Legislative Update for Week Ending February 9, 2018

Legislative Update for Week Ending February 9, 2018

This week, lawmakers passed a bipartisan spending deal to keep the federal government funded and The Senior Citizens League (TSCL) delivered letters to Congress urging action on the unfair taxation of Social Security benefits. In addition, one House committee met to discuss Medicare’s role in the opioid epidemic, and support grew for several key bills.

Lawmakers Adopt Bipartisan Spending Deal

Early Friday morning, after a brief government shutdown that began at midnight, lawmakers passed a bipartisan spending deal that will fund the federal government through March 23rd, set spending levels for the next two years, and lift the debt ceiling through March of next year. Lawmakers in the Senate advanced the bill with a vote of 71-28 around 2 a.m., and those in the House took it up shortly thereafter, passing it with a vote of 240-186 just after 5 a.m.

TSCL is pleased that the budget deal includes three major improvements to the Medicare program. First, it repeals Independent Payment Advisory Board – a fifteen-member board of unelected officials that was created by the Affordable Care Act to keep Medicare spending down. Second, it accelerates the closing of the Medicare Part D “doughnut hole” so that seniors will pay less for their prescriptions when they fall into the coverage gap. Under the Affordable Care Act, the “doughnut hole” was scheduled to close by 2020, but it will now close a year earlier, in 2019. And third, the budget deal permanently repeals the cap on Medicare coverage for various forms of out-patient therapy, including physical therapy and speech therapy.

TSCL believes these three Medicare improvements are long overdue, and we were pleased that lawmakers agreed to reach across the aisle this week to address them once and for all. The bipartisan budget agreement now goes to the White House for the signature of President Donald Trump. For status updates, follow TSCL on Facebook or Twitter.

TSCL Urges Congress to Correct Unfair Taxation

On Thursday, TSCL’s legislative team hand-delivered letters to several congressional offices on the unfair taxation of Social Security benefits. According to a national survey recently conducted by TSCL, around 56 percent of all households receiving Social Security benefits pay taxes on at least a portion of their benefits every year.

When Congress first enacted the tax on Social Security benefits in 1983, it was estimated to affect around 10 percent of beneficiaries earning more than $25,000 per year (or $32,000 for married couples filing jointly). The income thresholds, however, have never been adjusted for inflation and remain the same today, thirty-five years later.

If the thresholds were adjusted for today’s inflation, retirees earning $61,940 per year or married couples earning $79,284 per year would be paying taxes on their benefits. Instead, seniors living at just 155 percent of the poverty line are hit by the unfair taxation of benefits.

In the letter that TSCL delivered to Congress on Thursday, Art Cooper – Chairman of TSCL’s Board of Trustees – wrote: “The Senior Citizens League was disappointed that these outdated thresholds were not adjusted in last year’s tax reform law, but it is not too late for Congress to take action. The Save Social Security Act (H.R. 1631) introduced by Representative Charlie Crist (FL-13) would provide much-needed tax relief to middle-income Social Security beneficiaries by ensuring that households earning less than $100,000 per year would not pay income taxes on their Social Security benefits.”

TSCL urges lawmakers in the House and Senate to take action on this important issue in the months ahead. In the meantime, we will continue to advocate for policies like H.R. 1631 that would correct the unfair taxation of Social Security benefits. To view the full text of the letter, visit the Legislative News section of our website. For more information on H.R. 1631, visit the Bill Tracking section of our website.

House Committee Discusses Opioids

On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health convened to hold a hearing titled “The Opioid Crisis: Removing Barriers to Prevent and Treat Opioid Abuse and Dependence in Medicare.” The new subcommittee Chairman, Representative Peter Roskam (IL-6), stated that in 2016, 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses.

Although the opioid crisis is thought to affect mostly younger Americans, Representative Vern Buchanan (FL-16) cited the fact that opioid-related deaths for seniors between the ages of sixty-five and seventy-four have increased seven-fold over the past fifteen years. Older Americans are at risk for opioid addiction following injuries or invasive surgeries where they are later prescribed opioids. Currently, one out of every three Medicare Part D beneficiaries has a prescription for an opioid.

To address the growing issue, Vermont Governor Phil Scott emphasized that “Medicare must treat addiction as the chronic health condition that it is,” so that people feel less stigma when they seek treatment. Expert witness Dr. Ramsin Benyamin – Founder of the Millennium Pain Center – said he would like to see Medicare cover more pain treatment options, such as acupuncture, that do not focus on prescription drugs. Another expert witness – Dr. Jason Kletter, President of Bay Area Addiction Research and Treatment – said he believes Medicare must cover more outpatient treatment options that provide psychological and social support.

TSCL agrees that Medicare must do more to combat the opioid crisis, and we were pleased to see that this week’s bipartisan budget agreement included $6 billion in additional federal funds to fight the epidemic. To stay updated on this important topic, follow TSCL on Facebook and Twitter.

Three Key Bills Gain Support

This week, TSCL was happy to see support grow for three key bills in both the House and Senate.

First, the CREATES Act of 2017 (S. 974, H.R. 2212) gained two new cosponsors in Senator John Kennedy (LA) and Senator Tina Smith (MN), bringing the cosponsor total to sixteen. In the House, the bill also gained two new cosponsors in Representative Mark Meadows (NC-11) and Representative Peter Welch (VT), bringing the total up to three. If adopted, the bill would increase competition in the prescription drug industry by encouraging generic and biosimilar drug manufacturers to introduce their products to the market more quickly.

Second, the BENES Act of 2017 (H.R. 2575) gained one new cosponsor in Representative Grace Meng (NY-6), which brings the new cosponsor total to fourteen. If signed into law, H.R. 2575 would simplify the Medicare enrollment process and help prepare those approaching Medicare eligibility by educating them about the program’s benefits.

Third, the Nursing Home CARE Act (H.R. 4704) gained two new cosponsors in Representative Jamie Raskin (MD-8) and Representative Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), bringing the new cosponsor total to fourteen. If signed into law, H.R. 4704 would protect Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries by more quickly codifying emergency preparedness rules for nursing home facilities that receive funding from the federal government.

TSCL enthusiastically supports S. 974, H.R. 2212, H.R. 2575, and H.R. 4704, and we were pleased to see support grow for each one this week. For more information about these and other bills TSCL has endorsed, visit the Bill Tracking section of our website.