OK...we're just 18 days until election day and the final debate has come and gone. Thank goodness.
While Social Security and Medicare finally got their 90 seconds of fame last night, as expected, the question was framed exactly how Washington's well-funded fiscal hawks had hoped -- America can't afford "entitlements," (wrong), the programs are the biggest drivers of our debt (nope), are going bankrupt (actually no, they're not) and then the real heart of the question: How are you going to cut benefits?
Unfortunately, this approach guaranteed there would be no real conversation about the benefits millions of seniors depend on. Here is NCPSSM's President/CEO, Max Richtman's reaction:
“Rather than focusing on the candidate’s plans for improving Social Security and Medicare’s long-term solvency, strengthening benefits and tackling the retirement crisis looming for millions of workers and retirees, last night’s viewers were stuck with the same old crisis calls that ‘entitlements’ are bankrupting America. No doubt, Washington’s billion dollar anti-Social Security lobby was happy to have some life pumped back into their middle-class killing campaign to cut benefits; however, America’s voters deserved far more from this debate.
Make no mistake about it, the choices between Clinton and Trump couldn’t be starker. Donald Trump’s Social Security shape-shifting leaves voters with no idea of how he plans to improve solvency and benefit adequacy. Doing nothing isn’t an option. Contrary to his insult last night, hearing Hillary Clinton tell the truth about how to strengthen Social Security's funding isn't ‘nasty,’ it's just reality. As long as America's wealthiest are allowed to avoid paying their share of payroll taxes, Social Security suffers. Period. While Clinton supports expanding benefits, Trump’s only policy promise last night was to repeal Obamacare. That cuts years from Medicare’s solvency and billions in preventive care, prescription drugs and cost-reducing benefits to seniors.
Most Americans know that our nation faces a retirement crisis. Our economy depends on strong Social Security and Medicare programs and improving benefits is vital to keeping millions from poverty. Too bad voters weren’t allowed to hear any of that debated last night.”...Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO
Today’s announcement that there will be a tiny .3% Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) increase next year means that 40 million seniors who rely on their Social Security to get by will once again find their expenses outpacing their Social Security benefit. This continues the trend of historically low cost-of-living adjustments for seniors. Over the past eight years, the current COLA formula has led to average increases of just over 1%, with three of those years seeing no increase at all. For the average senior, the 2017 COLA will mean an extra $4.00 per month which would barely cover the average cost of one Lipitor pill, a prescription drug frequently prescribed to seniors.
“No one can say with a straight face that providing the average senior with an additional four dollars a month will come even close to covering the true cost of living that retirees face. The average senior spends more than $5,000 a year on healthcare costs alone. A $4 Social Security COLA doesn’t even make a dent in covering rising costs for seniors.
I’ve asked seniors at town hall meetings around the country how many of them think the COLA represents their true cost of living -- laughter is always the response. We should move to a COLA formula that takes a more accurate measure of seniors’ expenses, which is a CPI for the elderly. The CPI-E has been in the experimental phase since 1982. It’s time to finish the job by fully funding the development of a more accurate COLA formula.”...Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO
While the Affordable Care Act has slowed the growth of Medicare costs, Part B premiums continue to rise much faster than the COLA. Final Medicare premiums won’t be announced until later this fall; however, the majority of beneficiaries (70%) are protected from steep premium hikes due to “hold harmless” provisions in the law which protects Social Security benefits from being reduced if the COLA is not large enough to cover the increase in the Part B premium.
The 30% of beneficiaries not eligible for the hold harmless provision include; new enrollees during the year, enrollees who do not receive a Social Security benefit check, enrollees with high incomes who are subject to the income-related premium adjustment, and dual Medicare-Medicaid beneficiaries, whose full premiums are paid by state Medicaid programs. They could face much higher premium costs.
Congressional action mitigated the Part B premium hike last year for these beneficiaries. The National Committee will, once again, work with key Members of Congress and the Administration to ensure these seniors aren’t hit with a significant premium increase next year.
News that Social Security and Medicare might finally be topics discussed in the last Presidential debate on Wednesday night should be welcome news for those of us who’ve worked hard all year to try and get Presidential candidates to talk specifics about their plans for the nation’s most important government programs. It should be...but unfortunately, it’s not.
Why? Because, debate moderator Chris Wallace says “entitlements” will be discussed as part of a debt discussion. This framing follows the talking points crafted by the billion dollar Wall Street/corporate funded anti-Social Security and Medicare lobby that’s worked for decades to cut benefits. Framing benefits cuts as a way to “save” Social Security and Medicare while reducing the debt has long been the poll-tested language used to sell the American people on middle-class benefit cuts to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy:
“The push for benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the name of deficit reduction has always been the goal of the billion dollar corporate and Wall Street backed crisis campaign driving Washington's deficit hysteria. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” was a strategic political move capitalizing on deficits as a way to force middle-class benefit cuts on Americans already shell-shocked in the Great Recession. Once deficits reduced (without the drastic cuts to benefits that corporate lobbyists assured us must happen), the anti-“entitlement” lobby lost its inside-the-Beltway political momentum.”...Entitled to Know
Lumping Social Security and Medicare together and calling them “entitlements” is also telling. These are earned benefits, not entitlements, which American workers have contributed to throughout their working lives. Conservatives have long used the word “entitlements” to make those earned benefits seem like welfare. This political strategy also ignores the fact that Social Security and Medicare are unique programs, providing different services to a diverse group of Americans. These programs face very distinctive challenges. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for America’s most important healthcare program (Medicare) and retirement security program (Social Security). However, this is exactly the way next week’s debate has framed the conversation.
As we’ve said before,
“There is an important Social Security and Medicare conversation to be had. We must find long-term solvency solutions that also address our nation’s retirement and health security crisis. Obamacare went a long way toward improving the health care picture but more work remains to be done. Retirement USA reports the gap between what Americans need to retire and what they actually have is $7.7 trillion. In fact, about half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings and a third of current workers aged 55 to 64 are likely to be poor or near-poor in retirement. Unfortunately, the median retirement account balance is a puny $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households. Vanguard reports that 401K balances, for those who do have them, fell a median of 11% last year. Social Security remains the only stable retirement income for many Americans.”
While conservative fiscal hawks, including many Fox news commentators, see Social Security as solely a source of “investment-draining and economy-staling uncertainty,” the truth is, Social Security is a hugely stabilizing force for the economy. A new report from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation shows that, in 2014 alone, Social Security delivered a $1.6 trillion fiscal boost nationwide as benefits were spent and cycled through the economy. Is there any chance that Social Security’s vital contribution to our economy will come up in next week’s debate? Nah.
There is a way to have the conversation that needs to be had on the future of Social Security and Medicare and it starts with one simple question:
“What are your specific plans to ensure Social Security and Medicare’s long-term solvency and improve benefits?”
The final Presidential debate is at 9 p.m. (Eastern Time) on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Each of the subjects will get a 15-minute time segment.
Debate watchers predicted last night’s Vice Presidential debate might put policy above personality (for a change) and to some degree that happened. For starters, the words Social Security and Medicare were finally uttered by participants. That’s progress given that millions of average Americans and their families depend on these programs, plus the fact that the candidates’ records couldn’t be more different. The discussion itself; however, certainly wasn’t very deep. Here is the exchange.
There are a couple key points here. Mike Pence absolutely refused to acknowledge or address in any way his record as one of Congress’ leading supporters of privatization. As we reported earlier, when Pence was in the House he supported a privatization scheme that was even more draconian than the failed effort by President Bush. Even after the President admitted defeat, Pence continued to push for the privatization of Social Security. But Pence’s dodge and deflect skills were in full force last night:
KAINE: But -- but you have a voting record, Governor.
PENCE: And I get all of that. I just, look...
PENCE: There's a question that you asked a little bit earlier that I want to go back to.
KAINE: I can't believe that you won't defend your own voting record.
PENCE: I have to go back to.
PENCE: Well, look, I -- you're running with Hillary Clinton, who wants to raise taxes by $1 trillion, increase spending by $2 trillion, and you say you're going to keep the promises of Social Security. Donald Trump and I are going to cut taxes. We're going to -- we're going to -- we're going to...
KAINE: You're not going to cut taxes. You're going to raise taxes on the middle class.
PENCE: ... reform government programs so we can meet the obligations of Social Security and Medicare.
Republican talking points have long required that candidates use “reform” when they mean cut, and “protect” when they mean privatize. The promise to protect current seniors’ benefits is also a poll-tested strategy designed to misdirect attention away from plans to cut benefits for future generations. This “greedy geezer” approach assumes seniors only care about their own benefits, not their children and grandchildren’s.
“The purest articulation of intergenerational warfare as a wedge to break up Social Security's political coalition is a 1983 paper published by the libertarian Cato Journal. It was titled "Achieving a 'Leninist' Strategy," an allusion to the Bolshevik leader's supposed ideas about dividing and weakening his political adversaries.
The paper advocated making a commitment to honor Social Security's commitment to the retired and near-retired as a tool to "detach, or at least neutralize" them as opponents of privatization or other changes. Meanwhile, doubts among the young about the survival of the program should be exploited so they could be "organized behind the private alternative."
So when you hear a politician promising to exempt the retired and near retired from changes to Social Security, while offering to make it more "secure" for future generations, you now know the game plan.”...Los Angeles Times, 2012
Senator Tim Kaine was right to try and force some clarity from the Trump/Pence campaign on their specific plans for the nation’s most effective retirement and health security programs because, in a nutshell, the Donald Trump of this campaign does not resemble the “Social-Security- is-a-Ponzi scheme” Donald Trump of any other year. Why, is not really mystery as Trump 2.0 himself has said:
"As Republicans, if you think you are going to change very substantially for the worse Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in any substantial way, and at the same time you think you are going to win elections, it just really is not going to happen" ...Trump at 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference
Hopefully, last night’s VP debate won’t be our only chance to hear the Presidential campaigns address Social Security and Medicare. American voters deserve to hear specifics about what these candidates have done and said...not just what they promise they’ll do.
By most accounts, tonight’s Vice Presidential debate candidates Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and Republican Governor Mike Pence will meet for the only time as virtual unknowns to many voters. NBC has this analysis:
“The two running mates are among the least known vice presidential candidates in recent elections. Remember Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney and even Joe Biden? Of course. But many voters in 2016 have never heard of Clinton's and Trump's number two. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, 55 percent of respondents either didn't know enough about Kaine to form an opinion about him or were completely neutral. And 49 percent said the same thing about Pence.
“While both candidates' primary goal is to reassure skeptical voters that their ticket can be trusted and that they compensate for the presidential candidates' perceived weaknesses, a secondary goal will be to drive home policy differences. Because both Pence and Kaine, with long histories of governing, are well steeped in policy, this could be the most substantive debate of any of the three presidential debates.”
If issues finally take center stage tonight, we would certainly hope to hear the stark differences between the two candidates on Social Security and Medicare described for voters. As we first detailed here, Mike Pence, was one of Congress’ most aggressive Social Security privatization supporters. As leader of the Republican Study Committee, the House’s far-right wing caucus, during the Bush administration, Pence doubled-down on President George Bush’s failed privatization efforts by calling for an even larger private accounts scheme to be implemented sooner, putting Americans at even greater fiscal risk than the President’s doomed plan. The Washington Times reported in 2005:
“The Bush plan allows workers to divert 4 percent of their wages into investment accounts, and to choose from a set of investment strategies. But the conservatives are leaning more toward a plan sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, which would allow diversion of 6 percent of wages.
‘Conservatives want to see personal retirement accounts that have immediate relevance to younger Americans, that they can see the value, and that will require that they be big and that they be implemented in the final bill without delay,’ said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and chairman of the 100-member Republican Study Committee (RSC).”
Beyond privatization, Pence’s comments make it clear there isn’t a Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefit cut he won’t embrace:
“I think everything has to be on the table...I think it’s absolutely imperative, whether it’s Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.”
“With regard to entitlements we’re going to have to take some deep cuts in domestic spending.” CNN, 2010
“I was tea party before it was cool.” Indianapolis Monthly, 2011
On health issues, Pence’s record is just as anti-senior as his Social Security stance. He aggressively opposed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and fought for its repeal, which would worsen Medicare’s solvency and take away billions in added benefits and cost savings for seniors. He voted against the creation of a prescription drug benefit (Part D) in Medicare, opposes allowing the re-importation of prescription drugs and allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices, he supported legislation that would deny non-emergency treatment for lack of a Medicare co-pay, and most importantly supports the GOP/Ryan budget which would destroy Medicare in favor of “Couponcare,” giving seniors a voucher to take shopping for insurance rather than protecting traditional Medicare’s guaranteed coverage.
Not surprisingly given his legislative history, we scored Mike Pence at 0% on issues important to seniors during the 2011-2012 Congress since he voted for multiple pieces of legislation that would cut benefits and programs that protect senior’s health and financial security.
Tim Kaine, on the other hand, has long opposed the privatization of Social Security. He supports healthcare reform through the Affordable Care Act and has co-sponsored the Medicare Prescription Drug Negotiation Act (S. 31), which would end the ban on prescription drug price negotiations for Medicare, allowing the government’s largest health care program to use the same price negotiation process that the Veterans Administration uses to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies. Kaine is also a member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and co-sponsored the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act.
The differences between the two Vice Presidential candidates on the issues of Social Security and Medicare couldn’t be starker. We only hope tonight’s debate provides an opportunity for voters to hear about the issues which directly impact millions of Americans’ lives.
Have a Social Security or Medicare question?