Trustee Reports predict improved outlook for Social Security and Medicare

Published in RINewsToday on June 6, 2022

On June 2, 2022, following a meeting of the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees, the Social Security Administration (SSA) – joined by the Departments of Health and Human Services and Labor, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and the U.S. Department of Treasury — released a 275-page annual report giving us a snapshot of the financial health of the Social Security Trust Funds.

The Trustee reports findings

According to this year’s Trustee Reports, “Social Security and Medicare both face long-term financing shortfalls under currently scheduled benefits and financing. Costs of both programs will grow faster than gross domestic product (GDP) through the mid-2030s primarily due to the rapid aging of the U.S. population. Medicare costs will continue to grow faster than GDP through the late 2070s due to projected increases in the volume and intensity of services provided.”

The Social Security Trustees report that the combined asset reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASI and DI) Trust Funds, paying benefits to 65 million retirees, disabled people as well as survivors of deceased workers, are projected to become depleted in 2035, one year later than projected last year, with 80 percent of benefits payable at that time. The DI Trust Fund asset reserves are not projected to become depleted during the 75-year projection period.

“It is important to strengthen Social Security for future generations. The Trustees recommend that lawmakers address the projected trust fund shortfalls in a timely way to phase in necessary changes gradually,” says Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security in a statement announcing the released report. “Social Security will continue to be a vital part of the lives of 66 million beneficiaries and 182 million workers and their families during 2022,” she adds.   

The Medicare Board of Trustees note in its 263 page report that the projected depletion date for Medicare’s trust fund for inpatient hospital care (Part A), covering around 64 million retirees and disabled persons, moved from last year’s forecast of 2026 to 2028. At this time Medicare will only be able to pay 90% of the scheduled benefits when the fund is depleted.

“We are committed to running a sustainable Medicare program that provides high quality, person-centered care to older Americans and people with disabilities,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure. In a statement “Medicare trust fund solvency is an incredibly important, longstanding issue and we are committed to working with Congress to continue building a vibrant, equitable, and sustainable Medicare program,” she says.

Thoughts from senior advocacy groups

In a statement, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said that this year’s Social Security and Medicare Trustee report sends this clear message to Congress: “The Social Security and Medicare Trustees’ reports should send this “clear message” to Congress: “Despite the short-term improvement, you must act to protect the benefits people have earned and paid into both now and for the long-term. The stakes are too high for the millions of Americans who rely on Medicare and Social Security for their health and financial well-being.”

“These reports also underscore the urgent need for Congress to pass legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices, which would result in billions of dollars of savings for seniors, the Medicare program, and taxpayers,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins also calls on Congress to increase funding to fix serious long-time Social Security customer service problems, which currently impede or keep seniors and people with disabilities from getting their benefits in a timely manner.

Following the release of the Trustees Report, Executive Director Alex Lawson, of the Washington, DC-based Social Security Works, (SSW) a social welfare organization that lobbies for Social Security Reforms, also issued a statement: “Today’s report shows that our Social Security system remains strong. Protecting and expanding benefits is a question of values, not affordability. That this year’s projections are even stronger than last year’s proves once again that Social Security is built to withstand times of crisis, including pandemics.”

We don’t have a Social Security crisis, but we do have a retirement income crisis. With prices rising, seniors and people with disabilities are struggling to afford food and medicine. The solution is to expand Social Security,” says Lawson. 

According to SSW, the 2020 Social Security Trustee’s Report reported that Social Security has an accumulated surplus of about $2.85 trillion.  It projects that, even if Congress took no action whatsoever, Social Security not only can pay all benefits and associated administrative costs until 2035, it is 90 percent funded for the next quarter century, 84 percent for the next half century, and 81 percent for the next three quarters of a century.  

“At the end of the century, in 2095, Social Security is projected to cost just 5.86 percent of the gross domestic product (“GDP”), less than most other wealthy countries spend on their counterpart programs,” says SSW.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), throws in his two cents about this year’s Trustee Report. “The takeaway from the latest Social Security Trustees report is this:  Congress must strengthen the program’s finances without delay. The Trustees project that the combined Social Security retirement and disability trust fund will become depleted by 2035, one year later than projected in their previous report. At that point, every Social Security beneficiary will suffer a 20% cut to their benefits.”

“Seniors struggling to meet rising living expenses need Social Security to be boosted and strengthened. The pandemic, runaway inflation and devastating stock market losses serve to remind us how vital a robust Social Security program is to workers, retirees, the disabled and their families. The clock is running down. The time for fair, just, and equitable action that safeguards Social Security’s financial stability is now,” adds Richtman.   

While acknowledging that the trust fund insolvency date may fluctuate from year to year, the urgent need to boost the program’s financing and benefits remains consistent, says Richtman. 

NCPSSM’s Richtman says, over the years, the GOP has opposed the expansion and strengthening of Social Security and has called for raising the retirement age, privatization, and more recently, ‘sunsetting’ Social Security and Medicare every five years.  He calls for passage of Rep. John Larson’s Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust legislation that would extend trust fund solvency by requiring high wage earners to contribute their fair share through an adjustment in the payroll wage cap. 

A Washington Insider says that House Speaker’s Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) policy staff are concerned about the cost of Larson’s Social Security fix legislation and are seeking a CBO cost estimate. At press time this measure has more than 200 Democratic cosponsors in the House. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), the Task Force on Aging and Families, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus have all called on Pelosi to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote.

“Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, our economic recovery has strengthened both the Social Security and Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Funds and improved financial projections for these vital programs. But to ensure that every American worker, senior, child, and person with disabilities receives the necessary and earned benefits provided by both Social Security and Medicare, we need to act. That’s why I am an original cosponsor of legislation like Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, to not only enhance benefits for seniors and some of our most vulnerable neighbors, but to also guarantee access to these programs for generations to come,” said Congressman David Cicilline, (D-RI).  

Congress can step in to financially strengthen the Social Security and Medicare programs. A message from the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees suggest Congress pass legislation to reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in both the Social Security and Medicare. “Taking action sooner rather than later will allow consideration of a broader range of solutions and provide more time to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare,” say the Trustees.

Congress should look for “medium-term solvency” fixes to ensure that Social Security program can pay full benefits for several decades rather than for the full 75-year projection period, suggests Paul N. Van De Water, Senior Fellow at the Washington, DC-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit nonpartisan research organization and policy institute that conducts research on government policies and programs. “But shoring up the program’s financing for a substantial period of time is important for assuring both current and future beneficiaries that Social Security will be there for them in the years to come,” he says.

At a crossroad

NCPSSM’s Richtman believes Social Security’s future is now at a crossroads. “We can either cut benefits or expand benefits and pay for it by requiring the wealthiest to pay their fair share,” he says, calling on Congress to hold an up or down votes on Larson’s Social Security legislation.

Polling shows that voters support fixing Social Security and Medicare. Seniors may well go to the polls, sending a message with their vote that strengthening and expanding Social Security is important to them.   

For a copy of the 2022 Social Security Trustee Report, go to https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/TR/2022/tr2022.pdf. For a copy of the 2022 Medicare Trustee Report, go to https://www.cms.gov/files/document/2022-medicare-trustees-report.pdf

Social Security learns from remote experience, plans field office openings

Published on December 13, 2021 in RINewsToday

On March 17, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread throughout the nation, the Social Security Administration  (SSA) issued a press release announcing that its offices would only offer phone service and online services.

However, in-person appointments at SSA were scheduled for critical issues, specifically for those who were without food, medicine, shelter, or those needing to apply for benefits or to reinstate them. This decision allowed SSA to provide critical services while protecting its employees and older beneficiaries, many with underlying medial conditions. 

Congress Expresses Concern Over Closing of SSA Field Offices  

Almost four months later, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT) and Republican Leader Tom Reed (R-NY) sent two letters to the SSA Inspector General Gail S. Ennis asking for a review of SSA’s telephone service during the COVID-19 pandemic and SSA’s process for obtaining medical evidence for disability claims.

The correspondence to SSA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) noted that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, beneficiaries are relying on their Social Security now more than ever. Except in dire need, beneficiaries are unable to access in-person services and are relying instead on telephone services.

Members of Congress warned that beneficiaries, especially those from vulnerable populations who lack internet connection especially in rural areas or don’t have a reliable phone number or mailing addresses, are struggling to gain access SSA while field offices are closed.

“As highlighted in the OIG’s recent report, even before the current crisis the pubic relied heavily in SSA’s telephone services, but often could not access timely information or assistance. In fiscal year 2019, SSA’s national 1-800 number and field  offices received over 143 million calls – but handled fewer than to 3 of these calls. Callers who did not get a busy signal or give up while on hold waited to speak with an SSA employee for an average of 20 minutes on the 1-800 number and three minutes at field offices.

In addition, SSA requests millions of medical records each year from health care facilities and health professionals across the country to obtain evidence of an individual’s medical condition. The medical records request is an important part of the disability process, but the most recent report on this topic from the OIG is from 2001 and does not reflect changes to the process over the past nearly 20 years.

“Social Security benefits are earned by hard-working Americans, and we must do everything we can to ensure people are receiving the quality customer service they deserve.  These reports will provide important information to make sure Americans are receiving the service they expect and deserve from SSA,” said Larson and Reed.

SSA Responds to the Closing of Field Offices 

Almost two weeks ago, Ennis released a 58-page Congressional Response report, “The Social Security Telephone Service Performance,” detailing the impact on the closing of about 1,300 field offices.

The OIG found that in FY 2020, SSA received over 150 million calls, more than any other federal agency surveyed, and handled over half of those calls. Calls to field offices increased dramatically, from an average of 4.6 million calls per month leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic to an average of 7.5 million calls per month from April to Sept. 2020.

According to the OIG’s report, SSA’s telephone services shifted to more calls to field offices in FY 2020 when the agency closed its offices and provided the public with more field office telephone numbers. The increase in field office calls resulted in increased busy messages and wait-times toward the end of FY 2020. During the pandemic, SSA adjusted national 800 number operations to reduce wait times and the number of callers who received a busy message. National 800 number performance began to decline toward the end of the fiscal year, though it was still better then pre-pandemic performance.

When comparing SSA to 13 customer service call centers from 10 other federal agencies, SSA had a higher call volume in FY 2020 with similar or better performance.

To reduce wait times, improve caller experience, and ensure more calls are handled SSA hired additional 800-number staff, modified automated service options, and plans to implement a new telephone system.

“This [IOG] report highlights that SSA’s telephone services are vital to the American public. While I applaud the hard work of SSA employees, especially during the pandemic, the report also highlights actions that SSA is taking to reduce telephone wait times, handle more calls and improve caller experience, said Larson, noting that SSA will need more funding to do so and that is why he is supporting House Appropriations and Chair DeLauro’s proposal to give SSA an additional $1.1 billion in FY 2022.

Adds Reed, “This report provides clear evidence that with determined agency leadership and the hard work of dedicated staff, the SSA was able to respond to the largest management crisis in its history. With the almost 65 percent increase in phone calls during the pandemic the report also demonstrates the public’s clear and continued demand for access to the SSA’s vital services.” 

Opening the Doors

According to newly released 19-page SSA reentry plan, after more than 18 months working from home, senior SSA leadership are beginning to return to their offices, in early December. Employees are scheduled to return to their desks by Jan. 3. Along with in-person appointments, the agency will now also embrace telework. 

The agency will lift its current “work from home by quarantine” policy starting Jan. 2, at which point related collective bargaining agreements and pandemic policies will end as well. Reentry dates could change with the spread of the delta and omicron variant.

“We will use the evaluation period to develop, assess, and, if necessary, adjust any personnel or operational policies to provide public service and accomplish our mission as well as or better than, before the pandemic,” the SSA reentry plan reads. “Each [deputy commissioner] will evaluate their operations to identify ways to improve service, hire and retain the best employees and to operate efficiently including the consideration of potential space savings resulting from increased telework and information technology improvements.”

Over the next six months, the agency will review metrics on customer satisfaction, employee experience, service availability, workload, and environmental considerations.

“Throughout the pandemic, Social Security has helped many people through in-person appointments for certain situations in local offices nationwide and through options like online, telephone and video service,” Nicole Tiggemann, an SSA spokeswoman, said in an email to AARP, reported by Writer John Waggoner in his Nov. 11 blog posting, “Social Security Takes Steps to Reopen Field Offices.

“We know that those options do not work for everyone, says Tiggemann. “In order to improve service, especially for people who have had difficulty reaching us during the pandemic, Social Security will begin implementing the reentry process agencywide as soon as possible, including taking steps to increase in-person accessibility,” she said.

AARP applauds a return to normalcy at SSA. “Obviously, from our point of view, we’d like to see those offices open and staffed as soon as possible,” says Joel Eskovitz, director of Social Security and Savings at the AARP Public Policy Institute,” in Waggoner’s blog posting.

A Sacred Trust – moves to strengthen Social Security

Published on November 8, 2021 in RINewsToday

Almost two weeks ago, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairperson John B. Larson (D-Conn.) threw H.R. 5723, the Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, into the legislative hopper. During its unveiling in the historic committee room of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, the same room where Social Security and Medicare legislation was crafted in the 1930s and 1960, the Connecticut Congressman’s proposal comes on the heels of the Social Security Administration’s 2021 estimate that the trust funds that support the program will be depleted in just 13 years, averting an estimated 20 percent cut in benefits by 2034.

The Sacred Trust Act is the successor to Larson’s original Social Security 2100 Act, which he first introduced in 2014.The House Ways and Means Committee is planning to hold a hearing on the bill in Nov. followed by a markup.

At press time, 194 House Democratic Members are cosponsoring the 100-page House Democratic proposal with no Republican lawmakers crossing the aisle. Almost 40 advocacy groups are endorsing the House Democratic proposal.

At the Oct. 26 news conference unveiling Larson’s legislative proposal, the Connecticut congressman noted that Congress expanded Social Security during the past 50 years and it has been 38 years since lawmakers have taken any comprehensive action to strengthen the program.“ With 10,000 Baby Boomers a day becoming eligible, and with millennials needing Social Security more than any generation, the time for Congress to act is now,” he said.

Taking a Close look at H.R. 5723

According to the legislative fact sheet released at the news conference, H.R. 5723 gives a benefit bump for current and new Social Security beneficiaries. It provides an increase for all beneficiaries (receiving retirement, disability or dependent benefits) equivalent to an average of 2% of benefits to make up for inadequate Cost-of-Living Adjustments (COLA) since 1983.

Larson’s Social Security proposal also protects Social Security beneficiaries against inflation. It improves the annual COLA formula 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. Although the 2022 COLA 5.9%, the largest in years, the average for the past 10 years is roughly 1.5% and in 3 of the past 12 years, beneficiaries received no COLA at all.

It protects low-income works that provides a new minimum benefit stet at 25% above the poverty line and would be tied to wage levels to ensure that minimum benefits doe not fall behind. Currently, 5 million seniors live in poverty.

The Sacred Trust Act 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 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.
  • Requiring Social Security Administration (SSA) to mail annual statements to all workers detailing the FICA contributions they make and projects of their benefits in the future. 
  • Preventing unwarranted closures of SSA offices to improve customer serve
  • Improving access to legal representation for people seeking long-term disability benefits.

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 $400,00.This provision would only impact the top 0.04% of wage earners.

Larson’s proposal would also extend the solvency of Social Security by making a significant contribution to the programs solvency, making up more than half of the shortfall in the Social Security Trust Funds.

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.

It’s Now Time to Fix Social Security 

Larson’s Social Security proposal would “take historic steps to expand Social Security — delivering for retirees, people with disabilities, and their families the first real boost in benefits in 50 years.  The Sacred Trust Act also would bring new revenue into Social Security amid projections that the trust fund will run dry in 2034 if Congress doesn’t take action,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“To those who claim that no one in Washington has the courage to address Social Security’s challenges, or that the only solution is to cut benefits for future generations, Congressman Larson’s bill is a stunning refutation,” states Richtman, noting that he understands that beneficiaries need an increase in monthly checks to meet skyrocketing living expenses. “He knows that the fairest way to strengthen Social Security’s finances is for the wealthy to begin paying their fair share of payroll contributions.  For years, seniors and their advocates have demanded these improvements,” adds Richtman.   

“There is good news for everyone in this bill, which is only fitting, since Social Security touches almost every American’s life.  Beneficiaries have waited long enough for these vital improvements.  Congressman Larson now has nearly 200 cosponsorsin the House.  After seven long years, seniors and their advocates can finally see the finish line, says Richtman.  

With the Democrats controlling the White House, seniors have a good chance of seeing the expansion and strengthening of Social Security.  The proposal has many of President Biden’s promises made during his campaign.  But, like Larson’s previous Social Security Bill, the latest version has no Republican cosigners.

Over the years, poll after poll has shown that the American public strongly supports Social Security, across party and demographic lines.  Larson’s legislative proposal has the support in the House, but will it pass in the upper chamber with Senate Democrats holding a slim majority?  Will voter support influence Republican lawmakers to work across the aisle with Democrats to hammer out an acceptable bipartisan  proposal, as the 2022 mid-term elections get closer?  We’ll just have to wait and see.