The 116th Congress can improve Medicare and Social Security

The Democratic majority taking power in the U.S. House this week is cause for cautious optimism among older Americans. The incoming majority can function as a firewall against harmful cuts to Social Security and Medicare, which fiscal hawks have been threatening. But our allies in the House can also do more. The champions of Social Security and Medicare elected in November have an opportunity to expand both programs for the benefit of tens of millions of older Americans.

This can be achieved by working across the aisle to enact legislation that helps, rather than hurts, seniors.  Committee oversight in the new Congress will also be crucial. Advocates for seniors’ financial and health security will seize the gavel in key House committees, including House Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor. They will be able to highlight legislation to boost Social Security and Medicare — and to hold the Trump administration’s feet to the fire where these programs are concerned. 


Here are some actions that the new House should take to improve seniors’ financial and health security:


Boost benefits and COLAs

Congressman John Larson John Barry LarsonDemocratic proposals to overhaul health care: A 2020 primer Democratic senators unveil 'Medicare X' bill to expand coverage Stop asking parents to sacrifice Social Security benefits for paid family leave MORE’s Social Security 2100 Act would provide a modest benefit increase for all beneficiaries. This and other legislation also would improve the formula for calculating cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) to more accurately reflect the impact of inflation on seniors. Though the 2019 COLA is a healthy 2.8 percent, recent adjustments have been as low as zero to one percent. 

Strengthen Social Security’s finances

Rep. Larson’s bill would adjust the payroll wage cap ($132,900 in 2019) so that the wealthy pay their fair share of FICA contributions, keeping Social Security solvent for decades.This is far preferable to draconian proposals from conservatives to raise the retirement age, impose stingier COLAs, and means-test benefits.

Keep Social Security field offices open

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has been summarily closing field offices (primarily in urban areas), creating a transportation burden for low-income claimants. Legislation from Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) and Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) would establish guidelines for SSA when it proposes to close or consolidate field offices — including a temporary moratorium on all office closures.

Protect Social Security Disability Insurance claimants

Disabled claimants with health conditions preventing them from working must currently wait up to 600 days for an appeal hearing. Now, SSA wants to impose an extraneous step in the claims process on 10 states, which would add more than 3 months to an already overlong process. New legislation from Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Penn.) would stop SSA from forcing this extra step on claimants in those states. 

What’s more, the committee with jurisdiction over SSA could help claimants by pressuring the Trump administration to streamline the claims process instead of adding roadblocks — and to stop the White House from politicizing the selection of the administrative law judges who decide disability appeals.

Allow Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma

It’s time to empower the Medicare program to negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies, which would save money for the program and patients alike. The President has paid lip service to this idea but has yet to offer proposals that do more than nibble around the edges of this issue. Bills introduced by Reps. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) would give the federal government the authority it needs to negotiate drug prices. 

Expand Medicare benefits

Traditional Medicare does not currently cover vision, dental, and hearing — leaving seniors to either bear thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs or go without necessary care. Several House bills including Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellOvernight Health Care: Trump poised to roll back transgender health protections | House Dems plan 'Medicare for All' hearing next week | Walgreens, Rite Aid raise tobacco-buying age to 21 | Drug distributor faces charges for role in opioid crisis Conserving tiny forage fish, the heroes of our shared ocean ecosystem House Dems to hold hearing on 'Medicare for All' next week MORE’s (D-Mich.) Medicare Hearing Aid Coverage Act and Rep. Lucille Roybal-AllardLucille Roybal-AllardOvernight Defense: Dem chair rejects Pentagon request to use B for border wall | House fails to override Trump veto | Pelosi at AIPAC vows Israel won't be 'wedge issue' Coast Guard has still not recovered from shutdown, commandant says The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump unveils budget wish list with domestic cuts, defense hikes MORE’s (D-Calif.) Seniors Have Eyes, Ears, and Teeth Act would add this much-needed coverage to Medicare. 

Enact a catastrophic cap

Medicare currently does not have a limit on annual out-of-pocket costs, meaning seniors without supplemental Medi-gap insurance can be stuck with exorbitant medical bills — or even face bankruptcy. The new Congress should enact a catastrophic cap to protect the elderly from financial ruin simply because they get sick.

Level the playing field between Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare

The Trump administration has been openly biased toward private Medicare Advantage plans over traditional Medicare in its public outreach. Committee oversight by the new majority could compel the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to provide accurate, unbiased information to enrollees, who deserve nothing less.

The new Congress has a golden opportunity to breathe new life into all these measures, which have been bottled-up in previous Congresses. Skeptics may say that the incoming majority will not be able to accomplish much with the Senate and White House in the other party’s hands. But if politics is the art of the possible, newly-elected (or re-elected) champions of Social Security and Medicare should be able to work on a bipartisan basis to improve seniors’ lives — and provide President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 MORE with a chance to truly honor his campaign promises.

Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a membership organization that promotes the financial security, health and well being of current and future generations of maturing Americans. He also chairs the board of the National Committee’s Political Action Committee, a PAC that endorses candidates for federal office.