506, 2018

No Cause for Alarm from Social Security Trustees Report

By |June 5th, 2018|Medicare, Medicare Trust Fund, Prescription Drug Prices, Social Security, Social Security Trust Fund, Social Security Trustees|

The 2018 Social Security Trustees Report confirms that the program’s trust fund is still very much intact, with $2.89 trillion in assets – or $44 billion more than last year.  The Trustees say the combined OASDI (Old-age, Survivor, and Disability Insurance) trust fund will remain fully solvent until 2034, after which it can pay 79% of benefits if there are no changes to the program.

“The Trustees have confirmed that Congress has ample time (16 years) to enact modest and manageable changes to Social Security to address the fiscal shortfall. Most Americans agree that raising the payroll wage cap is the easiest and most effective way to strengthen Social Security’s finances, negating the need for harmful benefit cuts like means testing or raising the retirement age,” – Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

A growing movement from seniors and their advocates to lift the wage cap and increase benefits has been underway since 2013. The National Committee’s Boost Social Security Now campaign endorses legislation in Congress introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and others, which keeps the Social Security Trust Fund solvent well into this century, while boosting benefits and cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).

On Medicare, the Trustees report shows that the Part A Trust Fund will be able to pay full benefits until 2026, at which point payroll taxes are estimated to be sufficient to cover 91% of benefits – if nothing is done to bolster the system’s finances.  The National Committee advocates several measures to keep Medicare financially sound, including a genuine push to allow the program to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

“President Trump’s recently unveiled prescription drug pricing proposals were a missed opportunity to bring Big Pharma to the negotiating table with the Medicare program.  Among all the steps we could take to maintain the program’s financial health, this is one of the most crucial.” -Max Ricthman

The National Committee advocates restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies formerly paid the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid), in addition to innovation in the delivery of care and in the way care is paid for –  to keep Medicare fiscally sound for future beneficiaries.

Read in-depth analysis of the Social Security Trustees report and the Medicare Trustees report by the National Committee’s policy experts.

3105, 2018

Draft Medicare Handbook Biased Toward Private Plans

By |May 31st, 2018|Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Medicare, Medicare Advantage, Trump Administration|

A draft handbook on Medicare enrollment has drawn criticism from senior’s advocates – and rightly so.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released the draft for review in advance of mailing a final version to 43 million households this September.  What bothers advocates is the handbook’s apparent bias toward private Medicare Advantage plans over traditional Medicare – using inaccurate and misleading information.

The Center for Medicare Advocacy, Justice in Aging, and the Medicare Rights Center have sent a letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma, calling out “serious inaccuracies” in the draft handbook, entitled Medicare & You.

“It is critical that the information in the Handbook be fairly and accurately presented… However, when comparing Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage, the 2019 draft Handbook does not meet this standard, distorting and mischaracterizing the facts in serious ways.”  – Advocates’ Joint letter to CMS

The draft handbook inaccurately compares traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage, in an apparent attempt to influence beneficiaries to choose the latter.  Here are some of the crucial issues the advocates flagged in their letter:

1. The handbook fails to clearly distinguish between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage.

2. It does not make clear that traditional Medicare provides access to all Medicare participating providers nationwide, while Medicare Advantage limits access to a fixed network of providers in a specific geographic area.

3. The handbook repeatedly suggests that Medicare Advantage is less expensive for beneficiaries.  Many factors determine a subscriber’s costs in one plan versus the other. In many cases, traditional Medicare is the less expensive choice.  

4. The Handbook attempts to depict prior authorizations for medical services under Medicare Advantage as a benefit, rather a mandatory hurdle that traditional Medicare patients don’t face.

There is no doubt that Medicare Advantage might sometimes be the better choice for seniors – especially younger and healthier ones.  But, as Reuters columnist Mark Miller points out, traditional Medicare “remains the gold standard for flexibility, since it can be used with any healthcare provider who accepts Medicare.”

Medicare Advantage plans, on the other hand, are managed care networks (HMO’s) with a more limited choice of physicians, hospitals, and other providers.  Seniors in the Medicare Advantage program may not find their preferred doctors and specialists in the Medicare Advantage network.

Once a senior signs up for Medicare Advantage, it can be tricky to switch to traditional Medicare later.  Here’s why:  traditional Medicare beneficiaries usually purchase a supplemental MediGap insurance plan to help cover out-of-pocket costs.  MediGap plans are guaranteed to be issued to new Medicare enrollees, but not for patients switching from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare.  These beneficiaries may find themselves without adequate supplemental insurance.

It is not at all surprising that CMS under the Trump administration is trying to steer seniors toward Medicare Advantage.

“The handbook problems fit a pattern in the Trump administration, which has taken a number of steps to impede the flow of unbiased health insurance assistance.” – Mark Miller, Reuters

In fact, Miller says, advocates had similar objections to CMS’ 2018 Medicare handbook. What’s more, 15 U.S. Senators sent a letter to CMS in February complaining the agency was maneuvering to turn traditional Medicare into a private voucher program which would “fundamentally restructure the guaranteed benefit traditional Medicare provides to older adults and people with disabilities.”

In general, the guiding philosophy of this administration favors private over public solutions, even though – in the case of traditional Medicare (and Medicaid) – government-run health care is more cost effective.

The Medicare handbook – which millions of seniors rely on to choose the plan that best fits their needs – should present the facts about traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage without bias.  The well-being of those 43 million older Americans who will receive the Medicare handbook in September depends on it.

2205, 2018

Banking Industry Wins; Working and Retired Americans Lose

By |May 22nd, 2018|Congress, Retirement, Social Security|

The majority in the House of Representatives just betrayed working Americans by passing reckless banking legislation known as the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (S 2155).  The only accurate part of the title is “regulatory relief,” in that it rolls back crucial regulations on the banking industry enacted after the 2008 financial crisis.  It likely will provide little to no economic growth, and it does not protect consumers by any means. In fact, the bill will hurt consumers – especially working Americans saving for retirement.

The new legislation just passed by the House deregulates 25 of the largest 38 banks in the United States.  This is a reversal of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that sought to safeguard the public against the kind of bank failures which triggered the Great Recession.  As Americans for Financial Reform said in a recent letter to Congress:

“The deregulatory provisions in the bill would be actively harmful to consumers and increase the instability of the financial system. The consumer measures included in the bill are often flawed and do not come close to counterbalancing the impacts of weakening or eliminating important regulatory protections in areas ranging from mortgage lending to the oversight of large banks.” – Americans for Financial Reform, 5/18/18

American workers lost trillions of dollars in retirement savings (including more than $2 trillion invested in 401K’s) in the wake of the ’08 financial meltdown. Normal market volatility is one thing.  But crashes like we experienced ten years ago can permanently rob retirees of their life savings:

“For workers in their 50s or 60s and approaching retirement such losses can be devastating and difficult to recover from — unless those older workers are willing to defer retirement for another five years to 10 years to make up for what they lost in the market.” – National Committee president Max Richtman, CNBC, 3/16/18

All of this begs the question:  how can we ask workers to be responsible and save when the government strips away protections intended to keep our savings secure?  For most working and middle class Americans, it is already challenging to set aside enough money for retirement – thanks to stagnant wages, growing income inequality, and longer life expectancies.  With actions like Congress took Tuesday, workers have scant assurance that whatever they can squirrel away for retirement will be there when they need it.  In fact, last March the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) determined that the deregulation bill would make another financial crisis more likely.

Of course, there is one thing that Americans count on for basic financial security in retirement no matter what:  Social Security.  For 83 years, Social Security has been a safeguard for seniors with little or no savings who might otherwise slide into poverty. But the same fiscal conservatives in a hurry to deregulate the banking industry are also gunning for Social Security under the guise of “entitlement reform.”  This is code for cutting benefits and raising the retirement age (which is itself a benefit cut).  As soon as the Trump/GOP tax scheme passed in December, Speaker Ryan and other budget hawks signaled they would come after retirement benefits in order to pay for it.

Seniors and their advocates can’t let that happen – especially at a time when we cannot trust Congress to protect the interests of working people over those of the big banks. Retirees’ Social Security benefits must be preserved because, at least for now, they are the only thing workers can depend on after the next financial crash.

1405, 2018

Did Trump Make the Right Choice for Social Security Commissioner?

By |May 14th, 2018|President Trump, Social Security Administration (SSA)|

It only took President Trump a scant 16 months to nominate someone to head the Social Security Administration (SSA), which oversees the Social Security program and Supplemental Security Income for some 67 million Americans.  Trump’s nominee, Andrew M. Saul, is a New York businessman, Republican donor, and former chairman of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which administers the retirement plan for U.S. government employees.

The Social Security Administration has run without a confirmed, full-fledged director for the past five years. The Republican-led Senate refused to confirm President Obama’s nominee, who departed as acting commissioner after the Trump administration took office.  President Trump dragged his feet making a nomination, leaving acting chief Nancy Berryhill to lead an agency struggling to provide customer service in the wake of draconian budget cuts.

Appearing before the House Social Security subcommittee in March, National Committee president Max Richtman said that SSA needed “strong leadership” to achieve its mission, and that a new commissioner should be nominated and confirmed.  Now that President Trump has finally selected someone, what do we really know about him?

Though he served on the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board for nine years, Andrew Saul has no real public record – good or bad – when it comes to Social Security.  But his alignment with Republican politics (he was a top fundraiser for George W. Bush, who famously tried to privatize Social Security) and his membership on the board of a right-wing think tank, The Manhattan Institute, is not encouraging.

We need look no further than the Manhattan Institute’s website to glean the organization’s position on Social Security.    In an article entitled, The Social Security Façade, the Institute propagates rightist myths that the program is going bankrupt and will no longer be able to pay benefits when today’s young people retire.  In other words, it employs the time-worn tactic of dividing the generations to undermine Social Security:

“Young Americans are stuck paying into programs that, absent reform, will only partially be there for their retirements – if they’re around at all.” – Manhattan Institute website

The Institute believes that current Social Security benefits “are simply too generous,” and goes on to spread another falsehood:

“These entitlement programs function not only as wealth transfers from the young to the old, but from the poor to the wealthy… today’s seniors have an average of 47 times the wealth of households headed by adults under the age of 35.” – Manhattan Institute website

To link Mr. Saul to the Manhattan Institute’s viewpoint is not ‘guilt by association.’  It’s perfectly fair to connect him with the right-wing agenda of the think tank whose board he served on for several years, especially absent a public record of his own views on Social Security.

All of this leads us to question whether this is the man that millions of seniors, disabled, survivors, and SSI beneficiaries – many struggling to keep their heads above water financially – want to rely on to administer their benefits.  During his confirmation hearings (expected to take place in June), Senate committee members should press Saul on these crucial questions:

  • Does he believe in the Social Security program that has worked so well for 83 years – or would he seek to undermine it by advocating privatization?
  • Can he empathize with beneficiaries living on an average monthly benefit below $1,400 per month?
  • Will he encourage Congress to continue restoring badly needed funding for the Social Security Administration?
  • Would he support further closings of Social Security field offices?
  • How would he improve SSA’s beleaguered customer service at a time when 10,000 Baby Boomers reach retirement age every day?

Saul’s answers should fill in some important blanks, and clarify the more troubling aspects of his background.  We have seen the damage Trump’s more ideological nominees can do as head of EPA, the Department of Education, and the Department of the Interior, among others.  Let’s make sure not to install one as commissioner of Social Security.

405, 2018

Rallying to Stop Social Security Office Closures

By |May 4th, 2018|Budget, Congress, Max Richtman, Social Security, Social Security Administration (SSA)|

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare joined the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and other advocates Thursday to protest the scheduled closing of the Social Security Administration field office in Arlington, VA.  The Social Security Administration plans to close the office on June 21, 2018.

Protesters gathered in 90-degree heat in front of the high-rise office building at 1401 Wilson Boulevard with signs reading “Keep SSA open,” and chanting “Social Security is our fight!  Social Security is our right!”  The rally was covered by print and broadcast news, featuring interviews with National Committee president Max Richtman and members of NCPSSM’s Capital Action Team (CAT) volunteers.

“Closing Social Security field offices like the one here in Arlington causes undue difficulty for elderly and working-class claimants who rely on public transportation to get here.  If the office is shuttered as planned in June, these individuals will have to travel nearly two hours round-trip on Metro and Metrobus to the nearest Virginia office in Alexandria.  This is unacceptable.” – Max Richtman, NCPSSM president 

The scheduled closure of the Arlington office comes on the heels of others in heavily populated urban areas, including in Milwaukee and Chicago during the past year, and the announced closing of an SSA field office in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore (also effective this June).  Since 2000, SSA has closed nearly 125 field offices nationwide.

One of the reasons SSA plans to close the office in Arlington is related to the alleged inability of another government agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), to find acceptable real estate in the area.

We’ve heard this same excuse offered as the reason offices in other cities had to be closed. If GSA, which is the federal government’s real estate agent, can’t find acceptable space for a Social Security office in an area with a 20 percent vacancy rate, then perhaps they should go into a different line of work.   Instead of GSA, SSA should be given authority to serve as its own real estate agent. – Max Richtman, NCPSSM president

Max Richtman writes about the issue in today’s edition of the Hill newspaper.

According to Witold Skwierczynski of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents Social Security field office workers, SSA is closing offices without following its own stated procedures, which include:

*Giving Congress and the public notice of a potential closing

*Analyzing the effect of such closings on transportation to the nearest office

*Analyzing the impact on SSA employees

So far, SSA has done none of this.  In fact, SSA’s Inspector General is currently investigating the agency’s apparent breach of procedure. What’s more, Congress instructed SSA not to close any field offices until the Inspector General’s office completes its inquiry. By continuing to close field offices, Skwierczynski argues that SSA is not following guidelines it received from Congress – as well as its own policies. 

Earlier this week, Max Richtman sent a letter to The Senate Committee on Aging demanding oversight of SSA office closures.

Congress slashed SSA’s operating budget by 11% (adjusted for inflation) from 2010-2017. The 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Act finally gave SSA a funding increase over 2017 levels. Of the $480 million dollar boost, only some $200 million was allocated for direct public service.  The Social Security Administration will need even more funding in FY 2019 in order to keep offices open and improve customer service.

The administration of Social Security should not be a target of budget cuts, because it’s funded from payroll contributions by working Americans. It is only right that Congress fully fund SSA operations.  The American people deserve the customer service they have already paid for.  That means adequate resources for SSA to do its job, and no more field office closings.