News from the Hill – February 2011 – Second Edition

Feb 28, 2011

Federal Long-Term Care Program Slated for Changes before Implementation

An important component of the federal health care reform law is a provision creating a new voluntary national insurance program for long-term services and supports, known as the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act. The CLASS Act is a voluntary cash benefit program designed to assist beneficiaries with the cost of long-term care services. Originally added by Senator Edward M. Kennedy in the earliest versions of health reform law, the CLASS Act will provide a cash benefit to chronically ill and disabled people regardless of age to continue living in their homes. The program is limited to beneficiaries with severe disabilities who want to live in the community. Alternatively, beneficiaries may also use their benefit to help pay for nursing home care or assisted living.

Republican members of Congress strongly oppose both the CLASS Act and the larger health reform law. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, recently determined that CLASS as planned is financially unsound.  She further argues that the health law grants her all of the authority necessary to make changes to the program to keep it financially sound.  Speaking on several occasions this month, Secretary Sebelius said she anticipates making changes in CLASS program eligibility standards, such as employment and earnings requirements, and adjusting beneficiary premiums to rise with inflation.

The CLASS program is voluntary.  Its financial solvency and viability depend on the enrollment of large numbers of participants. The Administration believes employers and individuals will need information about the potential need for long-term services to understand the value of the program. Building public confidence in the program is an important federal priority as the government hopes to enroll at least five percent of working eligible people starting late next year. To learn more about the new program see this link to Advance Class.

Federal Government Heads Toward a Shutdown

Unless the leaders of the House and Senate back off their entrenched positions on the federal budget and related spending programs, a government-wide shutdown appears likely to begin on March 4. NASW has consistently called on Congress to protect human needs programs and to reject cuts in programs serving low-income populations. Among NASW priorities for protection are funding for health care reform, Medicaid, mental health funding at HHS, Head Start and Pell Grants.

Democrats in the Senate have signaled that they will make cuts to help bridge the gap. They are looking to the President’s FY12 budget for possible cuts like the Community Services Block Grant and to $8.5 billion in earmarks included in the Continuing Resolution that funds the government through March 4.

Obama Administration Releases FY 2012 Education Funding Plan

NASW staff recently attended a briefing by Education Secretary Arne Duncan to discuss the Administration’s fiscal year 2012 budget request. Highlights include a proposal to preserve Pell grants for low-income college students, expansion of the Race to the Top and Promise Neighborhood programs, and the creation of a cadre of math and science teachers to prepare students for innovative technology careers.

Also, the Successful, Safe, and Healthy Schools program was introduced as part of the President’s focus on improving education outcomes for our nation’s youth. Under this proposed program, the Department would award grants to

  • increase the capacity of states, districts, and schools to create programs to reduce drug use, violence, harassment, or improve school safety;
  • improve students’ physical health and well-being through the use of comprehensive services that improve student nutrition, physical activity, and fitness; and
  • improve students’ mental health and well-being by accessing counseling, health and mental health services, and social services.

This program would be formed by consolidating smaller, existing ones with similar missions. Experts warn that this could result in a net reduction in total spending and it is unclear if there is the political will in Congress for reorganizing services in this way.

The President’s budget will require Congress to pass a spending bill within the next few months. Additional information on the U.S. Department of Education’s FY 2012 budget proposal is available at http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/budget12/index.html.

NASW Signs on to Women’s Global Health Letter

The House of Representatives has proposed cuts to the foreign assistance budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 (FY11) that would result in serious setbacks to the advancement of global women’s health and rights, and in turn, to global economic development overall.

In the letter, the nation’s leading women organizations that promote economic development, health, and human rights globally, asked Congress for their commitment to protect and prioritize foreign assistance dollars that support the well-being, rights, and empowerment of women and girls.   The letter states, “Evidence from the field has repeatedly proven that investments in global women’s health maximize the benefits of development programs in every sector. Additionally, women and adolescent girls remain acutely affected by poverty, poor reproductive health, and limited opportunities for education or employment.”

Political Climate

Both parties continue to position themselves for the 2012 election with ongoing budget discussions in which the House, Senate and White House each have their own prevailing views.  Lingering in the shadows is a possible government shutdown in early March.  While policy may seem to sit at the forefront of this debate, it is actually politics that is driving the discussion.  Republicans want to prove to their base that they will deliver the significant spending cuts they promised, and Democrats want to prove to their base that they will work to protect as many entitlement programs as possible.  Regardless of how the situation is resolved, it’s clear that funding for a wide range of programs will be slashed.

For example, both sides are keenly aware of recent developments in states like Wisconsin where the very existence of labor unions is threatened.  Democrats have sought to energize their supporters by loudly decrying such measures, while Republicans hope to show that states can take sweeping measures to save money and reduce deficits.  All of this will factor into future budget talks and their impact on next November.  Throughout it all, NASW is advocating on behalf of social workers to limit the impact on our members and their clients.

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