Legislative Update for Week Ending May 23, 2014

Legislative Update for Week Ending May 23, 2014

This week, the Senate Finance Committee voted to advance the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the next Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In addition, one subcommittee held a hearing on strengthening the Social Security program, and The Senior Citizens League (TSCL) saw one key bill gain support.

Burwell Nomination Advances

On Wednesday, with a vote of 21-3, the Senate Finance Committee voted in favor of advancing the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the next Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). If confirmed as Secretary, Burwell will oversee the Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security programs, and she will also manage the continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Wednesday’s vote marks an important step in the confirmation process, and she now faces only one more vote from the full Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) has said that he hopes to schedule a final confirmation vote before the end of the month. The overwhelming display of support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Wednesday means that Burwell’s path to confirmation will likely be an easy one. Nonetheless, TSCL will continue to keep a close eye on the process in the coming days.

Senate Panel Discusses the Future of Social Security

On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy met with four expert witnesses to discuss several options for strengthening the Social Security Program. Chairman Sherrod Brown (OH) opened the hearing by saying, “A few years ago … all of the conventional Washington wisdom was that we would have to cut the program. Today, not only are cuts to Social Security deeply unpopular, but we are now debating how much we need to expand the program.”

The panel discussed the following options for strengthening Social Security, among others: updating the benefit formula for low-income workers, modifying the annual cost-of-living adjustment to make it more accurate, increasing survivors’ benefits, and creating caregiver credits for those who support aging parents. However, the focus of Wednesday’s hearing seemed to be on addressing the insolvency of the Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) program.

Currently, the DI trust fund is set to become depleted in late 2016, and legislative action will be needed to prevent a 25 percent cut in benefits for 11 million disabled beneficiaries. According to those at Wednesday’s hearing, reallocating funds from the Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) trust fund is the simplest and least controversial way of solving the problem. However, TSCL disagrees since doing so would mean that the OASI trust fund would become depleted four years earlier than currently projected. In our most recent survey of members and supporters, only 1 percent said they support the reallocation of funds from the OASI trust fund to the DI trust fund.

Aside from Wednesday’s hearing, there has been very little discussion on Capitol Hill about fixing the DI program. Reallocation is likely, but TSCL supports methods that would prioritize a reduction in fraud, waste, and abuse, since the program struggles with improper payments. Action will be needed within the next two years, and TSCL will keep a close eye on developments since they are expected to impact the OASI program. For updates, visit the Legislative News section of our website.

Key Bill Gains Support

This week, one new cosponsor – Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (NY-8) – signed on to the Improving Access to Medicare Coverage Act (H.R. 1179). The cosponsor total is now up to one hundred and forty-five. 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 believes the current policy is unfair, and we were pleased to see support grow for H.R. 1179 this week.