February 26, 2010

Response to President's Health Care Plan and Summit: Three Things You Can Do

Response to President's Health Care Plan and Summit: Three Things You Can Do
In order to bridge the differences between the U.S. House and Senate-passed health care bills - and continue to move reform forward - President Obama unveiled his Administration's own health plan on Monday.  The plan contains several major steps toward improving the well-being of current and future retirees.  "President Obama's plan recognizes the millions of seniors who are struggling to afford to see a doctor or get a prescription filled," said Edward F. Coyle, Executive Director of the Alliance.  "For retirees, continued inaction would be devastating.  Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs would soon eat up more than one-third of a retiree's Social Security benefits."  For the Alliance's comparison of Obama's health reform bill with those passed by the U.S House and Senate, go to http://bit.ly/aMvKTJ.  On Thursday, President Obama led a televised health care reform summit, which focused on discussing ideas and grievances about the proposed health care bill from both parties.  White House officials named 21 lawmakers the president wanted to attend the summit: the top leaders in the House and Senate and of the committees with jurisdiction over the health legislation.  Obama also invited the top four leaders to invite four more lawmakers each, bringing the total to 37; 20 Democrats and 17 Republicans. For a specific list of the attendees, go to http://bit.ly/aTLD6n.  As a follow-up to the summit, concerned senior activists are encouraged to do 3 things:

  1. Contact your U.S. House member and two Senators by calling 202-224-3121.  Tell them that President Obama's proposal would close the "doughnut hole" coverage gap in Medicare Part D; finally end the $3.60 per month every senior pays in higher premiums to subsidize the big insurance corporations that run Medicare Advantage; and make long-term care more affordable for middle-class families.
  2. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper reiterating the need for reform.  You may find it helpful to use the language at http://bit.ly/8YMsgI as a guide; and
  3. Share Alliance materials like the comparison chart above and the fact sheet at http://bit.ly/a1qtC8 with your friends and neighbors.

Further evidence of the need for reform came last Friday, with the release of a study by a major consulting firm showing that spiraling costs are a problem even for seniors with solid insurance.  The Avalere Health study found that premiums for private Medicare Advantage plans offering medical and prescription drug coverage jumped 14.2% on average for 2010.  Some 8.5 million seniors and disabled Americans who signed up for the private plans will therefore be facing sharp premium increases this year, following an increase of 5.2% last year. 

More Debt Commission Appointees Named
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Tuesday appointed Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) to serve on the President's fiscal panel tasked with developing a plan to bring down the $12.3 trillion national debt.  The President said that the commission can consider everything, including new taxes, spending cuts and changes to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, in order to reach his goal of balancing the federal budget except for debt interest payments by 2015.  Obama is asking Congress to consider the panel's recommendations.  Obama will appoint six people to the 18-member panel and up to four can come from the same party.  Leaders in Congress will choose the other 12 members, with three coming from the Republican and Democratic caucus in each chamber.  Reid is the first congressional leader to announce his picks.  The majority leader said that he would make sure that the panel's recommendations, which are non-binding, receive votes in the Senate.  Both Baucus and Conrad are noted centrists, a group of lawmakers that has made debt and deficit issues a priority.  Obama last week selected former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) to head the panel.  Today, the president named former Clinton White House budget director Alice Rivlin; Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern; former Young & Rubicam Brands CEO Ann Fudge; and Honeywell CEO and Chairman David Cote to fill remaining slots, an administration official said.  "I would like to say to the panel: Social Security's long-term solvency can be resolved by relatively modest adjustments, and without cutting benefits," stressed Barbara J. Easterling, President of the Alliance.  To see the Alliance's latest document on Social Security, which refutes opponents' charges that today's budget problems are due to Social Security, go to http://bit.ly/c68Nom.

Requests for Heating Assistance Rise By 15%
As the winter wears on, the number of households applying for home heating assistance has risen to record levels for the third straight year, rising by 15% to include 8.8 million households.  The majority of these applicants are low-income seniors, disabled people, and families living beneath the federal poverty line.  Under LIHEAP (the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program), states provide grants of about $500; however, due to increased demand, many states have had to cut the grants or applications to stretch funds, leaving many in the lurch.  "While several states forbid the cut-off of utilities during the winter, struggling retirees often put off payments and build up debt," said Ruben Burks, Secretary-Treasurer of the Alliance.  "In the spring, seniors may find themselves lacking gas and electricity as companies seek payment."

Sign Up By March 2 to Get Special Room Rate for the Las Vegas Convention!
As 2010 political campaigns heat up, retirees need to begin learning more about elections that will see the entire U.S. House, one-third of the U.S. Senate, and 36 gubernatorial races on the November ballot.  A great place to start is this year's Alliance National Convention, April 5-8 in Las Vegas, which will feature noted speakers and training workshops on mobilizing retirees for electoral success.  Alliance members will elect a president and secretary-treasurer, and community members will elect six community-based board members.  Hotel reservations must be made by contacting Bally's Las Vegas directly at 1-800-358-8777.  To guarantee the low room rate of $89, you must make your hotel reservation by March 2, 2010.  To register for the convention itself, please go to http://bit.ly/1jIzz2.

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February 19, 2010

President Establishes Debt Commission to Look at Social Security and Medicare

President Establishes Debt Commission to Look at Social Security and Medicare
Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order establishing a commission to tackle the federal debt.  The commission's purpose is to reduce the federal budget deficit from 10% to 3% by 2015 and to propose ways to contain costs related to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  As co-chairs of the commission, the president named former Bill Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson

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February 12, 2010

Insurance Premium Increase of 39% in California Adds to Health Reform Urgency

Insurance Premium Increase of 39% in California Adds to Health Reform Urgency
The health care problem remains on the center stage now that Anthem Blue Cross of California has unveiled rate increases of up to 39 percent for its 800,000 individual policyholders. The increases, which will take effect on March 1, far outpace the increases of 10 to 25% seen in previous years among most insurers offering individual policies.  Kaiser Health News and The San Diego Union-Tribune report that as the economy slowly recovers, health insurance costs for those with individual policies continue to increase due to larger numbers of unemployed and those relying on government health care programs. As a result, "hospitals and doctors are passing on more of their uncompensated costs to patients with private insurance."   The San Francisco Chronicle adds that "California physical, occupational and speech therapists are also taking issue with Anthem."  The therapists said the insurer cut their reimbursement rates by 30 to 50% on February 1.  In addition, the Chronicle reports that patients covered by other health insurers, including Health Net and Aetna, are reporting being hit with sky-high increases.   "This is exactly the kind of news that proves we need health care reform immediately," said Barbara J. Easterling, President of the Alliance. 

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February 05, 2010

President's Budget Includes $250 Stimulus Payment for Social Security Recipients

President's Budget Includes $250 Stimulus Payment for Social Security Recipients
President Obama's Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposes a $250 payment to Social Security recipients.  The relief would come at a time when Social Security beneficiaries will not be receiving a normal cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) because of a formula that forbids adjustments during times of negative inflation.  "Without a COLA, far too many of America's seniors will find it even more difficult to purchase basic necessities, heat their homes and pay for their medications," said Barbara J. Easterling, President of the Alliance.  "We urge Congress to similarly work to provide much-needed economic relief to older Americans who are struggling to make ends meet during these difficult times," she continued.  "The President's budget proposal will provide Social Security beneficiaries with the equivalent of a 2% increase in benefits and will help greatly to bolster their financial security."

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January 29, 2010

President Obama Delivers State of the Union Address

President Obama Delivers State of the Union Address
During his State of the Union address on Wednesday, President Obama vocalized the critical need for a reduction in the federal deficit.  Alliance Executive Director Edward Coyle agreed with the sentiment but cautioned, "We cannot balance the budget on the backs of America's seniors.  Vital programs such as Social Security and Medicare did not cause these large deficits."  He added, "The passage of a strong health care reform bill will not only improve our nation's physical health, but its fiscal health as well, and therefore must remain a priority."  The day after the speech, the President traveled to speak at a Town Hall event in Florida at the University of Tampa.  Alliance members Bob Meeks and Tony Scelzo were among those in attendance, along with Florida Alliance Field Organizer Jenny Kenny.

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January 22, 2010

Massachusetts' Election of Scott Brown to U.S. Senate Threatens Health Reform

Massachusetts' Election of Scott Brown to U.S. Senate Threatens Health Reform
The election in Massachusetts of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday ended the Senate Democrats' supermajority in the chamber, and the first casualty of his victory could be the Democrats' health care overhaul.  Brown defeated Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), 52%-47%, in the special election race to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA).  According to The Washington Post, one factor in the election may have been the fact that all but 3% of Massachusetts' residents already have health insurance.  While many are describing the election as a referendum on national health care reform, Brown rode to victory on a message more nuanced than flat-out resistance to universal health coverage: Massachusetts residents, he said, already had insurance and should not have to pay for it elsewhere.  "We have insurance here in Massachusetts," Brown said during a campaign debate.  "I'm not going to be subsidizing for the next three, five years, pick a number, subsidizing what other states have failed to do."  Republicans will now have 41 votes, the minimum number needed to mount a filibuster and delay legislative action.

Sensing they were on the verge of defeat in the special election, White House officials reportedly began to push for the House to take up and approve the Senate-passed health care reform bill.  However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said on Thursday that the Senate would have to amend its version of a reform bill before Democrats in her chamber would be willing to vote for it. The only way to keep the Senate bill alive, Pelosi said, would be for senators to initiate a package of fixes that would address House concerns about the bill.  One provision of the Senate version that is particularly problematic for House members is the new excise tax on higher-cost policies, which would hit union households particularly hard.  "U.S. House members know that union members often gave up other benefits in negotiations to secure their health care benefits," said Ruben Burks, Secretary-Treasurer of the Alliance.  Hill aides said that the House would not act on the Senate bill until the fixes are made, shifting responsibility for completing the bill across the Capitol.  However, the Senate has not agreed to move forward with such changes.  Congressional leaders are considering starting from scratch on a new, scaled-back package.

Beware the Conrad-Gregg Debt Commission!
Alliance members and activists have sent more than 6,000 letters to their Senators urging them to vote against the creation of a "debt commission" proposed by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).  The commission would limit Congressional debate and allow fast-track cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  A vote is likely on it next week, but an alternative deal is now being struck between Conrad, House leadership and the White House (see more at http://bit.ly/6sRFLI).  Under a pending agreement, President Obama would issue an executive order to create an 18-member panel and grant panel members authority to propose changes in the tax code and in federal entitlement programs including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  The commission would deliver recommendations after this fall's congressional elections.  "I want to thank Alliance members for coming through this past week with their letters," said Edward F. Coyle, Executive Director of the Alliance.  "Brace yourselves - it is highly likely that we will be making similar requests to preserve Social Security in the months ahead."  If you have not sent a letter but would like to, go to http://bit.ly/8tMzmD

Coming Soon: Corporate Dollars for Elections
Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  In a 5-4 ruling, the Court invalidated laws banning corporations (and labor unions) from using treasury funds for campaign ads advocating the election or defeat of specific candidates.  Parts of the decision overturn nearly 100 years of law.  "The outcome would be that corporate funds could inundate the airwaves this year on behalf of candidates whom corporations support.  The floodgates are now open for larger corporate funding in presidential and congressional races," said Mr. Coyle.  "Alliance activists will have to work harder than ever to offset the influence of the big drug and insurance companies," he continued.  The opinion did not change rules barring corporations from contributing directly to candidates and political parties, or from making expenditures that are "coordinated" with candidates and political parties.  The court also overturned part of a different campaign finance law that excluded companies and unions from spending on political ads that refer to candidates in the closing days of election campaigns.

Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
Cervical cancer killed over 4,000 women last year, but can be prevented with the right steps. January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women has partnered in the "Pearl of Wisdom Campaign to Eliminate Cervical Cancer" to help raise awareness of this deadly disease.  You can "Take the Pearl Pledge" and help prevent cervical cancer by going to www.pearlofwisdom.us/Pledge.  "We are asking women to pledge to schedule their annual gynecological examination, tell five friends about their pledge, and wear a Pearl of Wisdom in support of cervical cancer prevention," said Barbara J. Easterling, President of the Alliance.  The Pearl of Wisdom campaign aims to secure 4,070 pledges - the same number of U.S. women who were projected to die of cervical cancer in 2009 - by Mother's Day. 

Education and Training Opportunities at the 2010 National Alliance Convention
The theme for the 2010 Alliance National Convention, April 5-8 in Las Vegas, is "Building Retiree Power."  With the privatizers still hard at work, one workshop being offered is, "Social Security and Entitlement Reforms: Barbarians at the Gate."  Learn more about efforts to reform Social Security and other key programs and what you can do to protect them!  Another workshop will be, "Organizing Strategies Around the 2010 Elections."  In this breakout, you will learn more about the Retiree Zone Coordinator structure to educate and mobilize fellow retirees.  Also offered: "Everything You Wanted to Know About Computers But Were Afraid to Ask."  Our team of experts will answer any question you have about using e-mail or the Internet, signing up for Facebook, or sending and receiving photos.  To register, go to http://bit.ly/1jIzz2.

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January 15, 2010

Health Bill Moves Forward with Excise Tax Compromise

Health Bill Moves Forward with Excise Tax Compromise
Yesterday, White House officials, leaders in Congress and labor unions reached agreement on a proposal to limit the excise tax on higher-cost health insurance plans - a sticking point that had been a major obstacle to merging the House and Senate health care reform bills.  Health plans derived from collective bargaining (union employees' plans) would be exempt from the tax until 2018, instead of beginning in 2013, as had been the design.  The agreement is said to raise the threshold at which other working family plans are taxed from $23,000 to $24,000 in 2013, with annual increases to reflect the Consumer Price Index.  For individuals, the threshold will rise from $8,500 to $8,900.  Specific provisions were made to raise the threshold for plans with retirees age 55 and up, as well as plans that have a significant number of older workers.  Also, beginning in 2015, the cost of dental and vision care would be barred from the calculations.  Alliance President  said yesterday,

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January 08, 2010

Senate and House Iron Out The Differences in Their Health Reform Bills

Senate and House Iron Out The Differences in Their Health Reform Bills
Senate passage of its version of health reform legislation on Christmas Eve completed a historic year in Congress and in the nation's domestic policy debate.  The House and Senate will still have to resolve important differences in their bills this month before they can send a final bill to President Obama.  Whether to tax health benefits to fund coverage for the uninsured; whether to create a public insurance health plan option to hold down health costs and keep insurers honest; and how to address the "doughnut hole" gap in prescription drug coverage are three top issues.  Instead of a formal conference committee, the process will involve leaders shuttling the measure back and forth, until both chambers have agreed to the same text.  Democratic leaders believe that many Senators and Representatives would use a formal conference to delay, not improve, health care reform.  Both the House and Senate bills provide more affordable coverage for retirees and seniors.  They each provide cost relief for early retiree coverage: a new re-insurance program will pick up 85% of the cost of treatments between $15,000 and $90,000 for retirees ages 55-64.  They also offer a $500 immediate increase in the Medicare drug allowance; a phased closing of the doughnut hole, during which seniors have to pay 100% of drug costs; and a 50% cut in the price of brand name drugs for seniors in the doughnut hole until the gap is eliminated.  On Monday, the Alliance signed onto a letter from the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations, a broad coalition of seniors groups, urging Senators to close the gap as quickly as possible.

Both bills would also contain costs in a variety of ways.  For instance, they would reduce over-payments to private Medicare Advantage plans by $135-$170 billion over ten years; eliminate co-payments for preventive care, thereby lowering the odds of a more expensive, catastrophic illness down the line; and ultimately reduce the federal deficit by approximately $130 billion over ten years.  Both bills prohibit denial of coverage or higher rates due to pre-existing conditions and ban annual or lifetime limits on claims payments by insurers.  They also reduce age-based variation in premium rates.  Differences between the bills include whom to tax and how many people to cover. The Senate wants to tax higher-end health plans valued at over $8,500 for most individuals and $23,000 for couples, raising $150 billion.  For retirees, the amounts are higher: $9,850 for individuals and $26,000 for family coverage.  However, the House wants to increase income taxes on the wealthiest Americans

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