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From the category archives: healthcare

Massachusetts Congressman is an Unassuming, Unrelenting Champion of Social Security

This morning National Committee President Max Richtman interviewed a real fighter for Social Security and Medicare on Facebook Live from Capitol Hill – Congressman Richard Neal (D-MA-1). 

The Congressman, who the Boston Globe called “an unassuming everyday guy from Western Massachusetts,” has a unique vantage point on seniors’ issues.  He is the ranking member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees (among other things) Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and taxes.  He assumed the post just before President Trump arrived in Washington, and has become a key point person against a Republican assault on these programs.

Neal is a true believer in Social Security, partly because he grew up with it.  He and his sisters were raised by an aunt in Springfield, MA after their parents died, and relied on Social Security survivors’ benefits to make ends meet and remain under one roof.  “Social Security allowed us to live as a family, and I’ve never forgotten that,” Neal told Max Richtman.

The Congressman is determined that Social Security be preserved for future generations – without benefit cuts – as a singular form of retirement insurance.  “You can outlive an annuity.  You cannot outlive Social Security,” he said on Facebook Live.  “That’s the guarantee.  That’s the genius of Mr. Roosevelt’s program.”  (Social Security was signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, father of National Committee founder James Roosevelt, Sr.)

Social Security, Neal says, gives American families a modicum of financial predictability for their senior years.  He told the Globe that Social Security “is the reason Mom and Dad aren’t living in your attic.”

Neal is co-sponsoring Connecticut Rep. John Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act – one of the Democrats’ resounding replies to Republican schemes to shrink the program.  Larson’s bill keeps Social Security solvent for decades without cutting benefits.  In fact, The Social Security 2100 Act modestly increases benefits.  Rep. Neal admits that the bill probably won’t go very far while Republicans control Congress.  But he says the legislation “invites fresh thinking about how to encourage growth in Social Security.”

Meanwhile, the Congressman vehemently opposes a bill from House Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) that would do the opposite of Larson’s – reducing cost-of-living adjustments, raising the retirement age to 69 and cutting the benefit-computation formula. All of this, Neal says, would amount to a 30% cut in benefits for middle-class retirees.

Neal shoots down conservative arguments that Americans’ increasing longevity justifies raising the retirement age.  Without Social Security, nearly half of our nation’s seniors would live in poverty – all the more reason, Neal says, not to pull the rug from under retirees by delaying eligibility for benefits.  “We applaud each other regularly for increases in life expectancy in America,” says Neal.  “But all that means is that we have to reinforce the guarantees that Social Security provides.”

Mr. President, Stop Saying Obamacare Is Imploding (Because It's Not)

updated 7/10/17

During a CNN focus group of Trump voters last week, one educated, white collar professional said that the Republican congress had to repeal and replace Obamacare because it is “imploding.”  That Trump supporter directly mimicked Trump’s own comments about Obamacare – comments which are patently misleading.  This proves once again the effectiveness of demagogic language (“Obamacare is a disaster!”) shamelessly applied to important policy questions that impact almost every American.

Obamacare is most definitely not imploding, but Trump and the GOP in Congress have convinced an awful lot of people that it is – simply by repeating the same falsehoods on a regular basis. Why does this matter?  It matters because the Senate may vote on its Obamacare repeal and replacement plan within the next couple of weeks.

The GOP’s Better Care Reconciliation Act would deprive 22 million Americans of health coverage over the next ten years and gut Medicaid, hitting the old and the sick unusually hard. As long as Republicans continue to justify repeal with false claims that Obamacare is in a “death spiral,” advocates for the most vulnerable members of our society must continue to call them out.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post this week found it necessary to debunk misleading Republican claims about Obamacare and the Senate bill to replace it.  The Times entitled its piece, “Five Misleading Republican Claims About Health Care,” while the Post went with “Decoding the White House spin on Obamacare ‘failures.’”  The papers’ fact-checkers had plenty of material to work with. 

These and other analyses are crucial to understanding what’s really happening with Obamacare and the GOP repeal and replace legislation:

1) Obamacare is not “imploding” or in a “death spiral.”  Despite recent instability mostly induced by the Trump administration and Congress itself, Obamacare is hardly imploding.  A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that Obamacare markets are, in fact, "stabilizing" and "regaining profitability."  The CBO forecasts that the Obamacare system will remain stable for the foreseeable future - if it is not further undermined. 

2) Premiums for Obamacare policies are not generally rising 200-300%.  Though a few states have unfortunately seen triple digit premium hikes, the National Conference of State Legislatures found that average premium increases nationwide were 25% this year.  Because some 84% of enrollees’ premiums are covered by Obamacare subsidies, few feel the effects of the increases.  Their net costs may even decrease.  

As the Post’s fact-checkers point out, “Average insurance premiums in the Obamacare marketplace now are about at the level predicted by the Congressional Budget Office for 2017 when it first evaluated the law in 2009.”  In other words, some premium hikes were predictable as the new marketplaces found their footing – and not likely to be repeated every year.

3) Insurers are not abandoning state insurance exchanges in droves.  The Post reports that an average of five insurers participated in each state’s marketplace in 2014, ranging from one to 16 companies per state. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average number of insurers in 2017 is 4.3, ranging from one to 15 companies per state.  Not a huge decline.  Still, “slightly more than 2 million people, mostly in rural areas, don’t have competitive plans to choose from and are seeing premium increases,” writes the Post’s Dana Milbank.  But again, many of those premium hikes are offset by Obamacare subsidies.

4) The Trump administration and Congress could have done a lot more to stabilize Obamacare; instead they undermined it.  Here’s how:  

*The administration balked at paying cost-sharing subsidies that would have relieved financial pressure on reluctant insurers.

*President Trump signed an executive order soon after taking office instructing federal agencies not to enforce the Obamacare mandate that all Americans have health insurance, discouraging participation in the exchanges.

*The administration ended public outreach efforts to encourage Americans to sign up for health care.

*In fact, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress asked Republicans to work with them to strengthen Obamacare during the    first six years after the law was passed, only to have the GOP Congress vote to repeal it some 60 times.   

5) The President and his allies in Congress have spooked the insurance markets.  They have sown tremendous uncertainty about Obamacare’s future with their attempts to repeal the law and harsh rhetoric, spooking insurance companies and potential customers.  The former chief marketing officer for HealthCare.gov estimated that Trump’s rhetoric alone has deterred nearly 500,000 people from signing up this year.

Furthermore, the Post reports that figures the White House uses to smear Obamacare are often based on comparisons of the insurance markets from before the law took effect and today.  Such apples-to-oranges comparisons are misleading and not useful.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have employed similar demagoguery to promote their own repeal and replace legislation.  The Times found several GOP claims about the Senate healthcare bill to be factually dubious, including assertions that the legislation does not “pull the rug from anyone currently covered by Obamacare” – and that the bill “reduces taxes on the middle class” when, in fact, the top 1% of earners reap most of the benefits.  The cruel truth is that some 22 million Americans would lose health coverage under the GOP bill over the next ten years, including 15 million Medicaid beneficiaries – many of whom are needy seniors who rely on the program to pay for long-term care.  We must not allow the clever manipulation of language by those who would destroy Obamacare to hurt so many millions. 

Of Course People Will Die if Senate Health Bill Becomes Law

Two days in a row now we have seen CNN anchor Kate Bolduan react with incredulity when a Democratic member of Congress points out the obvious:  that people will die if the Senate healthcare bill becomes law.  “We’ll have to ask a Republican about that!” Bolduan breathlessly replied to one Democrat. What she – along with advocates of the bill – fails to understand or prefers to ignore is that you cannot snatch healthcare away from 22 million people without incurring casualties.  Of course people will die as a result. 

Speaking against the GOP healthcare bill last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called its cuts to healthcare for older and lower-income Americans “blood money.”  She went on to say:

“Let’s be very clear.  Senate Republicans are paying for tax cuts for the wealthy with American lives.  People will die.” – Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 6/22/17

Republicans propose to pay for those tax cuts by gutting the Medicaid program – 40% of which pays for services to the elderly like nursing home care.  Some one million seniors nationwide could lose the ability to pay for the long term care they need to survive.  States facing $770 billion in federal Medicaid cuts will have no choice but to offer skimpier coverage or kick seniors off the Medicaid rolls altogether.

By law, state Medicaid programs have to cover nursing homes. If those states receive less funding from the federal government, it could increase the pressure on the operations of nursing homes, in turn possibly limiting who can qualify for care. – Yahoo Finance, 6/26/17 

We are talking about people with Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, neurological disorders, and other chronic diseases.  Few seniors (or their families) can afford to pay the average cost of nursing home care (running some $80,000 a year) without government assistance. Many of these seniors were formerly in the middle class, but had to impoverish themselves to qualify for Medicaid.  If they are forced to go without skilled long term care (whether in a nursing home, in the community, or at home), the real question is not whether some of them will die, but how will they survive? 

The bill’s age rating provisions could also prove deadly for older Americans.  The Senate legislation – like the House’s – allows insurers to charge near seniors (aged 50-64) up to five times as much as younger adults, which will price many out of the market.  The rate of uninsured Americans who earn up to 200% of the federal poverty line will double if this bill becomes law.  Chronic health conditions tend to develop and intensify during this period of life.   If millions of near seniors can’t afford health insurance, they will go without the care they need – which could lead to premature death.  You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure that one out.

Taking away the guarantee of essential benefits coverage – which the Senate bill also threatens to do – means Americans (especially the poor and elderly) will no longer benefit from timely treatment of festering health problems.  One of those is heart disease. According to Kaiser Health News, the leading killer of men and women in the U.S. has been decreasing since Obamacare went into effect. 

“The Journal of the American Heart Association found that the rate of sudden cardiac arrest outside of a hospital dropped by 17% among people aged 45-64 after the Affordable Care Act expanded insurance coverage.” – Kaiser Health News, 6/28/17

It stands to reason that repealing the Affordable Care Act could lead to an increase in heart attacks, which could also mean an increase in fatalities. 

This is why the pleas for bipartisanship from Republicans and some of the media ring especially hollow.  We have heard pundits describe the disagreements between Republicans and Democrats on healthcare as “semantics”:  is the Senate bill a true “repeal” of Obamacare or not?  Why, oh why, can’t both sides just get along? Of course, that misses the point.  Not only does the bill roll back important protections for all Americans, it is a Trojan Horse for gutting Medicaid and giving the wealthy a $700 billion tax cut.  Congressional Democrats refuse to enable the GOP to make these drastic changes.  Seniors and their advocates must keep that issue at the forefront – and work to defeat the Senate bill while there is still time. This is not semantics. It is literally life and death. 

Senate GOP's "Mean" Healthcare Bill Must be Defeated

Getting a look at the Senate Republican healthcare bill after weeks of secrecy is like peeking under a rock.  There’s a lot under there that you don’t really want to see – and would like to believe doesn’t really exist.  Unfortunately, the Senate version of the American Health Care Act is very real – and dangerously close to becoming law.

Prognosticators who said the House-passed bill would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate, or who predicted that the Senate would be a moderating influence on the legislation, were dead wrong.  Instead, Senate Republicans have clearly chosen to put political expediency above the health of our most vulnerable citizens.

In some ways, the Senate bill is slightly less onerous than the House version; in other ways it’s worse – especially for the old, the sick, and the poor.  In a press statement today, National Committee President Max Richtman calls the bill “unconscionably cruel.”

This is a lose-lose for seniors and the American people.  The biggest loss is that the AHCA ends the Medicaid program as we know it.  Astoundingly, the Senate bill makes even deeper cuts to Medicaid than the House did.  This is devastating news for today’s and tomorrow’s seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s, cancer, the after-effects of stroke and other serious conditions who depend on Medicaid to pay for long-term care.  Millions will lose Medicaid coverage over the next ten years.” - Max Richtman, President and CEO of NCPSSM

 

The Washington Post clearly explains why the Senate bill hurts Medicaid beneficiaries even more than the House version:

Medicaid would be funded by giving states a per capita amount or block grant, beginning in 2021. The amount would grow more slowly than in the House bill, meaning bigger spending cuts overall. - Washington Post, 6/22/17  

This is why the Senate healthcare bill is so hazardous for older Americans in several other ways:

*It still permits insurance companies to charge older Americans five times more than young adults. 

*The tax credits that replace Obamacare subsidies are still too meager to make up for net increases in older Americans’ premiums. 

*Though it forbids insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, the waivers of essential benefits mean older patients with chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, or heart disease could see their premiums skyrocket. 

 *Like the House bill, the Senate legislation weakens Medicare by reducing the solvency of the Part A Trust Fund.

Only the young, healthy and wealthy will truly benefit from this bill, whose true purpose is not to facilitate health coverage, but to give a multi-billion dollar tax break to the rich and the pharmaceutical companies. Our family members and friends who cannot afford exorbitant premiums and out-of-pocket costs will suffer.  Some will doubtless go without healthcare altogether.  Their health will deteriorate, and when they arrive at the doorstep of Medicare, they may be in worse condition – which can increase the financial burden on Medicare, too. 

Make no mistake, if the bill passes the Senate and the House, President Trump will sign it into law. The National Committee has identified 11 GOP Senators who could be persuaded to stop the AHCA with sufficient public pressure.  As few as three Republican dissenters could kill this bill. Americans of conscience must demand that their Senators put people before party and defeat this heartless legislation before it’s too late.

 

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For the latest on Trumpcare and its devastating implications for seniors, watch “Behind the Headlines” on Facebook Live from Capitol Hill.

 

Tom Price's "Alternate Reality"

In the Orwellian world that Trump’s Washington has become, we are used to hearing language abused and misused to forward a right-wing agenda.  This week was no different.  As Kaiser Health News reported, HHS Secretary Tom Price was on Capitol Hill Thursday reciting a blatantly false Tea Party mantra:  government programs for our society’s most vulnerable members deserve to be cut because they “don’t work.”  This falsehood flies in the face of evidence - of history, really.  But in an attempt to dismantle the New Deal and Great Society programs that boost up the neediest – which includes millions of older Americans – the administration will literally say anything even if the opposite is true.

Price appeared before two congressional committees yesterday to defend President Trump’s 2018 budget, which calls for drastic cuts to programs benefitting seniors - including Medicaid, Meals on Wheels, and medical research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  His testimony included the following whopper:

“The problem with many of our federal programs is not that they are too expensive or too underfunded. The real problem is that they do not work—they fail the very people they are meant to help.”  HHS Secretary Tom Price before the Senate Finance Committee, 6/8/17

In spreading these myths, Price is singing from the same hymnal as other administration officials, most notably Budget Director Mick Mulvaney who defended funding cuts for Meals on Wheels thusly:

“Meals on Wheels sounds great… [but] we're not going to spend [money] on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises that we’ve made to people.” – OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, 3/15/17

With an extra-Orwellian touch, Mulvaney added that draconian cuts in safety net programs are “one of the most compassionate things we can do.”

All of this begs the question:  by what imaginary standard do these programs “not work” or “fail the people they are meant to help?”   How does Medicaid – which allows millions of needy seniors to afford long-term care at home or in skilled nursing care facilities – not work?  Or Meals on Wheels, which provides hot, nutritious meals for 2 million hungry and isolated seniors – not work?  These are programs that undeniably do work.

National Committee President Max Richtman takes Secretary Price to task for telling untruths about these vital federal programs:  

“As a former member of Congress and a physician, Secretary Price should know better.  By maligning programs that have been a lifeline for millions of Americans for decades, Secretary Price is denying history and facts.  He is attempting to create an alternative reality that is patently false and misleading.”  - Max Richtman, NCPSSM President & CEO

Price also resorted to the spurious claim that rising costs in programs like Medicaid demand cuts.  He insisted that cutting $610 billion from Medicaid would lead to “innovations and efficiencies.”  No, cutting billions from Medicaid will result in a shortfall for states facing rising costs, forcing them to cut benefits or kick people off the rolls altogether. 

The truth is that these federal safety net programs are incredibly efficient already. Medicaid’s per capita costs are significantly lower than private insurers’.  Meals on Wheels can feed a senior for an entire year at the same cost as a single day in the hospital.  And those are only two of the safety net programs which fall under the Trump budget axe.

Democrats on the Hill pushed back against Price’s pronouncements and Trump’s budget cuts, too:

It’s mean-spirited. It’s not good for America. We can do much better." - Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)

If Republican budget hawks like Price truly cared about seniors, children, the disabled, and other vulnerable segments of society, they would not be slashing safety net programs.  But they cannot pay for trillions in tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations without cutting domestic spending, so programs that benefit our neediest citizens go on the chopping block.  The rationale that the Trump budget cutters are simply seeking “efficiencies” is a thin veil for denying needy seniors long term care or hot meals. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, father of the New Deal and grandfather of the Great Society (which today’s GOP is fighting to undo) put it best when he said:

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little."  - President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Unlike Trump’s budget hawks, FDR understood the importance of authentic language that shines a light on fundamental truths.  He would never confuse “compassion” for cruelty, “helping people” for hurting them, or success for failure.  Neither should we.

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