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From the category archives: Disability

Remembering a Crusader for Equal Access to Federal Benefits

The woman President Obama called one of America’s “quiet heroes” passed away September 12th in New York City.  Edith Windsor, 88, was a champion of LGBT rights, whose victory in the landmark United States v. Windsor Supreme Court case allowed married same-sex couples to collect the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples in states that had legalized gay marriage. 

Edith Windsor’s 2013 victory inspired Kathy Murphy, a Texas widow who was denied Social Security survivor’s benefits after the death of her wife, Sara. With the help of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, Murphy, a member of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, sued the Social Security Administration (SSA) in 2014 for the right to collect survivor’s benefits.  Murphy’s case was later folded into the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case that legalized same sex marriage and access to spousal benefits for same-sex couples nationwide in 2015.  

Thanks to Edith Windsor, Kathy Murphy, and millions of supporters across the country, same-sex couples became eligible for the full range of Social Security spousal benefits, including retirement, survivor, death and disability protections. This led to the development of a National Committee sponsored community outreach and education initiative called Know Your Rights which helped thousands of LGBT couples and families understand their Social Security benefits.  

Edith Windsor lived with her partner, Thea Spyer, for 40 years, finally getting married in Toronto in 2007. (Their home state of New York didn’t legalize same-sex marriage until 2011).  Windsor was denied an estate tax exemption for married couples after Spyer died, and sued the federal government for a tax refund, leading to the landmark Windsor decision.  

The diminutive Windsor, a retired computer programmer for IBM, never sought the spotlight but embraced her role as a well-known LGBT activist. 

The National Committee celebrates Windsor’s life and her landmark achievements.  She was that ‘ordinary person’ caught up in extraordinary circumstances who bravely stepped forward for the cause of equality, the “quiet hero” who gave voice to couples asking only the same benefits as everyone else.

Disability Insurance is Part of Social Security Whether Mick Mulvaney Likes It or Not

The President’s budget director can’t seem to help casting doubt on the administration’s commitment to keep its hands off Social Security and Medicare. Appearing on CBS Face the Nation this weekend, Mick Mulvaney openly questioned whether disability insurance should be part of Social Security.

"Let me ask you a question, do you really think that Social Security Disability Insurance is part of what people think of when they think of Social Security?” he asked. “I don’t think so... It’s a very wasteful program and we want to try and fix that.” – Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney 3/19/17

The moderator cut to a commercial right after that statement, so Mulvaney was not asked to elaborate on what he meant by “fixing” Social Security Disability Insurance.  We can only assume that “fixing” really means cutting benefits.  His remarks demonstrate a disregard for the facts about Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and its very history.

Nearly 11 million Americans currently collect Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. Disability insurance has been part of Social Security since 1956. During the two decades after Social Security was created in 1935, a consensus evolved that not only retirees – but the disabled – require social insurance to stay out of poverty.  It was a natural extension of the philosophy underpinning Social Security that President Franklin D. Roosevelt so eloquently summarized as protecting the population against “the hazards and vicissitudes of life.”

A few dangerous myths underlie Mulvaney’s statements about Social Security disability insurance.  Here are the facts:

*SSDI is not a handout.  The truth is that anyone receiving SSDI must meet the same basic qualifications as other Social Security beneficiaries do.  Beneficiaries – or their parents – must have worked and contributed payroll taxes to Social Security in order to collect disability benefits.  

*There’s a stringent set of parameters that SSDI applicants must meet.  Only 40% of applicants actually qualify for disability benefits.

*SSDI beneficiaries do not have minor disabilities. 28% of beneficiaries have serious musculoskeletal disorders; 28%, serious mental illness; 9%, nervous system disorders and 9% circulation disorders, among others.  

In case the seriousness of these conditions is still in doubt, consider this:  a beneficiary collecting disability benefits beginning at age 50 only lives an average of 8 years past that point. Some 8,000 applicants died in Fiscal Year 2016 waiting for a decision on their disability claims – due to backlogs at the Social Security Administration caused by draconian budget cuts. 

When an official like Mulvaney makes comments about “fixing” Social Security Disability with the benefit cuts that implies, he is playing off of worries about the solvency of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) trust fund.  The SSDI trust fund is separate from the retirement (OASI) trust fund, and is projected to remain solvent until 2022 if Congress takes no action to fortify it.   The National Committee supports Congressman John Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act (to be re-introduced in the House later this month), which – among other things – combines OASI and SSDI into a single, more durable Social Security Trust fund.  This, along with legislation proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders and others, could preserve the solvency of Social Security well into this century without cutting benefits – including the ones that help people with serious disabilities maintain their financial security and their dignity. 

Happy Anniversary Social Security

For 81 years, Social Security has provided an economic lifeline to average Americans.  Without this vital program 41 percent of elderly Americans would live in poverty but with Social Security, only 10 percent of seniors are below the poverty line. Of course, Social Security serves more than just retirees.  People with disabilities, survivors, spouses and children also depend on the benefits earned through the program. 

American understand, first hand, how important Social Security is to their own economic security; however, Social Security’s economic contributions to communities, counties, and states continue to be misunderstood and often ignored in Washington’s fiscal debates.

In 2014 alone, Social Security delivered a $1.6 trillion fiscal boost nationwide as benefits were spent and cycled through the economy. A new online report by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation provides a detailed look at the significant economic impact generated by Social Security benefits. Social Security Spotlight delivers data on beneficiaries by state, county, Congressional district, race/ethnicity, age and gender. 

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.

New Medicaid Rules Designed to Put Care Over Profit

CMS has announced tightened Medicaid rules for private insurance plans that administer most Medicaid benefits for the poor. The Obama administration says the rules will limit profits, ease enrollment, require minimum levels of participating doctors and eventually provide quality ratings.  However, those ratings would still be years away as the industry continues to fight against such measures. 

Kaiser Health News provides details on the biggest changes for Medicaid managed care in a decade.  The new rules will:

  • Require states to set rules ensuring Medicaid plans have enough physicians in the right places. The standards will include “time and distance” maximums to ensure doctors aren’t too far away from members.
  • Limit insurer profits by requiring rate setting that assumes 85 percent of revenue will be spent on medical care. Unlike a similar rule for other plans, such as insurance sold through Obamacare marketplaces, the requirement would not compel Medicaid insurers to rebate the difference if they don’t hit 85 percent. Future rates would be adjusted instead.
  • Make plans regularly update directories of doctors and hospitals. A 2014 investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general found that half the doctors listed in official insurer directories weren’t taking new Medicaid patients.
  • Push plans to better detect and prevent fraud by providers, including mandatory reporting of suspected abuse to the states.
  • Tighten rules for Medicaid plans and states to collect patient data and submit it to HHS.
  • Make it easier for states to offer managed-care plans incentives to improve clinical outcomes, reduce costs and share patient information among hospitals and doctors.

Nearly two-thirds of Medicaid’s 72 million member are enrolled in private managed-care plans.  Consumer advocates have pushed HHS to set stricter rules for managed-care plans, which they said too often favored profits over patients. The industry and some state Medicaid directors resisted, saying plans needed flexibility to serve different members in different states.

The rules will be phased-in over the next three years, starting next summer. 


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