Congress Must Protect Seniors in ‘Phase Four’ Stimulus Package

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 12, 2020

Just weeks after Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the $2.2 trillion emergency stimulus package signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, lawmakers continue to look for ways to jump start the nation’s economy by passing another stimulus package. Lawmakers had previously passed two bipartisan stimulus bills to lessen the economic impact of the virus pandemic. Now, Congress is looking to hammer out another emergency stimulus bill to follow up the historic CARES Act.

Days ago, Senate Democrats successfully blocked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) efforts to pass a $250 billion in small business coronavirus relief funds to put more money into the CARE Act’s Paycheck Protection Program, expected to quickly run out of money.

McConnell sought to pass the GOP crafted bill without negotiating with Senate Democrats. The Democrats had no objection to passage but wanted some loans reserved for businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans. They also wanted their priorities like unemployment benefits, foods stamps and community health centers to be added to the bill. Even if the legislation passed in the Senate it would have difficulty passing in the House without including Democratic priorities.

Providing for Seniors in Next Emergency Stimulus Package

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), calls for more to be done in the fourth stimulus package to help seniors survive the COVID-19 pandemic, both physically and financially.

On April 7, Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s president and CEO, sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers not to forget seniors as they begin to craft new Coronavirus relief legislation. He called for provisions to be put in the legislative package to boost Social Security benefits and to expand Medicare and Medicaid services to help seniors survive the pandemic crisis.

“We have been aggressively working to improve seniors’ programs for many years, but the pandemic has ratcheted their needs to the top of the list. Older Americans are among the most vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. Their struggles are significantly aggravated by the crisis. It makes sense to expand and protect the health and income security for older citizens, who in turn contribute so much to the economy and our quality of life,” says Richtman.

Richtman called on Congress to increase by $250 the monthly benefit for all Social Security, Veterans, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries through the end of 2021. He pushed for the enactment of the improvements in Rep. John Larson’s Emergency Social Security Benefits Act, including an increase in widows’ and widowers’ benefits for lower-and-middle-income beneficiaries, and raising the threshold for the minimum benefit to 125 percent of the federal poverty line.

Richtman also lobbied for creation of a new Medicaid grant for states to boost their home and community-based long-term care services and to extend the 90-day prescription refill rule applied to Medicare in the CARES Act to all patients. He asked Congress to ensure all prescription drugs for COVID-19 be provided at no cost for all individuals whether they are insured or not.

Protecting the Fiscal Viability of Social Security

“A Marshall Plan for the beleaguered Social Security Administration (SSA) is what is need, considering all of the workloads that currently are being deferred,” says Richtman.

This could be accomplished by appropriating additional $400 million for the SSA’s operating budget to help the agency cope with the increase in coronavirus-related claims, including expected survivors’ benefit applications, he says.

During the economic 2011 and 2012 economic downturns, Congress passed SSA payroll tax cuts to reduce the amount of money withheld from employees’ paycheck to increase take-home pay. Lasts month, President Trump successfully pushed Congress to include a payroll tax cut provision in the recently passed CARES Act to stimulate the economy during the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 epidemic.

Seeking to protect Social Security’s fiscal viability, Richtman called on lawmakers to oppose any attempts to allocated Social Security Trust Funds for the “purposes for which they not intended, such as a means to stimulate the economy. “A payroll tax cut, suspension or deferral chip away at the fundamental idea, making it easier each time it is enacted to turn to it again to meet some future crisis, until the payroll tax is permanently eliminated,” he added.

Richtman reminded Congressional lawmakers that many low-income seniors will no longer be able to eat at the local senior and day care programs, or at charitable mean programs while they shelter in place. “That’s why Congress should increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by 15 percent of the duration of the downturn,” he said, noting that a small increase (around $100) per month would help to put food on the table while boosting the economy.

Millions of seniors will require assistance as public health officials attempt to but the brakes to the skyrocketing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths. Congress must not forget that seniors especially those with severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes are at a higher risk in developing the more serious complications from COVID-19 illness. Congress lawmakers must not forget seniors as they begin their efforts craft the next COVID-19 relief legislation.

Tune in on Next Tuesday’s Senor Telephone Townhall

Congressman David N. Cicilline will host a telephone town hall this Tuesday, April 14th at 2pm on how seniors can best access benefits included in the $2.2 trillion of relief passed by Congress. The Democratic Congressman will be joined by Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging Director Rosamaria (“Rose”) Amoros Jones. The event is the third in Cicilline’s “Relief for Rhode Island” series on how folks can get the assistance they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cicilline’s Seniors Telephone Town Hall is free and open to the public and members of the media. Those interested in joining the telephone town hall this Tuesday at 2pm can do so by dialing 855-962-1055.

Millions of seniors will require assistance as public health officials attempt to but the brakes to the skyrocketing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths. Congress must not forget that seniors especially those with severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes are at a higher risk in developing the more serious complications from COVID-19 illness. Congress lawmakers must not forget seniors as they begin their efforts craft the next COVID-19 relief legislation.

The Coronavirus and its Effect on Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 22, 2020

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the nation, the Social Security Administration (SSA) and other federal agencies strive to cope with meeting the huge challenges they face resulting from the unexpected pandemic outbreak, attempting to juggle worker safety while maintaining their daily operations.

On March 19, Key House Democratic and Republican Committee Chairs send a clear message to SSA as to the importance of minimizing any disruptions to its operations during the coronavirus crises. Throughout its 85-year history, Social Security recipients (seniors, families who have lost a breadwinner, and people with disabilities) have never missed getting their monthly check. Keeping this in mind, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) and Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX), along with Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), Ranking Member Tom Reed (R-NY), Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis (D-IL) and Ranking Member Jackie Walorski (R-IN), sent a letter on March 19 to Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Andrew Saul calling on the agency to continue their work to prioritize health and transparency in an effort to minimize disruptions as they administer vital services during the coronavirus crisis.

“We know the decision to close SSA field offices…was a difficult decision. … This move will save lives and will also protect the health of SSA frontline staff, whose public service is so critical,” the key House lawmakers wrote.

“We understand that as coronavirus spreads, you are prioritizing work that fulfills SSA’s core mission,” the letter continued. “We fully support this prioritization.”

“We are writing to urge the Social Security Administration (SSA) to vigorously safeguard the health of the public and agency employees during the coronavirus crisis, while also minimizing disruptions in services to the American people,” stated the House lawmakers. “Telework is a commonsense response to coronavirus and we urge you to maximize its use across SSA. In addition, we encourage SSA to communicate regularly and robustly with the public and with its employees about SSA’s coronavirus response. Social Security is a program that affects the lives of all Americans. As SSA’s response to coronavirus evolves, the public must be able to count on timely information about how to access benefits and services, including assistance when a problem arises.”

The members emphasized that that they stand ready to work with the agency to ensure it has the resources and authority it needs to operate effectively during the crisis while ensuring SSA remains able to send benefits on time each month.

COVID-19 Changes Way SSA Does Business

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way SSA does business across the nation. Effective Tuesday, March 17, SSA closed all local Social Security offices for in-person service. SSA says that this decision protects the population it services — older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions—and its employees during the crisis.

But SSA employees remain at their cubicles, the processing of benefits and claims continues. However, critical services can be accessed online. The agency directed the pubic to visit its website (https://www.ssa.gov/) or its toll-free number, 800-772-1213 for customer service. You can apply for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits online, check the status of an application or appeal, request a replacement Social Security card (in most areas), print a benefit verification letter, and much more – from anywhere and from any of your devices.

According to SSA, there is also a wealth of information to answer most of your Social Security questions online, without having to speak with an SSA employee in person or by phone. Visit our online Frequently Asked Questions at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ask.

However, those persons who are blind or terminally ill, or need SSI or Medicaid eligibility issues resolved related to work status can obtain in person services in local offices.

SSA also provides COVID-19 related information and customer service updates on a special website (https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/)
According to a March 19 blog posting by the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “The Ways and Means committee leaders suggest SSA allow employees to telework where possible, in accordance with federal guidelines. National Committee senior legislative representative (and former 35-year SSA employee) Webster Phillips says the agency’s teleworking capabilities have been diminished since Andrew Saul came on board as administrator – and will take time and resources to build back up.”

The NCPSSM’s blog posting noted, “SSA will discontinue several of its normal activities in order to prioritize beneficiaries’ needs. “There are workloads that they’re not going to process while this is going on, focusing exclusively on paying benefits,” says Phillips. Those include stopping all Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) and curtailing eligibility re-determinations for SSI recipients.”

Finally, “SSA also has discontinued in-person disability hearings to protect the health of claimants and employees. Instead, those hearings will take place via telephone or video conference, where possible,” adds the blog posting.

The Bottom Line…

On March 19, SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul, issued a statement to assure the 65 million Social Security recipients that SSA payments will continued to be processed. He stated, “The first thing you should know is that we continue to pay benefits.”  But Saul warned, “Be aware that scammers may try to trick you into thinking the pandemic is stopping your Social Security payments but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.”

The United States Postal Service has so far experienced only minor operational impacts in the United States as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, with Saul’s assurances and the postal service still delivering mail, you can expect to get your benefits.
Stay healthy.

Seniors Can Expect Small Increase in Their 2020 Social Security COLA

Published in the Woonsocket Call on Oct. 27, 2019

The Social Security Administration (SSA) announces Oct. 10 that Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for nearly 69 million Americans will increase 1.6 percent in 2020 (Some recipients receive both Social Security and SSI benefits).

Social Security and SSI recipients will be notified about their new benefit amount by mail in early December. This COLA notice can also be viewed online through their my Social Security account. People may create or access their my Social Security account online at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.

According to SSA, the 1.6 percent COLA increase will begin with benefits payable to more than 63 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2020. Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin December 31, 2019. The Social Security Act ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as calculated 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 from $132,900 to $137,700, says SSA.

The earnings limit for workers who are younger than “full” retirement age (age 66 for people born in 1943 through 1954) will increase to $18,240. SSA will deduct $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $18,240.

The earnings limit for people turning age 66 in 2020 will increase to $48,600. SSA will deduct $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $48,600 until the month the worker turns age 66.)

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

COLA Not Keeping Up with Rising Cost of Living

Over the years, Social Security’s COLA has not provided financial protection against rising costs, charge aging advocacy groups.

Social Security checks in 2019 are as much as 18 percent lower due to the impact of extremely low COLAs over the past 10 years, says an analysis recently released by the Arlington, Virginia-based The Senior Citizens League (TSCL). TSCL’s Social Security policy analyst, Mary Johnson authored this analysis.

Johnson’s analysis noted that from 2000 to 2010, COLAs routinely averaged 3 percent
annually. People who have been receiving Social Security checks since 2019, have only seen a COLA higher than 2,8 percent one time (in 2012), she said, noting that Social Security benefits have lost 33 percent of buying power since 2000.

Johnson’s findings reported that in 2010, 2011, and 2016 there was no COLA payable at all and, in 2017, the COLA was just 0.03 percent. However, in 2018, the COLA was 2 percent, but rising Part B premiums consumed the entire increase for roughly half of all beneficiaries.

Calls for Strengthening the COLA

According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the upcoming COLA change will give a whopping $24 per month increase for the average beneficiary. With Medicare Part B premiums expected to rise around $8 next year, the net cost-of-living adjustment for most seniors will be only $16 per month. The new COLA brings the average monthly retirement benefit up to $1,503 — it’s just a $288 yearly raise for seniors living on fixed incomes.

NCPSSM notes that roughly half of America’s seniors rely on Social Security for at least 50 percent of their income, and 1 in 4 depending on the program for at least 90 percent of their income, the 2020 COLA increase does not go very far in helping these recipients pay their bills. A $16 per month probably won’t cover typical expenses, such as the cost of a single prescription copay, a month’s medical supplies, or transportation to a doctor’s appointment, adds the Washington, DC- advocacy group whose goal is to protect Social Security and Medicare.

“It’s ironic that as billionaires and big corporations continue to profit from the $1.5 trillion in Trump/GOP tax cuts, America’s seniors are to get by with a meager $24 monthly raise,” says Max Richtman in a statement after SSA announced the 2020 COLA increase. NCPSSM’s President and CEO. “The negligible 2020 COLA illustrates why seniors need a more accurate formula for calculating the impact of inflation on their Social Security benefits. For years, we have urged the government to adopt the CPI-E (Consumer Price Index for the Elderly), which reflects the spending priorities of seniors, including health care, as opposed to the current formula based on younger urban wage earners’ expenses,” says Richtman.

If the CPI-E were adopted, beneficiaries would see a 6 percent overall increase in benefits over 20 years compared to the current formula used, which yielded a zero cost-of-living adjustment three times during the past decade — and a mere 0.3 percent in 2017, says Richtman, noting that health care costs have increased about 6 percent in 2019 alone.

“The prices of the most commonly prescribed drugs for seniors on Medicare rose ten times the rate of inflation from 2013-2018. The cost of senior living facilities is growing at 3 percent annually – which adds up quickly over time,” adds Richtman.

Adds Webster Phillips, NCPSSM’s Senior Legislative Representative, “COLAs are out of sync with seniors’ actual expenses. Retirees have been living on very tight cost-of-living adjustments for a number of years now, which forces them to make hard decisions about their monthly budgets.”

In a statement, AARP chief executive officer Jo Ann Jenkins said, “Social Security’s annual COLA amount typically does not keep pace with all the increases in living expenses that most seniors face, including the costs of housing, food, transportation and, especially, health care and prescription drugs. AARP’s recent Rx Price Watch report found that retail drug prices increased by twice the rate of inflation during 2017, and have exceeded the inflation rate for at least 12 consecutive years,” she says.

“AARP will continue our advocacy for bipartisan solutions to help ensure the long-term solvency of the Social Security program, as well as adequate benefits for recipients. We will also continue to fight for lower health care and prescription drug costs, which are eating up a growing share of Social Security benefits,” adds Jenkins.

TSCL’s Mary Johnson says that her group calls on Congress to require a minimum COLA of no less than 3 percent every year, even in years when inflation falls below that amount. “Strengthening the COLA,” she says, “would help slow the drain of retirement savings and help keep older Americans out of poverty.”

For information about Social Security benefits and claiming strategies, those approaching retirement age may visit AARP’s Social Security Resource Center, at https://www.aarp.org/retirement/social-security/.