Our mission and agenda
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 114th 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. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2015, outlays exceeded tax revenues by nearly 9 percent. In addition, 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
This year, for the third time in seven years, Social Security beneficiaries are receiving no COLA in 2016. Since 2010, the annual COLA has averaged only 1.4 percent per year—less than half of the 3 percent average during the prior decade. This year’s zero COLA will have a devastating impact on the long-term adequacy of Social Security benefits for more than 59 million beneficiaries.
TSCL believes that 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, most respondents said their monthly benefits increased by less than $19 in 2014 while their expenses rose by nearly $120. Additionally, our research shows that seniors have lost over 20 percent of their purchasing power since 2000—a clear sign that the COLA is growing too slowly.
To address this issue, we enthusiastically support the adoption of the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E)—a measure of inflation that more accurately tracks the spending pattern of seniors. 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. In 2016, if the COLA were based on the CPI-E, seniors would not have received a zero COLA – they would have received a 0.6 percent COLA in January. While not much, it would compound over the course of a retirement and beneficiaries would receive higher monthly checks in time. We estimate that a senior who retired with average benefits in 1984 would have received nearly $14,000.00 more through 2014 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.
In addition to the adoption of the CPI-E, TSCL is asking Members of Congress to provide Social Security beneficiaries with an emergency COLA before the end of 2016. We enthusiastically support two bills before Congress that would accomplish this. The Seniors Deserve a Raise Act would give seniors a 2.9 percent COLA in 2016 to make up for years of insufficient benefit increases. It would also base COLAs on the CPI-E in future years, whenever it is higher than the CPI-W. In addition, TSCL supports the SAVE Benefits Act, which would give beneficiaries a 3.9 percent COLA in 2016 while covering the cost by closing a corporate compensation tax loophole. We believe that both of these modest increases would provide Social Security beneficiaries with much-needed financial relief.
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 slower-growing “chained” CPI. It has been backed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including President Obama in past budget proposals.
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 could raise issues of benefit adequacy, especially if Medicare Part B premiums begin 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, and the transition formula provided by Congress failed miserably. The problem only 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.
U.S. – Mexico Totalization Agreement
Social Security Totalization Agreements are designed so that workers and their employers would not be subject to double taxation, owing payroll taxes to both the country in which they work, and their home nation. In addition, Totalization Agreements 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 IOU’s. 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.
Health Care Reform
TSCL feels that pieces of the Affordable Care Act are helpful and necessary, but we have several concerns about the impact it will have on seniors as it continues to be phased in. We support efforts to modify or repeal the following provisions: the increase in the threshold for deducting medical expenses from one’s income for tax purposes (from 7.5 percent to 10 percent); the payment cuts to Medicare providers; the expansion of means testing to Medicare Part D premiums; the freezing of income levels to determine the means testing threshold for both Part B and Part D for ten years; and the creation of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB).
In addition, TSCL is closely monitoring the cuts to the Medicare Advantage program that were called for in the Affordable Care Act. Already, many Medicare Advantage plans have begun reducing benefits in order to absorb the cuts, leaving seniors with higher costs and fewer supplemental benefits like vision or dental coverage. As the law continues to be implemented and potentially tweaked, TSCL will work with Member of Congress to improve the necessary and valuable parts of the law, and to modify or repeal the parts that are detrimental to seniors.
Medicare Part D
Although the Medicare prescription drug benefit, or Part D, has been viewed by some as largely successful, TSCL believes this program remains flawed. The prices of many prescription drugs dramatically increased after the benefit was implemented in 2006, and many prices continue to soar. This is due in large part to the cost of brand name and specialty drugs for which there is no generic or lower-cost alternative. These medications are often placed in “specialty tiers,” and they significantly drive up the out-of-pocket costs seniors face.
In 2010, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) began to close the “donut hole,” or the gap in coverage that occurs after a beneficiary’s drug costs reach $2,960 and before they total $4,750. Discounts from pharmaceutical manufacturers and subsidies from Medicare have begun to assist those who fall into the coverage gap.
The ACA promises to gradually close the donut hole by 2020. In the meantime, 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 addition, TSCL will continue to seek out other solutions for lowering the prices of prescription drugs, like requiring the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate Part D prices on behalf of beneficiaries.
Prescription Drug Re-Importation
TSCL believes that the Medicare prescription drug benefit law remains flawed and further action should be taken to lower prescription drug costs. The disparity of drug costs in the United States, Canada and Europe remains striking, and we support legislation which would make safe and secure prescription drug re-importation a reality.
Unfortunately, during the health care reform debate, the Senate rejected an amendment that would have allowed for prescription drug re-importation. TSCL will work to ensure that legislation permitting the safe and secure re-importation of prescription drugs from approved pharmacies is adopted during the 114th Congress. The goal remains to seek 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 Attorney General Eric Holder, 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. Billions of dollars in overpayments are made each year, and an enormous backlog has accumulated for Continuing Disability Reviews, which are conducted to determine whether a beneficiary has recovered enough to return to work. Every dollar spent reviewing these cases yields more than $10 in savings, and if the backlog were eliminated, more than $9 billion would be returned to the Trust Fund.
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 114th 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.