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From the monthly archives: January 2017

We are pleased to present below all posts archived in 'January 2017'. If you still can't find what you are looking for, try using the search box.

Paul Ryan and House GOP on Fast-Track to Repeal ACA, Putting Millions of Insured at Risk

Speaker Paul Ryan and the House GOP are on a tear to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), without being any closer to agreement on a replacement plan. The House will likely introduce a budget reconciliation bill to effectively repeal the ACA in the next two weeks… with no immediate replacement.  Ryan and his troops hope to have a replacement plan by April, but Max Richtman, the President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is skeptical: 

 

"Given the potential political risk of displacing 20 million Americans who now have health coverage through the ACA, the legislative battle will probably take longer than they think."

Republicans meeting in Philadelphia this week to strategize about replacements for the Affordable Care Act were unable to come to a consensus. The disarray in the GOP caucus made for an alarming headline in this morning’s Los Angeles Times:  Republicans divided over whether millions of Americans should lose government-subsidized health coverage.

In the meantime, if Congress repeals the ACA soon but blows past April struggling to replace it, says Richtman, that could destabilize the health insurance market and endanger ACA policyholders’ coverage.

 
"If key parts of the ACA are repealed now, and insurance companies think the situation is too unpredictable, you have an immediate de facto loss of coverage for more than 20 million Americans."

The nearly 60 million seniors and disabled on Medicare are also at risk of losing benefits that the ACA mandated, including annual wellness visits and preventative screenings with no out of pocket costs, and will have to pay an average $1,000 per year more for prescription drugs unless those parts of Obamacare are retained.  Of course, at this point no one knows which of the ACA’s benefits will stay or be shredded, including House Republicans.

 
In a related development, the Washington Post reports the White House is pulling ads for ACA enrollments in advance of the 2017 enrollment deadline.

Democrats Challenge Price over Medicare and Medicaid Funding

Democrats concerned about seniors, children, the disadvantaged and disabled took HHS Nominee Tom Price to task in his first day of Senate confirmation hearings Wednesday before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Price faced withering questions from committee Democrats which he sometimes struggled to answer or simply evaded. Skeptical about Price’s statement at the beginning of the hearing that, “Nobody’s interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody,” Democrats held his feet to the fire where his record contradicts that promise.   

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) confronted Price (a Republican member of the U.S. House) about his past proposals to slash Medicare and Medicaid.  “You would have cut Medicare by $449 billion… and would have cut Medicaid funding by more than $1 trillion dollars, correct?” Warren asked Price.  “You have the numbers before you,” he said.  When Warren asked if Price would honor President-elect Trump’s pledge not to cut Medicare or Medicaid by even one dollar, the nominee would not commit – insisting that the amount of funding is the “wrong metric.”

“The millions of Americans who rely on Medicare and Medicaid are not going to be reassured,” warned Senator Warren, suggesting that Price print out Trump’s pledge and post it above his desk.  “Americans will be watching to see if you follow through on that promise.”

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) also confronted Price about the future of Medicare and Medicaid in the new administration.  “You have said you plan to overhaul Medicare in the first 6-8 months of this administration in a way that would end the guarantee of full coverage.” 

Senator Al Franken (D-MN) expressed concerns about Price’s policies and priorities, especially his fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act.   “I see you as someone who is there for the doctors,” Franken chided.  (Price is a physician as well as a Congressman.) Franken told Price that repealing the Affordable Care Act “is going to unravel something that has given a lot of Americans peace of mind.”

Democrats also grilled Price about personal stock transactions affected by his decisions as a legislator.  "Do you believe it is appropriate for a senior member of Congress, actively involved in policymaking in the health sector, to repeatedly personally invest in a drug company that could benefit from those actions?" Murray asked. "That's not what happened," said Price.

Republicans on the committee were largely cordial and complimentary to Rep. Price.

Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) allowed each member only one round of questions with a 7-minute time limit, prompting complaints from Democrats that important hearings were being rushed and the American people denied sufficient time to learn about the nominees.  Price will have another hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on January 24th

National Committee President Rallies Crowd at Day of Action to Protect ACA, Medicare and Medicaid

 

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, joined other advocates, politicians, and everyday Americans at a Day of Action rally in Richmond, Virginia Sunday. The Day of Action was an opportunity for people across the country to stand up for the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Medicaid.  The Richmond rally – attended by Richtman, Senator Tim Kaine, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), and Governor Terry McAulife – was one of more than 40 protests nationwide.

Some one thousand people gathered on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol to make their voices heard.  Max Richtman rallied the crowd early on with a reminder of the struggle to defend Social Security in 2005.  “We had a president (George W. Bush) whose top agenda item was to privatize Social Security. Even with a GOP House and Senate, we were able to kill it.  Not a single bill reached the floor.  And that’s what we can do today.  We can defeat any changes to the ACA which will endanger Medicare.”

Ricthman reminded the crowd in stark terms exactly what is at stake if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, “despite a lot of the myths that citizens have heard in the past few years.”  Medicare beneficiaries, in particular, would lose the valuable improvements that the ACA provided.  “Here is the truth,” Richtman said from the podium, “For the first time ever, Medicare beneficiaries were able to get annual wellness exams with no out of pocket costs under the ACA. For the first time ever, they could get preventative screenings with no out of pocket costs, including mammograms, colon cancer screenings, and diabetes screenings.  All of that will disappear if the ACA is repealed.”  He warned that the Part D Prescription Drug “donut hole” – which the ACA was rapidly closing – would return with repeal, costing the average beneficiary more than $1000 a year.

As the Washington Post reports, the Day of Action was the brainchild of Senator Bernie Sanders and other democratic leaders in Congress.  At rallies across the country, crowds heard poignant testimonials from Americans who benefitted from the Affordable Care Act.  Kate Barrett of Richmond worried that her daughter suffering from incurable cancer could be denied coverage or won’t be able to afford treatment if the ACA is repealed.  73-year old Scott Gledhill said he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two months after signing up for Medicare. “My bill would have been half a million dollars. I would have lost everything I had, after a whole lifetime of work and saving.”

Day of Action organizers want Republicans in Congress to feel public pressure against ACA repeal, and urged attendees to contact their elected representatives right away.  “Don’t agonize. Organize!” was the rallying cry of the day, said Richtman.  “As we've learned from our past battles,” he explained, “Once politicians feel the heat, they begin to see the light.”

Congress: Stop Squeezing the Social Security Administration

We have written extensively in this space about cuts to the Social Security Administration budget negatively impacting customer service for beneficiaries.   This week, as Mary Beth Franklin reports in Investment News, the SSA announced that it would stop mailing paper statements to Social Security beneficiaries under 60 “due to serious budget constraints.” Beneficiaries over 60 who do not have an online “My Social Security” account will continue to receive paper statements (for the time being, anyway).

This is the latest in a slew of customer service reductions forced by draconian cuts to the agency’s budget in Congress.  The SSA goes on to say:

“In addition, we have enacted a hiring freeze and dramatically reduced overtime hours that help us process work after assisting customers in our offices and on the phone.”

Anyone who has tried to phone the SSA knows exactly what that means:  more wasted time waiting to talk to a customer service representative, if you reach one at all. In 2016, the average hold time for callers to the SSA’s 800 number was 15 minutes.  Ten percent of all callers got a busy signal. These stats will likely get worse this year.

Ironically, this week’s SSA announcement ends with the cheery affirmation, “Thank you for helping Social Security continue securing today and tomorrow as we rise to this challenge.”  Kudos to the SSA for putting a brave face on an extremely vexing situation.  

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported last June, the SSA has been struggling to provide proper customer service ever since Congress passed the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which included appropriations caps – further reduced by sequestration.  In fact, the SSA’s core operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010 (after adjusting for inflation), even as the demands on SSA have reached “all-time highs as the baby boomers have aged into their peak years for retirement and disability.”

These cuts resulted in an SSA hiring freeze, the closure of more than 60 field offices across the country, and lengthy delays in processing Disability Insurance (DI) applications appeals. (Some 1 million applicants are awaiting much-delayed hearings.)  Advocates of budget cuts may claim that beneficiaries can access services online, but the truth is that many seniors can’t get online – or are vastly more comfortable talking to a human being.

To some in Congress, the SSA budget may simply represent figures on a spreadsheet.  But the cuts imposed some 6 years ago continue to harm real people – the 59 million beneficiaries of Social Security who are being denied timely service.  Congress squeezes SSA’s budget even though the agency is funded by Social Security revenue (mostly from workers’ payroll contributions) and not from the general treasury.  Why then, does Congress insist on bleeding what is already one of the most efficient federal agencies?  One explanation is that those on Capitol Hill who are bent on cutting benefits and privatizing Social Security know that forcing customer service cutbacks feeds public frustration, undermining public support for the program in general.

The only responsible solution is to restore much-needed funding for the Social Security Administration – to undo the damage that began in 2011.  The SSA’s administrative budget for FY 2016 was $12.162 billion.  We support President Obama’s FY 2017 budget request of $13.067 billion, a badly needed 7% increase.  At this level of funding, the SSA could begin to restore the customer services it has been forced to cut.  After years of endless hold music, busy signals, shuttered field offices, and unreasonable wait times for hearings, we at the National Committee could finally stop filling this space with bad news for SSA’s customers.  

“In addition, we have enacted a hiring freeze and dramatically reduced overtime hours that help us process work after assisting customers in our offices and on the phone.”

Anyone who has tried to phone the SSA knows exactly what that means:  more wasted time waiting to talk to a customer service representative, if you reach one at all. In 2016, the average hold time for callers to the SSA’s 800 number was 15 minutes.  Ten percent of all callers got a busy signal. These stats will likely get worse this year.

Ironically, this week’s SSA announcement ends with the cheery affirmation, “Thank you for helping Social Security continue securing today and tomorrow as we rise to this challenge.”  Kudos to the SSA for putting a brave face on an extremely vexing situation.  

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported last June, the SSA has been struggling to provide proper customer service ever since Congress passed the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which included appropriations caps – further reduced by sequestration.  In fact, the SSA’s core operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010 (after adjusting for inflation), even as the demands on SSA have reached “all-time highs as the baby boomers have aged into their peak years for retirement and disability.”

These cuts resulted in an SSA hiring freeze, the closure of more than 60 field offices across the country, and lengthy delays in processing Disability Insurance (DI) applications appeals. (Some 1 million applicants are awaiting much-delayed hearings.)  Advocates of budget cuts may claim that beneficiaries can access services online, but the truth is that many seniors can’t get online – or are vastly more comfortable talking to a human being.

To some in Congress, the SSA budget may simply represent figures on a spreadsheet.  But the cuts imposed some 6 years ago continue to harm real people – the 59 million beneficiaries of Social Security who are being denied timely service.  Congress squeezes SSA’s budget even though the agency is funded by Social Security revenue (mostly from workers’ payroll contributions) and not from the general treasury.  Why then, does Congress insist on bleeding what is already one of the most efficient federal agencies?  One explanation is that those on Capitol Hill who are bent on cutting benefits and privatizing Social Security know that forcing customer service cutbacks feeds public frustration, undermining public support for the program in general.

The only responsible solution is to restore much-needed funding for the Social Security Administration – to undo the damage that began in 2011.  The SSA’s administrative budget for FY 2016 was $12.162 billion.  We support President Obama’s FY 2017 budget request of $13.067 billion, a badly needed 7% increase.  At this level of funding, the SSA could begin to restore the customer services it has been forced to cut.  After years of endless hold music, busy signals, shuttered field offices, and unreasonable wait times for hearings, we at the National Committee could finally stop filling this space with bad news for SSA’s customers.  

A Dangerous New Year for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

At a family gathering over the holidays in Florida, the conversation inevitably turned to politics.  Some of the seniors at the table who voted for Trump expressed their certainty that no one in Washington will really touch their earned benefits.  “Trump’s not going to let the Congress cut Social Security,” said a Great Aunt in her 70s.  “Paul Ryan’s not really going to mess with Medicare,” insisted her husband. Of course, these beloved family members could not be more wrong.

Their complacency (or, in this case, complicity) sets up a dangerous opportunity for the GOP-controlled 115th Congress, which was just sworn in yesterday.  Claiming a mandate that most certainly does not exist, Congressional Republicans are rolling out proposals that will destroy Social Security and Medicare as we know them, not to mention deep cuts to Medicaid and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  These actions will hurt not only the seniors at the holiday table, but their children and grandchildren, too.  As we have been warning for years, all Americans have a lot to lose if these programs are compromised by capricious politicians.

President-Elect Trump shows no signs of honoring his campaign pledge not to touch Social and Medicare.  He has been strangely silent about Congressional proposals that will wreck these two programs, and his appointments to crucial administration positions speak volumes – most notably Rep. Tom Price (a notorious privatization proponent) as Health and Human Services Secretary and Rep. Rick Mulvaney (a fiscal hardliner) as director of the Office of Management and Budget --- a likely ally for Congressional Republicans looking to cut entitlements.

A quick survey of GOP proposals shows just how much current and future beneficiaries of these crucial income security programs have to lose.  House Social Security Subcommittee Chair Sam Johnson (R-TX) has introduced a so-called Social Security “reform” bill that will result in benefit cuts, raise the retirement age to 69, and reduce Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) that seniors on fixed incomes rely on.  House Speaker Paul Ryan, who Tuesday gaveled the 115th Congress into session, has long promised to privatize Medicare, turning it into a voucher (or “Coupon Care”) program that would leave future beneficiaries to fend for themselves in the private insurance market while traditional Medicare slowly dies.  This will mean skyrocketing premiums and reduced coverage for seniors thrust into the private insurance market.

The 115th Congress just took the first procedural steps to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which not only jeopardizes health care coverage for 30 million Americans, but puts real improvements to Medicare at great risk.  If the Affordable Care Act is recklessly repealed, seniors will lose free preventative screenings under Medicare.  The Part D prescription drug “donut hole” will open up again, costing more than 11 million Medicare beneficiaries $2,100 per person on prescriptions.  Worse yet, Medicare beneficiaries will face higher premiums and deductibles to make up for the roughly $800 billion in cost savings that the ACA provided over 10 years.  Insurers will once again be able to overcharge or deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

Combine this with GOP plans to block-grant Medicaid, which millions of seniors depend on for nursing home care and long term care services, and Americans are confronting a full-fledged assault on their earned benefits and income security.  As the 115th Congress convened yesterday, Democrats promised vigilance.  Incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer declared from the Senate floor, “We demand that (Trump) keep his promise not to cut Social Security and Medicare… We will hold the President-elect accountable.”  On GOP efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, Schumer warned, “It is not acceptable to repeal the law, throw our health care system into chaos” and leave the solution for another day.  Senator Bernie Sanders has called for a national Day of Action on January 15th “to oppose any cuts to health-care plans or subsidies,” including rallies in Congressional districts across the country.

We stand with our allies on Capitol Hill, our fellow advocacy groups, and our millions of members to protect Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act.  We see the danger quite clearly… and hope that the seniors and their families who sat around holiday tables the past two weeks will, too.

 

 




   

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