From the monthly archives: February 2015
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One of Congress’ strongest champions for strengthening and boosting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is Rep. Gwen Moore from Wisconsin. Congresswoman Moore has also been an effective voice in Congress for measures that focus on improving the economic and employment conditions in low-income communities. We’re so glad she’s agreed to share her views with us on the current Congress, Black History month and recent attempts to target Americans with disabilities by the GOP leadership in the House.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI)
Each February, we are reminded of our country’s greatest African American leaders with the celebration of Black History Month. Black History Month provides us an opportunity not only to reflect on those who advocate on behalf of the African American community, but also to examine the critical concerns and issues facing African Americans today. Even with all of the progress made over the past half-century, African Americans still represent a disproportionate share of our nation’s poor. As we work to change the underlying causes for this reality, we must also make sure we’re providing an adequate safety net to prevent further harm of those who are already struggling to get by.
There is no program more vital to protecting those who are battling poverty than Social Security. Not only is Social Security responsible for allowing millions of Americans to enjoy a comfortable retirement after a life of hard work, but also provides insurance for more than 90% of American workers in the event of a debilitating accident or illness through the Disability Insurance program.
On the first day of the 114th Congress, House Republicans pushed through a rule change regarding the Social Security trust funds that would prevent the routine transfer of funds between the retirement and disability accounts. Without the ability to transfer funds, the Disability Trust Fund will be forced to cut all benefits by 20% in 2016. That’s 20% from a paycheck that already is not enough to keep 1.6 million people out of poverty.
A harsh truth we must come to terms with is that one out of every three young workers new to the labor force will either die or need Disability Insurance before they turn 67. Those odds get even worse for African American workers, who make up a disproportionate percentage of Disability Insurance beneficiaries. An unexpected disability or illness can be devastating to an individual or family, but the Disability Insurance program supplies protection to soften the blow of an immediate loss of income. While the benefits are modest, averaging around $1100 a month, they still represent the main or only source of income for over 80% of beneficiaries. Nearly one in five beneficiaries live in poverty, which translates to roughly 1.6 million people, or approximately the population of greater metropolitan Milwaukee, my home city.
Obviously, this critical program needs more funding, but my congressional colleagues across the aisle continue to stand in the way. The rule change proposed by House Republicans was slipped under the wire as a procedural fix. But let’s call it what it is: a brazen attack on our nation’s most vulnerable. These are people who paid their dues to Social Security while they were in the labor force who are now in need of the services they paid into.
Now is not the time to weaken the Disability Insurance program, but rather we should be strengthening it. One of the major lingering effects of the recession is the sharp increase in long-term unemployment. While this number is now on the decline for the overall population, disabled workers continue to struggle to find gainful employment. Cutting what meager benefits they have now would be a death sentence.
This Black History Month, instead of only reflecting on the African Americans of the past, we should also make sure we are taking care of the African Americans of today and tomorrow. Cutting benefits to the Disability Insurance program would disproportionately affect African Americans. I believe in a vision of government where we take care of those who have fallen on hard times due to disability. Black History Month serves as a good means to highlight these issues, but I will keep fighting for this vision all year-round, day-in and day-out, until every American receives the assistance they need to live a prosperous life.
Tomorrow, Republicans leading the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee will continue their campaign to try and convince Americanswhy it’s OK to threaten a 20% benefit cut for people with disabilities unless Congress enacts larger “reforms” (“reforms” actually meaning benefit cuts since conservatives have already ruled out revenue increases) from retirees, widows and survivors who depend on Social Security.
This divide and conquer strategy ignores the fact that, once you step outside Congressional hearing rooms, average Americans understand that Social Security’s value goes far beyond just retirement. Demonizing people with disabilities discounts the basic truth that American workers contribute throughout their working lives into one program -- Social Security. Their contributions provide economic security for a whole host of needs from birth to death – for children who’ve lost a parent, spouses who’ve lost their “significant other” and people with disabilities no longer healthy enough to work. Worker contributions provide all of these benefits. Cutting Social Security disability is cutting Social Security benefits, no matter how conservatives in Washington want to pretend otherwise. Targeting one group of Social Security beneficiaries is a political first step to attack the whole program.
Web Phillips is the National Committee’s Senior Legislative Representative and will testify before the committee tomorrow:
“Our members come from all walks of life and every political persuasion. What unites them is their passion for protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare, not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren. Our members see Social Security as an inter-generational compact that protects all members of the family. To them, it is a single integrated system of benefits that provides family protection from birth to death. It is a system where all of its parts, whether SSDI or retirement and survivors benefits, are equally important.
Most seniors have children and grandchildren and are as concerned for their offspring’s well-being as they are for their own. Maybe more so. They may have had sons and daughters who were born with a disabling condition or who became disabled later in life. They are familiar with the disappointment and financial hardship unanticipated events cause and are grateful that Social Security is available to provide help when it is needed. Fundamentally, they understand SSDI’s value and they support the program.”
At the heart of this issue is the GOP’s refusal to simply allow a modest and temporary reallocation of part of the 6.2 percent Social Security tax rate to the DI Trust Fund which would put the entire Social Security program on an equal footing, with all benefits payable at least until 2033. Again, Americans pay taxes to one Social Security system with the understanding their money provides disability, retirement and survivor benefits – all of them – so changing that allocation formula temporarily avoids any shortfall. In fact, Democrats and Republicans have authorized this same strategy eleven times without controversy (including four times during the Reagan administration). Extending the DI Trust Fund’s solvency to match the Retirement Trust Fund is a simple common sense step that sets the table for a more constructive long-term conversation about Social Security between now and 2033, rather than this faux crisis mentality promoted by the billion dollar anti-Social Security lobby and it’s allies on Capitol Hill.
GOP leaders call this common-sense solution “kicking the can down the road” while they ignore the reality of what a 20% benefit cut would mean to millions of people with disabilities. It’s a “death sentence” according to Social Security Acting Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin. She’s right. However, rather than address this immediate need for Social Security disability beneficiaries, as so many other Congresses have, Republican leaders continue their cynical political attack in which all Social Security beneficiaries are the hostages.
The annual lobbying extravaganza by the multi-billion dollar private insurance industry which sells Medicare Advantage
plans to seniors, will enter a new phase tomorrow when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announces it’s 2016 rate schedule
. Lobbyists (America’s Health Insurance Plans alone spent nearly $5 million in just six months last year) have been in hyper-drive convincing Washington that trimming their billions of dollars in federal subsidies is the same as cutting seniors’ Medicare benefits. It’s not. But all that lobbying has paid off so far because not only have the proposed single-digit cuts been avoided; they’ve been replaced with rate increases:
“The Obama administration turned a proposed 1.9 percent cut to 2015 Medicare Advantage health plans into a .4 percent increase after heavy lobbying from insurers and the Hill. It was the second-straight year that the Medicare agency transformed a proposed rate cut into a raise. Still, Medicare Advantage enrollment has grown every year since the ACA passed in 2010. In fact, enrollment has increased more than 9 percent each year since 2012, when the ACA’s cuts to the Medicare Advantage started to take effect. The law is supposed to cut payments by $156 billion over 10 years because the program has historically reimbursed private insurers at a higher rate than the traditional Medicare program. Private plans are reimbursed at 106 percent of the traditional program, and Obamacare aims to close this gap.” Washington Post
Except that gap will never be closed as long as the powerful insurance industry is allowed to pretend that a 1.9% cut in their federal overpayment is unreasonable to ask from companies with financial reports like these:
“Revenues at Humana for 2014 climbed 17.4% year over year to $48.5 billion. Meanwhile, reported premiums and services revenues increased 9.2% to $3.1 billion, primarily on the back of an increase in average group Medicare Advantage membership.”
“UnitedHealth Group’s full year 2014 revenues of $130.5 billion grew $8 billion or 7 percent year-over-year. UnitedHealthcare growth was led by strength in the public and senior sector.”
Let’s not forget that these giveaways to private insurers, covering just one-third of Medicare beneficiaries, are being paid for by taxpayers and the majority of seniors who don’t even participate in a private MA plan. The fact that these subsidies exist is terrible public policy. The fact they continue to be protected by lawmakers is indefensible. Especially when you consider the mounting evidence that the only advantage to Medicare Advantage plans is to the $884 billion dollar a year health insurance industry.
Reports of Medicare Advantage fraud continue to surface. Whistleblowers (including a former Bush administration official) have filed more than a half-dozen federal court cases detailing systemic over-billing by private Medicare Advantage insurance companies.
The Center for Public Integrity has investigated MA plans in depth. It reports CMS officials acknowledge billions of dollars have been improperly paid to private MA plans due to a practice called “upcoding” in which insurers exaggerate how sick their patients are to increase their “risk score” and collect higher Medicare reimbursements. Some of CPI’s other findings include:
- Risk score errors triggered nearly $70 billion in “improper” payments to Medicare Advantage plans from 2008 through 2013 — mostly overbillings, according to government estimates.
- Risk scores of Medicare Advantage patients rose sharply in plans in at least 1,000 counties nationwide between 2007 and 2011, boosting taxpayer costs by more than $36 billion over estimated costs for caring for patients in standard Medicare.
- In more than 200 of these counties, the cost of some Medicare Advantage plans was at least 25 percent higher than the cost of providing standard Medicare coverage.
- In 2012, CMS audits of six plans found that private insurers couldn’t justify payments for 40 percent or more of their patients. Those overpayments alone cost the Medicare program nearly $650 million in 2007. That’s just for six plans for one year.
- The Government Accountability Office reports Medicare Advantage plans collected $3 - $5 billion in “excess payments” over just two years (2010-2012) because of private insurers “upcoding.”
- A new Government Accountability Office investigation is now underway continuing its look into MA “upcoding” fraud which, by some estimates, has provided an $70 billion dollars of improper payments to private insurance companies.
This is just the fiscal side of what the privatization of Medicare has meant. Now let’s consider what beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage plans have faced. Unfortunately, that news is also disheartening.
- The Center for Medicare Advocacy reports there is evidence that private insurers are “cherry picking” healthier seniors for their plans to keep costs down (and profits high.) “A recently released CMS report confirms advocates’ fears by concluding that disenrollment by individuals from MA plans back to traditional Medicare ‘continues to occur disproportionately among high-cost beneficiaries, raising concerns about care experiences among sicker enrollees and increased costs to Medicare.’”
- The Kaiser Family Foundation says that “Since 2012 average out-of-pocket spending limits have been on the rise, which could expose a subset of enrollees to higher costs – mainly those who have significant medical needs.” Again, that means older and sicker seniors.
- These rising premiums are confirmed by the industry itself in a survey distributed to lawmakers. Incredibly, the insurance lobby uses their premium hikes as justification for Congress to protect private insurers’ massive subsidies.
“The sickest patients who need the most care have seen their maximum annual out-of-pocket costs increase by as much as $761 since 2012, according to the study, which was conducted by the actuarial firm Milliman for the Better Medicare Alliance advocacy group. The value of extra benefits that the health plans provide fell by a national average of $180.24 from 2012 to 2015.” Congressional Quarterly
It’s hard to imagine how our political leaders can justify preserving federal over payments to private insurers in Medicare with a track record that looks like this. However, if early media reports are correct that’s exactly what’s likely to be announced tomorrow – federal subsidies to one of the wealthiest industries in America’s will be preserved while taxpayers and seniors in Medicare will continue to foot the bill.
This week America’s wealthiest will make their last contribution to the Social Security system for 2015. The rest of us...middle class and the working poor...will continue to pay 6.2% of every dollar we earn to keep Social Security strong. How can this be?
So, the payroll tax cap means the wealthy will never have to contribute on all of their income, just the first $118,500 (in 2015). Because most Americans never earn that much in a year, many don’t even realize this unfair tax cap exists or the devastating effect it’s having on Social Security’s long-term fiscal outlook:
“... the Social Security trust fund, which currently holds $2.8 trillion, is projected to be drawn down by about 2033 (according to the Social Security trustees). After that point, if no changes are made to the program, retirees will receive only about 75 percent of scheduled benefits. One of the main causes of this projected shortfall is the growth in inequality over the last 30 years. Back in the 1980s, the last time changes were made to Social Security, Congress and President Reagan decided to build up the trust fund with workers' payroll taxes in order to essentially pre-fund the coming retirement of the Baby Boom generation.
As a result, the trust fund has been steadily building up over the decades, but they weren't able to predict how much income gaps would widen over that time. So while the payroll tax cap has been adjusted for inflation every year, the income of the richest workers has increased faster, allowing more and more earnings to escape the tax, and causing the payroll tax to collect less than needed.” Nicole Woo, Center for Economic and Policy Research
It’s no coincidence that conservatives who constantly clamor for cutting Social Security benefits never list raising or eliminating the payroll tax cap as an alternative solution to strengthening Social Security. Once again, for America’s 1% and their supporters in Congress, middle-class benefits cuts are always the preferred solution.
“I found an even more glaring example of the vast inequity of the Social Security tax system a couple of years ago when I was reading a report issued by an association of CEO’s here in Washington. The report made recommendation to “fix” Social Security by cutting benefits, cutting the Social Security cost of living adjustment, raising the retirement age…no mention of the payroll cap. I was curious about the membership of this group and after a little research I did the math and discovered that one member of their executive committee reached the cap and stopped paying FICA tax after lunch on New Years Day. Earning $54 million dollars a year allows you to do that…but doesn’t make it right.” Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO
The National Committee proudly moderated a Capitol Hill event today with Senator Bernie Sanders (D-I), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and the Strengthen Social Security Coalition bringing attention to this Social Security payroll tax giveaway provide only to the richest people in America each year.
The Center for American Progress released a new report today analyzing what America’s income inequality has meant for Social Security’s funding. First, some historical background...when the 1983 Greenspan Commission passed its Social Security reforms 90% of American workers paid on all of their annual income. In other words, only 10% were exempted from the payroll tax cap. Since then, our nation has seen more and more income shifted to the wealthy meaning there are 6 times the number of millionaires and billionaires today compared to 1983 and more people above the tax cap. That’s means America no longer collects the Social Security payroll taxes from 90% of workers...today it’s only 83%. CAP reports that’s more than a trillion dollars lost.
“Had 90 percent of covered wages been taxed from 1983 to 2013, the OASDI trust funds would have been $1.1 trillion larger by 2013, shrinking the 75-year expected shortfall by 10.1 percent.
The simulation that we have modeled is retrospective; it addresses what would have happened had 90 percent of wages been taxed since 1983. In their annual report, the Social Security trustees answer a similar, but prospective, question: How would raising the cap to cover 90 percent of earnings starting in 2015 affect the trust funds’ shortfall? The trustees find that over the 75-year period, this change would close about 27 percent of the expected shortfall in the trust funds.”
As Center for Economic and Policy Research Co-Director, Dean Baker, told the crowd today, “Social Security isn’t broke...America’s economy is.” Contrary to the current GOP divide and conquer messaging, American seniors aren’t stealing money from children’s programs and the disabled aren’t bankrupting the Social Security retirement system. Conservatives don’t want average Americans to see the truth -- our economic policies have shifted the nation’s wealth to the wealthy and away from everyone else.
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