The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Amid Economic Crash, Kushner Tries To Kill Social Security

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the policy Donald Trump is fixated on has nothing to do with ramping up testing, getting protective equipment to workers, or sending resources to nursing homes where tens of thousands of seniors are dying of COVID-19. Instead, he's obsessed with cutting payroll taxes, Social Security's dedicated revenue.

Now, Trump's economic advisers and his unqualified son-in-law Jared Kushner have another way to undermine Social Security: The so-called "Eagle Plan," which would be more aptly named the Work 'Til You Die Plan. It would give people $10,000, but only if they agreed to sign away a portion of their future Social Security benefits. This plan asks desperate families, terrified of going without food or being thrown out of their homes, to sacrifice their retirement.

Read Now Show less

We Already Paid For Gilead’s Covid-19 Treatment — And Shouldn’t Pay Again

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Update: Gilead has renounced the benefits of orphan designation, but still retains other patents that give them a five-year monopoly on remdesivir.

There’s much we don’t yet know about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. We don’t know how long the pandemic will last, when a vaccine will be developed, or how many lives antiviral medications can save. But there’s one thing we know for sure: U.S. taxpayers have already paid for the research and testing of the most promising treatments.

These treatments should be available to everyone who needs them at no cost. But the Trump administration’s drug policy is led by two former pharmaceutical executives, and that is having devastating consequences for potential access to treatments and vaccines for the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you’ve been watching Donald Trump’s daily press briefings, that might come as a surprise. During his 2016 campaign, Trump loved to talk tough on pharma and say he would fight for lower drug prices. But then he put Alex Azar, a big pharma CEO infamous for doubling the price of insulin, in charge of regulating health care. Several weeks ago, Azar refused to guarantee that a coronavirus vaccine will be affordable for all, citing the need to protect big pharma’s profits.

Azar is now a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, and his influence is evident during the briefings. Over and over again, Trump talks up big pharma corporations and thanks them for their work on COVID-19 treatments and a potential vaccine. He refers to them as “great companies” and their executives as “geniuses.”

Trump fails to mention that taxpayers have spent nearly $700 million on coronavirus research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Nor does he mention that big pharma corporations spend more money enriching themselves through stock buybacks than they do on research and development.

One medication currently being tested on coronavirus patients is the antiviral remdesivir. It’s still too early to say if remdesivir will prove broadly effective at helping patients with COVID-19. But if it does end up being a major part of treating the disease, it’s essential to remember who paid for the drug’s development: The American people.

Remdesivir was developed with research funded by a $37.5 million NIH grant. The NIH plans to spend at least an additional $30 million on phase II trials of the medication this year. Since we’ve all paid for remdesivir’s development through our taxpayer dollars, it should be available to everyone who needs it at no cost.

Instead, the Trump administration just granted Gilead, a giant pharmaceutical corporation, “orphan” drug status for remdesivir. That means that Gilead is free to charge outrageous prices for the drug, with their government-granted exclusivity ensuring that there will be no competition for years to come.

What makes this even more outrageous is that orphan status is designed to incentivize research and development of treatments for rare diseases. A pandemic is the opposite of rare!

We don’t know what role Joe Grogan, Gilead’s former chief lobbyist, and currently the director of Trump’s domestic policy council, played in this decision. But it seems a safe bet that such an outrageous move to profit off a pandemic had to have support from the top.

Nor is remdesivir an outlier. This is how all new medications work. Taxpayers always fund the riskiest and most crucial research and development. Then, pharma gets the patent monopolies and uses them to charge outrageous prices. American families are going bankrupt paying four- and five-figure prices for drugs that their taxpayer dollars already paid to develop!

Politicians might be tempted by a short-term solution—requiring all COVID-19 treatments, as well as an eventual vaccine, to be low-cost or cost-free. But that doesn’t go far enough. It does nothing to help the Americans with diabetes who are dying every year because they are forced to ration their outrageously priced insulin. It does nothing for seniors, who will soon be spending half their hard-earned Social Security checks on health care costs. And it will do nothing to help patients when the next pandemic comes.

We need permanent structural changes. Fortunately, we know exactly what we need to do, and the American people agree with these changes across partisan lines:

  1. When a drug corporation is abusing their patent privilege by charging outrageous prices, revoke the privilege and allow generic competition to drive down prices. This policy is supported by 78 percent of all voters and opposed by only 10 percent.
  2. Allow public manufacturing of drugs to alleviate shortages and eliminate bottlenecks. This policy is supported by 70 percent of all voters and opposed by only 17 percent.
  3. Increase taxpayer funding of research and development of vaccines and pharmaceuticals by creating a “full cycle” public R&D program with no patent monopolies and immediate generic production of the results. This policy is supported by 69 percent of voters and opposed by only 15 percent.

Donald Trump wasn’t prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, but the public health community has been preparing for years. The research we’ve funded is going to be critical in the coming months. We’ve already paid for it. Let’s demand that Congress change the law so that we don’t have to pay again.

Alex Lawson is the executive director of Social Security Works, a non-profit advocacy group that supports expanding benefits to address America’s growing retirement security crisis. Lawson has appeared on numerous TV and radio outlets and is a frequent guest host of The Thom Hartmann Program, one of the top progressive radio shows in the country.

Trump Proposes Social Security Changes That Impoverish Disabled

Published with permission from the Independent Media Institute

American workers contribute to Social Security with every paycheck. When they do, they are earning comprehensive insurance protections. Social Security insures against the loss of wages due to old age, disability, or (for the surviving family of a worker) death. While Social Security is best known as a retirement program, disability and survivor’s benefits are equally essential.

An attack on any part of Social Security is an attack on the entire system and all current and future beneficiaries. The latest proposal from Donald Trump’s administration, which is designed to rip benefits away from hundreds of thousands of Americans with disabilities, amounts to a declaration of war on Social Security.

The Trump administration proposal would require millions of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries to re-prove their eligibility for benefits as often as every six months—far more frequently than is currently the case. There is no justification for this policy. The United States already has some of the strictest eligibility criteria for disability benefits in the world. More than half of all claims are denied.

We should be making it easier for workers to claim the Social Security benefits they’ve earned with every paycheck, not harder. And ripping benefits away from current beneficiaries, who rely on them to survive, is even worse.

We know what the effects of the Trump proposal would be, because Ronald Reagan implemented a very similar benefit cut back in the 1980s. Reagan’s policy ripped away the benefits of 200,000 Americans with disabilities. The New York Times reported that “people with obvious physical and mental disabilities” lost their benefits “without having been interviewed.”

Ultimately, Reagan was forced to reverse his attack on Social Security after massive public outcry, and bipartisan condemnation from Congress—but not before 21,176 people died, including several who died by suicide, “because their benefits were cut off.”

Donald Trump himself might not be a diligent student of history, but his advisers—men like Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s chief of staff and a longtime enemy of Social Security—know exactly what they are doing. They want to resurrect Reagan’s Social Security cut knowing full well that it killed people.

This could impact any of us, even those of us who are currently healthy. Imagine that you are hit by a car tomorrow, and suffer life-altering injuries that prevent you from working. You’re faced with crushing medical bills, and you’ve lost your income. In such situations, SSDI benefits are a crucial lifeline. Donald Trump wants to rip that lifeline away.

Trump and Mulvaney are targeting people with disabilities first, because they perceive them as politically vulnerable. But if they are allowed to get away with this attack, it will be only the beginning. They want to destroy every part of Social Security, including retirement benefits, and turn it over to their criminal friends on Wall Street.

We must stop Trump’s plan. The Social Security Administration is collecting comments on the proposal until the end of January. You can comment opposing the plan here. Everyone must also call their elected officials. Congressional condemnation played a huge role in forcing Ronald Reagan to reverse his version of the attack, and it can stop Trump in his tracks.

If we let the politicians in Washington, D.C., take away some people’s earned benefits, it means they can take away all of our earned benefits.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Alex Lawson is the executive director of Social Security Works, a non-profit advocacy group that supports expanding benefits to address America’s growing retirement security crisis. Lawson has appeared on numerous TV and radio outlets and is a frequent guest host of The Thom Hartmann Program, one of the top progressive radio shows in the country.

Beset By Scandal, Trump’s Medicare Czar Should Resign Now

From Tom Price’s $1 million in private plane travel to Scott Pruitt’s attempt to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise, officials in the Trump administration appear to be having a competition with each other to see who can be the most nakedly corrupt. Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), is a top contender. Price and Pruitt are two of the many Trump officials who have already resigned in disgrace. It’s past time for Verma to do the same.

Last week, the depths of Verma’s corruption were exposed when an investigative report revealed that she spent millions of taxpayer dollars on hiring Republican communications consultants to “bolster her public profile.” Verma’s agency already has around 24 in-house communications staff, but apparently that wasn’t enough for her. She saw the opportunity to funnel huge sums of money to her political buddies and eagerly took it.

Verma does have good reason to be concerned about her public image. Her tenure running Medicare and Medicaid has been marked by attacks on both programs and their beneficiaries. Since these programs are extremely popular, attacking them is a great way to get a terrible reputation.

Her assault on Medicaid has been relentless. Before joining the Trump administration, Verma was the head of SVC Inc., a consulting firm that worked on making state Medicaid programs as cruel and stingy as possible.

When Mike Pence was governor of Indiana, he paid her firm $3.5 million of taxpayer money to design a Medicaid program that forced beneficiaries to pay premiums or go without needed care—defeating the entire purpose of Medicaid, which is specifically intended for people who can’t afford health care. Simultaneously, Verma’s firm was paid an additional $1.2 million by the Hewlett-Packard Corporation, which had contracts to administer the Medicaid program she designed. Her work in Indiana, foreshadowing her tenure at CMS, was the height of both cruelty and corruption.

Once Trump put Verma in charge of CMS, she wasted no time in finding another way to attack Medicaid beneficiaries. Under her leadership, CMS has approved waivers from six Republican states allowing them to add so-called work requirements to Medicaid. In Arkansas alone, nearly 50,000 Americans could lose their health care due to these bureaucratic hurdles. Experts agree that this is a cruel and terrible policy, for reasons that should be obvious: It’s much more difficult to look for work when you are sick and going without treatment.

Verma’s attacks on Medicare are more subtle but no less dangerous. Under her leadership, CMS has been exhibiting blatant favoritism to Medicare Advantage plans, which are run by for-profit insurance corporations, over traditional Medicare. This is very dangerous for seniors because unlike traditional Medicare, Medicare Advantage plans restrict patients to a limited number of doctors and frequently and improperly deny people the care that they need. These plans lure seniors in with perks like gym memberships. It’s only when people become sick that the hidden downsides become evident.

Verma’s CMS has issued several regulations to push people toward Medicare Advantage, such as allowing these plans to cover services traditional Medicare is forbidden from covering. Further, the agency has been essentially acting as a marketing arm of Medicare Advantage plans, sending emails to Medicare beneficiaries pushing the plans with subject lines like “Get more benefits for your money.” Verma frequently cheerleads for Medicare Advantage in her public remarkstweets, and op-eds.

The reason she loves Medicare Advantage so much could be that corruption loves company as much as misery. The corporate insurers that make up Medicare Advantage also like to just bilk the taxpayers, according to a recent whistleblower lawsuit exposing that the “amounts in question industrywide are mind-boggling: Some analysts estimate improper Medicare Advantage payments at $10 billion a year or more.”

Seema Verma’s attacks on Medicare and Medicaid, along with her close involvement in the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken and destroy the Affordable Care Act, have hurt Verma’s public image. Paying $3.5 million in taxpayer money to her Republican consultant friends has done nothing to help. If Verma wants to do something that’s actually popular with the public, the answer is simple: Resign.

Alex Lawson is the executive director of Social Security Works, a non-profit advocacy group that supports expanding benefits to address America’s growing retirement security crisis. Lawson has appeared on numerous TV and radio outlets and is a frequent guest host of The Thom Hartmann Program, one of the top progressive radio shows in the country.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.