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Although talking about "Saving Social Security" continued to be a major activity on Capitol Hill this past week, the odds for any real action remain in substantial doubt.
Two days of House Ways and Means Committee hearings on Social Security offered little basis for a bipartisan deal to reform the program, so committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-TX) suggested that the committee meet in a closed door executive session. But, when an executive session proved to be contrary to House rules -- such sessions are permitted only for national security reasons -- the committee held a rare bipartisan private session with outside "experts" who had presented their policy options to the committee last winter. Two of the "experts" helped design the privatization plan contained in the Archer-Shaw proposal.
House Budget Chairman John Kasich (R-OH) unveiled a Social Security reform plan that would reduce retirement benefits for individuals under the age of 55 by changing the formula now used to calculate initial retirement benefits to a less generous formula tied to diminished Cost-of-Living Adjustments (COLAs). In return for the lower benefits, the Kasich plan would permit individuals under the age of 55 to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into a private investment account. Kasich touts his plan by saying that it would make Social Security solvent without the need for tax increases or hikes in the retirement age. Small wonder! You donít have to be a rocket scientist -- or the chair of the budget committee -- to figure out if guaranteed Social Security benefits are slashed, the long term financing problems of the program will be reduced.
Democratic women senators led by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (MD) held a press conference to announce a check list of six questions which they will use as a tool to evaluate the effects of any Social Security reform on women and children. The check list will judge any proposal by whether it preserves Social Securityís guaranteed, inflation-protected benefits and whether it protects against the impoverishment of women by maintaining Social Securityís progressive structure.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats again blocked GOP efforts to move legislation to create a "lockbox" for Social Security surpluses. The latest GOP move to cut off debate on consideration of the House-passed bill (H.R. 1259) failed on a straight party-line vote of 55-44. Sixty votes were needed to end debate and proceed to a vote on the bill itself. Republicans vowed to bring the lockbox bill to the floor again and again. Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) said that the Democrats would remain united in their opposition to the GOP "lockbox" plan because it does nothing to address the solvency of Medicare.
Managed Care Reform
Despite opposition from labor, consumer groups and provider organizations, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Employer/Employee Relations reported out a package of eight managed care reform bills on Wednesday. Democrats on the committee, led by Rep. Rob Andrews (NJ), proposed several amendments aimed at improving the bills, including offering the Patientsí Bill of Rights (H.R. 358) as a substitute. All of the Democratic amendments were defeated in straight party-line votes. At the request of AFSCME, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Rep. Andrews led the fight for an amendment to add whistleblower protection for health care workers. Unfortunately, this amendment was defeated without support from a single Republican.
As a package, the bills are seriously inadequate. The patient protections provided are weak with few real safeguards for consumers. One of the bills would create an external appeals process for patients who are denied treatment by their plan. However, the bill is seriously flawed. It would continue to allow plans to deny authorization for treatment even where medical science and clinical experience dictate that treatment is medically necessary.
Another bill in the package would allow the creation of Association Health Plans (AHPs) which would be exempted from state laws mandating health benefits, such as minimum hospital stays for certain medical procedures. These plans would also be exempt from state consumer protection regulations which allow plans to be sued when they have injured a patient through the denial of treatment. Because of these exemptions, AHPs would further fragment the health risk pool and drive up the premiums of traditional health care plans which cover AFSCME members.
If normal rules are followed, the bills will be taken up by the full Education and Workforce Committee, possibly as early as next week. However, it is possible that the bills will be put on the floor directly rather than going through the full committee. While the subcommittee is dominated by conservative Republicans, the full committee includes a few moderates who may be willing to amend the bills. Consequently, House Republican leaders may choose to skip the full committee in order to keep the bills from being improved before going to the floor.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) blasted Senate Republican leaders this week for their failure to negotiate in good faith to bring managed care reform to the Senate floor. Consequently, Sens. Daschle and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) are planning to begin efforts next week to attach the Patientsí Bill of Rights (S. 6) to other legislation taken up on the floor.
SIGN THE PBR PETITION TO CONGRESS
A petition to Congress on the Patientsí Bill of Rights has been posted on AFSCMEís home page at www.afscme.org. By clicking on the petition site, AFSCME members can sign this electronic petition urging Congress to pass a real Patientsí Bill of Rights which includes whistleblower protection for health care workers.
Please sign the petition and urge your members to sign too!
Although there are many good things in the presidentís proposal called Education Excellence for All Children Act of 1999, there is a particular section that is extremely troubling for paraprofessionals who assist teachers in the classroom. It says that the local education agency shall ensure that, no later than July 1, 2002, all paraprofessionals working in programs supported with funds from Title I may not give direct instruction to a student unless he or she has completed two years of college and is under the direct supervision of a teacher. The bill also states that a paraprofessional who possesses a secondary school diploma or its equivalent, but not two years of college, may perform only non-instructional duties. This is a threat to those thousands of paraprofessionals who have worked for many years in our nationís classrooms.
Corrections and Law Enforcement Officers
The House this week, while debating legislation to overhaul the nationís gun laws, approved an amendment by Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the Community Protection Act (H.R. 218). This amendment would give qualified current and retired law enforcement officers, including corrections officers, an exemption from state concealed weapons laws. Its purpose is two-fold: it would give law enforcement officers a greater ability to protect themselves and their families from dangerous criminals, and would provide our communities with the protection of over 600,000 trained law enforcement professionals.
Under the "guise of budget process reform," the House Budget Committee approved a bill, by a vote of 22-12 with only Rep. David Minge (D-MN) breaking party ranks. The bill (H.R. 853) would likely lead to cuts in discretionary spending and make the annual appropriations process more difficult. The bill would allow the projected non-Social Security surpluses to be used to finance tax cuts or entitlement increases before such surpluses were actually realized. As a result, if the projected surpluses failed to materialize, it would force cuts in programs including Medicare, student loans, and the Social Servicesí Block Grant among others. It would also permit reductions in the caps on discretionary spending to finance tax cuts.