Progressive Coalition Pushing Biden, Congress to Protect, Expand Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid

Interview with Alex Lawson, executive director of the group Social Security Works, conducted by Scott Harris

When President Joe Biden addressed a joint session of Congress on April 29, he unveiled what was dubbed the American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion federal investment in education, childcare and paid family leave. The plan’s goals include lowering prescription drug costs for everyone by letting Medicare negotiate prices, reducing health insurance premiums and deductibles for those who buy coverage on their own, creating a public option and the option for people to enroll in Medicare at age 60. Additionally, the proposal would close the Medicaid coverage gap to help millions of Americans gain health insurance.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and many progressive members of Congress are coalescing around lowering the Medicare eligibility age below 65 and broadening the program’s benefits to include vision, dental and hearing. Efforts are underway in Congress to include such provisions in Biden’s infrastructure and jobs plan.
The Congressional Budget Office projection that the Medicare Hospital Insurance trust fund — out of which Medicare Part A benefits are paid — will be depleted in 2026, is another urgent issue that Congress needs to address.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Alex Lawson, executive director of the group Social Security Works, a coalition made up of over 340 national and state organizations representing over 50 million Americans. Here, he assesses the Biden administration’s initiatives on protecting and expanding Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — as well as the push to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.

ALEX LAWSON: During the campaign, Joe Biden was a conservative Democrat in relation to the other contenders in the primary, but his policy positions were pulled left by the field. And so he also got on board with expanding Social Security, which by now is a pretty centrist position in the Democratic party. And he has committed to his own plan for expanding Social Security without raising taxes on people making under $400,000 a year. He similarly had a commitment to expanding access to healthcare. It got a little squishy because he was very adamantly opposed to guaranteeing healthcare as a right through a Medicare for All position or policy, but he did make a commitment to lower the Medicare age — start that process of lowering the age. And he also talked about expanding benefits by adding things like vision hearing and dental. We want him to also include an out-of-pocket cap on traditional Medicare, and he has indicated a willingness on a lot of these things.

He’s reiterated them not central to his agenda, but he’s put it out there that if the Congress can pass a law or get a law to his desk that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and then spend that saving on expanding Medicare, that he would sign it. So I think what we’re seeing is a sort of presidential administration whose commitment is to big reform, which I think people generally say is an infrastructure package, but it contains many parts. And the White House has been very focused on the tax reform aspect of it, making sure that millionaires, billionaires, corporations pay their fair share. And it has been really left up to Congress to move the ball when it comes to expanding Medicare, letting Medicare negotiate drug prices. Same with Social Security, but Social Security doesn’t have as clear a vehicle in the Congress right now because Social Security can’t be touched in the reconciliation process, which the other parts of president Biden’s agenda are being moved with right now.

SCOTT HARRIS: What about the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, given that there are projections there’s going to be shortfalls in the years ahead. I’ve heard that the Medicare Part A, which is the Hospitals and Insurance Trust Fund, was going to run short of funds earlier than predicted because of the COVID pandemic. The year I’ve heard is 2026, not too far off. What are some of your concerns around that? And what are some fixes that are viable?

ALEX LAWSON: We choose to allow our healthcare costs to spiral out of control because we won’t even allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Even though it’s a largest buyer of drugs in the world, it’s just a matter of political will to challenge these powerful and moneyed interests. The exact same with Social Security, Social Security is the most small fee conservatively managed program system in the entire government. It’s never missed a payment nor will it ever miss a payment. All we need is the political will to say, you know what, we’re going to get millionaires and billionaires to pay the same rate as the rest of us into Social Security, which they don’t do right now. And in doing that, we’re going to bring in enough money to extend the solvency of Social Security and even expand benefits. The best way to fix any worry about these systems is to actually do what we’ve been saying for a long time.

The only problem with Social Security is benefits are too low. Let’s get the millionaires and billionaires to pay in at the same rate as us. And then we can not only extend the solvency, but expand benefits for everyone. It’s just an obvious solution. But D.C. is a place where common sense and obvious things many people are paid to ignore that, which is right in front of our faces here. Luckily, people are really fed up with that. They don’t take that excuse anymore. And I think the pandemic has opened a lot of people’s eyes to the abject failure of a sort of neoliberal model that says the market is going to save us. That the private industry in and of itself is just going to — through the miracle of the market — save us from things wrong. All we’re suffering from here in the United States is a lack of political will and a massive propaganda cannon that’s aimed at the people protecting a narrative for the moneyed and powerful interests that are actually driving us right into the ground here. And we have to throw them overboard, take control of the ship ourselves and make government responsive to the people. Again, it’s just that simple.

For more information, visit Social Security Works at socialsecurityworks.org.

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