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Social Security checks getting boost

WASHINGTON — Millions of retirees on Social Security will get a 5.9% boost in benefits for 2022. The biggest cost-of-living adjustment in 39 years follows a burst in inflation as the economy struggles to shake off the drag of the coronavirus pandemic.

The COLA, as it’s commonly called, amounts to an added $92 a month for the average retired worker, according to estimates Wednesday from the Social Security Administration. It’s an abrupt break from a long lull in inflation that saw cost-of-living adjustments averaging just 1.65% a year over the past 10 years.

With the increase, the estimated average Social Security payment for a retired worker will be $1,657 a month next year. A typical couple’s benefits would rise by $154 to $2,753 per month.

But that’s just to help make up for rising costs that recipients are already paying for food, gasoline and other goods and services.

“It goes pretty quickly,” retiree Cliff Rumsey said of the cost-of-living increases. After a career in sales for a leading steel manufacturer, Rumsey lives near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He cares at home for his wife of nearly 60 years, Judy, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Since the coronavirus pandemic, Rumsey said he has also noted price increases for wages paid to caregivers who occasionally help him and for personal care products for Judy.

The COLA affects household budgets for about 1 in 5 Americans. That includes Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees, nearly 70 million people in all. For baby boomers who embarked on retirement within the past 15 years, it will be the biggest increase they’ve seen.

Among them is Kitty Ruderman of Queens in New York City, who retired from a career as an executive assistant and has been collecting Social Security for about 10 years. “We wait to hear every year what the increase is going to be, and every year it’s been so insignificant,” she said. “This year, thank goodness, it will make a difference.”

Ruderman says she times her grocery shopping to take advantage of midweek senior citizen discounts, but even so price hikes have been “extreme.” She says she doesn’t think she can afford a medication that her doctor has recommended.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins called the government payout increase “crucial for Social Security beneficiaries and their families as they try to keep up with rising costs.”

Policymakers say the adjustment is a safeguard to protect Social Security benefits against the loss of purchasing power, and not a pay bump for retirees. About half of seniors live in households where Social Security provides at least 50% of their income, and one-quarter rely on their monthly payment for all or nearly all their income.

“You never want to minimize the importance of the COLA,” said retirement policy expert Charles Blahous, a former public trustee helping to oversee Social Security and Medicare finances. “What people are able to purchase is very profoundly affected by the number that comes out. We are talking the necessities of living in many cases.”

This year’s Social Security trustees report amplified warnings about the long-range financial stability of the program. But there’s little talk about fixes in Congress, with lawmakers’ consumed by President Joe Biden’s massive domestic legislation and partisan machinations over the national debt. Social Security cannot be addressed through the budget reconciliation process Democrats are attempting to use to deliver Biden’s promises.

Social Security’s turn will come, said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee and author of legislation to tackle shortfalls that would leave the program unable to pay full benefits in less than 15 years. His bill would raise payroll taxes while also changing the COLA formula to give more weight to health care expenses and other costs that weigh more heavily on the elderly. Larson said he intends to press ahead next year.

“This one-time shot of COLA is not the antidote,” he said.

Although Biden’s domestic package includes a major expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision care, Larson said he hears from constituents that seniors are feeling neglected by the Democrats.

“In town halls and tele-town halls they’re saying, ‘We are really happy with what you did on the child tax credit, but what about us?’” Larson added. “In a midterm election, this is a very important constituency.”

The COLA is only one part of the annual financial equation for seniors. An announcement about Medicare’s Part B premium they pay for outpatient care is expected soon. It’s usually an increase, so at least some of any Social Security raise gets eaten up by health care. The Part B premium is now $148.50 a month, and the Medicare trustees report estimated a $10 increase for 2022.

Economist Marilyn Moon, who also served as public trustee for Social Security and Medicare, said she believes the current spurt of inflation will be temporary, due to highly unusual economic circumstances.

“I would think there is going to be an increase this year that you won’t see reproduced in the future,” Moon said.

But policymakers should not delay getting to work on retirement programs, she said.

“We’re at a point in time where people don’t react to policy needs until there is a sense of desperation, and both Social Security and Medicare are programs that benefit from long-range planning rather short-range machinations,” she said.


Local
LIFE Senior director: Social Security cost-of-living increase 'very good news'
  • Updated

The biggest Social Security cost-of-living adjustment in almost 40 years couldn’t come at a better time for Tulsa-area seniors, a local senior advocate said.

Last chance offer: $1 for six months

“I’m elated because we do hear from a lot of seniors who struggle,” said LIFE Senior Services Executive Director Eileen Bradshaw of the news Wednesday that benefits for 2022 will see a 5.9% boost, according to Social Security Administration estimates.

That’s well up from the typical 1% to 1.5% yearly adjustment.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize how many seniors depend on Social Security as their sole income,” Bradshaw said. “It’s about 40%. And that means they are living at or just slightly above the poverty level.”

Bradshaw said what has stood out to her most in her own research is how buying power with Social Security has been affected: Since 2000, it’s down 32%.

“The gap just gets bigger and bigger,” she said. “This isn’t going to make that whole, but it is a very significant improvement. We’re talking almost five times what last year’s increase was.”

The increase will work out to around an additional $92 a month for the average retiree or $154 for the average couple.

That can go a long way.

“Food and medicine are the two things that seniors most often come up short on,” said Bradshaw, adding that the rising cost of gasoline has also been a big topic among LIFE clients, along with utilities and housing.

“We are hearing increasingly from seniors that by the time they pay their rent they don’t have enough left over for these other needs,” she said.

For seniors living at the poverty level, the extra money won’t be enough to “make it an absolutely comfortable existence,” Bradshaw said.

“But they will be able to feel this. This is very good news for those who depend solely on Social Security.”


Featured video: Don’t make these retirement mistakes


Local
COVID-19: Despite reaching weekly case plateau, Oklahoma exceeds U.S. new daily infection rate
  • Updated

While Oklahoma may no longer remain in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s red zone for severe levels of viral transmission as hospitalizations and deaths decline, the state is back above the U.S. rate for new infections.

Last chance offer: $1 for six months

Another 189 Oklahomans were reported dead of COVID-19 in the past seven days — 27 per day on average.

Statewide COVID hospitalizations dropped to 740 from 898 from a week ago, according to the three-day averages released by the state.

A total of 228 patients are in intensive care.

The reduction in hospitalizations was likely due to a reporting lag, not necessarily indicative of a trend, state health officials said.

In Tulsa County, COVID hospitalizations were reported Wednesday at 205, down from 244 last week.

“COVID is not gone away from Oklahoma at this point even though I see a lot of things that are suggesting we’ve improved a lot,” said Dr. Dale Bratzler, who heads the University of Oklahoma’s coronavirus response.

However, Oklahoma is recording an average of about 31 new cases daily per 100,000 population, 10 times more than in early June, Bratzler said.

“We are still at a tenfold higher rate of new cases per day right now than we were the first week of June when cases got so low. So again, this isn’t over yet,” he said.

The seven-day average of new cases was at 1,240 on Wednesday.

“The number really has not changed in the past week, so we’ve gone up and down a bit but we’re at the same point today as we were on October 7,” Bratzler said. “There are still a lot of people being infected across Oklahoma each day.

“We’re not entirely red for community transmission, which is good, and I think if we see the case counts continue to come down, we’ll see more counties that start to have colors other than red, which may allow us to open up some things or reduce recommendations for things like masks in some settings.”

All available vaccines provide a good deal of protection against the delta variant, but health officials still recommend that vaccinated people take precautions to reduce the possibility of transmission. The CDC recommends that all people regardless of vaccination status wear masks indoors in areas of high transmission.

Oklahoma doctors have urged residents who haven’t yet been vaccinated to prioritize talking with their primary care physicians about their specific reasons for hesitancy. No treatment is 100% effective at preventing COVID-19, but those who are vaccinated and become infected most often have less severe illness.

Those who wish to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination may do so at vaccinate.oklahoma.gov or find other vaccination opportunities at vaccinefinder.org.

By the numbers

The data below are cumulative as of Wednesday:

Tulsa County

Confirmed cases: 105,510

Deaths: 1,505

State of Oklahoma

Confirmed cases: 629,512

Deaths (CDC): 10,795

Breakthrough cases (deaths): 12,790 (160)

Vaccine doses administered: 4,282,557

United States

Cases: 44,667,636

Deaths: 719,306

Vaccine doses administered: 402,879,650

World

Cases: 239,075,573

Deaths: 4,872,641

Vaccine doses administered: 6,550,688,101

Sources: OSDH, CDC, Johns Hopkins University


Featured video: Area COVID-19 cases show downward trend


Govt-and-politics
alert
Abortion providers ask Oklahoma Supreme Court to put three laws on hold
  • Updated

OKLAHOMA CITY — Reproductive rights supporters on Wednesday asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to put three abortion laws on hold.

Last chance offer: $1 for six months

They filed their appeal after Oklahoma County District Judge Cindy Truong declined to put the measures on hold pending the outcome of a legal challenge.

The three measures are set to take effect Nov. 1.

House Bill 1904 would require a doctor to have certification in obstetrics-gynecology to perform an abortion.

The two other measures, Senate Bill 778 and SB 779, put would put restrictions on medication abortions.

If allowed to take effect, the “laws will decimate abortion access in Oklahoma,” according to the legal filing. “Oklahomans will face tremendous delays and costs in accessing abortion, and many will be entirely prevented from obtaining care in the state.

“Many patients will also be unable to access medication abortion, which is preferred by many and medically safer for some.”

The requirement that doctors be certified as an OB-GYN will drastically reduce access “by arbitrarily prohibiting highly trained, board certified family medicine doctors from providing abortions,” according to the filing.

Of the four Oklahoma centers providing abortions, one will have no eligible physician and three others will lose half of their doctors, dramatically limiting access, the suit says.

No medical reason exists for requiring an OB-GYN-certified doctor to perform the abortion, the filing says.

The other two measures restrict access to medication abortions under elements the Oklahoma Supreme Court, and in some cases the U.S. Supreme Court, has already struck down, according to the filing.

The bills putting restrictions on medication abortions also violate the constitutional requirement that bills contain one subject, the filing says.

“The State’s intent is clear — to limit and prohibit abortion access in any conceivable way,” according to the filing.

The case initially was filed Sept. 2 in Oklahoma County District Court and challenged five abortion laws that were enacted last session.

On Oct. 4, Truong heard arguments on the plaintiffs’ request to put all five of the measures on hold pending the outcome of the case.

Truong put injunctions on two of the new laws but declined to put three of the five on hold.

She issued an injunction against HB 1102, which would ban abortion by classifying it as unprofessional conduct by a doctor that carries a minimum penalty of medical license suspension for one year.

She also issued an injunction on HB 2441, which would ban abortion at about six weeks of pregnancy, a point before most women know they are pregnant and roughly four months before viability.

The plaintiffs are asking that the Oklahoma Supreme Court fast track the appeal.

Plaintiffs in the case are Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice; Tulsa Women’s Reproductive Clinic; Dr. Alan Braid; Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood Great Plains; and Planned Parenthood of Arkansas & Eastern Oklahoma.

Defendants in the case are Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor; Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater; Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler; Oklahoma State Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision Director Lyle Kelsey; Oklahoma State Board of Osteopathic Examiners President Katie Templeton; Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye; and Oklahoma State Board of Pharmacy President Justin Wilson.


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