“There’s a New Sheriff in Town” at SSA

Published in RINewsToday on June 19, 2020

On June President Joe Biden has asked two political holdovers from the President Trump’s administration, Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul and his deputy, David Black, who had previously served as the agency’s top lawyer, to resign. Saul ultimately was fired after refusing to resign Friday, July 9, while Black resigned upon the president’s request that day. 

Biden named as acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, whom he earlier had appointed to a lower-level Social Security Administration (SSA) position, deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy. 

The White House affirmed its authority to “remove the SSA Commissioner at will” by citing a Supreme Court ruling and a legal opinion from the Justice Department. Previously, under statute, the president could only remove the SSA commissioner for “neglect of duty” or “malfeasance in office.”

Saul’s term as Social Security Administrator ended in 2025 and according to The Washington Post, he states he plans to dispute the White House firing and continue to work remotely at his New York City home.

“I consider myself the term-protected commissioner of Social Security,” Saul told The Washington Post, calling the attempt to unseat him a “Friday Night Massacre.”

Minority Members of Senate Aging Committee Oppose Firing

Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Fla..), Mike Braun (R-Ind..), Rick Scott (R-Fla..), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent a letter July 14 to President Biden urging him to reinstate and honor the Senate confirmed, six-year term of Saul as SSA Commissioner. 

Members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging find the politically motivated action especially worrisome as it will have drastic effects on SSA services that help millions of older Americans with basic expenses like housing, food and medicine. 

The letter explains “Commissioner Saul was confirmed by the Senate in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in 2019… led the agency through one of the most trying periods in its history during the COVID-19 pandemic… was confirmed by the Senate to serve a full six-year term that expires in 2025 and he should have remained in his position unless removed for cause, as written in federal law.

The committee requested the Biden administration explain what authority an acting commissioner—not confirmed by the Senate—would possess to carry out the statutorily obligated duties of the SSA commissioner. 

 On the Other Side of the Aisle…

“From the beginning of their tenure at the Social Security Administration Andrew Saul and David Black were anti-beneficiary and anti-employee. The Biden Administration made the right move to fire both Saul and Black after they refused to resign, says chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT), of the House Ways and Means Social Security Committee, who had called for Saul and Black’s removal in March 2021. “As [Supreme Court] Justice Alito recently stated, the president needs someone running the agency who will follow their policy agenda,” he says.

According to Larson, since June 17, 2019, Saul’s control over SSA policies have “disproportionately harmed vulnerable Americans like low-income seniors and persons with disabilities, immigrants and people of color.

During Saul’s tenure, Larson noted that the SSA implemented a new rule that denied disability benefits for older, severely disabled workers who are unable to communicate in English, resulting in approximately 100,000 people being denied more than $5 billion in benefits from 2020 to 2029. However, there has been considerable discussion of the misinterpretation of the intent of this change.

SSA also finalized a new regulation that dramatically reduced due process protections for Social Security appeals hearings, by allowing the SSA to use agency attorneys instead of independent judges for the hearings, says Larson.

Larson also expressed concern about SSA proposing to change the disability review process to cut off benefits for some eligible people and proposing to make it significantly harder for older, severely disabled workers to be found eligible for disability benefits. 

According to Larson, Saul also advanced the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant policies by resuming “no-match letters” to employers with even minor discrepancies between their wage reports and their employees’ Social Security records. These letters effectively serve to harass immigrants and their employers, often leading to U.S. citizens and work-authorized immigrants being fired, he said.

Finally, Larson charged that Saul embraced the Trump Administration’s anti-federal employee policies, including forcing harsh union contracts that strip employees of rights and ending telework for thousands of employees just months before the COVID-19 pandemic started – a particularly ill-fated decision given the critical role telework has played in SSA’s ability to continue serving the public during the pandemic. 

Thumbs Up from Aging Advocacy Groups 

“The Social Security Commissioner should reflect the values and priorities of President Biden, which include improving benefits, extending solvency, improving customer services, reopening field offices, and treating SSA employees and their unions fairly. That was not the case with former Commissioner Saul, and we look forward to President Biden nominating someone who meets that standard,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Adds Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works: “Today is a great day for every current and future Social Security beneficiary. Andrew Saul and David Black were appointed by former President Donald Trump to undermine Social Security. They’ve done their very best to carry out that despicable mission. That includes waging a war on people with disabilities, demoralizing the agency’s workforce, and delaying President Biden’s stimulus checks.”  

Introducing New SSA Commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi…

Kilolo Kijakazi has a Ph.D. in public policy from George Washington University, an MSW from Howard University, and a BA from SUNY Binghamton University. Kijakazi’s Urban Institute bio notes that she served as an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute, where she “worked with staff across the organization to develop collaborative partnerships with those most affected by economic and social issues, to expand and strengthen Urban’s agenda of rigorous research, to effectively communicate findings to diverse audiences and to recruit and retain a diverse research staff at all levels” while conducting research on economic security, structural racism, and the racial wealth gap. 

Kijakazi was previously employed as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a program analyst at the Food Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture, and an analyst at the National Urban League.

According to Wikipedia, before entering the Biden administration, Kijakazi was a board member of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the National Academy of Social Insurance and its Study Panel on Economic Security, the Policy Academies and Liberation in a Generation, as well as a member of the DC Equitable Recovery Advisory Group, adviser to Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap, co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Eliminating the Black-White Wealth Gap at the Center for American Progress, and member of the Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

“Kilolo has an amazing ability to find and build connections among individuals and institutions that should be working together on critical public policy issues and policy discussions are much better for that inclusionary approach,” says Margaret Simms, an Institute Fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute.

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. 

Social Security ’21 Cola Increase Anemic

Published in RINewsToday.com on on October 19, 2020

With the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) announcement of next year’s Social Security and Supplemental Security Income’s (SSI) meager cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), over 70 million beneficiaries will only see an increase of 1.3 percent in their monthly checks in 2021.  Last year’s COLA increase was 2.8 percent, the largest in seven years.

According to SSA, the 1.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits payable to more than 64 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2021. Increased payments to more than 8 million Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries start on December 31, 2020. 

SSA ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as determined by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $142,800 from $137,700, says SSA.

The earnings limit for workers who are younger than “full” retirement age will increase to $18,960. (SSA deducts $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $18,960.)

The earnings limit for people reaching their “full” retirement age in 2021 will increase to $50,520. (SSA deducts $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $50,520 until the month the worker turns “full” retirement age.)

There is no limit on earnings for workers who are “full” retirement age or older for the entire year. 

Next Year’s COLA Increase Not Enough 

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) calls the increase as inadequate especially for COVID-Ravaged Seniors and noted that it’s the lowest since 2017.  

“The timing could not be worse. The COVID pandemic has devastated many older Americans both physically and financially.  Seniors living on fixed incomes need a lifeboat; this COLA increase is more like an underinflated inner tube,” says Richtman.

The average Social Security beneficiary will see a paltry $20 month more in benefits in 2021, calculates Richtman. “This COLA is barely enough for one prescription co-pay or half a bag of groceries. Worse yet, seniors could lose almost half of their COLA increase to a rise in the Medicare Part B premium for 2021, the exact amount of which has not yet been announced,” he warns.  

“The current COLA formula – the CPI-W – is woefully inadequate for calculating the true impact of inflation on seniors’ pocketbooks. It especially under-represents the rising costs that retirees pay for expenses like health care, prescription drugs, food, and housing. We support the adoption of the CPI-E (Consumer Price Index for the Elderly), which properly weights the goods and services that seniors spend their money on,” says Richtman. 

Examining the Growth of SSA COLAs 

Social Security checks in 2020 are almost 20 percent lower than they otherwise would be, due to the long-term impact of extremely low annual inflation adjustments, according to a newly released analysis by The Senior Citizens League (TSCL).  The analysis comes as SSA announced that the 2021 COLA will be just 1.3 percent, making it one of the lowest ever paid. 

“People who have been receiving benefits for 12 years or longer have experienced an unprecedented series of extremely low cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs),” says TSCL’s Mary Johnson, a Social Security policy analyst for the Alexandria, Virginia nonpartisan senior advocacy group. “What’s more those inflation adjustments do not account for rapidly rising Medicare Part B premiums that are increasing several times faster than the COLA,” she says, noting that this causing those with the lower Social Security benefits to see little growth in their net Social Security income after deduction of the Part B premium.  

Johnson’s COLA analysis, released on Oct. 13, compared the growth of retiree benefits from 2009-through 2020 to determine how much more income retirees would receive if COLAs had grown by a more typical rate of 3 percent. TSCL’s analysis found that an “average” retiree benefit of $1,075 per month in 2009 has grown to $1,249 in 2020, but, if COLAs had just averaged 3 percent, that benefit would be $247 per month higher today (19.8 percent higher), and those individuals would have received $18,227.40 more in Social Security income over the 2 010 to 2020 period. 

During that period COLAs have averaged just 1.4 percent. In 2010, 2011, and 2016 there was no COLA payable at all and, in 2017, the COLA was 0.03 percent. “But COLAs have never remained so low, for such an extended period of time, in history of Social Security,” says Johnson, who has studied COLAs for more than 25 years.  Over the 20-year period covering 1990 to 2009, COLAs routinely averaged 3 percent annually, and were even higher before that period. 

According to Johnson, the suppressed growth in Social Security benefits not only creates ongoing benefit adequacy issues, but also Medicare budgetary programs when the COLA is not sufficient to cover rising Part B premiums for large number of beneficiaries. When the dollar amount of the annual Medicare Part B premium increase is greater than the dollar amount of an individual’s annual COLA, the Social Security benefits of about 70 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are protected by the hold-harmless provision in the Social Security Act.  The Medicare Part B premium of those individuals is reduced to prevent their net Social Security benefits from being lower than the year before, she says. 

However, Johnson notes that the people who are not covered by hold harmless include higher income beneficiaries, beneficiaries who have not started Social Security yet and who pay for Medicare by check and about 19 percent of beneficiaries whose incomes are so low that their state Medicaid programs pay their Medicare Part B premiums on their behalf. 

Johnson says, “that a provision of a recently enacted government spending bill restricts Part B premium increases in 2021. The bill caps the Part B premium increase for next year at the 2020 amount plus 25 percent of the differences between the 2020 amount and a preliminary amount for 2021.”

Don’t look for the “potential Part B spike” to go away, warns Johnson. “Unless Congress acts to boost Social Security benefits and finds a better way to adjust benefits for growing Medicare costs, this problem will continue occur with greater frequency in the future,” she says.

Fixing SSA’s COLA Problem Once and For All

During the COVID-19 pandemic seniors are relying more on their Social Security check but continue to face cost increases each year beyond the extra income provided by the COLA, says Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-Connecticut) in a statement following SSA’s announcement of its tiny 2021 COLA increase. “It’s time to fix that by enacting the Social Security 2100 Act.,” says the Connecticut Congressman calling for passage of his legislative proposal that would strengthen SSA benefits by basing the COLA on what seniors actually spend on items such as medical expenses, food, and housing. Under this new CPI-E index, a beneficiary would experience benefits that are 6 percent higher by the time they reach age 90. 

Meanwhile, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) sponsored and Larson, a co-sponsor, have proposed emergency legislation to increase next year’s COLA up to 3 percent. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors are facing additional financial burdens in order to stay safe,” said DeFazio.  “This absolutely anemic COLA won’t even come close to helping them afford even their everyday expenses, let alone those exacerbated by COVID-19. Raising the COLA to 3 percent 2021 will provide seniors with an immediate, crucial lifeline during the ongoing coronavirus crisis,” says the Oregon Congressman. DeFazio’s legislative proposal, the Social Security Expansion Act, would also provide a permanent fix to the COLA formula, like Larson using a CPI-E index to factor in seniors’ actual, everyday expenses.