Social Security Cuts and the CLASS Act

Language, language, language

If the MSM is to be believed, soon we will know what cuts Congress has in mind for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the much maligned CLASS Act. That was a provision in the health reform law championed by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy that represented a teensy-tiny step toward a national program to pay for long-term care. That’s the same MSM that still uses language that mischaracterizes the programs in question or disguises what’s in store for ordinary folks. Campaign Desk has talked about this a lot lately, calling to task the NewsHour for letting the pols get away with empty Orwellian speak.

Just this morning The New York Times told us that yesterday neither side in the great deficit debate “reported any substantive progress as they searched for a formula that would include deep spending cuts, cost-saving changes to entitlement programs and an overhaul of the tax code that would increase revenues by closing certain tax breaks and eliminating deductions but also lower some tax rates.” What are these “cost-saving changes to entitlement programs?” Heavens! The words “cost-saving changes” make this sound like a good thing. It might be for the government’s budget, but may not be for the public.

The other day NPR’s Robert Siegel, host of All Things Considered, was chatting with Virginia senator Mark Warner, a Democratic member of the Gang. He asked him whether one of the likely cuts would be the CLASS Act. Warner replied:

Listen, there are a number of people who fought very hard for the CLASS Act. In concept, it makes sense. The problem with the aging of our population is to add a big new entitlement that for the first 10 years doesn’t cost that much, but in the out years, really would be extraordinary costly. We thought at this moment of tight deficits we couldn’t promise folks this new entitlement if we couldn’t pay for it 10 or 15 years from now.

The CLASS Act an entitlement? Not exactly. In some circles, he word entitlement has come to mean a social insurance program that all people pay into and at some point are entitled to a benefit. That’s how Medicare and Social Social Security work. Medicaid is a different creature because it is means-tested big time. People who get it must be poor and meet an income and asset test to qualify for benefits. Some policy wonks say that once people are poor, or make themselves poor enough by spending their income and assets on care to meet those tests, they are “entitled” to a benefit. But this entitlement can be yanked away if the recipient’s income or assets increase, putting them over the line. Once you get Medicare and Social Security benefits, you get them the rest of your life.

The CLASS Act is different still. It’s a voluntary long-term disability insurance program that would pay a daily cash benefit to those who contributed to the plan during their working careers. If they become disabled, that benefit could be used to buy services of, say, a personal care attendant or secure other help people need to stay in their homes. Perhaps Warner meant that it was an entitlement for those who voluntarily pay into the fund and get something back. But those who choose not to participate are not entitled to anything.

In any case, Siegel did not push back or probe further what the CLASS Act is all about, doing little to enlighten NPR listeners. The CLASS Act had a stormy path through Congress when it finally made it into the reform law. For those who want to go beyond NPR’s non-explanation, Politico’s story may be just the thing.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter any more how the media explain what’s in the package if the deal is sealed. But it will matter to people who depend on these programs when they learn what those euphemisms are covering up.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,