Legislative Update November 2013

With Congress having been consumed with budget battles and the debt ceiling, there hasn’t been a lot of other business being taken care of.  It has been reported that even though there are many pending issues that still need to be addressed, Speaker Boehner has had trouble filling up the remaining 16 working days left on the House Congressional Calendar for 2013. Hopefully, the budget committee can finally craft a budget that can actually be voted on and passed so we do not have to again go through the hand wringing we had to survive last month. We always have to keep an eye out for the constant threat to Amtrak funding and the other issues that directly affect railroaders.

Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Strike

In the early morning hours of September 20, more than 100 BLET members struck the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway (WLE) to protest that railroad’s repudiation of the Collective Bargaining Agreements that cover the two operating crafts. Picket lines were posted at seven primary WLE terminals in Ohio and Pennsylvania, shutting down the entire railroad’s operation, which usually averages 45-50 trains per day. BLET General Chairman Bob Linsey stated that WLE had used management officials to perform the work of bargaining unit employees and had also ignored longstanding crew consist agreements by operating single-person operations in an effort to eliminate trainmen.  BLET National President Dennis Pierce stated that WLE’s actions were “in outright defiance of its obligations, a major dispute in and of itself.”

He further condemned WLE for its actions, saying the railroad had loaned 25 million dollars to the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad (MM&A), for its failed one-person operations. As you may remember from the September update, a MM&A train that had been operated by a single crew member, rolled driverless down a hill before derailing in the middle of the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, causing an explosion that killed 47 people. Following that tragic accident, a bipartisan bill, H.R. 3040, the Safe Freight Act, was introduced in Congress. This bill would require at least two crew members on all freight trains in the nation. President Pierce called on the House leadership to move forward with that legislation.

By late afternoon on September 20, a U.S. District Court Judge issued a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in Akron, Ohio, ending the WLE strike. He ordered the strikers to return to work and to refrain from any form of economic self-help or job action against the railroad, including delaying anyone from performing his or her work for the railroad. The judge conditioned the TRO on WLE’s agreement to cease the use of supervisors or other management employees in place of engineers or conductors. The TRO will remain in effect until a hearing is held on the WLE’s request for a longer-term injunction.

Understanding Chained CPI and its Potential Impact on Members

The U.S. Chained Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a twist to the current Consumer Price Index (the formula that looks at how the cost of goods changes over time). Each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics determines the CPI based on the average prices of 211 different categories of goods and services in 38 different urban geographical areas. Various public and private organizations use the CPI to determine cost of living adjustments.

The Chained CPI measures living costs differently because it is based on the assumption that when prices for one item go up, consumers sometimes settle for a cheaper substitute, for instance when the price of beef goes up, people buy more chicken and less beef. With Chained CPI, cost of living adjustments would be lower than with the CPI that is currently being used. Chained CPI would cause cost of living adjustments for Social Security to be lowered by .3 percent, which initially doesn’t sound like all that much, but it compounds over time.

Proponents of this new twist on the Consumer Price Index, like The Heritage Foundation and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, want to enact Chained CPI as a means to cut the federal deficit at the expense of those who depend on programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income. Groups like AARP claim that the current CPI already understates the inflation seniors experience, primarily because the elderly purchase more medical care than younger people, and medical care inflation has far exceeded inflation in the rest of the economy. Because changes in Railroad Retirement Tier I benefits usually follow Social Security benefit changes, if Chained CPI goes into effect, thereby slowing future Social Security cost of living adjustments, it will more likely than not affect Railroad Retirement benefits as well.

The Obama Administration has proposed adopting the chained CPI in its fiscal 2014 budget request. We need to tell the White House and our representatives, “Don’t bargain with our railroad retirement and social security benefits!”

Enrollment Deadline Extended for Flexible Spending Account

The deadline for enrollment in the Health Flexible Spending Account (Health FSA) has been extended through December 1, 2013. This enrollment extension is only for the Health FSA benefit — enrollment for all other 2014 Railroad benefits closed on November 2. Brand new for 2014, eligible members who enroll in the Health FSA for 2014 will be able to use a special debit card to easily pay for eligible FSA expenses. The debit card is connected to the member’s flexible spending account so there will be no need to write checks or submit claim forms.

To enroll in the Health Flexible Spending Account benefit for 2014 between November 5, 2013 and December 1, 2013:

  1. Go toyourtracktohealth.comand click “Login” in the upper-right corner.

  • If you have already registered, enter your username and password.
  • If you have not yet registered, select “New User?” at the bottom of the

screen to complete your registration.

  1. Once logged in, look to the upper-left corner of the screen, select the

button that reads “Enrollment for the health FSA only has been extended

beginning November 5, 2013 through December 1, 2013. Click here if you

haven’t already enrolled in the health FSA for 2014.” (Note: You must

enroll in your FSA every year — FSA enrollment is NOT automatic each

year.)

I strongly encourage all eligible members to participate in this cost savings program. The addition of the debit card makes it easy and painless!

Medicare Part B Premiums Remain the Same in 2014

The Railroad Retirement Board has reported that the standard Medicare Part B monthly premium will be $104.90 in 2014, the same amount as in 2013. Some beneficiaries will continue to pay higher premiums based on their modified adjusted gross income, but these amounts are also remaining the same as in 2013.

Beneficiaries in Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage plans pay premiums that vary from plan to plan. Beginning in 2011, the Affordable Care Act required Part D beneficiaries whose modified adjusted gross income exceeds the same income thresholds that apply to Part B premiums to also pay a monthly adjustment amount. In 2014, the adjustment amount ranges from $12.10 to $69.30. The Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) withholds Part B premiums from benefit payments it processes. The agency can also withhold Part C and D premiums from benefit payments if an individual submits a request to his or her Part C or D insurance plan. The RRB collects Part D income-related adjustment amounts, but must bill the enrollee, as the agency is currently unable to withhold these amounts from benefit payments.

Those railroad retirement and social security Medicare beneficiaries affected by the 2014 Part B and D income-related premiums will receive a notice from the Social Security Administration (SSA) by December 2013. The notice will include an explanation of the circumstances where a beneficiary may request a new determination. Persons who have questions or would like to request a new determination should contact SSA after receiving their notice.

Additional information about Medicare coverage, including specific benefits and deductibles, can be found at www.medicare.gov.

Railroad Retirement Cost of Living Adjustment

Beginning January 2014, Railroad Retirement Tier I will increase by 1.5% and Tier II by .5%.  A full Railroad Retirement web report can be found at http://www/rrb.gov/act/col.asp.