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From the category archives: Medicare

Rep. Brat at His Worst: Spreading Myths about Social Security and Medicare

In a contentious interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan this week, Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) perpetuated some dangerous myths about Social Security and Medicare.  Brat, a Tea Partier and fiscal bomb thrower, has been campaigning to cut seniors’ earned benefits since first running for Congress in 2014.

The CNN interview heated up when Bolduan pressed Brat about the recently-passed deal to suspend the debt ceiling and keep the government open, which he opposed.  It’s worth quoting Brat’s answer at length here, because it is only borderline comprehensible and riddled with inaccuracies:

“I was just at my convocations back home with the kids. The kindergarteners are in the class of 2030, they just told me. They will graduate college in 2034. So if you do know the context, the context is that is the year Medicare and Social Security are insolvent. I don’t think people do know the context.  Otherwise there’d be more urgency and they wouldn’t put up with the nonsense we’re doing up here on the fiscal front. Right? If the press would weigh in on what the damage -- it’s a guaranteed fiscal crisis in 2034. Guaranteed.  In law, I’m on the budget committee, we can’t touch it.  Right--You got to pass in law.  So that’s – that’s the context and so with that; if you ask the average voter how you should vote on a clean debt ceiling increase with no fiscal discipline whatsoever, it’s the whole country 90%.”

Where to begin dissecting this statement?  The relevance of kindergarteners graduating college in 2034 notwithstanding, Social Security and Medicare will not be insolvent that year.  If Congress takes no corrective action whatsoever, the Medicare Part A Trust Fund and the Social Security Trust Funds will be depleted in 2029 and 2034, respectively.  But that does not mean the programs will be insolvent.  Revenue from workers’ payroll taxes still will be flowing in, allowing Medicare to pay 88% of full benefits and Social Security 77% --- with no further action from Washington.  In fact, the 2017 Social Security Trustees Report says there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year --- and that it will continue to grow with payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund's assets.)  

Does this mean we sit by and do nothing?  Of course not.  But Rep. Brat’s prescriptions are as draconian as his statements are inaccurate.  The Congressman has championed cutting Social Security and Medicare and raising eligibility ages as the only solution.  When running for office in 2014, he told a Tea Party crowd:

“It’s not just little marginal changes, right?  In order to avoid those insolvency issues with Medicare and Social Security, you’re going to have to do some major cuts."

According to PolitiFact, Brat went on to say that people will ‘have to work longer before receiving benefits’ – meaning raising the retirement age.  This favorite proposal of fiscal hardliners is actually a benefit cut.  And it is based on the misconception that just because average life expectancy is rising, everyone can work well past 65 – even though working class Americans (especially those doing physical labor on the job) may not be physically able to continue working into their late 60s like their wealthier counterparts.

Hardliners don’t like to talk about this, but there are other ways to keep our earned benefits fiscally sound without punishing the people who depend on them. The National Committee supports legislation by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT), and others in Congress to keep Social Security solvent without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age – mainly by lifting the payroll tax income cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share.  In fact, the Sanders and Larson bills actually boost benefits and cost-of-living increases while ensuring the fiscal health of Social Security well past those kindergartners’ 2034 graduation date. That way, those kids can count on their benefits when they retire around 2077.

But some members of Congress – and Rep. Brat in particular - ignore or dismiss these modest and manageable solutions, proposing instead that seniors shoulder the burden through benefit cuts and a higher retirement age.

Now we come to the second myth that Brat likes to propagate:  that Social Security and Medicare are major drivers of the federal budget deficit.  At that same 2014 Tea Party campaign event, Brat justified Social Security and Medicare cuts by saying:

“We’re going to have to take some bad medicine… to just balance the budget. If you don’t solve it, then in 11 years nearly all federal revenue will go only to [Social Security and Medicare].”

The fact is that Social Security has no net effect on the federal budget and contributes not one penny to the deficit. It is self-financed through workers’ payroll taxes.  Ditto for Medicare Part A.  Suggesting that these programs must be cut to balance the budget is disingenuous at best, but that doesn’t stop fiscal hardliners and the mainstream media from spreading the myth.  

Notice how Brat conflates the debt crisis with Social Security and Medicare at the end of his CNN rant.  Unfortunately, this claim is made far too often, but is hardly ever challenged by on-air journalists, this time being no exception (though, in truth, Bolduan was struggling just to control the interview).

Why do the on-air rantings of Congressman Brat matter? His arch-conservative philosophy wouldn’t be so dangerous if he were truly on the margins of political debate. But for the first time in more than a decade, fiscal hawks have the power to impose their hardline views on America’s most vulnerable citizens. Brat is a member of the House Budget Committee, which has already voted to privatize Medicare and raise the eligibility age.  That’s a powerful perch for spreading myths about Social Security and Medicare in order to justify cuts that are just plain cruel. 

Coming soon to a pharmacy or grocery store near you: Hi-Quality Over the Counter Hearing Aids

Seniors suffering from hearing loss have good reason to cheer. They should soon be able to purchase quality hearing aids over the counter. The Over the Counter (OTC) Hearing Aid Act of 2017 is poised to become law.  Passed by Congress this summer, the Act authorizes the FDA to create a new category of regulated, over the counter hearing aids.  With 30 million Americans (and 4 in 5 seniors) experiencing hearing loss, this is sweet relief for seniors’ pocketbooks and overall health.

Prescription hearing aids can cost as much as $2,500 each (or $5,000 a pair).  The hefty price tag can be a severe strain for seniors living on fixed incomes, especially since Medicare does not cover hearing aids. That’s why some 70% of Americans between age 65 and 84 with hearing loss are not using hearing aids.  They simply cannot afford to. 

The anticipated new generation of OTC hearing aids – meant for people with “mild to moderate” hearing loss – will retail for a fraction of the prescription price:

“By opening the market to OTC aids, manufacturers of consumer electronics --- from giants such as Apple and Samsung to small startups --- could enter the hearing aid space and sell directly to consumers… [at a retail price] between $150 and 299.” - The Hill Newspaper

Imagine being able to buy high-quality hearing aids at your local pharmacy or grocery store for as little as $150, bypassing the time-consuming and expensive process of acquiring them from an audiologist.  Of course, those with more serious hearing impairment will and should continue to seek prescription hearing aids through a specialist.

As we discussed yesterday on Facebook Live, this is not just a matter of personal cost.  It’s a public health issue. Hearing loss is a gateway to other potential medical problems – including fatigue, stress, depression and memory loss.  Access to affordable, high-quality OTC hearing aids means that millions of seniors will likely be able to hear better and stay healthier.

National Committee President Max Richtman hailed the new law as a victory for seniors and all Americans with hearing impairment:

“As someone who suffers from hearing loss, I understand what this new law means for seniors’ health – and their pocketbooks.  While we hope that Medicare will eventually cover hearing aids, the OTC Hearing Aid Act is a common sense, compassionate measure that will improve seniors’ access to quality devices.” – Max Richtman, President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare

The new law is the product of the kind of bipartisanship that most Americans yearn for.  It was cosponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA). The House bill was cosponsored by Democratic representative Joe Kennedy III and Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn. The Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 proves that, under the right circumstances, sensible members of both parties can come together to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

Medicare Turns 52: A Time for Cake, Candles, and Continued Vigilance

Medicare turns 52 years old this weekend.  It’s an occasion for both celebration and vigilance.  Surely the anniversary of a federal program that has provided quality healthcare for millions of seniors since 1965 is a happy moment.  But the fact that this highly successful, highly efficient program is under threat from the right after more than half a century of proven results tempers the celebration – and reminds us all that programs we all rely upon can be snatched away if we don’t protect them.

President Harry Truman first proposed a national healthcare system, but it took a Democratic supermajority in Congress and the relentless advocacy of President Lyndon Johnson to make Medicare a reality in 1965. (Fittingly, Harry Truman received the first-ever Medicare card.)  

If it were up to some Republicans, there would be no Medicare in the first place. In 1964. then-Senate candidate George H.W. Bush described Medicare as “socialized medicine.”  Republican Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater likened Medicare to giving seniors “vacation resorts” for free.  Former Senator Bob Dole bragged that he was there in 1965 “fighting the fight, voting against Medicare.”  And then there was this whopper from future President Ronald Reagan in 1961: 

“If you don’t [stop Medicare], one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” – Ronald Reagan (1961)  

Fast forward to the 1990’s, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich endorsed privatization, with the intended result that traditional Medicare would “wither on the vine.” Destroying traditional Medicare has been a long-held dream of the right for five decades now.  Unfortunately, with Republicans controlling all three branches of government, this is their best opportunity to make that nightmare a reality. 

As we commemorate Medicare’s anniversary, budget hawks in Congress are actively scheming to privatize the program through the budget process.  The House Budget Committee’s spending plan turns Medicare into a voucher system and cuts some $500 billion from the program. The budget resolution also raises the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, a huge benefit cut itself. It’s another step toward a long-held goal of the right to destroy Medicare as an earned benefit. And it truly is an earned benefit. Americans pay into Medicare during their working lives, knowing they can depend on it for healthcare in their senior years. 

Medicare covers some 58 million American seniors and people with disabilities.  Almost every American will need Medicare in their older years. Many literally could not live without it, which is why efforts to turn it into a voucher system and raise the eligibility age are particularly cruel. Listening to the stories of members of our online community, we are reminded that Medicare has a very human face. 

Pam Ruigh (Newport, VT):  I love Medicare. It has made it possible for me to see again. I had cataracts on both eyes removed, Without these surgeries, I was slowly going blind. - Pam Ruigh, Newport, VT
In 2014, I had aortic valve replacement surgery. That's a $170,000 operation. All I had was Medicare. I could never have had the procedure without it. - Ron Moore, Utica, NY
Without Medicare and my supplemental insurance, I'd be dead or dying right now. I have multiple but manageable health issues. If this is taken away, I'm a dead woman walking. - Kate Reed
My late wife passed away from complications of Parkinson's Disease. After her last hospital stay, I received a copy of her bill, showing what we would have been responsible for had we not been under Medicare. It amounted to over $200,000.00. I only had to pay $700.00 out of pocket. - George Betram Lane (Jacksonville, FL) 

There are millions of stories just like these, and we know that Medicare beneficiaries around the country share our enthusiasm that Medicare has reached another anniversary. 

Yesterday, our president, Max Richtman, and a group of senior volunteers from our Capital Action Team participated in an anniversary celebration on Capitol Hill yesterday with several sister organizations and members of Congress.  

There was “Medicare birthday” cake for all, and impassioned remarks from the podium.  The main message was:  we need to protect and expand – not slash and burn – Medicare. 

Representative Lois Frankl (D-FL) reminded the crowd of seniors and advocates that we will fight to keep traditional Medicare intact and thriving. “This is Medicare’s 52nd anniversary,” she began. “And next year, there will be another.  And another.  And another.  I promise you that.”

House GOP Recklessly Pursues Privatization of Medicare in Budget Process

Congress is targeting the health and financial well-being of America’s seniors by making yet another attempt to privatize Medicare.   Yesterday the House Budget Committee passed the GOP’s FY 2018 budget resolution, which includes Speaker Paul Ryan’s “Medicare premium support” scheme – an innocuous name for turning time-tested senior health care coverage into “Coupon-Care.”  

The House budget blueprint slashes nearly $500 billion from Medicare over ten years and raises the eligibility age from 65 to 67 – along with gutting Medicaid and other social safety net programs for needy seniors.  

The Associated Press had a pithy summary of the painful cuts that the GOP proposes in its new budget:

“The plan, in theory at least, promises to balance the budget through unprecedented and unworkable cuts across the budget. It calls for turning this year's projected $700 billion or so deficit into a tiny $9 billion surplus by 2027. It would do so by slashing $5.4 trillion over the coming decade, including almost $500 billion from Medicare, $1.5 trillion from Medicaid and the Obama health law, along with enormous cuts to benefits such as federal employee pensions, food stamps, and tax credits for the working poor.” – Associated Press, 7/18/17

 National Committee President Max Richtman says that converting Medicare into a voucher program is an existential threat to the program itself. 

 “Over time, giving seniors vouchers to purchase health insurance would dramatically increase their out of pocket costs since the fixed amount of the voucher is unlikely to keep up with the rising costs of health care. And, as healthier seniors choose less costly private plans, the sicker and poorer seniors would remain in traditional Medicare, leading to untenable costs, diminished coverage, and an eventual demise of traditional Medicare, plain and simple.” – Max Richtman, NCPSSM President

Of course, raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 as the House spending plan also proposes, is in itself a drastic benefit cut.

Undermining Medicare has been a long-held dream of fiscal conservatives. Their “premium support” proposal is a thinly veiled scheme to allow traditional Medicare to “wither on the vine,” as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once put it.

Privatization is being sold as “improving customer choice,” but based on the way current Medicare Advantage plans work, private insurance will continue to offer fewer choices of doctors than traditional Medicare does.  If traditional Medicare is allowed to shrink and collapse, choice will disappear, too.

“Weakening Medicare is a politically perilous path for Republicans.  Recent polling indicates that large majorities of Americans across party lines prefer that Medicare be kept the way it is, not to mention that President Trump repeatedly promised to protect the program during the 2016 campaign.” – Max Richtman, NCPSSM President

Meanwhile, the National Committee strongly condemns other priorities of the House Republican budget resolution, as well.  The GOP budget resolution will mean: 

*Hundreds of billions in painful cuts to Medicaid, which seniors depend on for long-term care services and supports.

*Reaffirmation of a House rule that puts 11 million Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) beneficiaries at risk of a 7% benefit cut in 2028.

*Reductions to SSI (Supplemental Security Insurance), which provides cash assistance to low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

 *Caps on non-defense spending that will likely lead to devastating cuts to Older Americans Act programs and the Social Security Administration (SSA) operating budget.

 *Slashing of programs that benefit our nation’s veterans and deep cuts to spending on medical research (including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions afflicting the elderly).

The savings from these devastating cuts will likely go to tax breaks for the wealthy.  Last year’s House Republican tax plan gave 99.6% of its benefits to the top one-percent of earners, with virtually nothing for middle and low income Americans.

 

 

Social Security and Medicare are Financially Sound, Not “Going Bankrupt,” says Trustees Report

The 2017 OASDI Trustees Report confirms that the Social Security Trust fund is stable and healthy for now, but faces challenges in the future if corrective action is not taken.  The most important figures remain consistent with last year’s report:  The combined OASDI (Old-age, Survivor, and Disability Insurance) trust funds will remain fully solvent until 2034, after which Social Security can pay 77% of benefits if there are no changes to the program. The Trustees report there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year --- and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund's assets.  

This reassuring report will not stop Social Security’s opponents from seeing the glass half-empty and claiming that the program is in dire financial trouble.  Expect to hear more false cries about Social Security (and Medicare) going “bankrupt” in the coming months. 

“Opponents of Social Security may once again try to use this report as an excuse to cut benefits, including raising the retirement age.  We must, instead, look to modest and manageable solutions that will keep Social Security solvent well into the future without punishing seniors and disabled Americans.” - Max Richtman, NCPSSM president and CEO

The National Committee endorses bills introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and others, which keep the Social Security trust fund solvent while boosting benefits and cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).  The bills achieve this mainly by phasing out the payroll tax income cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share into Social Security.

Forty percent of seniors (and 90% of unmarried seniors) rely on Social Security for all or most of their income.  The average monthly retirement benefit of $1,355 is barely enough to meet basic needs, and the Trustees’ latest projected cost-of-living increase of 2.2% will not keep pace with seniors’ true expenses. 

The news media touted the 2.2% bump for 2018 as “the largest in several years.” While it’s true that next year’s COLA is far superior to this year’s 0.3% increase, it is still woefully inadequate.  What the media don’t always explain is that a 2.2% increase translates into an extra $28 per month – hardly a fortune for seniors struggling to meet rising expenses on fixed incomes. A single co-pay for a prescription or a trip in a wheelchair van could easily gobble up $28, if not more.

Currently, Social Security cost of living increases are pegged to the Consumer Price Index for Wage Earners or CPI-W.  This index does not reflect seniors’ true expenses.  Older Americans pay a disproportionate share of their limited incomes for items like housing and medical care compared to younger wage earners.  The National Committee advocates the adoption of the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), which tracks rising costs for the goods and services seniors actually spend their money on.  The leading categories are Housing, Transportation, Food and Medical Care.  As the National Committee’s Webster Phillips told CBS Radio News: 

“The consumer price index for the elderly (CPI-E), which is focused on the spending patterns of seniors, is a better measure of inflation as it affects older people’s consumption patterns.” – Webster Phillips, NCPSSM Senior Policy Analyst, 7/13/17

On Medicare, the Trustees report shows that the Part A Trust Fund will be able to pay full benefits until 2029, and 88% thereafter if nothing is done to bolster the system’s finances.  Depending on what the final version looks like, the Republican healthcare plan could reduce the solvency of Medicare by two years. The National Committee opposes the GOP health plan and rejects efforts to privatize Medicare – which Speaker Ryan and the House Republicans have promised to undertake during the budget resolution process for 2018.

Instead of privatization, the National Committee champions innovation and continuing efficiencies in the delivery of care, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies used to pay the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid) – in order to keep Medicare in sound financial health.

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