Legislative Update for Week Ending June 6, 2014

Legislative Update for Week Ending June 6, 2014

This week, Members of the Senate voted to confirm Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the next Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In addition, The Senior Citizens League (TSCL) saw two key bills gain support.

Burwell Confirmed as HHS Secretary

On Thursday, after thirty hours of debate, the Senate voted to confirm the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the next HHS Secretary. Burwell has served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget for the past year, and she will now replace Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who announced her resignation in April. In her new position, Burwell will manage the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs, and she will also oversee the continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), among other things.

Burwell was expected to cruise through the confirmation process after she received an overwhelming display of bipartisan support during two Senate hearings that were held in May. However, a group of lawmakers set out to stall her confirmation’s movement in the weeks leading up to the vote by submitting several complex inquiries about her perception of the ACA. In addition, almost every minute of the allotted debate time was used to discuss the ACA’s implementation thus far, while Burwell received almost no criticism at all during the thirty hours.

In fact, Senators on both sides of the aisle praised Burwell during their speeches on the Senate floor, expressing their high hopes for her work as HHS Secretary. Sen. Mike Johanns (NE) called her “a breath of fresh air,” and Sen. Rob Portman (OH) said he thinks Burwell will help the department “get its act together.” In addition, Sen. Johnny Isakson (GA) stated: “I’m looking forward to having someone in [HHS] that’s going to be able to answer the hard questions. I might not like the answer, but I like having somebody who has the intellect and the capability and the willingness to be communicating with the Members of Congress.”

Burwell will begin her work as HHS Secretary in the coming days, and TSCL will keep a close eye on her work since it could have major impacts on the Social Security and Medicare programs. TSCL is pleased that Burwell has already committed to working with Congress to repeal and replace the flawed sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula later this year. However, she has also expressed her support for increased means testing within the Medicare program – a proposal that TSCL is opposed to due to potential unintended consequences. For updates on HHS actions affecting senior citizens, visit the Legislative News section of our website.

Two Bills Gain Support

This week, one new cosponsor – Rep. John Tierney (MA-6) – signed on to the Strengthening Social Security Act (H.R. 3118), bringing the total up fifty-seven. If signed into law, the bill would reform the Social Security program in three ways: it would adjust the benefit formula, resulting in more generous monthly benefits; it would adopt the Consumer Price Index for Elderly Consumers (CPI-E), resulting in more accurate cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), and it would lift the cap on income subject to the payroll tax. H.R. 3118 would extend the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund responsibly, without cutting benefits for seniors.

In addition, one new cosponsor – Reps. Zoe Lofgren (CA-19) – signed on to the Improving Access to Medicare Coverage Act (H.R. 1179). The cosponsor total is now up to one hundred and forty-eight. If signed into law, H.R. 1179 would amend current Medicare policy to count hospital stays under “observation status” towards the three-day requirement for skilled nursing care. Currently, those under “observation status” don’t qualify for coverage of the benefit, and they are often hit with large, unexpected bills after receiving necessary medical care.

TSCL enthusiastically supports H.R. 3118 and H.R. 1179, and we were pleased to see support grow for both of them this week.