Weekly Update for Week Ending June 5, 2020

Weekly Update for Week Ending June 5, 2020

Despite the coronavirus emergency, TSCL is continuing its fight for you to protect your Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.  We have had to make some adjustments in the way we carry on our work, but we have not, and will not stop our work on your behalf.

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TSCL Meets (virtually) With High-Ranking Senate Leader

Last week TSCL was part of a virtual meeting with Senator John Thune (R- S.D.) who, as the Majority Whip, is the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

During the wide-ranging question and answer session TSCL asked the Senator if legislation to lower prescription drug prices and end surprise medical billing would be passed this year.  The Senator's answer was disappointing but also not surprising.

He said it is still possible that legislation regarding those issues could be passed, but not very likely.  He said he was afraid they would be caught up in the elections and be used as campaign issues rather than being seriously considered for passage.  That means that if any action is taken it will probably not be until later in November or even December, depending on how late in the year Congress works.

According to Senator Thune, there is likely to be another major bill providing more money for businesses and others to keep the economy afloat.  However, that may not happen until later in June or sometime in July.  Obviously, that will use up time that would otherwise have been spent dealing with the other important issues Congress must address.

Senator Thune also said there are no plans for the Senate to stay in session longer than it normally would to get their work done.  That means they will take their usual August break as well as the usual recesses during upcoming holidays.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives announced they will also be taking the usual August recess – if they get needed legislation passed before then.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Senate is behind in getting its regular work accomplished.  We think it's a shame they won't spend more time in session getting the legislation passed that's needed, especially on prescription drug prices, surprise medical billing, shoring up the Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and fixing the COLA to reflect the true inflationary costs that seniors face.

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President Announces Lower Insulin Costs for some Seniors

President Trump announced last week that there will be a new type of Medicare prescription drug plan that will cap insulin costs at $35 per month for some seniors who have diabetes.   While TSCL applauds that as far as it goes, it is woefully short of what is needed.

Unfortunately, it is not as cut-and-dried as “everyone will now pay $35 per month for their insulin.”  It is much more complicated than that.

To begin with, it will apply only to some seniors, depending on which Medicare supplement program they enroll in, and it is completely voluntary on the part of both the supplement provider and the individual enrolled in Medicare.

In our analysis, it appears that this new program adds layers of complexity and apparently will drive up the overall costs of everyone enrolled in the Part D plans that participate in this.

The main point is that this program would be limited in scale, and only available in certain types of plans, which means only in certain areas of the country.  The premiums of these plans would be higher for all enrollees due to the capping of the cost of insulin to the patient, but not actually lowering the cost of insulin overall.  That means the supplemental insurance plan would still be paying the full cost of insulin that is charged by the drug companies.  To pay for that, the insurance companies would likely increase the costs of their Medicare supplement plans to all who are covered, not just those who are diabetic.

We believe that given the complexity of the new program, seniors who need insulin would be wise to enlist the assistance of a trained counselor before switching to such a plan to ensure they aren’t giving up better coverage in other ways.  This is particularly true if they are now in a Medigap plan and considering moving to a Medicare Advantage plan.

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Talk in Congress about Social Security boost, maybe – but not for awhile 

Republican lawmakers are voicing deep skepticism about passing another round of $1,200 rebate checks as they contemplate the next and possibly final stage of coronavirus relief legislation.

Senate Republicans said this week they are more focused on reforming the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, providing more money for cash-strapped state and local governments, boosting benefits for Social Security recipients and fixing other elements of COVID-19 relief bills passed earlier this year.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, “I do believe we should be helping people on Social Security because the price of food has gone up and I don’t see any end in sight,” he said. “A payment to Social Security recipients who are on fixed income of $50,000 and below might make sense.”

Despite the House passing a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not scheduled a vote on a Senate relief package before July 4.  Instead, Republicans will focus on the National Defense Authorization Act, the Great American Outdoors Act and the confirmation of circuit court and other nominees this month.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), who TSCL met with last week, noted the Senate plans to hold multiple hearings on what should be included in the next relief bill, but he said moving a bill “probably doesn’t happen” until July.

TSCL will watch closely to see what, if anything, is introduced in Congress to boost Social Security payments for seniors and we will keep you posted as things move forward.

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Center for Disease Control (CDC) says Face Coverings Remain Key

Masks and face coverings remain an important tool to stop spread of the coronavirus, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Congress this week, adding that he’s worried that some Americans appear to be ignoring the advice.

“We continue to see this as a critical public health tool,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said. Responding to questions about large public gathers of unmasked people, he stated that, “obviously we’re very concerned that our public health message isn’t resonating.”

Redfield said the agency would continue to try and push the message that people should wear marks: “We’re going to continue to try to figure out how to get more and more people to embrace it.”

Dr. Redfield also told Congress this week that the CDC is developing a test that can check for seasonal influenza and COVID-19 infections at the same time.

Symptoms of the two illnesses are similar, and when seasonal influenza season arrives later this year it will be important for public-health authorities and health workers to be able to differentiate between the two viruses. Such a test would help determine whether Covid-19 infections are experiencing a second wave, or if patients are showing up with normal seasonal flu.

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Coronavirus vaccine by this winter?  Maybe, but do not get your hopes up too far.

This is hard.  Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the drastic changes it has brought to all our lives is hard.  But for seniors, the group most vulnerable to severe, and even fatal cases of the disease, it is very hard.

We have been told repeatedly that the virus will not simply go away.  It is here to stay and until effective treatments and/or a vaccine are found, we must continue wearing masks when in public, keeping our distance from others when out and about, and as much as possible, staying at home and away from others.

For those who are “social butterflies,” this is extremely hard.  For those who do not have a problem being by themselves, maybe not so much.

But we all must face the reality that unless we continue the safety measures of masks and handwashing, this will get worse.

With no effective treatment in sight, and no indication that the coronavirus will “magically disappear,” as the President has frequently predicted, a vaccine will be “the ultimate game changer” in the pandemic, according Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on the outbreak. “There’s never a guarantee of success,” Fauci said. But he added that he was “cautiously optimistic” that by winter, at least one of nearly a dozen promising vaccine candidates would have shown itself to be safe and effective in inducing immunity in humans.

Vaccine scientists are similarly cautious, especially of a testing schedule that will compress both the size and duration of safety and effectiveness trials — and even overlap them — in a bid to save time.

An immunologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota said recently, “It’s fine for politicians to say we’re going to have a vaccine next month, but the literature is littered with false starts and unanticipated safety effects in vaccines.”

He noted that a vaccine’s rarer side effects are often not recognized until it is put into broad use.  To discover an adverse outcome that only occurs in one person in 100,000, for instance, a company would need to test it in 384,250 people from broad backgrounds and with a variety of medical conditions.

Such large trials are unlikely in the rush to field a vaccine and the result could be a dangerous erosion of public trust. The yearly flu shot carries a risk of less than 1 in 1 million cases of the neurological complication Guillain-Barre syndrome.  But even with that low a risk, close to half of Americans refuse to get it.

“You have a whole spectrum of people out there who won’t be reassured by any amount of information,” he said. “If we don’t pay strict attention to safety, this is going to backfire.”

Scientists in China, Kazakhstan, India, Russia, Germany, Sweden, and the United States have brought 10 potential COVID-19 vaccines to the point where they are being evaluated in humans in some form. Another 115 are considered by the World Health Organization to be in the “preclinical” stage of development.  In some cases, these preclinical vaccine candidates are scarcely off the drawing board. In others, they are still being tweaked or tested in cells. Some are being tried in lab animals.

The prospective vaccines range widely in their design and novelty.  They also vary in their ease of manufacture, the number of doses a patient needs to gain lasting immunity, and the way they are administered. There will have to be multiple types of vaccines.  The director of the Center for Drug Discovery at Washington University in St. Louis, said that while there are pitfalls inherent in the rush to find a vaccine , a previous  pandemic offers comforting reassurance that in fielding the right drug, patience is an essential virtue.

In the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the first generation of drugs was mediocre at best, he said. As scientists learned more about the virus and the disease it causes, the medicines became more effective. That may be a model for what we are going to have here. We may not get the best vaccine up front. But hopefully it will be good enough and will be replaced later by better vaccines. We have may just have to live with that until we get a better one.

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Please Be Careful When Using Disinfectants and Cleaners

To try to kill the novel coronavirus, some Americans are unsafely using disinfectants and cleaners, including washing food with bleach, using the products on bare skin, and inhaling and ingesting them, federal health officials reported Friday.

Health experts caution explicitly against using cleaning products in those ways.

The findings come from a survey of 502 adults conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May. Thirty-nine percent had misused the cleaning products, and one quarter reported “an adverse health effect that they believed was a result” of the products.

Of the respondents, 19% said they had used bleach on food, 18% said they had applied household cleaners to their skin, 10% said they had misted themselves with disinfectant sprays, 6% had inhaled vapors from the cleaners, and 4% had drunk or gargled diluted bleach solutions, soapy water, or other disinfectants.

“These practices pose a risk of severe tissue damage and corrosive injury and should be strictly avoided,” the CDC researchers wrote in a paper, published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. “Although adverse health effects reported by respondents could not be attributed to their engaging in high-risk practices, the association between these high-risk practices and reported health effects indicates a need for public health messaging regarding safe and effective cleaning practices aimed at preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in households.” (SARS-CoV-2 is the formal name of the novel coronavirus.)

The survey showed that many people did not know how to safely use different cleaning products, even as most said they knew how to properly store and use them. About a quarter of respondents knew that only room temperature water should be mixed with bleach, and a third knew not to mix bleach with vinegar. More of the respondents — about two thirds — knew that eye protection and gloves were recommended when using certain cleaners.

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For progress updates or for more information about these and other bills that would strengthen Social Security and Medicare programs, visit the Bill Tracking section of our website or follow TSCL on Twitter.