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Congress: Stop Squeezing the Social Security Administration

We have written extensively in this space about cuts to the Social Security Administration budget negatively impacting customer service for beneficiaries.   This week, as Mary Beth Franklin reports in Investment News, the SSA announced that it would stop mailing paper statements to Social Security beneficiaries under 60 “due to serious budget constraints.” Beneficiaries over 60 who do not have an online “My Social Security” account will continue to receive paper statements (for the time being, anyway).

This is the latest in a slew of customer service reductions forced by draconian cuts to the agency’s budget in Congress.  The SSA goes on to say:

“In addition, we have enacted a hiring freeze and dramatically reduced overtime hours that help us process work after assisting customers in our offices and on the phone.”

Anyone who has tried to phone the SSA knows exactly what that means:  more wasted time waiting to talk to a customer service representative, if you reach one at all. In 2016, the average hold time for callers to the SSA’s 800 number was 15 minutes.  Ten percent of all callers got a busy signal. These stats will likely get worse this year.

Ironically, this week’s SSA announcement ends with the cheery affirmation, “Thank you for helping Social Security continue securing today and tomorrow as we rise to this challenge.”  Kudos to the SSA for putting a brave face on an extremely vexing situation.  

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported last June, the SSA has been struggling to provide proper customer service ever since Congress passed the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which included appropriations caps – further reduced by sequestration.  In fact, the SSA’s core operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010 (after adjusting for inflation), even as the demands on SSA have reached “all-time highs as the baby boomers have aged into their peak years for retirement and disability.”

These cuts resulted in an SSA hiring freeze, the closure of more than 60 field offices across the country, and lengthy delays in processing Disability Insurance (DI) applications appeals. (Some 1 million applicants are awaiting much-delayed hearings.)  Advocates of budget cuts may claim that beneficiaries can access services online, but the truth is that many seniors can’t get online – or are vastly more comfortable talking to a human being.

To some in Congress, the SSA budget may simply represent figures on a spreadsheet.  But the cuts imposed some 6 years ago continue to harm real people – the 59 million beneficiaries of Social Security who are being denied timely service.  Congress squeezes SSA’s budget even though the agency is funded by Social Security revenue (mostly from workers’ payroll contributions) and not from the general treasury.  Why then, does Congress insist on bleeding what is already one of the most efficient federal agencies?  One explanation is that those on Capitol Hill who are bent on cutting benefits and privatizing Social Security know that forcing customer service cutbacks feeds public frustration, undermining public support for the program in general.

The only responsible solution is to restore much-needed funding for the Social Security Administration – to undo the damage that began in 2011.  The SSA’s administrative budget for FY 2016 was $12.162 billion.  We support President Obama’s FY 2017 budget request of $13.067 billion, a badly needed 7% increase.  At this level of funding, the SSA could begin to restore the customer services it has been forced to cut.  After years of endless hold music, busy signals, shuttered field offices, and unreasonable wait times for hearings, we at the National Committee could finally stop filling this space with bad news for SSA’s customers.  

“In addition, we have enacted a hiring freeze and dramatically reduced overtime hours that help us process work after assisting customers in our offices and on the phone.”

Anyone who has tried to phone the SSA knows exactly what that means:  more wasted time waiting to talk to a customer service representative, if you reach one at all. In 2016, the average hold time for callers to the SSA’s 800 number was 15 minutes.  Ten percent of all callers got a busy signal. These stats will likely get worse this year.

Ironically, this week’s SSA announcement ends with the cheery affirmation, “Thank you for helping Social Security continue securing today and tomorrow as we rise to this challenge.”  Kudos to the SSA for putting a brave face on an extremely vexing situation.  

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported last June, the SSA has been struggling to provide proper customer service ever since Congress passed the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which included appropriations caps – further reduced by sequestration.  In fact, the SSA’s core operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010 (after adjusting for inflation), even as the demands on SSA have reached “all-time highs as the baby boomers have aged into their peak years for retirement and disability.”

These cuts resulted in an SSA hiring freeze, the closure of more than 60 field offices across the country, and lengthy delays in processing Disability Insurance (DI) applications appeals. (Some 1 million applicants are awaiting much-delayed hearings.)  Advocates of budget cuts may claim that beneficiaries can access services online, but the truth is that many seniors can’t get online – or are vastly more comfortable talking to a human being.

To some in Congress, the SSA budget may simply represent figures on a spreadsheet.  But the cuts imposed some 6 years ago continue to harm real people – the 59 million beneficiaries of Social Security who are being denied timely service.  Congress squeezes SSA’s budget even though the agency is funded by Social Security revenue (mostly from workers’ payroll contributions) and not from the general treasury.  Why then, does Congress insist on bleeding what is already one of the most efficient federal agencies?  One explanation is that those on Capitol Hill who are bent on cutting benefits and privatizing Social Security know that forcing customer service cutbacks feeds public frustration, undermining public support for the program in general.

The only responsible solution is to restore much-needed funding for the Social Security Administration – to undo the damage that began in 2011.  The SSA’s administrative budget for FY 2016 was $12.162 billion.  We support President Obama’s FY 2017 budget request of $13.067 billion, a badly needed 7% increase.  At this level of funding, the SSA could begin to restore the customer services it has been forced to cut.  After years of endless hold music, busy signals, shuttered field offices, and unreasonable wait times for hearings, we at the National Committee could finally stop filling this space with bad news for SSA’s customers.  

A Dangerous New Year for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

At a family gathering over the holidays in Florida, the conversation inevitably turned to politics.  Some of the seniors at the table who voted for Trump expressed their certainty that no one in Washington will really touch their earned benefits.  “Trump’s not going to let the Congress cut Social Security,” said a Great Aunt in her 70s.  “Paul Ryan’s not really going to mess with Medicare,” insisted her husband. Of course, these beloved family members could not be more wrong.

Their complacency (or, in this case, complicity) sets up a dangerous opportunity for the GOP-controlled 115th Congress, which was just sworn in yesterday.  Claiming a mandate that most certainly does not exist, Congressional Republicans are rolling out proposals that will destroy Social Security and Medicare as we know them, not to mention deep cuts to Medicaid and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  These actions will hurt not only the seniors at the holiday table, but their children and grandchildren, too.  As we have been warning for years, all Americans have a lot to lose if these programs are compromised by capricious politicians.

President-Elect Trump shows no signs of honoring his campaign pledge not to touch Social and Medicare.  He has been strangely silent about Congressional proposals that will wreck these two programs, and his appointments to crucial administration positions speak volumes – most notably Rep. Tom Price (a notorious privatization proponent) as Health and Human Services Secretary and Rep. Rick Mulvaney (a fiscal hardliner) as director of the Office of Management and Budget --- a likely ally for Congressional Republicans looking to cut entitlements.

A quick survey of GOP proposals shows just how much current and future beneficiaries of these crucial income security programs have to lose.  House Social Security Subcommittee Chair Sam Johnson (R-TX) has introduced a so-called Social Security “reform” bill that will result in benefit cuts, raise the retirement age to 69, and reduce Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) that seniors on fixed incomes rely on.  House Speaker Paul Ryan, who Tuesday gaveled the 115th Congress into session, has long promised to privatize Medicare, turning it into a voucher (or “Coupon Care”) program that would leave future beneficiaries to fend for themselves in the private insurance market while traditional Medicare slowly dies.  This will mean skyrocketing premiums and reduced coverage for seniors thrust into the private insurance market.

The 115th Congress just took the first procedural steps to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which not only jeopardizes health care coverage for 30 million Americans, but puts real improvements to Medicare at great risk.  If the Affordable Care Act is recklessly repealed, seniors will lose free preventative screenings under Medicare.  The Part D prescription drug “donut hole” will open up again, costing more than 11 million Medicare beneficiaries $2,100 per person on prescriptions.  Worse yet, Medicare beneficiaries will face higher premiums and deductibles to make up for the roughly $800 billion in cost savings that the ACA provided over 10 years.  Insurers will once again be able to overcharge or deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

Combine this with GOP plans to block-grant Medicaid, which millions of seniors depend on for nursing home care and long term care services, and Americans are confronting a full-fledged assault on their earned benefits and income security.  As the 115th Congress convened yesterday, Democrats promised vigilance.  Incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer declared from the Senate floor, “We demand that (Trump) keep his promise not to cut Social Security and Medicare… We will hold the President-elect accountable.”  On GOP efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, Schumer warned, “It is not acceptable to repeal the law, throw our health care system into chaos” and leave the solution for another day.  Senator Bernie Sanders has called for a national Day of Action on January 15th “to oppose any cuts to health-care plans or subsidies,” including rallies in Congressional districts across the country.

We stand with our allies on Capitol Hill, our fellow advocacy groups, and our millions of members to protect Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act.  We see the danger quite clearly… and hope that the seniors and their families who sat around holiday tables the past two weeks will, too.

 

 

Enjoy the Holidays. Ring in the New Year. Fight for Social Security and Medicare.

While we at the National Committee extend warm holiday wishes to all our readers, the joy of the season is overshadowed by the knowledge that the coming year is full of unprecedented peril for our cherished income security programs – and our health care.  

Throughout the year, we warned about the dangerous positions Trump and the GOP had taken on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act.  As early as March, we exposed Trump’s past statements in favor of raising the retirement age to 70 and privatization.  At the same time, we warned about renewed GOP plans to slash Medicare benefits.  In June, we predicted that Speaker Ryan and Donald Trump would eventually join forces to privatize Medicare.  After Donald Trump locked up the nomination, we flagged the dangers to Social Security in the Republican platform.  When Trump picked his running mate, we shined a harsh light on Mike Pence’s long history attacking Social Security and Medicare.  After the election, the National Committee began pushing back against the GOP’s race to dismantle our income security programs, beginning with a benefit-slashing bill by House Social Security Subcommittee Chair Sam Johnson, and Trump’s naming a notorious privatizer for Health and Human Services Secretary. 

Make no mistake about it, the GOP-led 115th Congress will waste no time implementing their plans to destroy Medicare and Social Security as we know it – and repeal the Affordable Care Act.  President-elect Trump has offered no assurance that he will stand by his campaign promise not to touch Social Security and Medicare, and as we reported, his past statements on both programs are not comforting.  Pending legislation on Capitol Hill could cut Social Security benefits by 1/3, raise the retirement age, and decrease COLAs.  If Paul Ryan gets his way, Medicare will be turned into “Coupon Care” and seniors will be given vouchers to fend for themselves in the private insurance market.  Thirty million Americans could lose health insurance (including a disproportionate number in areas that Trump won in November) if the Affordable Care Act is repealed (not to mention the lost improvements to Medicare included in the ACA).  Americans who depend on any of these programs could sink into poverty.

Working Americans, the disabled, seniors, and their families should know what’s at stake – and they must participate in the movement to stop Republicans from snatching away their earned benefits and health care.  The National Committee will vigorously lobby members of Congress, gather millions of petition signatures, and encourage working Americans to contact their elected representatives about these critical issues.  We will partner with our allies to promote an agenda that protects – and boosts – our earned benefits instead of slashing them.  So, by all means enjoy the holidays and ring in a peaceful New Year.  Then… let’s shift gears into battle mode and stop the war on the working class together.

Did You Get the Most of Your Medicare This Year?

There’s no doubt about it...Medicare can be confusing.  However, there are many benefits out there that many seniors may not even realize exist.  Here’s a quick look at a few of the often overlooked Medicare benefits that you should be sure you are fully utilizing.

 

 

Annual wellness visit

If President-elect Trump follows up on his campaign promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, this benefit will disappear, which is a real loss for millions of seniors who’ve used these visits preventatively to avoid potentially larger health issues in the future.  If you haven’t already, get your annual visit in soon.

Wellness visits are with your primary-care physician once a year, even when you're feeling fine. These visits give you and your doctor a chance to review your health and see where attention might be needed or improvements might be made. The focus is on your overall health and allows patients and doctors to red-flag any concerns that might seem small now but could lead to a more serious issue if ignored. Wellness visits are available to anyone covered by Part B or Medicare Advantage plans.  For now, anyway.

Depression screening

Once a year, every Medicare Part B recipient can receive free depression screening from his or her primary-care doctor.  This is an important benefit because one in six seniors suffers from depression yet estimates are only 10% of chronically depressed seniors receive the treatment they need for their disease.

Late life depression is an important public health problem. It is associated with increased risk of illness, increased risk of suicide, decreased physical, cognitive and social functioning, and greater self-neglect, all of which are in turn associated with an increased likelihood of death. 

Smoking cessation

According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 40 million adults in the United States currently smoke cigarettes.  Smoking is the #1 cause of preventable disease and death in the United States.  In fact, more than 480,000 Americans die, or 1 of every 5 deaths, from tobacco use.  It’s never too late to stop smoking.  That’s why Medicare provides its beneficiaries help quitting. Anyone who uses tobacco and has Medicare Part B coverage can get up to eight smoking-cessation visits covered over a 12-month period. The only stipulation is that the visits are with a qualified doctor or other Medicare-recognized practitioner. These visits will not cost you a penny out of pocket, so if you're a smoker who wants to quit for good, make sure you take advantage of this Medicare benefit.

In the Fight for Retirement Security, It's 2005 All Over Again... But Ten Times Worse

After his re-election in 2004, President George W. Bush declared he would spend his political capital to realize a long-held conservative goal: end Social Security as we know it and turn it over to Wall Street.  Bush didn't realize he had stepped on a political landmine. I was Executive Vice President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in 2005, when we beat back Bush's attempt to privatize one of America's most popular and successful government programs.  

We and other advocacy groups banded together to oppose the plan.  We lobbied on Capitol Hill.  We held town halls and rallies across the country.  We mobilized at the grass roots level.  We mounted a paid media campaign. By the summer of 2005, Bush's scheme was dead.  Not a single piece of privatization legislation made it to the floor in Congress. The people had spoken:   Hands Off our Social Security!  

Here we are, eleven years later, facing another existential threat to our health and retirement income security.  But this time the threat is worse, the peril more palpable.  The millions of workers, retirees, the disabled and their families who depend on Social Security and Medicare have cause for grave concern.  Why do I say that?  After all, we prevailed in saving Social Security in 2005, with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress - just like today.  But there are several key differences between then and now: 

*In 2005, there were more GOP moderates in the House and Senate.  There was no Tea Party or Freedom Caucus.  We've seen in the past 6 years how these extremists are the tail that wags the dog in the House.  They are determined to privatize or cut Social Security and Medicare, and they have considerable clout with the House GOP leadership. 

*The 2005 privatization proposal came from the White House; Congressional Republicans were lukewarm to the idea of monkeying with Social Security.  Today, House Republicans are leading the charge to privatize both programs.  While Speaker Paul Ryan nearly salivates at the opportunity to convert Medicare into "Coupon-Care", the House Social Security Subcommittee Chairman, Sam Johnson (R-TX), has already introduced a bill that would raise the Social Security retirement age, slash benefits, and cut Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs).  No doubt, similar GOP bills will quickly follow in the new Congress this January.

*On the Senate side, the two most powerful Republicans on this issue have openly advocated "Social Security reform" - which is usually code for replacing guaranteed benefits with personal investment accounts.  Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has perpetuated the myth that Social Security and Medicare have "driven the [national] debt," going so far as to call these cherished entitlement programs "the single biggest threats to our future."  Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch peddles the falsehood that Social Security "will be bankrupt unless we enact significant reform." 

*President-elect Trump, who promised not to touch Social Security and Medicare during the campaign, advocates reform on his transition website and nominated a fervent privatizer, Rep. Tom Price, as Secretary of Health and Human Services.  His second in command, Governor Mike Pence, is a well-documented privatization proponent. We can't count on Mr. Trump to protect current and future Social Security beneficiaries. 

The movement in Washington to gut our most crucial social insurance programs - not only Social Security and Medicare, but Medicaid, too - amounts to nothing less than a war on the working class:  people at all levels of income and employment who are counting on retirement income and health security. We in the advocacy community, empowered by workers and beneficiaries across the country, are gearing up for battle.

We are gathering millions of petition signatures demanding that Congress keep its hands off of Social Security and Medicare. We are organizing phone banks and letter writing campaigns to our elected representatives.  Borrowing a campaign idea from Mr. Trump, we also need to build a wall - a firewall to be specific - in the Senate, to ensure that none of the privatization or benefit-cutting legislation makes it out of Capitol Hill and up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Senate Democrats and Independents must stand together. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Bernie Sanders will make that happen with the reinforcement of seniors' advocates. However, several in the GOP must also stand with Democrats to put a simple majority vote out of reach.  Senators including John McCain (AZ), Susan Collins (ME), Lamar Alexander (TN), and Charles Grassley (IA) know how important Social Security and Medicare benefits are to their constituents - and value the billions of dollars pumped into their state economies. We call upon these Senators to stand up for the future retirement security of America's workers.       

There is no question the struggle will be harder than it was in 2005.  The political climate is more hostile.  The forces aiming to destroy our treasured social insurance programs are more insidious. The stakes are higher.  But we can protect Social Security and Medicare and keep them solvent for the future without cutting benefits for millions of Americans if we organize, mobilize, and make our voices heard on Capitol Hill.

Together, we can stop this war on the working class.



   

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