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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.



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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!

$580 Social Security Boost for Seniors?

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has introduced legislation, cosponsored by a host of Democratic Senators and supported by us here at the National Committee, to send every senior citizen and disabled veteran in America a check for $580.  The “SAVE Benefits Act” follows the announcement last month that beneficiaries would not receive any COLA increase next year. 

Senator Warren describes her legislation this way:

“Although the cost of core goods and services is projected to rise next year, millions of Americans will see no increase in the benefits they rely on to make ends meet. Meanwhile, CEO compensation for the top 350 firms increased by 3.9 percent last year. The Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act (SAVE Benefits Act) would give about 70 million seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, and others an emergency payment equal to 3.9 percent of the average annual Social Security benefit, about $581 - the same percentage raise as the top CEOs.

A $581 increase could cover almost three months of groceries for seniors or a year's worth of out-of-pocket costs on critical prescription drugs for the average Medicare beneficiary. The bill would lift more than 1 million Americans out of poverty. The cost of this emergency payment would be covered by closing a tax loophole allowing corporations to write off executive bonuses as a business expense for "performance pay." The substantial additional revenue saved by closing the CEO compensation loophole would be used to bolster and extend the life of the Social Security and Disability trust funds.”

For seniors who continue to see their costs increase, particularly their healthcare, news that there would be no COLA increase in 2016 makes no sense.  It highlights the need to adopt a more accurate measure of seniors’ true expenses through the adoption of a CPI for the elderly (CPI-E).

“The current Social Security COLA formula isn’t accurately measuring seniors’ expenses.  Seniors across this nation understand how important having an accurate measure of the increase in their real costs is to their day-to-day survival.  While there has been a lot of talk in Washington about the need to find a more accurate COLA formula; unfortunately, that attention has largely focused on ways to cut the COLA even further.  Leaving many Americans to wonder what’s less than zero?  If accurate inflation protection for seniors is truly our goal, Congress needs to adopt a fully developed CPI for the elderly (CPI-E). Until then, we urge Congress to act quickly to mitigate the devastating Medicare hikes headed for millions of Americans who can’t afford them.” ...Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

Senator Warren talked about why seniors need this legislation on “All In” with Chris Hayes.

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.  

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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