Larson Pushes to Get Social Security Reform Proposal for House Vote

Published in RINewsToday on June 13, 2022

The House Ways and Means Committee is preparing for a full mark-up on H.R. 5723, Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, authored by Committee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT) this summer. Last week Larson held a press conference calling for passage of the legislative proposal. 

The morning press conference, held on June 2nd at the Connecticut AFL-CIO headquarters, based in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, brought together Connecticut AFL-CIO President Ed Hawthorne, Connecticut Alliance for Retired Americans President Bette Marafino, State Senator Matt Lesser, State Senator Saud Anwar, State Representative Amy Morrin Bello to announce the endorsement of H.R. 5723 by the AFL-CIO.  The AFL-CIO is known as the nation’s largest federation of unions, made up of 56 national and international unions, representing more than 12 million active and retired workers.

On the same day, the Social Security Administration released the 2022 Social Security Trustee Report.

According to Larson’s statement, over 200 House Democrats [no Republican has yet to support the proposal], are cosponsoring H.R. 5723. Forty-two national organizations (aging, union, veterans, disability and consumer health organizations) are calling for passage of H.R. 5723, including the Leadership Council on Aging Organizations and the Strengthen Social Security Coalition representing hundreds of national and state aging organizations.

Larson noted that it has been 50 years since Congress acted to expand Social Security benefits. The Connecticut Congressman stated: “By passing Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, we can act now to expand our nation’s most effective anti-poverty program and ensure this program remains a ‘sacred trust’ between the government and its people. It is an honor to stand alongside the AFL-CIO today as they announce their support for our legislation.”

“Social Security benefits are a promise made to workers and Social Security 2100 is essential in fulfilling this promise,” said Connecticut AFL-CIO President Ed Hawthorne. He praised Larson’s efforts to repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision that harms Connecticut’s teachers, firefighters, and police officers by reducing social security benefits they earned because they are receiving pensions after years of dedicated public service.

“Retirees and those most vulnerable in our society depend on Social Security to live a life of dignity. The Connecticut AFL-CIO and our over-200,000 members stand in solidarity with Congressman Larson in his fight to ensure Social Security is a promise we keep for generations of Americans to come,” said Hawthorne.

State Senator Saud Anwar, (D-South Windsor) joined Larson and others, too, supporting H.R. 5723. “Social Security has long been an American institution, one relied upon and paid into by countless citizens who receive a promise that they will be taken care of,” said the Connecticut Senate’s Deputy President pro tempore. “We must take action to expand this program and ensure this vital service will remain available for future generations, and Social Security 2100 will do just that. I am grateful for Connecticut’s federal representatives in their work to support our communities, our state and our country,” he said.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who introduced the companion bill to H.R. 5723 in the Senate could not be there, but issued this statement: “As seniors and people with disabilities struggle with the costs of food, housing, and prescription drugs, this bill enhances and expands benefits for millions of Americans who need them. I am proud to stand with my colleagues and union members to support the Social Security 2100 Act, keeping this vital lifeline solvent ensuring our nation’s bedrock social insurance program will continue to provide current and future beneficiaries with a quality standard of living,” said Connecticut’s senior Senator. 

H.R. 5723: The Nuts and Bolts

On Oct. 26, 2021, H.R. 5723 was referred to the House Ways and Means, Education and Labor, and Energy and Commerce Committees, being introduced in the lower chamber that day.

According to a legislative fact sheet, H.R. 5723 gives a benefit bump for current and new Social Security beneficiaries by providing an increase for all beneficiaries (receiving retirement, disability or dependent benefits).

Larson’s Social Security fix also protects Social Security beneficiaries against inflation by adopting a Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), to better reflect the costs incurred by seniors who spend a greater portion of their income on health care and other necessities.

This legislative proposal protects low-income workers by providing a new minimum benefit set at 25% above the poverty line and would be tied to wage levels to ensure that minimum benefits does not fall behind.

It also contains other provisions that seniors and their advocates have sought for years, including:

  • Improving Social Security benefits for widows and widowers in two income households so they are not penalized for having two incomes.
  • Ending the five-month waiting period to receive disability benefits so those with ALS or other severe disabilities no longer have to wait.
  • Providing caregiver credits for Social Security wages to ensure that caregivers are not penalized in retirement for taking timeout of the workforce to care for children and other dependents.
  • Extending Social Security benefits for students to age 26 and for part-time students.
  • Increasing access to Social Security dependents for children who live with grandparents or other relatives.                       

H.R. 5723 would pay for strengthening the Social Security Trust Fund by having millionaires and billionaires pay the same rate as everyone else. Currently, payroll taxes are not collected on an individual wages over $142,800. The legislative proposal would apply payroll taxes to wages above $400,000, only impacting the top 0.04% of wage earners.

Larson’s proposal would also extend the solvency of Social Security by giving Congress more time to ensure long-term solvency of the Trust Fund.  It also cuts long-term shortfalls by more than half.

Finally, H.R. 5723 would combine the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance with Disability Insurance into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure all benefits will be paid.

NCPSSM Pushes for Passage

Even with over 200 cosponsors, a Washington insider says that H.R. 5723 may be stalled because of concerns of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) policy staff about the cost of the proposed legislation.  At press time, House lawmakers are waiting for the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office to score the legislation [to determine its cost], this being required to bring it to the House floor for a vote.

In a blog article, posted on May 27th by the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), seniors are urged to request their House lawmakers, if they are not currently cosponsoring H.R. 5723, to support Larson’s landmark legislation to strengthen Social Security.  According to the NCPSSM, Reps. Cynthia Axne (D-IA) Susie Lee (D-NV) and Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) are among the 22 Democrats that have not yet sponsored H.R. 5723. With the upcoming mid-term elections just 148 days away, these Democratic lawmakers may fear Republican attacks, accusing them of raising taxes, speculates NCPSSM.

“The more Democratic co-sponsorships the bill garners, the stronger the case that House leadership should bring it to the floor for a vote,” says NCPSSM.

NCPSSM reports that Larson’s Social Security proposal has strong public support. “A poll by Lake Research Partners showed that across party lines, 79% supported paying for an increase in benefits by having wealthy Americans pay the same rate into Social Security as everyone else. A recent survey of our members and supporters indicated 96 percent support for raising the cap,” says the Social Security Advocacy group.

NCPSSM says Larson’s legislative proposal gives Democrats an opportunity to build upon, strengthen, and expanding the Social Security program, created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. 

Many feel it is time for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to use the power of her office, responding to over 200 Democrats in her Caucus, to bring H.R. 5723 to a House Ways and Means Committee and floor vote.  If the Republicans take control of the House and Senate Chambers, Social Security reform to expand and strengthen Social Security may be in jeopardy, so time is of the essence to supporters to see H.R. 5723 passed and enacted.

Voter reform must include accessibility for seniors and persons with disabilities

Published in RINewsToday on May 17, 2021

It’s over 540 days until the November 8, 2022 mid-term elections. The clock is ticking, say voter rights advocates, who are gearing up to push back at voting bills they see as restrictive being introduced at multiple state houses.  

As of March 24, 2021, GOP State legislators, responding to claims of voter fraud and election irregularities in last year’s Presidential election, have introduced 361 bills seen as restrictive by voter rights advocates in 47 states. “That’s 108 more than the 253 similar bills tallied as of February 19, 2021 — a 43 percent increase in little more than a month,” according to data compiled by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

“These measures have begun to be enacted. Five restrictive bills have already been signed into law. In addition, at least 55 restrictive bills in 24 states are moving through legislatures: 29 have passed at least one chamber, while another 26 have had some sort of committee action (e.g., a hearing, an amendment, or a committee vote),” says the nonpartisan law and policy institute, noting that in some cases “a single bill can have provisions with both restrictive and expansive effects”.

President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats are pushing back at GOP efforts they see as “suppressing voting” and introduced H.R. 1, For the People Act, which would be intended to “expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws, end partisan gerrymandering and create new ethics for federal lawmakers”.  The bill is considered to be the largest overhaul of U.S. voting in a generation, and is opposed by GOP lawmakers, who call it overreaching.

Fix Voter Access Issues for Seniors, and Persons with Disabilities

Although newspapers regularly cover both voter security and voter rights issues, voter access issues impacting seniors and persons with disabilities don’t receive adequate ink. 

Now, a national report’s findings reveal that some obstacles still exist for disabled voters at the polls. The recently released U.S. Election Commission (EAC)’s comprehensive 52-page national report, “Disability and Voting Accessibility in the 2020 Elections,” identified accessibility issues for voters with disabilities.  The study focused on polling place access, mail and absentee voting accessibility, election administration challenges, COVID-19 obstacles, and community involvement.

As the EAC plans for future elections, this data will be crucial in helping officials adopt new voting technologies and address the ever-growing accessibility needs of an aging demographic.

“In an election year with so many obstacles and unknowns, the improvement in accessibility for voters with disabilities is a testament to the hard work and dedication of election officials,” EAC Chairman Ben Hovland said, in a February 16, 2021 statement announcing the release of the report. “We are proud of election officials’ accomplishments during an especially difficult election season. This study provides the EAC with indispensable feedback as we continue our work with election officials and accessibility experts to ensure all Americans can vote privately and independently,” he said.

The EAC spearheaded the study under clearinghouse and research mandates outlined in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The goal of the study was to analyze the 2020 election experience for voters with disabilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on a similar 2012 study also conducted by the EAC in conjunction with Professors Schur and Kruse, of Rutgers University, the project launched immediately after the 2020 general election.

The 2020 study engaged 2,569 respondents including 1,782 voters with disabilities and 787 voters without disabilities. As in 2012, the oversampling of voters with disabilities was designed to produce a sample large enough for more accurate measurements and reliable breakdowns by demographic variables and type of disability.

Compared to 2012, overall results show election officials made great progress serving voters with disabilities and ensuring they could cast a private and independent ballot. Obstacles continue to exist, but improvements were evident.

According to the researchers, voting difficulties among people with disabilities declined markedly from 2012 to 2020. About one in nine voters with disabilities encountered difficulties voting in 2020. This is double the rate of people without disabilities, but a sizeable drop from 2012.

The study’s findings indicated that among people with disabilities who voted in person, 18 percent reported difficulties, compared to 10 percent of people without disabilities. The disability figure is down from 30 percent in 2012.

During a general election that experienced a shift to mail and absentee voting, 5 percent of voters with disabilities had difficulties using a mail ballot, compared to 2 percent of voters without disabilities. One in seven (14 percent) of voters with disabilities using a mail ballot needed assistance or encountered problems in voting, compared to only 3 percent of those without disabilities. 

The researchers found that five of six (83 percent) of voters with disabilities voted independently without any difficulty in 2020, compared to over nine of ten (92 percent) of voters without disabilities. Voting difficulties were most common among people with vision and cognitive impairments.

Close to 75 percent of voters with disabilities voted with a mail ballot or early in-person in 2020. This represents a significant increase from 2012 and is higher than the two-thirds of non-disabled voters who did so in 2020, say the researchers. No doubt the pandemic influenced the increase.

Finally, the researchers note that people with disabilities voted at a 7 percent lower rate than people without disabilities of the same age, pointing toward a continuing disability gap in voter turnout.

Senate Moves to Remove Barriers for Seniors and Disabled

Last month, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules & Administration, introduced the Accessible Voting Act, legislation to remove barriers to voting for seniors and people with disabilities.  This legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Notably, an all Democratic sponsorship at this time.

This legislative action was triggered by a Government Accountability Study that found that combined deficiencies in architectural and voting booth access resulted in only 17 percent of polling places being fully accessible in 2016. The Accessible Voting Act would make polling places and voting systems more accessible, expand options for casting a ballot in federal elections and establish an Office of Accessibility within the Election Assistance Commission, dedicated to overseeing and supporting state efforts to make voting more accessible.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. That right is jeopardized when seniors and people with disabilities are pushed to the margins by barriers that prevent or make it hard for them to cast their ballots,” said Senator Casey in a statement announcing the introduction of the bill. “The Accessible Voting Act would remove these barriers and support the ongoing efforts by state and local agencies to make voting a truly equitable and accessible process,” he said.

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is not possible for too many Americans. Inaccessible polling places and voting booths, limited access to transportation, insufficient options for casting ballots, and inaccessible voter information websites are all obstacles to voting for millions of Americans,” adds Klobuchar. “The Accessible Voting Act would help ensure that we remove barriers to voting for citizens with disabilities, the elderly, Native Americans, and those with limited English proficiency. Our democracy works best when all citizens can make their voices heard at the ballot box,” she said.

“Despite existing federal law protecting the rights of people with disabilities, far too often, these rights are overlooked and forgotten in our electoral process. The Accessible Voting Act seeks to bolster the protections for voters with disabilities, as established by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Help America Vote Act, and ensure equitable access to every American voter in our democracy for years to come,” said Curt Decker, executive director, National Disability Rights Network.

The Accessible Voting Act would create a national resource center on accessible voting to conduct cultural competency training for election officials and poll workers.  It would establish a new state grant program for the Office of Accessibility to provide dedicated funding to improve accessibility to voting. Finally, it would provide voting information and resources through accessible websites so voters know how to register to vote and cast a ballot.

As Congress grapples with legislation coming from both parties to tighten voter security on one hand, and ease voter restrictions on the other, it will be a significant failure to not also address the issues of accessibility for our population facing aging and disability obstacles.

GAO Report, Congress, Urge Better Disaster Response to Seniors and Disabled

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 23, 2019

Following a newly released 75-page report on the nation’s disaster response from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), and after an outbreak of destructive tornadoes in the Midwest and the start of the 2019 hurricane season, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), Ranking Member and Chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, throw a bill into the legislative hopper to assist seniors and disabled persons before, during and after natural disasters strike.

The Casey-Collins legislation, S. 1755, titled the “Real Emergency Access for Aging and Disability Inclusion (REAADI) for Disasters Act” would support the development of preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation plans that are inclusive of seniors and people with disabilities. The legislation would also ensure that these individuals would have a voice in creating emergency plans that directly affect them. Senators cosponsoring the bill include Doug Jones (D-AL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Another bill, S.1754, titled the “Disaster Relief Medicaid Act” (DRMA), sponsored by Cassey, would ensure Medicaid services are consistently available for individuals forced to relocate to another state due to disaster or emergency. It would protect those residing in an area covered under a presidential disaster declaration as a “Relief-Eligible Survivor,” and grant them the support needed to easily access or apply for Medicaid services in their host state. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are cosponsoring this bill.

Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Chris Smith (R-NJ) plan to introduce the House companion measure of REAADI Act. Congresswoman Donna Shalala (D-FL) will introduce DRMA in the House chamber.

Inadequate Disaster Planning Can Result in Death

“Inadequate planning for disasters can mean life or death, so it is critically important that every
community is prepared to meet the needs of all citizens—including older adults and people with disabilities—before, during and after a disaster strikes,” says Casey in a June 11 statement announcing the introduction of REAADI, calling for seniors and people with disabilities to be actively involved in developing emergency preparedness plans that will keep them safe.

In this statement, Collins adds, “As we have learned from natural disasters such as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, some of our neighbors – especially seniors and individuals with disabilities – face many obstacles during a crisis. We must focus on the attention they may need. The bipartisan legislation improves training and coordination to help ensure that local, state, and federal officials are adequately equipped to care for the most vulnerable in their communities during a natural disaster.”

“As someone who lives with a disability, I take this issue to heart. The REAADI for Disasters Act will help eliminate barriers faced by people with disabilities and older adults during disasters by providing them a greater role in the policymaking process,” says Langevin, co-chair of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus, stressing the importance of passing the DRMA to continue Medicaid support services to America’s disabled and seniors.

GAO Report Gives Roadmap to Integrating Assistance During Natural Disasters

Released June 5, GAO’s Report, titled FEMA Action Needed to Better Support Individuals to Better Support Individuals Who Are Older or Have Disabilities, examines the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster response to three sequential hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria – that affected more than 28 million people in 2017. According to FEMA, seniors and persons with disabilities faced challenges in these natural disasters when evacuated to safe shelter, accessing medicine and obtaining recovery assistance. In June 2018, FEMA began implementing a new approach to assist individuals with disabilities.

GAO’s report addressed the challenges FEMA partners reported in providing assistance to seniors and the disabled and took a look at the challenges such individuals faced accessing assistance from the federal agency and the actions FEMA took to address these challenges. The federal study also examined the FAMA’s new strategy to assist persons with disability.

Here are GAO’s seven recommendations to FEMA:

The federal agency, charged with providing auditing, evaluation and investigated services to Congress, called on the FEMA Administrator to develop and publicize guidance for partners, during the data sharing process, who are requesting individual assistance data from seniors and persons with disabilities during natural disasters.

The GAO report also called on the FEMA Administrator to implement new registration-intake questions to improve FEMA’s ability to identify and address survivors’ disability-related needs, by directly soliciting survivors’ accommodation requests.

GAO also suggested that the FEMA Administrator improve communication of registrants’ disability-related information across FEMA programs, by developing an alert within survivor files that indicates an accommodation request.

As to the federal agency’s new strategy to specifically assist persons with disability, GAO urged the FEMA Administrator to establish and disseminate a set of objectives for the federal agency’s new disability integration approach.

The GAO report also recommended that the FEMA Administrator provide a written plan for implementing its new disability integration staffing approach to Regional Administrators and Regional Disability Integration Specialists. The plan would be consistent with the new objectives established for disability integration. It would also include an implementation timeline and details on staff responsibilities, which regions could use to evaluate staff performance.

Additionally, the GAO report recommends that the FEMA Administrator should develop a plan for delivering training to FEMA staff that promotes their competency in disability awareness. The plan should include milestones and performance measures, and outline how performance will be monitored.

Finally, the GAO report suggests that the FEMA Administrator develop a timeline for completing the development of new disability-related training that the federal agency can offer to its partners that incorporates the needs of individuals with disabilities into disaster preparedness, response and recovery operations.

For a copy of the GAO report, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/GAO%2019-318%206-3-19.pdf.