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Posts Tagged 'budget'

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Tom Price's "Alternate Reality"

In the Orwellian world that Trump’s Washington has become, we are used to hearing language abused and misused to forward a right-wing agenda.  This week was no different.  As Kaiser Health News reported, HHS Secretary Tom Price was on Capitol Hill Thursday reciting a blatantly false Tea Party mantra:  government programs for our society’s most vulnerable members deserve to be cut because they “don’t work.”  This falsehood flies in the face of evidence - of history, really.  But in an attempt to dismantle the New Deal and Great Society programs that boost up the neediest – which includes millions of older Americans – the administration will literally say anything even if the opposite is true.

Price appeared before two congressional committees yesterday to defend President Trump’s 2018 budget, which calls for drastic cuts to programs benefitting seniors - including Medicaid, Meals on Wheels, and medical research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  His testimony included the following whopper:

“The problem with many of our federal programs is not that they are too expensive or too underfunded. The real problem is that they do not work—they fail the very people they are meant to help.”  HHS Secretary Tom Price before the Senate Finance Committee, 6/8/17

In spreading these myths, Price is singing from the same hymnal as other administration officials, most notably Budget Director Mick Mulvaney who defended funding cuts for Meals on Wheels thusly:

“Meals on Wheels sounds great… [but] we're not going to spend [money] on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises that we’ve made to people.” – OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, 3/15/17

With an extra-Orwellian touch, Mulvaney added that draconian cuts in safety net programs are “one of the most compassionate things we can do.”

All of this begs the question:  by what imaginary standard do these programs “not work” or “fail the people they are meant to help?”   How does Medicaid – which allows millions of needy seniors to afford long-term care at home or in skilled nursing care facilities – not work?  Or Meals on Wheels, which provides hot, nutritious meals for 2 million hungry and isolated seniors – not work?  These are programs that undeniably do work.

National Committee President Max Richtman takes Secretary Price to task for telling untruths about these vital federal programs:  

“As a former member of Congress and a physician, Secretary Price should know better.  By maligning programs that have been a lifeline for millions of Americans for decades, Secretary Price is denying history and facts.  He is attempting to create an alternative reality that is patently false and misleading.”  - Max Richtman, NCPSSM President & CEO

Price also resorted to the spurious claim that rising costs in programs like Medicaid demand cuts.  He insisted that cutting $610 billion from Medicaid would lead to “innovations and efficiencies.”  No, cutting billions from Medicaid will result in a shortfall for states facing rising costs, forcing them to cut benefits or kick people off the rolls altogether. 

The truth is that these federal safety net programs are incredibly efficient already. Medicaid’s per capita costs are significantly lower than private insurers’.  Meals on Wheels can feed a senior for an entire year at the same cost as a single day in the hospital.  And those are only two of the safety net programs which fall under the Trump budget axe.

Democrats on the Hill pushed back against Price’s pronouncements and Trump’s budget cuts, too:

It’s mean-spirited. It’s not good for America. We can do much better." - Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)

If Republican budget hawks like Price truly cared about seniors, children, the disabled, and other vulnerable segments of society, they would not be slashing safety net programs.  But they cannot pay for trillions in tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations without cutting domestic spending, so programs that benefit our neediest citizens go on the chopping block.  The rationale that the Trump budget cutters are simply seeking “efficiencies” is a thin veil for denying needy seniors long term care or hot meals. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, father of the New Deal and grandfather of the Great Society (which today’s GOP is fighting to undo) put it best when he said:

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little."  - President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Unlike Trump’s budget hawks, FDR understood the importance of authentic language that shines a light on fundamental truths.  He would never confuse “compassion” for cruelty, “helping people” for hurting them, or success for failure.  Neither should we.

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Oh, yes: the Trump Budget Definitely Does Cut Meals on Wheels

 

Would the Trump administration and its acolytes please stop saying that the President's budget does not cut funding for Meals on Wheels?

Just today, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney made that very claim at a House hearing on the new budget: 

"Let's talk about Meals on Wheels, because we don't reduce it.” – Mick Mulvaney, Trump Budget Director, 5/24/17

Meals on Wheels is a program that delivers hot meals to more than 2.4 million needy seniors across the country every year. Volunteers not only deliver sustenance; they check in on isolated seniors and provided a much needed human connection.


Anyone looking at the actual numbers can plainly see that the Trump budget does, in fact, slash funding for Meals on Wheels. In addition to cutting Older Americans Act home-delivered meals by $1.5 million, the President’s budget eliminates the Community Services, Community Development and Social Services Block Grants, upon which some Meals on Wheels programs rely for funding.

Because of previous budget cuts, Older Americans Act nutrition programs are already serving 23 million fewer meals than in 2005.  The loss of Community Services Block Grants ($715 million), Community Development Block Grants ($3 billion) and Social Service Block Grants ($1.7 billion) funding for home delivered meals would increase the number of seniors threatened by hunger.

According to Feeding America, 5.7 million Americans over the age of 60 were food insecure as of 2014. That means 9% of all seniors in the wealthiest nation in the world are at risk of going hungry.  Worse yet, the number of food insecure seniors is projected to increase by 50% when the youngest of the Baby Boom Generation reaches age 60 in 2025. There are waiting lists in every state for seniors who need food assistance. Cutting Meals on Wheels funding at a time of growing need is outrageous and dangerous.

In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post on March 20th, National Committee President Max Richtman recounted his days as staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Aging.  He tells the story of a Republican Senator who changed his mind about the program after riding along with a Meals on Wheels van:

“He (the GOP Senator) was impressed by not only the sustenance of the food, but also the seniors’ human connection to the volunteers, and became an enthusiastic advocate for the program.” – Max Richtman, Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post

At the end of the letter to the editor, Max suggested that a certain occupant of the White House follow the Senator’s lead. 

Perhaps Mr. Trump should ride with a Meals on Wheels van and witness the profound benefits to our nation’s most vulnerable seniors.

That suggestion seems even more appropriate today, given that the President obviously has no problem defunding Meals on Wheels in his new budget.  Perhaps Mick Mulvaney should ride along with him.

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Trump Budget Shatters President's Promise on Social Security, Medicaid

The President’s promise not to touch Social Security was officially revealed to be a sham today.  Trump’s proposed 2018 budget slashes $64 billion from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  Some media outlets have let the President off the hook by saying the budget does not cut Social Security benefits.  This headline from Fox Business News is typical, even in the mainstream media:

Trump’s Budget Slashes Spending, Leaves Social Security & Medicare Untouched – Fox Business News, 5/22/17


A CNN Money correspondent just perpetuated the administration’s misleading spin, telling Wolf Blitzer this afternoon that Trump’s budget “doesn’t touch Social Security.”   

Other media outlets are hedging by saying the Trump budget doesn’t cut “core” Social Security benefits – whatever that means.  Social Security Disability Insurance is a crucial and inseparable part of Social Security. Period.  No amount of parsing can cleave the two.  When you cut a program, you hurt people – whether the cuts affect “core” benefits or not.

In this case, the millions of Americans with disabilities who rely on SSDI for basic income security are the ones who stand to be hurt.  Though SSDI helps younger Americans, too, most of its beneficiaries are 55 or over – meaning any cuts to the program will hit older Americans particularly hard.   The human consequences do not seem to disturb the President’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, as is obvious from this exchange with a reporter in the White House press room:


Reporter:  Will any of those individuals who receive SSDI receive less from this budget?

Mulvaney:  I hope so.

Mulvaney clarified that he thought the program has been enrolling too many people and called for cuts in the number of enrollees, even though that number has been shrinking.  Earlier this year, the Budget Director wondered aloud on television why SSDI is considered part of Social Security, despite the fact that it unequivocally is – and has been – since 1956.  SSDI is funded by workers’ Social Security payroll tax contributions – just like retirement benefits.   Qualifying disability beneficiaries must meet certain work history requirements, same as they do for retirement benefits.  When SSDI recipients reach retirement age, they transition seamlessly into the Social Security retirement program.  In no way is SSDI separable from Social Security.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reports that the Trump budget contains $72 billion in cuts to federal disability programs — primarily Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, which provides income assistance to poor seniors and people with disabilities.  The budget does not contain hard details of exactly how SSDI will be cut, but CBPP offers this insight:

$48 billion would come from a vague proposal to “test new approaches to increase labor force participation.”  But the Social Security Administration has undertaken many demonstration projects over the years to test new ways to encourage beneficiaries to return to work, and they have consistently shown limited results or proved not cost-effective. The budget also contains other proposals that would cut Social Security benefits for disabled workers and SSI benefits for households with more than one disabled family member.  – Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

Cutting benefits for Americans with disabilities fits right in with the cruel theme running through the President’s entire budget, which decimates programs for society’s most vulnerable citizens in order to give the rich and big corporations a massive tax cut.  In addition to SSDI, the Trump budget guts Medicaid, and cuts funding for other programs benefitting seniors including Meals on Wheels, home heating assistance, and community service employment.  

Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly vowed not to touch Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  The drastic cuts to SSDI and Medicaid – along with the weakening of Medicare’s solvency in the Republicans’ healthcare legislation – makes the President zero for three on these promises.   Knowing that he cannot be trusted to protect seniors, advocates and everyday Americans must work to defeat the Trump budget in Congress – and make sure it never reaches his desk.

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Ryan's Siren Song of Spring: Cut "Entitlements"

Along with Cherry Blossoms and the White House Easter Egg Roll, Spring has brought fresh talk of “entitlement reform” to the Nation’s Capital.  Of course, Social Security and Medicare are not “entitlements.”  They are earned benefits that Americans pay into during their working lives in exchange for retirement and health benefits during their senior years.  Nevertheless, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other budget hawks prefer to perpetuate the “entitlement” myth.  This week, Ryan said that fiscal responsibility means “reforming our entitlement programs.”  “Reforming” is code for undermining Social Security and privatizing Medicare, two politically unpopular ideas that nonetheless seem to drive Ryan’s agenda.  Never mind that Social Security and Medicare Part A are funded by workers’ payroll contributions and don’t contribute a penny to the deficit.  

Meanwhile, House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-TN) is looking to end traditional Medicare through the budget reconciliation process in May, according to Congressional Quarterly.

“The coming fiscal 2018 plan is likely to include proposals to transform Medicare… into a premium support program.  Under one House GOP model… people would be given a choice of traditional Medicare or insurer-run plans starting in 2024.” – Congressional Quarterly, 4/27/17

 “Premium support” is an innocuous sounding term that could have dire consequences for seniors.  What Diane Black means by “premium support” is converting Medicare into a voucher program.  Seniors would be offered the option of leaving traditional Medicare to buy insurance in the private market using vouchers.  These vouchers could never keep pace with rising premiums, meaning seniors would have to cover the difference or drop health insurance entirely.  Older and sicker seniors would likely remain in conventional Medicare, causing the program’s cost to skyrocket, benefits to be cut, and eventually the death of Medicare itself.

The canard that Ryan and his party use to justify cutting benefits, reducing COLAs, and raising retirement ages is that Social Security and Medicare are going “bankrupt.” While it’s true that the trust funds for Social Security and Medicare Part A won’t be able to pay full benefits after 2034 and 2028 respectively without corrective action, there are modest and manageable solutions that won’t hurt the seniors who depend on them.  Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman John Larson (D-CT) have both offered common sense legislation to keep Social Security solvent for decades.  Both bills ask the wealthy to pay their fair share by scrapping the income cap on payroll taxes.  Larson’s legislation also increases the FICA tax by 1% over 25 years.  (Larson says that for a worker earning $50,000 a year, the payroll tax bump equals one Starbucks coffee drink every 9 weeks). Instead of cutting benefits for our most vulnerable citizens – or raising the retirement age – these bills actually increase benefits and COLAs. 

Medicare could be kept solvent well into this century by similarly modest and manageable means, if budget hawks like Ryan would stop insisting that privatization is the only fix. Congress could authorize Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices (one of the biggest drivers of rising health care costs).  Innovative methods for saving Medicare costs under the Affordable Care Act, many of which have already reduced healthcare expenditures, could be expanded instead of repealed.  In fact, the Affordable Care Act itself extended the solvency of Medicare by four years.  Repealing the ACA – as Ryan and President Trump are still struggling to do – hurts the long-term solvency of the program.

Ryan and many conservative Republicans ignore these alternatives because, at heart, they do not believe in federal programs that provide Americans with retirement and health security – which puts them at odds with the majority of voters. The latest National Committee poll indicates wide public support for progressive solutions for Social Security and Medicare – and significant opposition to the GOP approach. Seventy-nine percent favor increasing Social Security benefits by scrapping the payroll tax income cap.  Sixty-five percent oppose raising the Medicare eligibility age.  Ninety-three percent want Medicare to be able to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

The National Committee’s social media community seems to agree.  Comments on our Facebook posts over the past three months demonstrate deep skepticism about Republican talking points:

Bruce W. These programs are NOT "entitlements"--we have paid into them our entire working lives. If the income subject to SS fees was raised SS would be solvent for decades...
Suzanne S. Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. It is a stand-alone program funded by workers. LEAVE IT ALONE.
Tom S.  Social Security and Medicare are lifelines to millions of seniors; anyone who votes in favor of cutting or reducing benefits should be ashamed of themselves!
Adam R.  Social Security has nothing to do with the general budget at all. FACT. It is not an entitlement, This is basically a Trust fund we have paid into all our working lives.

Americans intuitively understand that Social Security and Medicare are social insurance programs that they have already paid for through their hard-earned wages.  For 82 years and 52 years respectively, these programs have worked efficiently to keep seniors healthy and out of poverty.  Our Facebook commenter is perfectly correct to call them “lifelines to millions of seniors.”  Yes, their finances need to be shored up. But asking beneficiaries to bear the burden is not the right way. It’s too bad that some of our most powerful political leaders do not seem to understand… or care.

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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.  

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