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From the category archives: Budget

Paul Ryan's Medicare Privatization Scheme Edging Closer to Reality

Paul Ryan’s dystopian dream of privatizing Medicare may soon come true.  At least he seems to think so.  In an interview with right-wing Wisconsin radio host Vicki McKenna, the House Speaker said that Medicare “reform” is coming to the Capitol this Spring.  “I’m pretty sure the budget committee in the House will pass that on in the House Republican budget,” Ryan said.  In fact, House Budget Committee Chair Diane Black (R-TN) has already promised to include Medicare privatization in the budget resolution next month.  This is scary news for millions of current and future retirees.

To justify his Scrooge-like assault on Medicare, Ryan continues to perpetuate the myth that Medicare is an “entitlement.”  In fact, it is a remarkably efficient social insurance program.  Having paid into it their entire working lives, Americans are counting on having affordable health care coverage to protect them upon retirement.  Why does Paul Ryan want to take that away, effectively reneging on the nation's commitment to current and future retirees? 

In the past, President Obama stood as an impenetrable barrier between Ryan and his privatization scheme.  Though candidate Trump promised “not to touch” Medicare, the President has already broken that pledge by supporting the GOP healthcare plan, which shortens the solvency of the program.   Despite Trump’s campaign promises, his budget director refused to publicly discourage Congress from privatizing Medicare.  In fact, Speaker Ryan said in his radio interview that he and the Trump administration are having “an ongoing conversation” about it. Current and future retirees clearly cannot trust this White House to protect their Medicare benefits, which they have paid for during their entire working lives.

As we discussed on our "Behind the Headlines" Facebook Live broadcast Thursday, here is what Ryan’s insidious “reform” would do:  Instead of receiving guaranteed benefits, all Medicare participants would be given vouchers to help pay premiums for traditional Medicare or private health insurance.   In either case, the vouchers would not be able to keep up with rising health care costs, leaving seniors to cover the difference out of their own pockets.  That’s why we call the voucher program “coupon care.” 

Ryan's plan would likely drive healthier, younger and wealthier seniors toward private insurance. Poorer and sicker seniors would remain in traditional Medicare, driving up costs until the program collapsed under its own weight.  But that’s not all.  Ryan also wants to hike the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.  This in itself is a massive benefit cut, as 65 and 66 year olds would have to buy private insurance on their own dime. Those who couldn’t afford it might go without health insurance entirely. In a recent National Committee poll, 65% of likely voters opposed raising the eligibility age.  Among younger voters, the opposition was even stronger.

As Ryan predicts, Medicare privatization will likely pass the House as part of the Republican budget resolution.  Its future in the Senate is less certain, but too close for comfort.  Senate Republican leaders need only 50 votes to wreck Medicare.  The National Committee is building a “firewall” of moderate GOP Senators who we believe can be convinced to protect Medicare.  With an unpredictable President in the White House, that is the best way – along with vocal grassroots activism – to defend current and future retirees against the destruction of a program that has worked effectively for more than 50 years, and enjoys enduring public support.

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Trump & GOP Should Do More than Pay Lip Service to Older Americans Month

May is Older Americans Month.  It began in 1963 as “Senior Citizens Month” by proclamation of President John F. Kennedy.  His proclamation half a century ago was not only an acknowledgment of seniors’ contributions to society, but an inspiring call to action:


“I urge all persons and public and private organizations to cooperate in its observance by increasing community awareness of the problems faced by older men and women, strengthening services and opportunities to meet their special needs… and making this special month the beginning of continuing interest and activity on their behalf.” – John F. Kennedy, April 18, 1963

 

At the time, approximately 33 percent of seniors in America lived in poverty. Today that figure is down closer to 10 percent, thanks in no small part to federal programs designed to buttress the financial and health security of older Americans, including Medicare and Medicaid – signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.  LBJ also renamed Senior Citizens Month “Older Americans Month” that same year upon passage of the Older Americans Act.  This legislation created new forms of federal assistance for seniors – including Meals on Wheels and home heating assistance.  Every President since has issued proclamations honoring seniors during the month of May.  President Trump is no exception.  Today, the White House released a statement saying:


We… recommit ourselves to ensuring that older Americans are not neglected or abused, receive the best healthcare available, live in suitable homes, have adequate income and economic opportunities, and enjoy freedom and independence in their golden years.” – White House proclamation, 5/8/17


These sentiments sound quite noble.  But the Trump proclamation is an empty missive in light of the administration’s policies. National Committee President Max Richtman called out the President and his party in The Hill newspaper last week:


“May is Older Americans Month, but the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans are putting a serious damper on the celebration.” – Max Richtman, The Hill newspaper.


The Trump administration and its allies on Capitol Hill are engaged in a historic reversal of the promises of 54 years ago. In fact, not since President George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security in 2005 have seniors’ programs been so much under siege.  In a little more than 3 months in office, here is what the President and/or Republicans in Congress have done to undermine the economic and health security of older Americans:

*Passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA), which weakens Medicare, cuts $1 trillion from Medicaid, and makes private health insurance unaffordable for most older Americans.

*Created a budget plan which eliminates federal funding for Older Americans Act programs including Meals on Wheels, community service jobs, and home heating assistance, among others.

*Pledged to turn Medicare into a voucher program during the mark-up of the FY 2018 budget later this month.

*Introduced a House bill to raise the Social Security retirement age to 70 and slow the growth of Cost-of-Living adjustments (COLAs), effectively cutting benefits 30%.

*Repeatedly pushed the concept of “entitlement reform” and questioned the validity of Social Security Disability insurance

Several of these break President Trump’s campaign promises “not to touch” Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  Some in the administration and Congress have attempted to fudge the issue by saying that none of their policies will affect current retirees.  But during this Older Americans Month, it’s wise to remember that all of us will be seniors some day.  Attempts to cleave today’s and tomorrow’s seniors is a cynical ploy that cannot be allowed to undermine time-honored programs that have helped older Americans for decades.  None of the actions of President Trump, his team, and his allies in Congress honor the spirit of Older Americans Month.  Much more fitting are the words of President Obama last night as he accepted an honor named after the President who created Older Americans Month, the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage award.

“… It actually doesn’t take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential — but it does require some courage to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm.” - President Obama, 5/7/17

Seniors citizens are among society’s most vulnerable and infirm members. We must demand that our current elected leaders do much more than pay lip service to the ideals of Older Americans Month.


Ryan's Siren Song of Spring: Cut "Entitlements"

Along with Cherry Blossoms and the White House Easter Egg Roll, Spring has brought fresh talk of “entitlement reform” to the Nation’s Capital.  Of course, Social Security and Medicare are not “entitlements.”  They are earned benefits that Americans pay into during their working lives in exchange for retirement and health benefits during their senior years.  Nevertheless, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other budget hawks prefer to perpetuate the “entitlement” myth.  This week, Ryan said that fiscal responsibility means “reforming our entitlement programs.”  “Reforming” is code for undermining Social Security and privatizing Medicare, two politically unpopular ideas that nonetheless seem to drive Ryan’s agenda.  Never mind that Social Security and Medicare Part A are funded by workers’ payroll contributions and don’t contribute a penny to the deficit.  

Meanwhile, House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-TN) is looking to end traditional Medicare through the budget reconciliation process in May, according to Congressional Quarterly.

“The coming fiscal 2018 plan is likely to include proposals to transform Medicare… into a premium support program.  Under one House GOP model… people would be given a choice of traditional Medicare or insurer-run plans starting in 2024.” – Congressional Quarterly, 4/27/17

 “Premium support” is an innocuous sounding term that could have dire consequences for seniors.  What Diane Black means by “premium support” is converting Medicare into a voucher program.  Seniors would be offered the option of leaving traditional Medicare to buy insurance in the private market using vouchers.  These vouchers could never keep pace with rising premiums, meaning seniors would have to cover the difference or drop health insurance entirely.  Older and sicker seniors would likely remain in conventional Medicare, causing the program’s cost to skyrocket, benefits to be cut, and eventually the death of Medicare itself.

The canard that Ryan and his party use to justify cutting benefits, reducing COLAs, and raising retirement ages is that Social Security and Medicare are going “bankrupt.” While it’s true that the trust funds for Social Security and Medicare Part A won’t be able to pay full benefits after 2034 and 2028 respectively without corrective action, there are modest and manageable solutions that won’t hurt the seniors who depend on them.  Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman John Larson (D-CT) have both offered common sense legislation to keep Social Security solvent for decades.  Both bills ask the wealthy to pay their fair share by scrapping the income cap on payroll taxes.  Larson’s legislation also increases the FICA tax by 1% over 25 years.  (Larson says that for a worker earning $50,000 a year, the payroll tax bump equals one Starbucks coffee drink every 9 weeks). Instead of cutting benefits for our most vulnerable citizens – or raising the retirement age – these bills actually increase benefits and COLAs. 

Medicare could be kept solvent well into this century by similarly modest and manageable means, if budget hawks like Ryan would stop insisting that privatization is the only fix. Congress could authorize Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices (one of the biggest drivers of rising health care costs).  Innovative methods for saving Medicare costs under the Affordable Care Act, many of which have already reduced healthcare expenditures, could be expanded instead of repealed.  In fact, the Affordable Care Act itself extended the solvency of Medicare by four years.  Repealing the ACA – as Ryan and President Trump are still struggling to do – hurts the long-term solvency of the program.

Ryan and many conservative Republicans ignore these alternatives because, at heart, they do not believe in federal programs that provide Americans with retirement and health security – which puts them at odds with the majority of voters. The latest National Committee poll indicates wide public support for progressive solutions for Social Security and Medicare – and significant opposition to the GOP approach. Seventy-nine percent favor increasing Social Security benefits by scrapping the payroll tax income cap.  Sixty-five percent oppose raising the Medicare eligibility age.  Ninety-three percent want Medicare to be able to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

The National Committee’s social media community seems to agree.  Comments on our Facebook posts over the past three months demonstrate deep skepticism about Republican talking points:

Bruce W. These programs are NOT "entitlements"--we have paid into them our entire working lives. If the income subject to SS fees was raised SS would be solvent for decades...
Suzanne S. Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. It is a stand-alone program funded by workers. LEAVE IT ALONE.
Tom S.  Social Security and Medicare are lifelines to millions of seniors; anyone who votes in favor of cutting or reducing benefits should be ashamed of themselves!
Adam R.  Social Security has nothing to do with the general budget at all. FACT. It is not an entitlement, This is basically a Trust fund we have paid into all our working lives.

Americans intuitively understand that Social Security and Medicare are social insurance programs that they have already paid for through their hard-earned wages.  For 82 years and 52 years respectively, these programs have worked efficiently to keep seniors healthy and out of poverty.  Our Facebook commenter is perfectly correct to call them “lifelines to millions of seniors.”  Yes, their finances need to be shored up. But asking beneficiaries to bear the burden is not the right way. It’s too bad that some of our most powerful political leaders do not seem to understand… or care.

The GOP's "Really, Really Good" Healthcare Reset is Really, Really Worse



 "The [GOP healthcare bill] is getting better and better"

 “A lot of people like it.”

 “Things are going very well.”

These are President Trump’s most recent pronouncements about the GOP’s American Health Care Act (AHCA).  Let’s hope for the sake of our nation’s seniors (and all Americans) that the President’s statements are wildly optimistic.  The White House is pressuring Congress to vote on the AHCA this week – lest the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency expire without a single major legislative victory.  Never mind that the healthcare of 24 million Americans hangs in the balance.

The National Committee and other seniors’ advocates rightly breathed a sigh of relief when the bill was pulled from the House floor last month for lack of GOP votes.  The Republican healthcare bill would have gutted Medicaid, weakened Medicare, and allowed insurers to charge older Americans up to five times as much as young adults, among other travesties.  But just when everyone thought the AHCA was dead, some House Republicans have revived it, zombie-like, to stalk Capitol Hill again.  This week, representatives from the right-wing Freedom Caucus and the moderate Tuesday Group let it be known that they were hovering around a deal to get the AHCA passed

The supposed “deal” would amend the bill to allow states to seek waivers from requiring insurers to provide “essential benefits.”  If a state (say a Red one, for instance), didn’t want insurers to be forced to cover hospitalization in all health plans, they could ask the Department of Health & Human Services (led by Obamacare nemesis Tom Price) for permission to waive that requirement.  States could also request waivers so that insurance companies could force sicker patients into “high risk pools” where the premiums would be sky high.  Meanwhile, all of the really harmful parts of the original bill for seniors would remain intact.  President Trump says the GOP healthcare bill has “gotten really, really good.”  But in truth, the latest changes make a really bad bill even worse.

Here’s the good news, though:  all of this talk about a deal and bringing the AHCA to a vote within President Trump’s first 100 days may be magical thinking.  Just because the head of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), and Tuesday Group co-chair, Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), seem to be close to agreement does not guarantee that their members will fall in line, especially House moderates who probably know that the new amendment endangers essential benefits coverage and that high risk pools could cost their constituents dearly (which could cost these moderates dearly in the 2018 congressional elections).  Congress-watchers have noted that there is no legislative language for the proposed amendment yet, and wonder how it could be produced so soon. Also, the plan to bring healthcare to a vote next week may be overly ambitious, considering the House must also craft an appropriations bill before April 28th to avoid a government shutdown.  This is why Democratic sources on the Hill say “no way” is healthcare going to come up for a vote next week.

Here's how National Politics Reporter M.J. Lee summed up the prospects for a quick vote on CNN this afternoon:

"If the White House wants a vote, they will have to win over many members of Congress who are skeptical about tackling this again." - M.J. Lee, CNN
 

President Trump insists (to no one’s surprise) he wants it all:  funding for his border wall AND passage of the American Health Care Act – a demand that, like his pronouncements that “a lot of people like” the GOP healthcare bill and “things are going very well,” are likely only loosely based on reality. 

No Spring Break Ceasefire in the War on the Working Class

Congress may be home for Easter break and President Trump is busy dropping bombs in Syria and Afghanistan, but the War on the Working Class continues unabated.  In fact, it was quite a busy week for floating dangerous ideas about our nation’s healthcare and retirement security. 

First, the Associated Press ran a story based on information from an unnamed “GOP lobbyist” saying that Republicans are considering repealing the Social Security payroll tax.  Under this alleged plan, Social Security would be funded from general revenue and therefore subject to competition with other domestic programs --- and the whims of Congressional budget cutters.  Never mind that the payroll tax is what makes Social Security an earned benefit.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt set it up that way on purpose to “give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect” their Social Security checks.  Plus, the current payroll tax deduction has been working pretty well for the past 80 years.

Since enough members of Congress realize this is an awful proposal that would never pass the House and Senate, clearly someone is out there floating crazy ideas in the press.  (In addition, the A.P. story itself lacked any real sense of balance or context.) While the source for the A.P. story was unnamed, a top Trump administration official very publicly floated notions that seem to undermine President Trump’s promise not to touch Social Security and Medicare.  In an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood on Tuesday, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney just couldn't say whether President Trump would veto legislation to privatize Medicare.  “Let [Congress] pass that and let’s talk about it,” he demurred. 

When Harwood asked if Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) was on the list of potential programs to be cut, Mulvaney offered this non-reassuring response:

“I continue to look forward to talking to the president about ways to fix that program. Because that is one of the fastest growing programs that we have. It's become effectively a long-term unemployment, permanent unemployment program.” – Mick Mulvaney

Of course, that response is riddled with inaccuracies.  SSDI is not growing, it’s leveling off at a lower rate that is likely to plateau for the next 20 years.  It most definitely is not an unemployment program of any kind – permanent or otherwise. SSDI is one of the strictest federal disability programs in the world in terms of qualifying for benefits.  Only those who are able to demonstrate that they are unable to work for medical reasons qualify.  Among all the people who apply, only 40% are accepted.  If accepted, the average beneficiary receives only $1,170 per month, less than one could earn in a full time job at the federal minimum wage.

That didn’t stop the Washington Post from echoing some of the same right-wing myths about SSDI in a recent feature story and an editorial entitled, “The Social Security Disability Program Needs Reform.”  The story wrongly intimates that rural, working-class Americans are using SSDI as a unemployment program.  On Monday, Media Matters for America attempted to correct the record:

“The Post’s mischaracterization of SSDI follows a long history of misinformation from mainstream outlets, which often publish error-riddled stories filled with anecdotal evidence portraying disability recipients as undeserving. These pieces sound as if they come from right-wing media, which have spent years attacking the program and its recipients.” – Media Matters, 4/10/17

While the press was replete with nutty notions about Social Security and Medicare, the President and Congressional Republicans were reviving the specter of the moribund GOP healthcare bill.  Just when you thought it was dead, Freedom Caucus members say they are close to a deal with the White House and Speaker Ryan to repeal and replace Obamacare within three weeks.  Meanwhile, Politico reports that President Trump is threatening to cut off cost-sharing subsidies that help pay for low income earners’ health coverage in order to force Democrats to the negotiating table on the GOP health plan.

Fortunately, protesters are out in full force this week at town halls pushing back against supporters of the Republican bill, including one of the National Committee’s own grassroots volunteers who organized a rally outside a Florida congressman’s office.  This proves that Spring break is a good time for grassroots action. Just because it’s holiday time doesn’t mean those waging war against the working class won’t put some rotten eggs in our Easter baskets.

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