Seniors Dodge Catastrophe This Time, but Will They in Two Years?
By far, the biggest accomplishment by Congress this year has been the passage of legislation to raise the government’s debt ceiling. Although defaulting on the U.S. Government’s debts would have had drastic consequences on the entire economy, seniors would have faced the impact as much, or maybe even more, than many others. A government default would have endangered Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans’ benefits but would also have had devastating consequences on the stock market, which so many seniors rely on for a big part of their retirement income.
However, while the drama on that issue is over for now, it will be repeated in two years. We believe it is foolish and irresponsible to use the threat of default as a political tool. Seniors deserve better than that from our members of Congress.
There is a budget process that Congress goes through every year. That is the place to debate and deal with the issue of government spending.
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Congress Back at Work this Week
Congress has been in recess for the Memorial Day holiday, although they managed to pass the crucial bill to raise the debt ceiling during recess. They are back in session this week and will be working for the next three weeks before a recess spanning the last week of June and the first week of July. Then they’ll be at work another three weeks before their annual August recess, a tradition that dates back to the days when there was no air conditioning to keep the Capitol building cool.
While none of the legislation being voted on this week in the House of Representatives or the Senate deals with senior issues, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has scheduled a hearing on Veterans’ access to long-term care.
The annual legislation needed to run the federal government is the most significant task now facing Congress for the rest of the year. While that legislation (actually, there are 12 separate funding bills) is supposed to be done by October 1, which is the start of the federal government’s new fiscal year, Congress rarely meets that deadline anymore. No one expects they will this year, either.
However, debate over funding usually brings up the threat of a government shutdown, as the two parties play a game of political chicken. You can expect that very well may happen again this year.
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National Patient Safety Board
Last year legislation was introduced in Congress to establish a national patient safety board to identify and anticipate significant harm in health care, provide expertise to study the context and causes of harm and solutions and create solutions to prevent patient safety events from occurring. That legislation is expected to be re-introduced this year.
This effort was begun because before the COVID-19 pandemic, medical error was the third leading cause of death in the United States, with conservative estimates of more than 250,000 patients dying annually from preventable medical harm and costs of more than $17 billion to the U.S. healthcare system. Recent data have shown that patient safety worsened during the pandemic.
However, some are questioning whether such a board, if the legislation should pass into law (which is a major question), could really be successful.
One of the biggest obstacles to creating such a board is the opposition of hospitals and medical societies.
According to an article in Kaiser Health News, “… as worker shortages strain the U.S. health care system, heightening concerns about unsafe care, one proposal to create such a board has some patient safety advocates fearing that it wouldn’t provide the transparency and accountability they believe is necessary to drive improvement. One major reason: the power of the hospital industry.”
The article further states, “The push comes as many patients continue to get hurt, according to recent reviews of medical records. The Department of Health and Human Services inspector general found that 13% of hospitalized Medicare patients experienced preventable harm during a hospital stay in October 2018. A New England Journal of Medicine study of patients hospitalized in Massachusetts in 2018 showed that 7% had a preventable adverse event with 1% suffering a preventable injury that was serious, life-threatening, or fatal.”
An example of the power of the healthcare industry was on vivid display last month in Minnesota. Lawmakers there ended up scaling back their proposal to establish a healthcare affordability board that would have had the power to fine hospitals, doctors, and insurers for out-of-control cost growth because of a threat by the Mayo Clinic to halt $4 billion in new hospital investments.
TSCL is all in favor of efforts to reduce the cost of health care, especially for seniors, but clearly, doing so will be a long-term battle and major efforts on our part, as well as broad support among our supporters, as well as the public-at-large is needed if we are to reach that goal.
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News From The House Ways and Means Subcommittees on Social Security and Health
Congressman John Larson (CT-1), minority leader of the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, held a press conference on May 23rd announcing his intent to re-introduce The Social Security 2100 Act.
At the press conference, he said, “Social Security is the number one anti-poverty program for the elderly, for children, and a disability plan that more veterans rely on than the VA. As Americans are faced with a global pandemic, supply chain crisis and rising costs, Democrats are coming together to announce a plan of action to secure and expand Social Security. Social Security 2100 will provide an across-the-board benefit increase for all recipients, ensure benefits better reflect seniors’ expenses, repeal the WEP/GPO that penalizes public servants, cut taxes for 23 million beneficiaries, and extend the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund by asking Americans making more than $400,000 a year to finally pay their fair share. Our seniors, veterans, children, and disabled Americans are not a political bargaining chip- they need our help now! I urge my Republican colleagues to join House Democrats to act with ‘the fierce urgency of now’ on Social Security.”
TSCL strongly supports this legislation and urges all its readers to contact their Members of Congress and ask that they support The Social Security 2100 Act when it is re-introduced.
House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee Hold Hearings on Social Security Fraud, Health Care Costs
Last month, the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security held a hearing to discuss the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) responsibility to do more to protect Americans from Social Security number (SSN)-related identity theft, as well as the government’s failure to help individuals whose SSNs have been compromised.
In his opening remarks at the hearing, subcommittee Chairman Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) pointed out that “SSNs are used for any number of reasons, some required by law, others not. If you want a job, to buy a home, or to open a credit card, you need an SSN. But after countless data breaches, it’s clear that SSNs are far from safe and far from a secret. In 2022 alone, more than 1,100 data breaches included SSNs.”
He went on to say, “As the creator and issuer of SSNs, the Social Security Administration is uniquely positioned to not only combat SSN-related fraud but also to protect people whose SSNs have been compromised from harm from identity fraud. But Social Security’s policies don’t always make doing so easy.
“Today, we’ll have the opportunity to hear first-hand about how difficult resolving an issue related to a lost SSN can be and discuss some ways that the Social Security Administration could make it easier for Americans to protect themselves from harm before it occurs.
“… The American people deserve a similar response from government services when they are the victims of identity theft. Which is why I have partnered with Ranking Member Larson to reintroduce the Improving Social Security’s Service to Victims of Identity Theft Act, that would require the Social Security Administration to provide a single point of contact for individuals whose SSNs have been misused and help resolve cases as quickly as possible.”
The Ways and Means Health Subcommittee also held a hearing last month to examine how and why healthcare costs have risen so much.
In his opening statement at the hearing, subcommittee Chairman Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) said, “Today’s hearing will focus on the healthcare marketplace and how it’s become more consolidated and less competitive in recent years, leading to higher prices and fewer options for patients.
“There are many factors that contribute to this problem, and we need to work together and find bipartisan solutions.
- PBMs – the drug supply chain black box – warping patient costs at the pharmacy counter
- Insurers buying large PBMs [Pharmacy Benefit Managers] and pharmacies
- Insufficient site-neutrality in Medicare
- Large nonprofit hospitals buying everything in sight
- Or Obamacare’s prohibition on physician-owned hospitals
“We must address these systemic failures to help decrease costs and increase patient access to care.”
He pointed out that “… one of the worst examples of consolidation over the last few years is an increase in what some refer to as vertical integration.
“This most often occurs when an insurer, PBM and pharmacy merge, creating a huge monopoly, which decreases patient access and increases prices.
“While the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] allows these mergers to occur since they’re in different areas of health care, they’re no less problematic – they result in fewer options for patients and reduced competition.
“We can all agree that prescription drugs cost too much, but while generics account for 90 percent of the prescriptions filled each year, and three PBMs control about 80 percent of the market share, competition isn’t working how it should.
“Unfortunately, consolidation like this isn’t unique to insurers, PBMs, and pharmacies.
“Large hospital systems are moving into areas where they previously had no footprint, buying up smaller hospitals and independent practices in order to increase their size and stamp out competition.
“Hospital care accounts for nearly one-third of all health care spending each year – or over $1.3 trillion in 2021.
“This spending will only continue to increase if we don’t find ways to create more site-neutrality and increase competition in areas where one health system buys up – or drives out – all other providers.”
He then stated that some of the areas he believes Congress needs to examine are:
- reforming site-neutral payments;
- repealing the physician-owned hospital moratorium;
- slowing down the consolidation of hospital systems;
- and the practice of insurers teaming up with PBMs and pharmacies to stop the market distortions and bring real competition back to health care.
TSCL is pleased that Congress is examining these problems, and we will be looking forward to what legislation comes about because of these hearings. But we will be on guard to ensure those recommendations help seniors, not big healthcare businesses.
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For progress updates or more information about these and other bills that would strengthen Social Security and Medicare programs, visit our website at www.SeniorsLeague.org or follow TSCL on Facebook or Twitter.