternatives to the payroll tax cut that he believes would be more targeted and effective to fire up an economy slowed by the spread of the coronavirus. “Another one-time payment by the federal government can put money in the hands of taxpayers quickly, and the Making Work Pay Tax Credit can be passed by Congress rapidly as can an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Spending in other programs that directly help those who lose employment as a result of the virus can be the most targeted relief of all,” he suggests.

“In light of the recent Social Security Trustees report, it is clear that Social Security needs more revenue – not less,” observes Richtman, who served as a former staff director of the Senate Special Aging Committee.
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“The President’s campaign to eliminate payroll taxes is a violation of his patently false promises to seniors ‘not to touch’ Social Security. This proposal goes way beyond ‘touching.’ Choking off Social Security’s funding stream is an existential threat to seniors’ earned benefits,” charges Richtman.

Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, came out swinging when she heard Trump stating that he will block all coronavirus response measures unless they include cuts to the payroll tax, whose revenue is dedicated to Social Security.

In a statement, Altman stated: “More than 30 million Americans are newly unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Their paychecks are gone, but their rent, utility, grocery bills and other expenses still must be paid. Seniors in nursing homes are dying at alarming rates. Hospitals are desperate, as are state and local governments.”

Dead on Arrival on Capitol Hill????

“Trump made it clear weeks ago that his obsession with cutting payroll contributions has nothing to do with the coronavirus or the resulting economic fallout,” says Altman, noting that he said he’d like a “permanent” reduction in payroll contributions, and that he’d support it “regardless” of the current situation. He has also said he wants to cut Social Security once he is re-elected, she added.

While Democratic lawmakers push for strengthening and expanding the Social Security Program, GOP lawmakers are signaling their opposition and aversion to risking political capital on supporting Trump’s efforts to cut the payroll tax. Trump’s calls for this tax policy change are falling on deaf ears. According to Politico, when asked if he supports Trump’s ultimatum that a payroll tax must be placed in the next stimulus package, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate Finance Committee chair, responded, “Right now, not much.”

“I’m going to give it due consideration, if I can see a strong group of people who think it’s the right thing to do,” added Grassley, whose Senate committee oversees federal tax policy, in the May 5 Politico article. “The president proposes, we dispose,” he quips.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-Kentucky) is not ruling out payroll tax cuts, he is focusing his efforts to put liability protections provisions in the next major stimulus package to protect businesses against virus-related lawsuits from workers, stockholders, and consumers.

Stepping on the “Third Rail”

Political insiders consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia states that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.”

At an Iowa campaign rally in 2016, Republican presidential candidate Trump boasted that his loyal voter base would still standby him even if he shot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York City. Many political pundits responded to his comment by rolling their eyes and chuckling.
Can Trump politically survive, keeping his loyal voter base, if he steps on the “third rail” by continuing his efforts to cut Social Security’s payroll taxes, pushing the program toward fiscal insolvency. When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2020 elections, we’ll see if the older voters consider Social Security an untouchable program.

Nursing Home Care in the Spotlight

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 4, 2019

Following on the heels of its March 6 hearing, “Not Forgotten: Protecting Americans from Abuse and Neglect in Nursing Homes,” the Senate Finance Committee held its second nursing home hearing this year, “Promoting Elder Justice: A Call for Reform,” on July 23, in 215 Dirksen, to study proposed reforms to reduce neglect and abuse in the nation’s nursing homes and to put a spotlight on the need to reauthorize key provisions of the Elder Justice Act.

During the two hour and twenty-minute morning hearing, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) along 11 members of the Senate committee listened to the testimony of five panel witnesses.

In his opening statement, Grassley acknowledged that the work isn’t done yet to improving the care in the nation’s nursing homes and Congress must protect nursing home and assisted living residents and those in group living arrangements from harm. The Iowa Senator noted in the recently released U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report the federal agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, noted that while one-third of nursing home residents may experience harm while under the care of these facilities, in more than half of these cases, the harm was preventable.

Calls for Bipartisan Efforts to Improve Nursing Home Care

Grassley called on Congress to reauthorize programs, such as the Elder Justice Act, to put the brakes on the growing trend of elder an abuse fueled by social media.

Adds, Wyden, in his opening statement, there is now an opportunity for Congress to come together to hammer out bipartisan legislative reforms to fix the nation’s nursing home oversight efforts. He urged his fellow Senate committee members to work to reduce the instances of physical, sexual, mental and emotion abuse in nursing homes, that appears to be increasing. He also called for a redo to the federal nursing home rating system because it does not reflect the increased prevalence of abuse.

During the first panel, Megan H. Tucker, Senior Advisor for Legal Review, of the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), stated that abuse and neglect oftentimes are not properly identified, reported or even addressed. While most providers are delivering good care, Tucker warned that Health and Human Service safeguards are lacking.

Tucker testified that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should use data more effectively and close the gaps in their reporting process to ensure that abuse and neglect are identified and the deficiencies corrected.

Concluding the first panel, John E. Dicken, Director, Health Care, of the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), discussed a newly released GAO report, released at the hearing, that detailed a growing trend of abuse and neglect of residents. According to one GAO report findings, abuse deficiencies more than doubled between 2013 (430) and 2017 (875), with the greatest increase in actual harm and immediate jeopardy deficiencies, and that abuse is still under-reported, he said. The GAO report also expressed concern over “significant gaps” with CMS’s oversight.

Leading the second panel, Robert Blancato, Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, called on Congress to reauthorize, the Elder Justice Act. With elder abuse becoming a “national emergency,” he urged lawmakers to dedicate funding for Adult Protective Services at the local and state levels. Blancato also stressed the importance of strengthening the long-term care ombudsman program, continuing the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, authorizing an Advisory Board on Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation, and finally funding for elder abuse forensic centers.

President and CEO, Mark Parkinson, of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association (AHCA), representing nearly 10,000 of the 15,000 plus nursing homes in the country who provide care to nearly four million individuals each year, stated he was not at the hearing to defend poor care but to provide solutions to Congress to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Fixing the Problem

Parkinson testified that over the past seven years, facilities participating in AHCA’s quality initiative, have shown improvement in 18 of 24 quality measures. Specifically, there are less hospital readmissions, fewer antipsychotic medications being prescribed, staff are spending more time than ever before with residents and today’s nursing homes are more person-centered care today than ever before.

Parkinson called on lawmakers to improve employee background check systems, add patient satisfaction data to CMS’s nursing home rating system, address the severe staffing shortage and to adequate fund Medicaid.

Finally, Lori Smetanka, Executive Director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, ended the second panel discussions, by warning that more must be done to protect nursing home residents from abuse.

Smetanka urged Congress to take steps to enforce minimum requirements for sufficient staffing, establish standards and oversight for nursing home ownership and operations, prevent rollback of nursing home regulatory standards, increase the transparency of information and to strengthen and adequately fund elder justice provisions.

Now, with the Congress putting poor nursing home care on its policy radar screen, both Democratic and Republic congressional leadership must work closely together to come up with bipartisan solutions. Fix this problem once and for all.

Senate Finance Committee members — Senators Lankford, Stabenow, Daines, Menendez, Carper, Cardin, Warner, Casey, Brown, Cortez Masto, and Hassan – attended the July 23 hearing

To listen to this Senate Finance Committee hearing, go to http://www.c-span.org/video/?462733-1/finance.

For a copy of the GAO report, http://www.gao.gov/assets/710/700418.pdf.

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.