This week, lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill following the month-long August recess and quickly passed legislation to temporarily fund the federal government and lift the debt ceiling. In addition, one House Subcommittee held a hearing to discuss the Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) program, and one Senate Committee met to debate the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Lawmakers Advance Temporary Funding Bill
On Thursday, Senate lawmakers passed legislation to suspend the debt ceiling until next spring, fund the government through December 8th, and provide $15.25 billion in relief to victims of Hurricane Harvey. At the time of writing this week’s legislative update, the House had not yet voted on the legislation, but it is expected to pass with bipartisan support by the end of Friday afternoon.
The Senior Citizens League (TSCL) is pleased that lawmakers acted swiftly and responsibly to avert a government shutdown and an unprecedented default on the federal debt. Failing to do so could have resulted in delayed Social Security checks and reimbursements for health care providers who treat Medicare patients. Lawmakers now have until early December to negotiate a broader funding bill to keep the federal government operating. For progress updates, follow TSCL on Facebook or Twitter.
Social Security Subcommittee Discusses DI Program
On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee held a hearing titled “Determining Eligibility for Disability Benefits: Challenges Facing the Social Security Administration.” Members of the Subcommittee heard from several expert witnesses at the hearing, including Bea Disman (Acting Chief of Staff of the Social Security Administration), Marilyn Zahm (President of the Association of Administrative Law Judges), and Lisa Ekman (Director of Government Affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives).
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle at Wednesday’s hearing expressed their strong interest in addressing the growing DI backlog. In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (TX-3) said: “Today, over one million people are waiting for a hearing with a Social Security Administrative Law Judge, and on average these folks will wait around 600 days to get that hearing. That’s nearly two years!” He continued, saying: “While not all of them will qualify for DI benefits, all of these people deserve an answer in a timely fashion. And for those who don’t qualify for benefits, these long wait times make getting back to work even harder.”
Those who testified at Wednesday’s hearing made several practical recommendations to those on the Subcommittee. Ms. Zahm told lawmakers that administrative law judges would work more effectively with additional support staff. She said: “Give my judges a clerk and two attorneys and we can go to town [on the DI backlog].” Other witnesses suggested common-sense solutions – like eliminating arbitrary deadlines that cause confusion for claimants who are not represented by attorneys – that would make the application process more straight-forward. Several witnesses also requested more adequate funding for the Social Security Administration. Ms. Disman told the Subcommittee members, “You could certainly say that with more funding we could do more.”
TSCL is hopeful that Congress will provide the Social Security Administration with the funding and staffing necessary to make progress on reducing the DI backlog. As Ranking Member John Larson (CT-1) said at Wednesday’s hearing, “[A backlog of] six hundred days is flat-out unacceptable.” In the coming weeks, TSCL will provide the Social Security Subcommittee with policy recommendations. We will summarize them here in the Legislative News section of our website after they are submitted to the Subcommittee for review.
Senate Committee Debates Future of ACA
On Wednesday and Thursday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a two-part hearing to address bipartisan concerns about stabilizing the ACA’s individual market, which insures around 18 million Americans – many of whom are young retirees who are not yet eligible for Medicare. In his opening statement, Chairman Lamar Alexander (TN) said he believes the best way to stabilize the marketplace, decrease premiums, and make certain that health insurance is available in every county would be to continue cost sharing reduction (CSR) payments and increase the Section 1332 state waiver program.
Ranking Member Senator Murray (WA) and several witnesses on Wednesday – including Tennessee Health Commissioner Julie McPeak and Pennsylvania Secretary of Health and Human Services Theresa Miller – agreed that CSR payments are critical to improving the marketplace and that vulnerable populations must continue to receive the same level of coverage through state waiver programs.
On Thursday, HELP Committee Members heard from the governors of five states, who offered their guidance on improving the individual market. Governor John Hickenlooper (CO) explained that states have long been the test labs of democratic experiments and they are in an exceptional position to propose unique solutions. He and others who testified at Thursday’s hearing agreed that CSRs must continue to be funded and that lawmakers should consider creating an emergency stabilization fund to decrease the skyrocketing premiums many individuals are currently facing. Governor Charlie Baker (MA) summarized the spirit of the hearing when he said “health coverage is a shared commitment,” and although the opinions of elected officials vary widely, they are dedicated to working to solutions together.
Lawmakers at this week’s hearings on both sides of the aisle seemed committed to working together to stabilize the marketplace in the weeks ahead. In total, thirty-one Senators reached out to lawmakers on the HELP Committee to be included in the discussions, and the bipartisan group hopes to have a stabilization plan drafted by next week and signed into law by the end of September. For progress updates, follow TSCL on Facebook or Twitter.