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2016 Determines the Future of Social Security & Medicare

There is a lot at stake in the 2016 election because the differences between candidates’ plans for ‪#‎SocialSecurity‬‪#‎Medicare‬ and Medicaid are stark.  Seniors' votes will make a difference so please help us advocate, educate and keep the candidates accountable for their positions on America's most successful programs!

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No, the Budget Deal Did NOT Cut Your Social Security Benefits

America’s seniors, people with disabilities and their families who depend on Social Security have legitimate reason to be scared whenever Congress starts cutting backdoor deals because they know from experience that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have been used as piggy banks or political hostages by GOP leaders always looking for ways to cut benefits.   

The good news is, contrary to claims by largely financial writers, Social Security benefits were not cut in this week’s Congressional Budget deal.   

We take on one of the seriously flawed stories in NCPSSM’s “Equal Time”:  

 “Proposed budget bill would have devastating effects on millions’ Social Security benefits”, Laurence Kotlikoff, PBS Columnist 

“...the new budget ​drastically cuts Social Security benefits for many of those now collecting, drastically cuts benefits for many of those who were about to collect, exacerbates Social Security work disincentive and induces households to do exactly the wrong thing, namely take their benefits too early at the cost of permanently lower benefits.”

In a column loaded with scary and inflammatory rhetoric describing Congress’ budget deal as  “devastating,” “radical,” and “truly draconian,” Laurence Kotlikoff does his readers and especially Social Security beneficiaries a huge disservice by presenting changes that impact a tiny percentage of Americans as something much larger.  At issue is a little-used benefit strategy called File and Suspend.  The Budget deal modifies this practice and fixes the unintended consequences (the Social Security Actuary calls it a loophole) in a 2000 Social Security law that allows retirees to file for Social Security and then suspend receipt of their benefits to maximize their Social Security payout. Under the Budget deal, the tiny percentage of beneficiaries (estimated to be about 100,000 people) who’ve used this strategy will be allowed to continue to do so.  Their benefits will not be cut.  However, Congress is changing this claiming practice for the future.  Spouses, divorced spouses, the disabled and children will still quality for their regular earned Social Security benefits much as they have in the past. As the co-author of a how-to book advising people on ways to use “aggressive claiming strategies,” there’s no surprise Kotlikoff finds this provision frustrating; however, these changes are far from “reneging” on Social Security’s promise as claimed in his piece. 

The National Committee does not support the Congressional majority’s continuing use of Social Security as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations.  However, it’s vital that Americans receive the full story about Congressional action on Social Security, including who is truly affected and in what ways.  The Congressional budget deal does not cut benefits and will not harm millions of people, contrary to what was reported by PBS.  

The Economic Policy Institute also provides this description of the file and suspend change:

“Eliminating “aggressive Social Security-claiming strategies, which allow upper-income beneficiaries to manipulate the timing of collection of Social Security benefits in order to maximize delayed retirement credits” was something the president included in his fiscal-year 2015 budget, not something the administration reluctantly agreed to. And most advocates, including the Social Security Works coalition, to which EPI belongs, think it’s a loophole that needs to be closed, since the purpose of the delayed retirement credit is to equalize lifetime benefits, not to give savvier beneficiaries who can afford to delay take-up a little something extra. The dissidents counter that a benefit cut by any other name is still a benefit cut, and say it’s a strategy that can help divorced women, who can be particularly vulnerable in retirement.

 The dissidents make a strong case with feminist appeal. But it’s still double dipping even if a few people who take advantage actually need a larger benefit. In the end, it all seems a distraction from the benefits of the agreement, which include averting large benefit cuts to disabled beneficiaries.”

The budget agreement will benefit literally millions of Americans in Medicare and Social Security yet conservatives are up in arms claiming that Speaker Boehner gave away too much (as if preventing massive disability benefits cuts, Medicare hikes and government default are bad things). 

Specifically, this Budget Deal:

  • Prevents a 19% cut in Social Security Disability Insurance benefits that would have occurred in late 2016
  • Ensures 7 years of certainty that the Social Security Disability insurance program will pay full benefits
  • Mitigates a 52% Medicare Part B premium increase for 30% of Medicare beneficiaries
  • Alleviates an increase in the Part B deductible for all beneficiaries, lowering it from a projected $223 to $167
  • Provides sequester relief to programs like the Older Americans Act, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Social Security field offices.

This Budget Deal is good news for seniors but it’s far from perfect.  Unfortunately, the bill also:

  • Provides NO financial relief to seniors who will receive no cost of living adjustment in 2016.
  • Extends the Medicare provider reimbursement sequester and uses the savings to pay for unrelated programs.

Lastly, let’s make it clear that the biggest problem with the Budget Deal is that Congressional leadership continues to use middle-class benefits as hostages to try and force concessions on legislation that has nothing to do with Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. 

With a new House Speaker, Rep. Paul Ryan, now in charge (and his views on slashing Social Security and turning Medicare into CouponCare are well known) we’ll likely face this battle again as soon as next month in the Transportation bill debate as conservatives hope to use benefit cuts to pay for highways.  

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It Could Be Worse – Our Reaction to Budget Deal

In these days where nothing in Congress can get done without making threats to slash benefits, holding programs like Social Security and Medicare hostage or creating a crisis that could easily be fixed – today’s news that budget negotiators have reached a deal to avoid a full government default is welcome news. 

But of course, the devil is in the details. 

“At the risk of damning by faint praise, the newly negotiated budget deal certainly could have been a lot worse. The good news is Democrats in Congress and the White House were able to stop a 52% premium increase from hitting millions of seniors in Medicare next year.  They also negotiated a re-allocation (originally blocked by the GOP) for the Social Security disability program that prevents a massive benefit cut in 2016 for Americans with disabilities.  In this current Congressional atmosphere of hostage-taking and never-ending threats to benefits, these victories are significant.

Unfortunately, seniors will still receive no cost of living adjustment in 2016 and the sequester cuts to Medicare providers will continue to pay for non-Medicare programs. It’s clear the GOP-led Congress still sees Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as piggy banks to fund other legislative priorities and this hostage-taking, threats to benefits and crisis creation will continue. We hope Congress can get the votes to approve this budget deal so that seniors, people with disabilities and their families may finally see a temporary cease-fire in this ongoing assault on their benefits.”...Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

Specifically, this budget agreement, if passed, would:

·         Prevent a 19% cut in Social Security Disability Insurance benefits that would have occurred in late 2016

·         Ensure 7 years of certainty that the Social Security Disability insurance program will pay full benefits

·         Mitigate a 52% Medicare Part B premium increase for 30% of Medicare beneficiaries

·         Alleviate an increase in the Part B deductible for all beneficiaries, lowering it from a projected $223 to $167

·         Provide sequester relief to programs like the Older Americans Act, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Social Security field         offices without cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

Unfortunately, the bill would also:

·         Provide NO relief to seniors who will receive no cost of living adjustment in 2016.

·         Extend the Medicare provider reimbursement sequester and uses the savings to pay for unrelated programs.

·  .While this two-year budget agreement could provide a cease-fire in the attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid it is likely to be fleeting as funding for the nation’s transportation system runs out again in December. What does highway funding have to do with Social Security & Medicare?  The answer should be nothing.  However, as we reported in July, the GOP Congress has tried to pay for the transportation bill with cuts in Social Security and are likely to try again next month.

“...there are at least two Social Security policy changes that are currently being considered as “offsets” for legislation that would extend highway transportation funding. One of these is a measure barring payment of Social Security benefits for seniors with outstanding warrants for their arrest. Almost none of the seniors who would be affected by this provision are actual fugitives from justice and most of the warrants in question are many years old and involve minor infractions. Moreover, the Social Security Administration attempted to administer a similar provision for a number of years, with catastrophic effect for many vulnerable elderly seniors, employing procedures that did not withstand judicial scrutiny. Reenacting this requirement should be something the Congress does only after careful analysis and with ample opportunity for public discussion.

The second provision relates to the concurrent receipt of both Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits and unemployment compensation. Given the importance that all policy makers ascribe to encouraging disabled Americans to return to the workforce, I am perplexed by the desire on the part of some in the Congress to strip working SSDI beneficiaries of their eligibility to receive unemployment compensation when, through no fault of their own, they lose a job. Concurrent eligibility, which derives directly from a disabled person’s efforts to return to work, is a work incentive. That incentive should be altered only after the committees of jurisdiction have carefully considered all of the ramifications associated with such a change and, again, after ample opportunity for public comment.”  Entitled to Know, July 2015

The House is expected to vote on the 2 year budget agreement tomorrow. 

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GOP Sticks to Demands for Social Security & Medicare Cuts

As the days and weeks pass, with the GOP Congress still unable to find anyone willing to be Speaker of a chaotic House, the party remains committed to one thing.  They won’t agree to extend the debt limit or any of the other critical budget deadline looming without getting cuts to Social Security and Medicare.  Politico reports:

“...that means entitlement reform, which is where the big money is,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “We got our feet wet on the [Medicare doc fix]. We ought to get a little more wet. We’re up ankle deep. Maybe we ought to go waist deep.”

As a reminder, the Medicare “doc fix” passed earlier this year cut benefits for millions of beneficiaries.  Apparently, GOP leaders see that as just the beginning...

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What the GOP’s Sleight of Hand Budgeting and Deflection Politics Means for Social Security & Medicare

First pulished on Huffington Post by Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

Any good magician will tell you, the best tricks depend on misdirection. So while all eyes are on the spectacle of the House GOP’s in-fighting, its search for a new Speaker and the never-ending “who-insulted-who” shenanigans of the GOP Presidential primary, it’s easy to forget that Congress is now also quietly working on legislation that could impact virtually every American family, especially those that depend on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The American people must not be distracted by the ongoing political show to the point that they miss the real action occurring behind the scenes.

Before leaving for recess in December, Congress faces legislative deadlines to avoid a government shutdown, a default, an extension for transportation funding and tax breaks. While the shutdown has been narrowly averted, the annual appropriations process continues as the President and Congressional Democrats push GOP leaders for a deal to mitigate automatic across-the-board cuts to defense and non-defense programs – also known as the “sequester.” 

No amount of political magic can hide the fact that three years of sequester caps have had serious consequences for important seniors programs, including the Older Americans Act and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, along with service reductions at Social Security Administration field offices. That’s why the National Committee supports the President’s plan to increase spending caps. However, some conservatives in Congress insist that relief for programs like the Older Americans Act be paid for by cutting Medicare and Medicaid. This budgetary sleight-of-hand could trade partial relief for some seniors’ programs by cutting other essential health security programs like Medicare and Medicaid, thus further eroding the tenuous economic situation many older Americans face.

It’s no mystery where these Medicare and Medicaid cuts are likely to come from. You have to look no further than the GOP Budget plan for a blueprint of the House leadership’s favorite benefit cut proposals, such as:

  • Ending the Medicaid joint federal/state financing partnership and replacing it with fixed dollar amount block grants, giving states less money than they would receive under current law. 
  • Repealing Medicaid expansion. Since 2014, states have had the option to receive federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage. Over half of the states have expanded their Medicaid programs, and others will likely do so in the future.  Repealing this option would result in at least 14 million people losing their Medicaid coverage and state Medicaid programs would lose a total of $900 billion over 10 years. 
  • Cutting Medicare by $431 billion over ten years.  Over half of Medicare beneficiaries had incomes below $23,500 per year in 2013, and they are already paying 23 percent of their average Social Security check for Medicare cost-sharing in addition to out-of-pocket costs.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare has prepared a detailed look at the many policy options in our Fall Budget Outlook brief.

Legislation may need to be enacted by late November or early December to allow the government to continue borrowing and avoid a government default.  Allowing a default would result in an economic catastrophe and jeopardize the payment of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. In addition, default would jeopardize Medicare and Medicaid payments to doctors and hospitals and coverage for prescription drugs, which are critical to the health security of millions of Americans.

As if all of this isn’t enough, funding for the nation’s roads and public transit will also expire at the end of October.  Because the Highway Trust Fund no longer takes in enough gasoline tax revenue to cover surface transportation costs, Congress must come up with more funding.  When Congress passed a temporary funding fix this summer, House leaders proposed using Social Security funds to pay for it.  This was the third time in little over a year that Congress has attempted to use Social Security and/or Medicare as an ATM to pay for a completely unrelated priority.  Last year Congress voted to extend the Medicare sequester cuts into 2024 to cover a reversal of cost-of-living cuts to veterans' pension benefits. This summer Medicare was cut again to help pay for the Trade bill.  Rather than consider tax reform for huge corporate tax dodgers sending billions of profits oversee to avoid paying taxes, GOP leaders tried again (unsuccessfully this time) to cut benefits to seniors, people with disabilities and their families who depend on Social Security to pay for highways.  Unfortunately, Congress could pull this outrageous strategy out of its hat once again.  Need money for highways, to relieve sequester cuts, deficit reduction or anything at all? Voila!  Let’s take if from Social Security and Medicare.

There’s no doubt about it -- it will take more than legislative smoke and mirrors and political magic for Congress to get the job done right. But the American people also need to be more than an audience in this process.  We need to pull back the curtain on this benefit cut agenda so the American people can avert any surprises Congressional leaders have up their sleeves for vital programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

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