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700 Thousand Waiting...and Still Counting

The dismal state of affairs for the 733,000 Americans currently waiting for a Social Security disability hearing has garnered alot of news coverage in recent months, including this recent editorial in the Buffalo News, and debate on Capitol Hill. But headlines and debate don't always bring solutions and that seems to be the case here.

The new Social Security Commissioner, Michael Astrue, has testified before the Senate Finance Committee about the disability backlog nightmare. He told Senators he wants to fix the disability backlog on "his watch" and outlined his plan to do it. Social Security News blogged in detail about Astrue's testimony and it's well worth a read.

The average wait for a disability hearing is more than a year, 483 days. That's a disgrace. But while everyone can agree something needs to be done the real question this administration willing to pay for it? There are fewer administrative law judges hearing cases now than in 1997. Is it really a surprise that cutting SSA's budget and staffing has brought us here?

When Reading the Paper Makes Us Angry...

...We sit down to write. However, before even getting our post together this morning we found Dean Baker's reaction to the same two articles, one in the Washington Post and the other in USA Today. Dean is an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

Today he offers an excellent description of how often the mainstream media repeats this administration's spoon-fed assertions on Social Security as if they're incontrovertible facts. These articles perpetuate the phony crisis mantra first started (and rejected)in the privatization push two years ago and the "greedy geezer" myth used to fuel inter-generational warfare as part of a build-up to benefit cuts.

We know that writing about Social Security can be pretty dry stuff; however, this program is too important to the millions of Americans and their families who depend on it to live, to have reporters merely repeating political pablum rather than reporting the facts.

Senators Grill Insurers About Sales Scams

Jaw-dropping accounts of predatory and disgraceful tactics being used by some insurers selling Medicare Advantage (privatized and federally subsidized insurance) plans to unknowing seniors were center stage on Capitol Hill today.

The Senate Select Committee on Aging heard story after story from State insurance commissioners from Oklahoma, Georgia and Wisconsin detailing the cons being perpetrated nationwide to shift seniors away from traditional Medicare into privatized for-profit plans. Their offices have received thousands of complaints from seniors being preyed upon by insurers selling Medicare Advantage plans and these are not just the garden variety “hard-sell” tactics you might expect from salesmen. This is appalling, especially when you consider these companies are working under the auspices of our federal government and being paid handsomely to do so.

Here are a few examples: in Georgia, salesmen haved claimed to be from Medicare (they're not), they've promised free eye care and free dental care (which of course doesn’t exist), some seniors were told Medicare was “going broke” and they must sign up for an MA plan to continue coverage (not true), one salesmen falsified MA applications using information collected previously from seniors he’d sold Part D coverage to and one company targeted clients at a center serving mentally disabled and low-income seniors for MA coverage the seniors couldn’t afford.

Albert Sochor sells insurance in Oklahoma. He’s taken the training to sell Medicare Advantage plans and sums up the situation this way:

“I’ve found if agents do tell the senior everything, the customer won’t signup for the plan…it doesn’t fit their needs. Many salesmen are moremotivated by commissions than care.”

So we’ve got salesmen who work for marketing sub-contractors hired by private insurance companies, which are overpaid (111% more than traditional Medicare) by the federal government and taxpayer dollars to sell medical insurance which might not even fit a senior's healthcare needs. And all of this to lure seniors away from the existing Medicare program. As Mr. Sochor told the Senate Aging Committee:

“We can’t keep saying things are going well when they’re actually getting worse….these are our parents, our moms and dads. Is this how we want to treat them?”

We say that’s more than a fair question.

Cutting Social Security Benefits: What's In Your Wallet?

by Barbara B. Kennelly, President/CEO

More than one hundred congressional staffers and reporters joined us yesterday to talk about a wonderful new report prepared by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI)on Social Security and the pocketbook realities facing retirees, now and in the future.

I think this report, "Social Security and Retirement Income Adequacy", is incredibly important as the debate over "entitlement reform" moves from conservative think tanks thru the Bush administration to Congressional committees and soon presidential politics. For the past six years, the future of Social Security has been continuously framed as a crisis in the making. Dire macroeconomic projections make great headlines but ignore the dollars and cents truth facing retirees. This NASI analysis correctly shines light on retirement savings, Social Security's role for American seniors and how massive benefit cuts like those proposed by some in Washington could harm millions of current and future retirees, and their families.

Virginia Reno, VP for Income Security with NASI, told the audience yesterday that while private pensions wane and 401K's are still largely being utilized by higher-wage earners, Social Security continues to meet the description of what a successful retirement program should provide. This is from the report's conclusion:

"Social Security has many features of an ideal pension system. It delivers retirement income progressively, effectively, and efficiently. But its replacement rates are modest. To maintain Social Security replacement rates at levels experienced in the past two or three decades would require some increase in benefits. At the same time, steps are needed to bring the Social Security program into financial balance (Reno and Lavery 2005). As private pensions shift from defined benefits to individual savings accounts, a strong defined benefit in Social Security gains added importance. Policymakers who are concerned about securing adequate retirement income in the future – for boomers, their children, and grandchildren – will face choices. They will need to decide how much to build on the strength of the Social Security system, how much to expect from employer-sponsored pension plans, and how much to expect individuals to save for themselves."

Another panelist at yesterday's briefing was Nancy Altman, Social Security expert and author of “The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble”. She offered several suggestions to meet Social Security's long range shorftfall that don't involve large benefit cuts or private accounts. Those suggestions are detailed by former SSA Commissioner, Robert Ball, in his proposal "Meeting Social Security's Long-Range Shortfall".

The bottom line is there are more than enough options to preserve and strengthen the monthly benefit. Options which are currently being ignored by this administration's supporters in favor of crisis predictions and dire warnings... all part of a buildup to benefit cuts.

Scamming Seniors and Keeping Millions Owed the Poor…is this the Magic of the Market?

What a day it has been for private insurers reaping the profits of the Medicare Privatization…oops, we mean…Modernization Act. A new GAO report released to the Senate Finance Committee today confirms what many had already suspected. The privatization of Medicare might be good for business but it’s not serving seniors' needs. CMS got an earful from Senators on the Senate Finance Committee today, including Chairman Max Baucus:
I don’t get the feeling that CMS is looking out for seniors. I don’t get that feeling at all. These are basically renegade plans…my personal view is more needs to be done.

The GAO reports that, not only are taxpayers overpaying private insurers (at 111%) to do what Medicare already does, it’s now clear that millions of dollars paid to insurers to cover Medicare’s poorest beneficiaries was never even offered to the people these funds were earmarked for. Medicare paid insurers $100 million last year to provide retroactive coverage for poor seniors who qualify as “dual-eligibles”. However, the GAO says more than 400,000 beneficiaries who qualify for this money weren’t told it exists until after CMS saw a draft copy of this GAO report just over a month ago. $100 million to insurers…$0 to seniors.

Acting CMS administrator, Leslie Norwalk, objects to the “overwhelmingly negative tone” of the GAO report. We’re not quite sure what the positive side of this news would be.

Now, to the scamming seniors part of today’s news. The New York Times has followed up on Robert Pear’s excellent article on marketing scams being perpetrated nationwide by agents sellingMedicare Advantage plans to seniors. Today’s editorial focuses on the abusive sales tactics being used to push these privatized plans on beneficiaries who don’t want to leave their Medicare plans. Only to find out, after the fact, their doctors or treatment might not be covered under the new MA plan.

At some point don’t we all have to ask…why is our government pushing a privatized Medicare system designed to profit private industry, cost taxpayers more than what already exists and inflicts harm on the same beneficiaries the program was originally designed to serve?



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Media Contacts

Pamela Causey
Communications Director
(202) 216-8378
(202) 236-2123 cell

Walter Gottlieb
Assistant Communications Director
(202) 216-8414

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