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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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Will Congress Put Budget $’s to Work for Average Americans?

Passing a budget in Washington these days is uglier than making sausage. The next step (now underway), when Congressional appropriators actually decide where to spend those budgeted dollars, may be even worse.

As a reminder, the 2016 budget deal passed last month was far from perfect; however, it did:

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

·         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

The budget deal also provided for a roughly $33 billion increase in domestic programs. Many, like Older Americans Act programs, have been devastated by the sequester so loosening that budget noose should have been good news.

However, Congressional conservatives have very different ideas than Democrats of where those extra budget dollars should go. In a classic “guns vs. butter” battle, GOP appropriators propose less for domestic programs, like the Older Americans Act, and $8 billion more for the nondefense war account beyond the increase already requested by the President.  According to Congressional Quarterly:

“Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro, ranking member of the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, on Tuesday slammed the new, post-budget-deal allocation for the spending bill she helps oversee, which typically accounts for roughly one-third of all nondefense discretionary spending.

DeLauro said the revised discretionary allocation for Labor-HHS-Education is $5.2 billion above the fiscal 2015 enacted level (PL 113-235) of $156.76 billion, or roughly $161.69 billion. She said the bill should receive an increase of closer to $10 billion above the enacted level. The budget accord provided a roughly $33 billion increase to domestic programs above the sequester level, when a roughly $8 billion increase to the nondefense war account beyond the president’s request is included.

“I’m opposed to the allocation. The recent allocation is well below the percentage that Labor-H should have, given that Labor-H is 32 percent of the nondefense discretionary dollars,” DeLauro said.”

The Older Americans Act is the backbone of the nation’s home and community supports system, helping older adults age with independence and dignity by providing them with much-needed in-home support, meals, transportation, caregiver assistance and ombudsman programs to help protect residents in nursing homes.

The Leadership Council of Aging Organizations, chaired by NCPSSM, is mobilizing Americans to call their members of Congress and ask them to do more, not less, for the growing number of older Americans by protecting aging services and increasing funding for the Older Americans Act and Elder Justice programs. Our seniors are counting on them.

USE OUR LEGISLATIVE HOTLINE

AND MAKE YOUR CALL TO CONGRESS

(800) 998-0180

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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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