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From the category archives: Budget

Social Security Offices Close, Staff Furloughed and Waits Increase if SSA Budget is Cut by Congress Yet Again

As the baby boom generation ages and a record number of Americans retire, it’s hard to imagine why Congress has chosen this time in history to continue slashing the administrative budget for the Social Security Administration. It’s a glaring example of Washington’s penny-wise and pound-foolish budget approach and its real-world impacts on the lives of millions of average Americans.  It’s especially hard to understand given that the Social Security Administration isn’t funded by general revenues. As we’ve reported before, American workers’ contributions through the payroll tax support Social Security:

“In fiscal terms, there’s no earthly reason for Congress to be stingy with Social Security’s administrative budget. The money comes out of workers’ payroll taxes and the system’s other revenue, not from the general treasury. And it’s spent with painstaking care: The Social Security Administration is one of the government’s most efficient agencies, with a core administrative budget of 0.7% of benefits, devoted to upholding a decades-old reputation for superb customer service.” ...Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times columnist

Today, the Washington Post reports on what the latest round of cuts proposed by Republicans in the House and Senate would mean for the Social Security Administration:

 “There would be up to two weeks of furloughs for all employees,” the agency said in information obtained by The Washington Post. “During this time, our offices would be closed to the public.  Additionally, a full hiring freeze would cause service degradation and long wait times and delays.  As a result, many Americans may wait longer to receive the benefits they have been planning to use during their retirement, and the most vulnerable of our citizens will have to wait even longer for disability claims decisions, causing more hardship and frustration for millions of families. 

It’s not like Social Security is operating in the flush now. Since 2010, its operating budget has shrunk 10 percent after inflation while the number of beneficiaries rose by 12 percent. President Obama has proposed an $11.1 billion administrative budget for fiscal year 2017, $522 million more than this year. House Republicans have proposed $772 million less than the president’s budget, according to SSA figures, while Senate Republicans would reduce agency spending by $582 million. The administrative budget is separate from the trust fund that pays benefits to recipients.”

Unfortunately, this effort is nothing new. “Starve the beast” and shrinking government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub" are long-held goals for Congressional conservatives.  Today’s budget cutters are continuing that decades-long campaign to diminish successful government programs which, since the vast majority of the American public of both parties supports them, can’t be killed outright.

“Cutting staff when SSA is processing historically high claims is irresponsible and a sign that the Republicans who voted for this cut are not interested in providing tax payers with good service regarding SSA,” said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees SSA Council. “Instead they appear to be creating a scenario that insures the collapse of the program and will enhance the push to privatize it.  If the public loses trust and faith that the federal government can administer SSA, they will look to privatization proposals as an alternative.”...Washington Post, August 9, 2016 

It’s August recess for Congressional Members which means they’re in their districts attending town halls, meeting constituents and in many cases running for re-election. Now's the time to ask:  Do you support Congressional budget plans to cut Social Security’s administrative funding? 

New Federal Privacy Rules Pose a Challenge for Some Seniors in Social Security

All new and current account holders to Social Security’s online portal,  my Social Security, will now be required to have a text-enabled cell phone to access their account online. The Social Security Administration says:

“People will not be able to access their personal my Social Security account if they do not have a cell phone or do not wish to provide the cell phone number. We understand the inconvenience the text message solution may cause for some of our customers. We recognize that not every my Social Security account holder may have a cell phone, have consistent cell service in a rural area, or be able to receive a text message.”

In fact, a Pew Research Center report shows a small minority of adults ages 65 and older own smartphones.

“Overall, older Americans are less likely to be online, have broadband at home or own a mobile device. The same applies to smartphones: Only a quarter (27%) of adults ages 65 and older own them.”

Leading many to wonder:

“Certainly, cybersecurity is important and more so for Social Security numbers that can be used for identity theft. But there MUST be a better way than locking out the majority of people the agency exists to serve.”...Time Goes By blog

This change was prompted by a new executive order requiring all federal agencies that provide online access to consumers’ personal information to use something called multi-factor authentication; this means that to login to a site, account holders need to enter more than one credential — in this case a username/password and a text code — in order to verify their identity. The new system has already encountered snags. Verizon customers complained that they could not get the cellphone security code. The SSA now says it has fixed the problem; however,

“Due to high volume of traffic to our website, you may experience problems receiving your security code via text message or entering the security code you receive. The problem preventing all Verizon wireless customers from receiving the cell phone security code has been fixed. Please check back in a few days.”

SSA’s use of technology to reach a growing number of retirees, particularly baby boomers who have been increasing their online/cell usage, makes sense.  However, the agency’s backup for those beneficiaries who can’t access their online accounts without a cell phone are its call centers, which Congress continues to underfund:

“When the teleservice centers are adequately funded and staffed, SSA’s 800 number performs well.  However, starting in 2011, budget cuts forced SSA to freeze hiring, and the teleservice centers lost many agents through attrition.  In just three years, SSA lost more than 15 percent of its 800 number staff. Wait times and busy rates spiked. In 2014, wait times peaked at over 22 minutes and busy rates at 13 percent.  After a small funding increase in 2014 enabled SSA to replace some of the agents lost during the hiring freeze, service began to rebound — though it remains well below previous levels.”...Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Surely, there must be a better way to improve security and provide convenient access to online Social Security accounts without shifting so many seniors without cell phones back to currently underfunded teleservice centers and district offices which Congress, so far, seems unwilling to fund at levels needed to serve the retiring baby boom generation. 

If They Can't Cut Benefits--Cutting Social Security Administrative Funding is the GOP Fall Back Strategy

 

It’s often been said budgets are the best indicator of a nation’s priorities because talk is cheap but where Congress actually spends taxpayers’ money is what really matters.  If you believe that premise, then American seniors have a lot to worry about.  On the Medicare side of the ledger, we’ve already reported about efforts by GOP Senate appropriators to kill the vitally important State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) program: 

“The SHIP network provides critical information upon which people with Medicare rely to make informed decisions about their coverage options and enrollment decisions,” says Judith A. Stein, Executive Director, Center for Medicare Advocacy, Inc. “The SHIPs are critical to providing assistance with these increasingly complicated choices. People with Medicare and their families from all over the country depend on SHIPs as the key source of unbiased guidance.

‘Senate appropriators have turned their backs on a growing number of people who will need SHIP services to navigate the complexities of Medicare coverage by proposing to eliminate program funding. This kind of penny-wise, pound-foolish lawmaking will threaten the economic security of millions of Medicare beneficiaries and their families.”…Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO”

The news is just as bad on the Social Security side as the Senate Appropriations Committee cut the agency’s administrative budget request by nearly 5.5% at a time when 10,000 Americans a day turn 65.  As Los Angeles Times columnist, Michael Hiltzik, reports this cut is especially telling:

“In fiscal terms, there’s no earthly reason for Congress to be stingy with Social Security’s administrative budget. The money comes out of workers’ payroll taxes and the system’s other revenue, not from the general treasury. And it’s spent with painstaking care: The Social Security Administration is one of the government’s most efficient agencies, with a core administrative budget of 0.7% of benefits, devoted to upholding a decades-old reputation for superb customer service.” 

Politically, this effort is a continuation of a decades-long campaign to diminish successful government programs which, since the vast majority of the American public of both parties supports them, can’t be killed outright.  Whether it’s right-winger Grover Norquist’s goal "to get it {government} down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub" or former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s plan to “starve the beast” by slashing taxes on the wealthy and underfunding government programs conservatives don’t like, Republican efforts to weaken programs like Social Security and Medicare continue in full force.   

In the case of the Social Security Administration, the Senate Special Committee on Aging reports that years of Congressional under funding is clearly taking its toll.

“At a time when Baby Boomers are retiring and filing disability and retirement claims at record numbers, SSA has shed 11,000 workers agency-wide over three years. Hiring freezes resulted in disproportionate staffing across the nation’s 1,245 field offices, with some offices losing a quarter of their staff. These past five years have also served witness to the largest five-year decline in the number of field offices in the agency’s 79-year history as 64 field offices have been shuttered, in addition to the closure of 533 temporary mobile offices known as contact stations. SSA has also reduced or eliminated a variety of in-person services as it attempts to keep up with rising workloads and shift seniors and others online to conduct their business.”…Reduction in Face-to-Face Services at The Social Security Administration

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities detailed the real-life effects this has on millions of American seniors:

“Before the budget cuts, more than 90 percent of applicants could schedule an appointment within three weeks; by 2015, fewer than half could.”

“Starting in 2011, budget cuts forced SSA to freeze hiring, and the teleservice centers lost many agents through attrition.  In just three years, SSA lost more than 15 percent of its 800 number staff. Wait times and busy rates spiked.  In 2014, wait times peaked at over 22 minutes and busy rates at 13 percent.”

Again, let’s not forget that American workers have contributed a lifetime to support Social Security.  This isn’t even general revenue at issue.  While the numbers are important, they only offer a glimpse into what these cuts actually mean to average Americans, many who find themselves at the Social Security office during some of the hardest times of the lives:

“For me, this was just one bill. But there’s much more at stake for many people who need the benefits offered by the Social Security Administration, who are not in a position to put this kind of time or legwork in. Many who visit are poor, old, widowed, homeless, or disabled, and if they aren’t one of those things themselves, they are likely caring for someone who is. They are at the end of their rope, perhaps experiencing the worst scenario of their lives: They need a wheelchair. They’ve gone blind. Their spouse died. Or, like me, they have a baby in the NICU.”…Laura Kwerkel, The Atlantic

The battle to fully fund the Social Security administration and the Medicare SHIP program continues.  Chances are good your Member of Congress will tell you protecting these programs is a “top priority” but their actual vote on these particular programs could likely tell you a very different story.

The Truth about the 2016 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Report

Social Security is still fully funded for nearly two decades, a miniscule COLA increase in 2017 likely, and health care reform continues to preserve Medicare’s solvency.

“What’s likely to be missing in headlines about today’s Social Security Trustees Report is that the program remains well-funded with total income, again, projected to exceed expenses. However, in order to head off a benefit cut in 2034 Washington should embrace the growing movement to lift the payroll tax cap and expand benefits for the millions of seniors struggling to get by on an average $1,300 retirement benefit.

The Trustees also project there will be a tiny .2% cost of living adjustment next year yet Medicare premiums will increase in 2017. Seniors continue to see their modest Social Security benefits eaten away by growing healthcare costs which illustrates, once again, that the current Social Security COLA formula isn’t accurately measuring seniors’ expenses. Congress needs to adopt a fully developed CPI for the elderly (CPI-E) and begin work on the many Social Security expansion bills now languishing in the House and Senate.”...Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

Here are some of the key points in the 2016 Trustees Report:

  • Trustees project Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until the year 2034, the same as projected last year.  After that, Social Security will still have sufficient revenue to pay about 79% of benefits if no changes are made to the program.
  • Social Security remains well-funded. In 2016, as the economy continues to improve, Social Security’s total income is projected to exceed its expenses. In fact, the Trustees estimate that total annual income will exceed program obligations until 2020. 
  • Trustees project a .2% Cost of Living Adjustment increase.
  • The Trustees report there is now $2.81 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $23 billion more than last year and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund's assets.   

On Medicare, the 2016 Trustees report shows slowing the growth of health care costs has improved Medicare’s Trust Fund

  • Medicare Part B premiums are projected to increase by only a very small amount for about 70 percent of beneficiaries in 2017 from $104.90 to $107.60. The standard monthly premium is projected to increase from $121.80 to $149.00 while the annual deductible is projected to increase from $166 to $204 for all beneficiaries.
  • Medicare solvency remains greatly improved thanks to passage of healthcare reform, with the program paying full benefits until 2028, 11 years later than was projected prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act. However, this is two years earlier than projected in 2015.
You can also read: 

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew's comments

The Social Security Trustees Report 

The Medicare Trustees Report 

The Economics Policy Institute also has a terrific description of the political spin which always accompanies the release of these reports.  

GOP Appropriators Want to Eliminate Funding for Medicare SHIP Programs

 

Each day 10 thousand Americans become eligible for Medicare.  The aging of the baby boom generation certainly isn’t a surprise to anyone and yet, instead of boosting programs to serve this increased need, Republican Congressional leaders continue to slash and now eliminate programs designed to help millions of aging Americans and their families. 

The latest target is one of the nation’s most effective consumer resources for seniors, the Medicare State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP)

“The SHIP network provides critical information upon which people with Medicare rely to make informed decisions about their coverage options and enrollment decisions,” says Judith A. Stein, Executive Director, Center for Medicare Advocacy, Inc. “The SHIPs are critical to providing assistance with these increasingly complicated choices. People with Medicare and their families from all over the country depend on SHIPs as the key source of unbiased guidance.” 

Incredibly, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a Fiscal Year 2017 budget appropriations bill that completely eliminates the $52.1 million in funding for SHIP. 

“Senate appropriators have turned their backs on a growing number of people who will need SHIP services to navigate the complexities of Medicare coverage by proposing to eliminate program funding. This kind of penny-wise, pound-foolish lawmaking will threaten the economic security of millions of Medicare beneficiaries and their families.”…Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

“Understanding the complexities and decisions required for Medicare is an overwhelming, isolating experience for seniors, people with disabilities, and caregivers who don’t know where to get help. For millions of Americans, their only option for that help is their SHIP. If SHIPs disappear, there is no replacement for the critical services they provide. The loss of SHIPs threatens the economic security and the health of all current Medicare beneficiaries and the thousands who become eligible every day.”…James Firman, President and CEO of the NCOA 

"Eliminating SHIPs would leave millions of older Americans, people with disabilities, and families who need help comparing coverage options, appealing denials, applying for financial assistance, and navigating an evolving and increasingly complex program stranded—with nowhere to turn. With 10,000 Baby Boomers aging into Medicare each day, it is imperative that the U.S. House of Representatives reject this unprecedented, nonsensical cut."…Joe Baker, President of the Medicare Rights Center

In case you have any doubt about the need for SHIP services consider this:  today’s Medicare beneficiary must choose among more than 20 prescription drug plans, an average of 19 Medicare Advantage plans, as well as various Medigap supplemental insurance policies—all with different premiums, cost sharing, provider networks, and coverage rules. SHIPs also help beneficiaries resolve fraud and abuse issues, billing problems, appeals, and enrollment in low-income health assistance programs. In 2015, SHIPs provided one-on-one assistance to more than seven million individuals and in the past decade, the number of beneficiaries receiving personalized counseling from SHIPs has tripled.

Not a day goes by that we don’t hear horror stories of seniors and their families who face severe economic hardship and even bankruptcy because of a bad choice made in their healthcare options.  That’s exactly why SHIP is so vitally important.    

We’re proud to join a coalition of aging organizations including; The Center for Medicare Advocacy, Medicare Rights Center, and National Council on Aging (NCOA) to fight for a reversal of this outrageous Senate move to eliminate seniors’ access to desperately needed SHIP services.

We urge you to call your Senators and Representative and tell them:  Americans Need SHIP.

 

1-800-998-0180

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