Meager hike in Social Security benefits next year
Washington — Millions of Social Security beneficiaries would get a tiny increase in monthly payments next year — less than $2.50, about enough to buy a gallon of gas.
Meanwhile, Medicare is expected to go bankrupt sooner than expected — 12 years from now. And some beneficiaries could face higher monthly premiums next year.
The annual report from the trustees of the government’s two bedrock retirement programs warned that politically gridlocked Washington needs to act sooner, rather than later, to shore up finances and avoid upending the lives of millions of retirees and their families.
Social Security’s trust funds are expected to be depleted in 2034, unchanged from the trustees’ projection a year ago. Medicare’s trust fund for inpatient care will be exhausted in 2028, two years earlier than previously projected.
If Congress allows either fund to run dry, millions of Americans living on fixed incomes would face steep cuts in benefits.
“Lawmakers should address these financial challenges as soon as possible,” said the trustees’ report. “Taking action sooner rather than later will permit consideration of a broader range of solutions and provide more time to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare.”
The projected 0.2 percent increase in Social Security payments would come a year after beneficiaries received no increase. By law, increases are based on a government measure of inflation, which has been low. The official 2017 cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, won’t be determined until the fall.
Advocates complained that the government’s measure of inflation — the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers — doesn’t adequately reflect the prices that older Americans pay.
“Seniors continue to see their modest Social Security benefits eaten away by growing health care costs,” said Max Richtman, who heads the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare.
More than 60 million retirees, disabled workers, spouses and surviving children receive Social Security benefits. The average monthly payment is about $1,232.
After Social Security’s trust funds are depleted, the program would collect enough in payroll taxes to pay only 79 percent of benefits.
Medicare’s problem is more immediate, and more complicated, because health care costs can change in unpredictable ways.
Medicare provides health insurance for more than 55 million people, including seniors and disabled people. After its inpatient care trust fund runs dry in 2028, Medicare would only be able to pay 87 percent of projected costs.
Medicare’s insolvency date has moved closer despite a recent stretch of slow growth in health care costs, with notable exceptions like prescription drugs. Experts who advise the trustees said the change of insolvency dates was mainly technical, due in part to lower-than-expected income from payroll taxes.
In more worrisome news, the trustees said that some Medicare beneficiaries may face sharply higher “Part B” monthly premiums for outpatient care next year. By law, increases in premiums for most Medicare recipients cannot exceed their increase in Social Security payments. So about 70 percent are “held harmless.”
However, about 30 percent of beneficiaries are not covered by that safeguard.
Those who would feel the impact include new beneficiaries and people with higher incomes. The trustees project that the base monthly premium for this group will increase by about $27, to $149. Upper-income beneficiaries would pay considerably more.
Officials cautioned that projections for next year’s premiums are highly uncertain. The final numbers will be released this fall.
Notably, the report carried an appendix amounting to a disclaimer about Medicare estimates: “The actual future costs for Medicare may exceed the projections shown in this report, possibly by substantial amounts,” it said.
That’s because some hospitals and nursing homes may not be able to make money under payment rates currently set for Medicare. If providers stop taking Medicare patients, Congress could be forced to raise payments.
Despite the long-term financial problems of Social Security, the Obama administration is calling for increased benefits. So are Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said benefits can be expanded even as lawmakers overhaul finances. The two goals are “not at all inconsistent,” he said.
In addition to Lew, the Social Security and Medicare trustees are Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin. Two public trustee positions are vacant.