Published in RINewsToday on April 10, 2023
Over a week ago, the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds released their annual reports on the financial health of these two programs. As in prior years, the trustees found that the Social Security and Medicare programs both continue to face significant financing issues.
The latest Social Security projections show the program is quickly heading toward insolvency and calls for Congress to find policy solutions sooner rather than later to prevent abrupt changes to tax or benefit levels. The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) and other aging advocates are urging Congress to take prompt action to strengthen and expand Social Security, while Republicans have been calling for cuts to future retirees’ benefits and at least partly privatizing the program.
This 270- page 2023 Social Security Trustees Report warns that if Congress does not act, Social Security’s Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASI and DI) Trust Funds, which help support payouts for the elderly, survivors and disabled, will become depleted in 2033 (that’s a year earlier than forecast last year), becoming totally insolvent in 2034 when beneficiaries would only receive about 80% of their scheduled benefits.
According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), roughly 66 million people received monthly Social Security checks in 2022 (175,840 in Rhode Island). A vast majority, or about 57 million of those beneficiaries, received benefits through the OASI Trust Fund, compared to nearly 9 million people who received benefits through the DI Trust Fund.
The trustees say that Social Security funds would be fully depleted in 2034 because of expectations of a slowed economy and reduce labor productivity, considering inflation and economic input.
Although the DI Trust Fund asset reserves are not projected to become depleted during the 75-year projection period, being able to pay full benefits through 2097, the combined Social Security funds would only be able to pay 80% of the scheduled benefits after 2034, says the trustees report.
Taking a look at Medicare’s fiscal health
Medicare, the hospital insurance trust fund referred to as Medicare Part A, will only be able to pay scheduled benefits in full until 2031, according to the 273-page trustees’ annual report. The program covered 65 million seniors and people with disabilities in 2022, and will only be able to cover89% of total scheduledbenefits at that time.
Although the Medicare Part A Hospital Insurance trust fund will become insolvent in just eight years, Medicare spending as a whole (including Parts A, B, D, and Medicare Advantage, will continue to grow over the coming years.
The Medicare Trustees project a shortfall of 0.62 percent of payroll, or 0.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), noting that it would take about a 21 percent (0.6 percentage point) increase in the payroll tax rate or a 13 percent spending cut to restore the program’s solvency.
The improvement of Medicare’s hospital trust fund’s finances over last year’s projections can be tied to lower estimates for health care spending after the height of the Covid-19 pandemic along with more projected income that the trustees estimate coming from a larger number of covered.
Dueling political statements
With the Social Security and Medicare Trust Fund reports released on March 31, 2023, the Chair and Ranking Members of the House Ways and Means (HWM) were quick to issue dueling statements to give their political spins. HMW’s Subcommittee on Social Security has jurisdiction on bills and matters related to the Social Security Act.
House Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith (R-Missouri) charged that reckless Democratic spending has impacted the financial viability of the Social Security and Medicare Programs. “Thanks to President Biden’s economic failures, seniors’ hard-earned benefits are further under threat. Social Security’s combined trust funds are expected to become insolvent a full year sooner than forecast in the previous report as a result of a slowed economy and Democrats’ inflation continuing to outpace wage growth. And Medicare’s latest report comes amidst Biden’s plans to slash seniors’ access to innovative new cures and treatments,” says Smith, stressing that “the first step to protecting these programs is “growing the economy – not budget gimmicks or tax increases that hold back economic growth.
On the other hand, House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Richard E. Neal (D-MA) counters Smith’s political perspective. “While Democrats are committed to the long-term health of these programs, Republicans are launching another shameful assault on the economic well-being of millions of workers and retirees with their plan to make drastic cuts to Social Security and Medicare, warns Neal. “Their playbook is clear: slashing a critical resource that Americans have rightfully earned to give another tax cut to the top 1%. Democrats won’t let their reckless attacks stand, and we will continue to defend and protect Social Security and Medicare for generations to come.”
Rhode Island Congressmen were quick to give their comments about the release of the two trustee reports, too. “Unlike the nearly three-quarters of House Republicans who endorsed slashing Social Security in 2022 – reducing benefits by $729 billion over 10 years – House Democrats are working to protect Social Security for generations to come,” says Congressman David N. Cicilline, representing Congressional District 1. Cicilline, who is retiring his seat on May 31, 2023, has pushed to expand and strengthen Social Security over his six-terms in office.
Cicilline asks: “Sixty-six million Americans rely on this essential program to make ends meet and we cannot allow Republicans to make any cuts to this hard-earned benefit. The drug spending savings implemented by our Inflation Reduction Act will not only keep money in seniors’ pockets but will also drive down costs to Medicare itself. We’ve been taking real action to strengthen these programs and help our seniors – what have Republicans done?”
As Rhode Island’s newly elected Congressman, Seth Magaziner says he will “fight tooth and nail to protect Rhode Islander’s hard-won Social Security benefits.” In responding to the trustee’s report about Social Security’s financial woes, Magaziner called for raising the cap on Social Security taxes, forcing “millionaires and billionaires to pay the same rate as teachers and fire fighters.”
“I stand ready to work with anyone who is serious about strengthening Social Security, not cutting hard-earned benefits,” says Magaziner.
While there are few fixes being proposed by either party or leader, some fixes identified by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland that “Americans might be willing to support” include:
– raising the Social Security payroll tax cap
– reducing benefits for high earners
– gradually raising the retirement age
– increasing the payroll tax
– raising the minimum benefit
– changing cost-of-living adjustment calculations
– increasing benefits for beneficiaries over age 80
Social Security advocacy group gives its two cents
“Contrary to conservative claims, Social Security is not ‘going bankrupt’; the program will always be able to pay benefits because of ongoing contributions from workers and employers. In fact, this is yet another Trustees report showing that Social Security remains strong in the face of turmoil in the rest of the economy,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO in a release on the Social Security Trustee Report. He notes that the program’s insolvency date has stayed roughly the same even after a global pandemic and recent economic upheavals.
Congress can strengthen Social Security by bringing in additional revenues into the program, says Richtman. NCPSSM endorses legislation introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Congressman John Larson (D-Connecticut) to keep the trust fund solvent for the rest of this century while expanding program benefits. Both bills would adjust the Social Security payroll wage cap so that higher-income earners begin contributing their fair share, he notes.
As to Medicare, in a release Richtman called on Congress to take “pre-emptive action now” to protect the Medicare Part A trust fund from becoming depleted in 2031, three years later than estimated in their previous report, at which time Medicare could still pay 89% of benefits.
“Beyond trust fund solvency, the Trustees reported that the standard Medicare Part B premium will rise next year to $174.80 per month – a $10 or six percent monthly increase,” says Richtman. “Any increase is a burden to seniors living on fixed incomes, who too often must choose between paying monthly bills or filling prescriptions and getting proper health care. Seniors need relief from rising premiums and skyrocketing out-of-pocket health care costs,” he said.
“We support President Biden’s plan to strengthen Medicare’s finances, as laid out in his FY 2024 budget. His plan would bring more revenue into the program, rather than cutting benefits as some Republicans have proposed. Building on the prescription drug pricing reforms in the Inflation Reduction Act, the President’s budget proposal would lower Medicare’s prescription drug costs — and some of those savings would be used to extend the solvency of the Part A trust fund,” said Richtman.
For a copy of the 2023 Social Security Trustee Report, go to https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/TR/2023/.
For a copy of 2023 Medicare Trustee Report, go to https://www.cms.gov/oact/tr/2023.