Several years ago, we asked the question “What Will a Billion dollars Buy You?” At that time, we were covering the billion dollar Wall Street campaign to cut Social Security and Medicare by those who want to protect tax breaks and the income inequality which has lined the pockets of America’s corporations and wealthy. This week it appears the anti-Social Security propaganda favored by these Wall Street lobbyists has also now found a home in the popular political drama “House of Cards.” Turns out that the show’s consultant runs one of the many groups funded by former Wall Streeter and anti-Social Security scold, Pete Peterson, who’s invested his own personal fortune to a national campaign to cut back benefits in Social Security and Medicare.
Richard Eskow at Campaign for America’s Future details the connection:
“Episode One’s credits list Jim Kessler as a consultant. Kessler is, as his IMDB biography notes, the co-founder of Third Way. That’s a Wall Street-funded, so-called “centrist” Democratic organization with a mission: to promote neoliberal economics and make the world safe (at least financially) for its wealthy patrons.
Third Way has consistently misrepresented the financial condition of Social Security, misdirected the public debate about Medicare, and generally promoted the socially liberal but fiscally conservative worldview of its patrons.
Kessler and co-founder Jon Cowan carefully tiptoed their way through the minefield of public opinion for years, pretending to be technocrats rather than de facto lobbyists for powerful interests. They finally lost their balance last year. When confronted with the rise of Elizabeth Warren and the populist wing of the Democratic Party, they lashed out at Sen. Warren with an intemperate Wall Street Journal op-ed.”
We highly recommend you read Eskow’s entire post to see just how perfectly the Third Way, Pete Peterson propaganda is scripted into the characters of “House of Cards”. Here’s just a sample:
“Underwood continues: “This (the number $32,781, displayed on a flip chart) is what the average senior gets in one year from entitlements …This money is a job we could be giving to a single mother or a student just out of school. Now at the moment, 44 cents of every tax dollar goes to pay for these programs. By 2030, it’ll be over half, 62 cents.”
“Entitlements are bankrupting us,” he concludes.
Except that they’re not. Social Security accounts for 24 percent of the federal budget, but it is forbidden by law from adding to the overall deficit. What’s more, its trust fund is currently holding $2.8 trillion dollars in reserves. The statement is meaningless.
In Episode Two, Underwood gives a “bold” speech outlining his plan. It begins:
“For too long, we in Washington have been lying to you. We say we’re here to serve you, when in fact, we’re serving ourselves. And why? We are driven by our own desire to get reelected …”
That’s another favored trope: that the corporate politicians are courageous (as if it’s brave to serve the wealthy and powerful!), while their opponents are cravenly pandering to the voters – by representing them.
“That ends tonight,” says Underwood. “Tonight, I give you the truth.”
There’s that idea again, that the corporate version of reality is “fact” or “truth.” We’re told that “the root of the problem” is “entitlements” – a favorite word in the corporate crowd because it has negative connotations. (We’ve written about that before.)
“Let me be clear,” adds Underwood. “You are entitled to nothing …”
Just like real-life Third Way types, Underwood is trying to cancel our nation’s social contract.
It’s easy enough to say “don’t worry, this is just fiction” but the problem is that a growing number of Americans don’t get their news from independent news sources anymore...they get it from everywhere else. Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart continues to be among the nation’s most trusted “news sources” even as he hosts a comedy show. It’s not that big of a stretch to believe that viewers hearing the fictional politician, Frank Underwood, recite the same propaganda they also hear constantly from the billion dollar anti-Social Security lobby and their real-world political allies on Capitol Hill only helps to validate this factually flawed view.
This type of Wall Street messaging fits the very definition of propaganda and how best to use it in the real world of politics, not just the made-for-television variety:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie.”...Joseph Goebbels
One of Congress’ strongest champions for strengthening and boosting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is Rep. Gwen Moore from Wisconsin. Congresswoman Moore has also been an effective voice in Congress for measures that focus on improving the economic and employment conditions in low-income communities. We’re so glad she’s agreed to share her views with us on the current Congress, Black History month and recent attempts to target Americans with disabilities by the GOP leadership in the House.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI)
Each February, we are reminded of our country’s greatest African American leaders with the celebration of Black History Month. Black History Month provides us an opportunity not only to reflect on those who advocate on behalf of the African American community, but also to examine the critical concerns and issues facing African Americans today. Even with all of the progress made over the past half-century, African Americans still represent a disproportionate share of our nation’s poor. As we work to change the underlying causes for this reality, we must also make sure we’re providing an adequate safety net to prevent further harm of those who are already struggling to get by.
There is no program more vital to protecting those who are battling poverty than Social Security. Not only is Social Security responsible for allowing millions of Americans to enjoy a comfortable retirement after a life of hard work, but also provides insurance for more than 90% of American workers in the event of a debilitating accident or illness through the Disability Insurance program.
On the first day of the 114th Congress, House Republicans pushed through a rule change regarding the Social Security trust funds that would prevent the routine transfer of funds between the retirement and disability accounts. Without the ability to transfer funds, the Disability Trust Fund will be forced to cut all benefits by 20% in 2016. That’s 20% from a paycheck that already is not enough to keep 1.6 million people out of poverty.
A harsh truth we must come to terms with is that one out of every three young workers new to the labor force will either die or need Disability Insurance before they turn 67. Those odds get even worse for African American workers, who make up a disproportionate percentage of Disability Insurance beneficiaries. An unexpected disability or illness can be devastating to an individual or family, but the Disability Insurance program supplies protection to soften the blow of an immediate loss of income. While the benefits are modest, averaging around $1100 a month, they still represent the main or only source of income for over 80% of beneficiaries. Nearly one in five beneficiaries live in poverty, which translates to roughly 1.6 million people, or approximately the population of greater metropolitan Milwaukee, my home city.
Obviously, this critical program needs more funding, but my congressional colleagues across the aisle continue to stand in the way. The rule change proposed by House Republicans was slipped under the wire as a procedural fix. But let’s call it what it is: a brazen attack on our nation’s most vulnerable. These are people who paid their dues to Social Security while they were in the labor force who are now in need of the services they paid into.
Now is not the time to weaken the Disability Insurance program, but rather we should be strengthening it. One of the major lingering effects of the recession is the sharp increase in long-term unemployment. While this number is now on the decline for the overall population, disabled workers continue to struggle to find gainful employment. Cutting what meager benefits they have now would be a death sentence.
This Black History Month, instead of only reflecting on the African Americans of the past, we should also make sure we are taking care of the African Americans of today and tomorrow. Cutting benefits to the Disability Insurance program would disproportionately affect African Americans. I believe in a vision of government where we take care of those who have fallen on hard times due to disability. Black History Month serves as a good means to highlight these issues, but I will keep fighting for this vision all year-round, day-in and day-out, until every American receives the assistance they need to live a prosperous life.
Tomorrow, Republicans leading the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee will continue their campaign to try and convince Americanswhy it’s OK to threaten a 20% benefit cut for people with disabilities unless Congress enacts larger “reforms” (“reforms” actually meaning benefit cuts since conservatives have already ruled out revenue increases) from retirees, widows and survivors who depend on Social Security.
This divide and conquer strategy ignores the fact that, once you step outside Congressional hearing rooms, average Americans understand that Social Security’s value goes far beyond just retirement. Demonizing people with disabilities discounts the basic truth that American workers contribute throughout their working lives into one program -- Social Security. Their contributions provide economic security for a whole host of needs from birth to death – for children who’ve lost a parent, spouses who’ve lost their “significant other” and people with disabilities no longer healthy enough to work. Worker contributions provide all of these benefits. Cutting Social Security disability is cutting Social Security benefits, no matter how conservatives in Washington want to pretend otherwise. Targeting one group of Social Security beneficiaries is a political first step to attack the whole program.
Web Phillips is the National Committee’s Senior Legislative Representative and will testify before the committee tomorrow:
“Our members come from all walks of life and every political persuasion. What unites them is their passion for protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare, not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren. Our members see Social Security as an inter-generational compact that protects all members of the family. To them, it is a single integrated system of benefits that provides family protection from birth to death. It is a system where all of its parts, whether SSDI or retirement and survivors benefits, are equally important.
Most seniors have children and grandchildren and are as concerned for their offspring’s well-being as they are for their own. Maybe more so. They may have had sons and daughters who were born with a disabling condition or who became disabled later in life. They are familiar with the disappointment and financial hardship unanticipated events cause and are grateful that Social Security is available to provide help when it is needed. Fundamentally, they understand SSDI’s value and they support the program.”
At the heart of this issue is the GOP’s refusal to simply allow a modest and temporary reallocation of part of the 6.2 percent Social Security tax rate to the DI Trust Fund which would put the entire Social Security program on an equal footing, with all benefits payable at least until 2033. Again, Americans pay taxes to one Social Security system with the understanding their money provides disability, retirement and survivor benefits – all of them – so changing that allocation formula temporarily avoids any shortfall. In fact, Democrats and Republicans have authorized this same strategy eleven times without controversy (including four times during the Reagan administration). Extending the DI Trust Fund’s solvency to match the Retirement Trust Fund is a simple common sense step that sets the table for a more constructive long-term conversation about Social Security between now and 2033, rather than this faux crisis mentality promoted by the billion dollar anti-Social Security lobby and it’s allies on Capitol Hill.
GOP leaders call this common-sense solution “kicking the can down the road” while they ignore the reality of what a 20% benefit cut would mean to millions of people with disabilities. It’s a “death sentence” according to Social Security Acting Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin. She’s right. However, rather than address this immediate need for Social Security disability beneficiaries, as so many other Congresses have, Republican leaders continue their cynical political attack in which all Social Security beneficiaries are the hostages.
The annual lobbying extravaganza by the multi-billion dollar private insurance industry which sells Medicare Advantage
plans to seniors, will enter a new phase tomorrow when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announces it’s 2016 rate schedule
. Lobbyists (America’s Health Insurance Plans alone spent nearly $5 million in just six months last year) have been in hyper-drive convincing Washington that trimming their billions of dollars in federal subsidies is the same as cutting seniors’ Medicare benefits. It’s not. But all that lobbying has paid off so far because not only have the proposed single-digit cuts been avoided; they’ve been replaced with rate increases:
“The Obama administration turned a proposed 1.9 percent cut to 2015 Medicare Advantage health plans into a .4 percent increase after heavy lobbying from insurers and the Hill. It was the second-straight year that the Medicare agency transformed a proposed rate cut into a raise. Still, Medicare Advantage enrollment has grown every year since the ACA passed in 2010. In fact, enrollment has increased more than 9 percent each year since 2012, when the ACA’s cuts to the Medicare Advantage started to take effect. The law is supposed to cut payments by $156 billion over 10 years because the program has historically reimbursed private insurers at a higher rate than the traditional Medicare program. Private plans are reimbursed at 106 percent of the traditional program, and Obamacare aims to close this gap.” Washington Post
Except that gap will never be closed as long as the powerful insurance industry is allowed to pretend that a 1.9% cut in their federal overpayment is unreasonable to ask from companies with financial reports like these:
“Revenues at Humana for 2014 climbed 17.4% year over year to $48.5 billion. Meanwhile, reported premiums and services revenues increased 9.2% to $3.1 billion, primarily on the back of an increase in average group Medicare Advantage membership.”
“UnitedHealth Group’s full year 2014 revenues of $130.5 billion grew $8 billion or 7 percent year-over-year. UnitedHealthcare growth was led by strength in the public and senior sector.”
Let’s not forget that these giveaways to private insurers, covering just one-third of Medicare beneficiaries, are being paid for by taxpayers and the majority of seniors who don’t even participate in a private MA plan. The fact that these subsidies exist is terrible public policy. The fact they continue to be protected by lawmakers is indefensible. Especially when you consider the mounting evidence that the only advantage to Medicare Advantage plans is to the $884 billion dollar a year health insurance industry.
Reports of Medicare Advantage fraud continue to surface. Whistleblowers (including a former Bush administration official) have filed more than a half-dozen federal court cases detailing systemic over-billing by private Medicare Advantage insurance companies.
The Center for Public Integrity has investigated MA plans in depth. It reports CMS officials acknowledge billions of dollars have been improperly paid to private MA plans due to a practice called “upcoding” in which insurers exaggerate how sick their patients are to increase their “risk score” and collect higher Medicare reimbursements. Some of CPI’s other findings include:
- Risk score errors triggered nearly $70 billion in “improper” payments to Medicare Advantage plans from 2008 through 2013 — mostly overbillings, according to government estimates.
- Risk scores of Medicare Advantage patients rose sharply in plans in at least 1,000 counties nationwide between 2007 and 2011, boosting taxpayer costs by more than $36 billion over estimated costs for caring for patients in standard Medicare.
- In more than 200 of these counties, the cost of some Medicare Advantage plans was at least 25 percent higher than the cost of providing standard Medicare coverage.
- In 2012, CMS audits of six plans found that private insurers couldn’t justify payments for 40 percent or more of their patients. Those overpayments alone cost the Medicare program nearly $650 million in 2007. That’s just for six plans for one year.
- The Government Accountability Office reports Medicare Advantage plans collected $3 - $5 billion in “excess payments” over just two years (2010-2012) because of private insurers “upcoding.”
- A new Government Accountability Office investigation is now underway continuing its look into MA “upcoding” fraud which, by some estimates, has provided an $70 billion dollars of improper payments to private insurance companies.
This is just the fiscal side of what the privatization of Medicare has meant. Now let’s consider what beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage plans have faced. Unfortunately, that news is also disheartening.
- The Center for Medicare Advocacy reports there is evidence that private insurers are “cherry picking” healthier seniors for their plans to keep costs down (and profits high.) “A recently released CMS report confirms advocates’ fears by concluding that disenrollment by individuals from MA plans back to traditional Medicare ‘continues to occur disproportionately among high-cost beneficiaries, raising concerns about care experiences among sicker enrollees and increased costs to Medicare.’”
- The Kaiser Family Foundation says that “Since 2012 average out-of-pocket spending limits have been on the rise, which could expose a subset of enrollees to higher costs – mainly those who have significant medical needs.” Again, that means older and sicker seniors.
- These rising premiums are confirmed by the industry itself in a survey distributed to lawmakers. Incredibly, the insurance lobby uses their premium hikes as justification for Congress to protect private insurers’ massive subsidies.
“The sickest patients who need the most care have seen their maximum annual out-of-pocket costs increase by as much as $761 since 2012, according to the study, which was conducted by the actuarial firm Milliman for the Better Medicare Alliance advocacy group. The value of extra benefits that the health plans provide fell by a national average of $180.24 from 2012 to 2015.” Congressional Quarterly
It’s hard to imagine how our political leaders can justify preserving federal over payments to private insurers in Medicare with a track record that looks like this. However, if early media reports are correct that’s exactly what’s likely to be announced tomorrow – federal subsidies to one of the wealthiest industries in America’s will be preserved while taxpayers and seniors in Medicare will continue to foot the bill.
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