The next stimulus packages should help seniors

The relief package Congress passed on March 27, was a good start toward mitigating some of the worst impacts of the early stage COVID-19 crisis for seniors. Among other measures, the CARES Act included relief payments for Social Security beneficiaries and gave Medicare and Medicaid new flexibility to cover seniors’ health care costs during the pandemic. But the legislation also left some critical gaps unfilled. Congress must act again to close them. 

Seniors are the most vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. “Older adults seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness,” reports the Centers for Disease Control. Not only are they more likely to suffer or die from the disease, but seniors also are more financially susceptible to the economic turmoil the coronavirus has wrought. 

Millions of older Americans live on fixed incomes — dependent largely on Social Security to cover their most basic expenses. Many cannot afford the financial shocks of COVID-19 treatment. Contrary to what some Americans may believe, Medicare patients face potentially crushing out-of-pocket costs, especially if they do not have Medigap supplemental insurance. 

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Advocates want to make sure that a fourth relief bill will increase seniors’ chances of surviving this crisis — both physically and financially. As lawmakers work to craft new legislation, we urge that Congress adopt several measures to further inoculate older Americans against the worst outcomes of the pandemic. 

We must also remember that seniors themselves provide significant economic stimulus when they spend their Social Security checks on essential goods and services. Their Social Security benefits go right back into the community — more than $1.6 trillion worth of annual stimulus, in fact. Struggling communities need that infusion of cash right now. 

Like other Americans, most seniors are eligible to receive up to $1,200 in one-time stimulus payments. While helpful, it isn’t enough. Too many seniors were already forced to choose between food and medicine before COVID-19. We support proposals from Senators Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenMnuchin: Next stimulus bill must cap jobless benefits at 100 percent of previous income Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits On The Money: Trump administration releases PPP loan data | Congress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits | McConnell opens door to direct payments in next coronavirus bill MORE (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Progressive activist Ady Barkan endorses Biden, urges him to pick Warren as VP Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits MORE (D-Mass.) to boost Social Security benefits by $250 per month — enough for a few weeks of groceries, a utility payment, or an out-of-pocket medical bill.

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) has an even more ambitious proposal to boost benefits 2 percent across the board to all 64 million Americans receiving Social Security. Larson’s bill, based on his Social Security 2100 Act, would also increase the threshold for the special minimum benefit to 125 percent of the federal poverty level, and improve widow and widower’s benefits in the lower and middle-income brackets.  “If we can afford to bail out [large corporations], we can also afford to give back to seniors,” Larson said.  

The agency that administers Social Security benefits will also need some assistance from Congress during the pandemic. The Social Security Administration (SSA) was already reeling from several years of draconian budget cuts that degraded customer service to a painful level for millions of claimants. Congress has recently restored most of that funding. But now SSA likely will be flooded with millions of new claims relating to the coronavirus just as the agency is trying to regain its financial footing. We advocate an immediate $400 million boost to SSA’s operating budget to help it cope with a greatly expanded workflow during this national emergency. Otherwise, SSA’s customer service issues, including long wait times for assistance with claims and delayed disability hearings will only get worse. 

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Let’s also build upon health care improvements in the previous stimulus package, which began expanding Medicare and Medicaid coverage to help seniors survive the pandemic. Congress should increase federal matching funds for Medicaid to 12 percent to help states deal with the increased burden COVID-19 has placed on long term care services. (Medicaid funds about half of all long-term care services in the United States). Lawmakers should further create a special Medicaid grant for states to boost their home and community-based services, an alternative to nursing homes where seniors may be at greater risk of infection. 

Congress also should make permanent the Medicaid Money Follows the Person program, which helps patients transition out of institutional care — as well as spousal impoverishment protections to make it more financially feasible for spouses to care for their loved ones outside of a nursing home. 

Prescription drug affordability and accessibility were already an issue for older Americans before the COVID-crisis. The CARES Act gave seniors access to 90-day refills under Medicare Part D. Lawmakers should now ensure that all patients can obtain a three-months’ supply of their medications. Medicare Advantage patients, in particular, need relief from some of the program’s more restrictive policies — including prior authorization, step therapy, and limited formularies — if they are to obtain the prescription drugs they need.

We have advocated for many of these improvements long before the pandemic began because they are both fair and necessary to the financial and health security of seniors. COVID-19 throws these needs into sharp relief. Older Americans already were struggling to obtain quality, affordable health care, too often forced to choose between prescriptions and doctor visits or other essentials.

Forty percent of Social Security beneficiaries rely on their modest benefits (averaging $1,500 per month, only a few thousand dollars above the poverty line) to cover all of their living expenses. Everyone needs the federal government’s assistance during this crisis — from the unemployed to struggling businesses. But any new relief package must include desperately needed help for older citizens who contribute so much to the economy and to our quality of life.

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.