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Remembering a Crusader for Equal Access to Federal Benefits

The woman President Obama called one of America’s “quiet heroes” passed away September 12th in New York City.  Edith Windsor, 88, was a champion of LGBT rights, whose victory in the landmark United States v. Windsor Supreme Court case allowed married same-sex couples to collect the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples in states that had legalized gay marriage. 

Edith Windsor’s 2013 victory inspired Kathy Murphy, a Texas widow who was denied Social Security survivor’s benefits after the death of her wife, Sara. With the help of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, Murphy, a member of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, sued the Social Security Administration (SSA) in 2014 for the right to collect survivor’s benefits.  Murphy’s case was later folded into the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case that legalized same sex marriage and access to spousal benefits for same-sex couples nationwide in 2015.  

Thanks to Edith Windsor, Kathy Murphy, and millions of supporters across the country, same-sex couples became eligible for the full range of Social Security spousal benefits, including retirement, survivor, death and disability protections. This led to the development of a National Committee sponsored community outreach and education initiative called Know Your Rights which helped thousands of LGBT couples and families understand their Social Security benefits.  

Edith Windsor lived with her partner, Thea Spyer, for 40 years, finally getting married in Toronto in 2007. (Their home state of New York didn’t legalize same-sex marriage until 2011).  Windsor was denied an estate tax exemption for married couples after Spyer died, and sued the federal government for a tax refund, leading to the landmark Windsor decision.  

The diminutive Windsor, a retired computer programmer for IBM, never sought the spotlight but embraced her role as a well-known LGBT activist. 

The National Committee celebrates Windsor’s life and her landmark achievements.  She was that ‘ordinary person’ caught up in extraordinary circumstances who bravely stepped forward for the cause of equality, the “quiet hero” who gave voice to couples asking only the same benefits as everyone else.

Rep. Brat at His Worst: Spreading Myths about Social Security and Medicare

In a contentious interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan this week, Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) perpetuated some dangerous myths about Social Security and Medicare.  Brat, a Tea Partier and fiscal bomb thrower, has been campaigning to cut seniors’ earned benefits since first running for Congress in 2014.

The CNN interview heated up when Bolduan pressed Brat about the recently-passed deal to suspend the debt ceiling and keep the government open, which he opposed.  It’s worth quoting Brat’s answer at length here, because it is only borderline comprehensible and riddled with inaccuracies:

“I was just at my convocations back home with the kids. The kindergarteners are in the class of 2030, they just told me. They will graduate college in 2034. So if you do know the context, the context is that is the year Medicare and Social Security are insolvent. I don’t think people do know the context.  Otherwise there’d be more urgency and they wouldn’t put up with the nonsense we’re doing up here on the fiscal front. Right? If the press would weigh in on what the damage -- it’s a guaranteed fiscal crisis in 2034. Guaranteed.  In law, I’m on the budget committee, we can’t touch it.  Right--You got to pass in law.  So that’s – that’s the context and so with that; if you ask the average voter how you should vote on a clean debt ceiling increase with no fiscal discipline whatsoever, it’s the whole country 90%.”

Where to begin dissecting this statement?  The relevance of kindergarteners graduating college in 2034 notwithstanding, Social Security and Medicare will not be insolvent that year.  If Congress takes no corrective action whatsoever, the Medicare Part A Trust Fund and the Social Security Trust Funds will be depleted in 2029 and 2034, respectively.  But that does not mean the programs will be insolvent.  Revenue from workers’ payroll taxes still will be flowing in, allowing Medicare to pay 88% of full benefits and Social Security 77% --- with no further action from Washington.  In fact, the 2017 Social Security Trustees Report says there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year --- and that it will continue to grow with payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund's assets.)  

Does this mean we sit by and do nothing?  Of course not.  But Rep. Brat’s prescriptions are as draconian as his statements are inaccurate.  The Congressman has championed cutting Social Security and Medicare and raising eligibility ages as the only solution.  When running for office in 2014, he told a Tea Party crowd:

“It’s not just little marginal changes, right?  In order to avoid those insolvency issues with Medicare and Social Security, you’re going to have to do some major cuts."

According to PolitiFact, Brat went on to say that people will ‘have to work longer before receiving benefits’ – meaning raising the retirement age.  This favorite proposal of fiscal hardliners is actually a benefit cut.  And it is based on the misconception that just because average life expectancy is rising, everyone can work well past 65 – even though working class Americans (especially those doing physical labor on the job) may not be physically able to continue working into their late 60s like their wealthier counterparts.

Hardliners don’t like to talk about this, but there are other ways to keep our earned benefits fiscally sound without punishing the people who depend on them. The National Committee supports legislation by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT), and others in Congress to keep Social Security solvent without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age – mainly by lifting the payroll tax income cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share.  In fact, the Sanders and Larson bills actually boost benefits and cost-of-living increases while ensuring the fiscal health of Social Security well past those kindergartners’ 2034 graduation date. That way, those kids can count on their benefits when they retire around 2077.

But some members of Congress – and Rep. Brat in particular - ignore or dismiss these modest and manageable solutions, proposing instead that seniors shoulder the burden through benefit cuts and a higher retirement age.

Now we come to the second myth that Brat likes to propagate:  that Social Security and Medicare are major drivers of the federal budget deficit.  At that same 2014 Tea Party campaign event, Brat justified Social Security and Medicare cuts by saying:

“We’re going to have to take some bad medicine… to just balance the budget. If you don’t solve it, then in 11 years nearly all federal revenue will go only to [Social Security and Medicare].”

The fact is that Social Security has no net effect on the federal budget and contributes not one penny to the deficit. It is self-financed through workers’ payroll taxes.  Ditto for Medicare Part A.  Suggesting that these programs must be cut to balance the budget is disingenuous at best, but that doesn’t stop fiscal hardliners and the mainstream media from spreading the myth.  

Notice how Brat conflates the debt crisis with Social Security and Medicare at the end of his CNN rant.  Unfortunately, this claim is made far too often, but is hardly ever challenged by on-air journalists, this time being no exception (though, in truth, Bolduan was struggling just to control the interview).

Why do the on-air rantings of Congressman Brat matter? His arch-conservative philosophy wouldn’t be so dangerous if he were truly on the margins of political debate. But for the first time in more than a decade, fiscal hawks have the power to impose their hardline views on America’s most vulnerable citizens. Brat is a member of the House Budget Committee, which has already voted to privatize Medicare and raise the eligibility age.  That’s a powerful perch for spreading myths about Social Security and Medicare in order to justify cuts that are just plain cruel. 

Two Paths Forward on Obamacare: One Reasonable, the Other Perilous

Newly back from summer recess, Senators are taking two divergent paths on healthcare after the Republicans’ spectacular failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  For Americans who rely on the ACA for health insurance, one path is encouraging; the other, fraught with peril. 

On the encouraging side, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee are working on a bi-partisan plan to stabilize the ACA insurance markets, recognizing that the healthcare of millions of Americans hangs in the balance.  In fact, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) are up against a hard deadline.  Insurers need to know the level of federal support for the ACA marketplaces before they set premiums for 2018 at the end of September.

The legislation they devise will likely beef up cost-sharing payments to insurers who waive certain out-of-pocket costs for lower income patients, as well as re-insurance payments to help insurers cover high-risk populations.  While President Trump and hardline conservatives in Congress have indicated they would be content to let the Affordable Care Act languish, Senator Alexander wisely recognizes that the public will hold Republicans accountable if Americans lose healthcare.  In other words, the GOP will own the ACA, whether they like it or not. 

Unlike the Senate and House leadership during the repeal and replace debacle, the HELP committee has been holding hearings (imagine that!) to get input from outside of Congress on possible fixes to the ACA.  Last week, a group of Republican and Democratic governors of widely different ideologies sang from the same hymnal:  the ACA marketplaces must be stabilized.

Senators Alexander and Murray must finish their hearings, mark-up the bill, pass it out of committee, and hope that it reaches the Senate floor.  If Senate leadership feels the bill has bipartisan support, it may come to a vote.  Whether all of that can happen by the end of September is anyone’s guess.

On the discouraging side, Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) just won’t let go of the repeal and replace agenda.  Undaunted by the GOP’s failure to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, Senators Cassidy and Graham are working on legislation to try, try again.  The Cassidy-Graham amendment is just as bad as - if not worse than - the failed Senate repeal bill last summer, and retains many of the most objectionable parts of the House-passed legislation.  Among other things, Cassidy-Graham:

*Ends the ACA’s Medicaid expansion  

*Cuts hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicaid spending

*Imposes per capita caps on Medicaid payments to the states

*Ends ACA subsidies and replaces them with inadequate block grants

*Leaves older and poorer Americans with no guarantee of affordable or adequate coverage

Were Senators Cassidy and Graham not paying attention when Americans at town halls across the nation expressed outrage at the GOP repeal and replace plans, including drastic cuts to Medicaid and more than 20 million people losing health coverage?  Did they not take seriously the Congressional Budget Office reporting on the negative impacts of repeal and replace on everyday Americans?  Apparently not. 

Fortunately for seniors – and all Americans who need healthcare – Senators Cassidy and Graham are running out of time.  Under Senate rules, their amendment cannot pass with a simple majority vote after the fiscal year ends on September 30th.  If they wanted to keep pushing for passage after that, they’d need 60 votes under regular order – a threshold they are not likely to meet.

Of course, it is premature for supporters of the ACA to declare victory.  We have seen seemingly dead repeal and replace bills suddenly spring back to life.  The legislative rollercoaster of last Spring and Summer are fresh in our memories.  Advocates and everyday Americans must keep the pressure on their elected representatives to work in a bipartisan fashion (like Sens. Alexander and Murray) to strengthen the Affordable Care Act– and reject repeal and replace once and for all.

Coming soon to a pharmacy or grocery store near you: Hi-Quality Over the Counter Hearing Aids

Seniors suffering from hearing loss have good reason to cheer. They should soon be able to purchase quality hearing aids over the counter. The Over the Counter (OTC) Hearing Aid Act of 2017 is poised to become law.  Passed by Congress this summer, the Act authorizes the FDA to create a new category of regulated, over the counter hearing aids.  With 30 million Americans (and 4 in 5 seniors) experiencing hearing loss, this is sweet relief for seniors’ pocketbooks and overall health.

Prescription hearing aids can cost as much as $2,500 each (or $5,000 a pair).  The hefty price tag can be a severe strain for seniors living on fixed incomes, especially since Medicare does not cover hearing aids. That’s why some 70% of Americans between age 65 and 84 with hearing loss are not using hearing aids.  They simply cannot afford to. 

The anticipated new generation of OTC hearing aids – meant for people with “mild to moderate” hearing loss – will retail for a fraction of the prescription price:

“By opening the market to OTC aids, manufacturers of consumer electronics --- from giants such as Apple and Samsung to small startups --- could enter the hearing aid space and sell directly to consumers… [at a retail price] between $150 and 299.” - The Hill Newspaper

Imagine being able to buy high-quality hearing aids at your local pharmacy or grocery store for as little as $150, bypassing the time-consuming and expensive process of acquiring them from an audiologist.  Of course, those with more serious hearing impairment will and should continue to seek prescription hearing aids through a specialist.

As we discussed yesterday on Facebook Live, this is not just a matter of personal cost.  It’s a public health issue. Hearing loss is a gateway to other potential medical problems – including fatigue, stress, depression and memory loss.  Access to affordable, high-quality OTC hearing aids means that millions of seniors will likely be able to hear better and stay healthier.

National Committee President Max Richtman hailed the new law as a victory for seniors and all Americans with hearing impairment:

“As someone who suffers from hearing loss, I understand what this new law means for seniors’ health – and their pocketbooks.  While we hope that Medicare will eventually cover hearing aids, the OTC Hearing Aid Act is a common sense, compassionate measure that will improve seniors’ access to quality devices.” – Max Richtman, President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare

The new law is the product of the kind of bipartisanship that most Americans yearn for.  It was cosponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA). The House bill was cosponsored by Democratic representative Joe Kennedy III and Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn. The Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 proves that, under the right circumstances, sensible members of both parties can come together to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

FDR's Grandson on Social Security... Which Turns 82 Today

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Social Security into law on this day in 1935 to provide seniors with basic income security after retirement, mitigating against the “vicissitudes and hazards of life.” Eighty-two years later, the program he created has kept several generations of seniors – and their families – out of poverty.  In turn, the nation is very fortunate to have had several generations of Roosevelts dedicated to preserving Social Security. 

Franklin Roosevelt’s son, Congressman James Roosevelt, Sr., founded the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in 1982 to protect the financial security, health, and well-being of current and future generations of Americans.  FDR’s grandson, James (“Jim”) Roosevelt, Jr., carries on his family’s legacy as a leading healthcare advocate and vice-chair of the National Committee’s Advisory Board. 

Last March, Jim Roosevelt sat down with National Committee President Max Richtman for a wide-ranging Facebook Live interview.  We have included some highlights of that interview below as we look at the legacy of Social Security on its 82nd anniversary.

Jim’s grandfather, President Franklin Roosevelt, became inspired to create a national retirement insurance program after seeing older Americans relegated to the poor houses because they had no means of supporting themselves. “It tears my heart to see those old men and women there,” said then-Governor Roosevelt after visiting the poor houses of New York state.  As Jim Roosevelt explained, FDR felt that seniors deserved an assurance of fundamental financial security.

He believed (and we still believe) that Social Security is basic to the lives of the American people. And he was very clear that it was a family program.  It was created not only so that people, when they reach retirement age, have enough money for the basics of a decent life. It’s also so that their children don’t have to spend down their money to take care of them. – Jim Roosevelt

Working with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, FDR pushed the Social Security Act of 1935 through Congress at the height of the Great Depression.  To some, it was counterintuitive that  President Roosevelt put such a high priority on retirement insurance at a time when so many millions of Americans couldn’t find work.  But Jim Roosevelt told us that FDR viewed retirement security and employment as inextricably linked.

People said to my grandfather, “Why are you worrying about people’s retirement when people need jobs?”  And he said these are tied together. If people have jobs, they can pay into Social Security knowing that they’ll have benefits later on.  Life is then worth living, work is worth doing.  And I think that’s what has remained the vision for me, for my father, and for the National Committee over these past 30 years. – Jim Roosevelt

It was very important to President Roosevelt that Social Security be funded directly through workers’ payroll contributions.  FDR said that payroll contributions would give retirees “the legal, moral, and political right” to collect their Social Security benefits. He knew that a perpetually self-funded program would guarantee Social Security’s endurance for generations to come, and protect the program from the whims of politicians who might seek to undermine it

The reason that Social Security is structured the way it is is so that nobody, just for political reasons, can cut Social Security out of the budget or out of the law.  Because Social Security has its own dedicated income stream from the payroll tax, we don’t just trade if off against education or defense or other important things.  My grandfather famously said, “With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.”  That’s as true today as it was in 1935. – Jim Roosevelt

President Roosevelt’s vision has most certainly endured. Today, Social Security provides some 61 million Americans and their families with basic financial security upon retirement or disability.  For older Americans, Social Security can mean the difference between financial well-being and poverty.  Two out of three seniors rely on Social Security for most of their income, and one-third of seniors depend on it for at least 90% of their income. Public polling consistently shows that Social Security enjoys overwhelming support from majorities of Americans across party lines.

Over the years, Social Security has been modified (with bipartisan support) to expand benefits and keep the system financially sound. This year, Social Security has come under new threat from budget hawks in the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill.  But as generations of Roosevelts have shown us, Social Security is worth fighting for.  On this, Social Security’s 82nd anniversary, we at the National Committee recommit ourselves to preserving this landmark program for current and future generations of Americans.

Watch our full interview with Jim Roosevelt on Facebook Live

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