The Senior Citizens League (TSCL)
With more than one million members, The Senior Citizens League (TSCL) is one of the nation’s largest nonpartisan seniors groups. Our mission is to promote and assist TSCL members and supporters, to educate and alert senior citizens about their rights and freedoms as U.S. citizens, and to protect and defend the benefits earned and paid for by senior citizens.
At TSCL, we strive to defend those issues that are most important to our members and supporters. That’s why, each year, we survey our members and ask them, “What’s important to you?” We take those answers and base our legislative agenda around them. For the 115th Congress, our agenda includes the following issues, among others.
Comprehensive Social Security Reform
Long-term solvency for Social Security is essential. Due in part to the economic downturn and the stagnant recovery, the Trust Funds have been paying out more in benefits than they have collected in payroll taxes since 2010. Last year, Social Security’s Board of Trustees announced that the Trust Fund reserves are projected to face exhaustion in 2034, less than twenty years from now.
TSCL understands that action to reform the program will be required well before then. In order for changes to be phased in gradually and with minimal effect on beneficiaries, we hope that lawmakers will enact modifications in the very near future. We support small changes to the program — like increasing the cap on income subject to the payroll tax and ramping up efforts to prevent fraud and waste. However, harsh benefit cuts and reductions in cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) will not be tolerated.
Social Security COLA Fairness
In 2017, Social Security beneficiaries are receiving a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of just 0.3 percent. The increase is so small, it is the lowest payable COLA in the history of the program. Since 2010, the annual COLA has averaged just 1.2 percent — less than half of the 3 percent average during the prior decade. Years of record-low COLAs will have a devastating impact on the long-term adequacy of Social Security benefits for more than 59 million beneficiaries.
TSCL believes the index that is currently used to measure inflation — the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners (CPI-W) — underestimates the inflation that Social Security beneficiaries experience. In a recent survey that we conducted, 72 percent of respondents said their monthly expenses had increased by more than $79 in 2015, despite the lack of growth in inflation.
To address this issue, TSCL enthusiastically supports the adoption of the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), a measure of inflation that more accurately tracks the spending patterns of seniors. If the COLA were based on the CPI-E today, Social Security beneficiaries would not have received a 0.3 percent COLA in 2017 — they would have received a 2.1 percent COLA, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The CPI-E regularly puts the spending inflation for seniors at two-tenths of a percentage point higher than the rate at which the CPI-W increases. That may seem like an insignificant amount, but over a twenty-five-year retirement, COLAs do compound significantly. We estimate that a senior who filed for Social Security with average benefits in 1984 would have received nearly $14,000.00 more in retirement if the CPI-E had been used.
TSCL supports legislation like the CPI-E Act, the CPI for Seniors Act, and the Guaranteed 3% COLA Act, all of which would make the COLA more fair and accurate for beneficiaries. We also support legislation that would protect seniors in years like 2010, 2011, and 2016 — when no COLA was paid — by providing a guaranteed annual increase. In addition, TSCL opposes proposals that aim to improve Social Security’s solvency by switching to the more slowly-growing “chained” COLA.
Social Security COLA Cuts
Despite evidence that seniors are already being short-changed by inadequate COLAs, some deficit hawks argue that COLAS are too generous and that they should be cut. The most frequently mentioned option is the adoption of the more slowly-growing “chained” CPI. It has been backed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in recent years, including President Obama.
TSCL believes that any cuts to the COLA — including the adoption of the “chained” CPI — would be unwarranted and unduly harsh, especially for the oldest and lowest income seniors who depend on Social Security the most. A study by TSCL found that the adoption of the “chained” CPI would significantly reduce the amount of lifetime retirement benefits received by future Social Security recipients — in some cases by as much as $88 per month after ten years.
In addition, cutting the COLA would raise issues of benefit adequacy, especially if Medicare Part B premiums continue to exceed the growth in the COLA. Adopting the “chained” CPI is not the best way to return the program to solvency, since research shows that millions of seniors are already struggling to keep up with rising costs.
Social Security Notch Reform
TSCL’s members and supporters tend to be older, less affluent seniors. They are also, to a large extent, Notch babies — those individuals who receive lower Social Security benefits because they were born in the years immediately following 1917. TSCL feels that this is an inequity that was brought about because of the Social Security Act Amendments enacted and signed into law in 1977.
Just years before they were set to retire, these individuals learned that they would have significantly lower benefits than originally anticipated. The problem grew and compounded with the inflation that occurred in the early 1980s. Thus, in order to make the Social Security program more equitable, and to correct a wrong done to those born during the Notch years, we believe that some compensation should be provided.
TSCL strongly supports legislation like the Notch Fairness Act, which would provide victims of the Social Security Notch with a modest settlement payment. In the months and years ahead, we will continue to inform both new and veteran Members of Congress about the Social Security Notch.
U.S. – Mexico Totalization Agreement
Social Security Totalization Agreements are negotiated between nations so that workers and their employers are not subject to double taxation, owing payroll taxes to both the country in which they work and their home nation. They allow workers to earn generic work credits good for receiving retirement benefits in either country. These credits from the United States and other countries can be totaled together to receive benefits. The U.S. currently has 24 Totalization Agreements with other nations, most having economies similar to our own.
The U.S. – Mexico Totalization Agreement — which was signed by the Social Security Administrations of both the U.S. and Mexico in 2004 and is due to undergo review by the current or future President(s) — continues to pose a threat to Social Security beneficiaries. Because of a loophole, if the President signs the final Executive Totalization Social Security Agreement with Mexico, it could lead to Social Security benefits going to individuals who worked in the U.S. while illegal.
Despite the efforts of TSCL and others, knowledge of the U.S – Mexico Totalization Agreement remains limited on Capitol Hill, and the issue flies under radar for the most part. TSCL has expressed its support for resolutions in opposition to the Totalization Agreement. In addition, TSCL is supportive of legislation, such as the Social Security Totalization Agreement Reform Act, which would grant more time for congressional review of these agreements. TSCL also supports loophole-closing legislation which would prevent individuals who worked in the U.S. while illegal from receiving credit for that work for purposes of Social Security benefit calculations.
TSCL has filed multiple lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act requesting copies of the agreement and other information and has placed ads in The Washington Times in opposition to the proposed agreement. We will continue to closely monitor the pending Totalization Agreement.
Protection of the Social Security Trust Fund
Lawmakers regularly use Social Security’s so-called “excess funds” – those monies not immediately needed – for purposes other than to pay out benefits. Because the Trust Fund is a part of the unified federal budget, it is completely legal for Congress to use the funds as they see fit and to replace them with mere IOUs. TSCL believes that this practice is fundamentally unfair to Social Security’s current and future beneficiaries.
With Social Security’s Trust Funds set to expire in 2034, TSCL believes that it is now more important than ever for lawmakers to end this irresponsible practice. We support legislation like the Social Security Lock-Box Act, which would protect the monies in the Social Security Trust Fund by locking them out of the general budget.
Affordable Care Act Repeal
A repeal of the Affordable Care Act will impact the Medicare program in several ways. Progress that has been made to close the prescription drug “doughnut hole” will be reversed, and the Independent Payment Advisory Board created by the law will cease to exist. In addition, the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund that finances Medicare Part A will lose an important stream of funding that the law created, and it could face immediate depletion.
In the months ahead, TSCL will closely monitor the impacts resulting from a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and we will continue to advocate for legislation that would reduce any negative effects on beneficiaries of the Medicare program.
Several leading lawmakers in the 115th Congress have announced their commitment to reducing the federal deficit by reforming the Medicare program. Popular proposals backed by lawmakers in the majority party would phase out the traditional Medicare program and replace it with a “premium support” model, where older Americans would be given subsidies from the federal government to purchase private insurance. These proposals have also outlined plans to increase the age of Medicare eligibility from sixty-five to sixty-seven, requiring younger seniors to purchase costly private insurance or to rely on employer-sponsored health insurance coverage for a longer period of time.
TSCL has serious concerns about plans that would privatize the Medicare program since we fear they would result in higher out-of-pocket costs for beneficiaries. In a recent survey of our members, only 7 percent said they strongly favor “premium support” models, and 67 percent said they strongly oppose replacing Medicare with a system of private health plans. In the 115th Congress, TSCL will advocate tirelessly for legislation that would protect the Medicare benefits older Americans have earned and deserve, and we will promote solutions that would strengthen and modernize the Medicare program responsibly, without enacting benefit cuts or increasing costs for beneficiaries.
Medicare Part D
In 2016, Part D premiums rose by 13 percent, and Part D deductibles experienced the largest increase since the start of the program. In addition, spending on prescription drugs grew by 12 percent nation-wide, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. A rate that high hasn’t occurred since 2001.
Improving and maintaining access to affordable, lifesaving prescription drugs is a top concern for TSCL’s members and supporters, most of whom live on fixed incomes and cannot afford steep and sudden cost increases. In a recent survey of TSCL’s members, as many as one-third of respondents said they postponed filling their prescriptions or took less than prescribed due to high costs. They question why Congress hasn’t taken action to improve the system and to protect the American public from rising drug costs.
To address the flaws of the prescription drug industry, TSCL supports common-sense solutions like the following five: allowing the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate Part D prices, closing the Part D gap in coverage or “doughnut hole,” prohibiting anti-competitive pay-for-delay deals, strengthening penalties for companies convicted of fraud, and increasing price transparency for prescription drugs.
In addition, TSCL supports legislation that would make safe and secure prescription drug re-importation a reality. Unfortunately, despite bipartisan support, lawmakers in past health care reform debates have rejected amendments that would have allowed individuals to safely and securely import prescription drugs from approved pharmacies abroad. We will work to ensure that such legislation is adopted in the 115th Congress.
Finally, TSCL supports efforts to increase and improve outreach to seniors, especially those individuals that could qualify for the Extra Help program. Simplifying and streamlining the application process would be a vast improvement to the program. In the months ahead, TSCL will continue to seek out solutions that would increase access to innovative, lifesaving prescription drugs. The goal remains to ensure safe and affordable medicines for all Americans.
Prevention of Fraud, Waste, and Abuse
Fraud, waste, and abuse are growing problems within both Social Security and Medicare, and TSCL believes that the government is not administering the necessary oversight to ensure that scarce program dollars are being spent properly. By increasing efforts to fight fraud, the government could save tens of billions of dollars each year, reducing the need for benefit cuts.
Fraud within Medicare costs the federal government an estimated $60 billion to $90 billion each year, and according to the Attorney General’s office, enforcement efforts have yielded an impressive “return on investment” for the American taxpayer. For every dollar spent fighting fraud, approximately $7 has been recovered and returned.
Social Security’s Disability Insurance program is also littered with waste. In recent years, the Social Security Administration has allowed an enormous backlog for Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) to accumulate and increased funding could result in significant savings. According to the Social Security Advisory Board, every $1 spent on CDRs returns $9 to the program, and if Congress were to appropriate additional funding for them, the program could expect to see as much as $12 billion in savings.
It is well understood that the failure to manage fraud results in higher taxes for all and higher premiums for Medicare beneficiaries. The potential for savings for Social Security and Medicare are enormous, and TSCL sincerely hopes that lawmakers will increase preventive efforts in order to ensure that scarce program dollars are appropriately spent.
TSCL’s all-volunteer Board of Trustees, legislative team, and administrative staff will continue to work tirelessly on behalf of seniors throughout the 115th Congress. We offer not only our lobbying efforts, but also information via our website and newsletter, member benefits, and responses to each and every phone call and letter.