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Big boost for Social Security benefits as inflation rises

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Social Security COLA largest in decades as inflation jumps

By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR and CHRISTOPHER RUGABER

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 $92 a month for the average retired worker, according to estimates released Wednesday by the Social Security Administration. That marks 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 he’s seen. 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 spell 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 COLA was designed as 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 benefits provide at least 50% of their income, and one-quarter rely on their monthly payment for all or nearly all their income.

“Regardless of the size of the COLA, 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’ attention 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 for outpatient care is expected soon. It’s usually an increase, so at least some of any Social Security raise goes for 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 is an adjustment to highly unusual economic circumstances and the pattern of restraint on prices will reassert itself with time.

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

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.

Social Security is financed by payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers. Each pays 6.2% on wages up to a cap, which is adjusted each year for inflation. Next year the maximum amount of earnings subject to Social Security payroll taxes will increase to $147,000.

The financing scheme dates to the 1930s, the brainchild of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who believed a payroll tax would foster among average Americans a sense of ownership that would protect the program from political interference.

That argument still resonates. “Social Security is my lifeline,” said Ruderman, the New York retiree. “It’s what we’ve worked for.”

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There’s malice at the palace in opulent ‘King’s Daughter’

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There’s malice at the palace in opulent ‘King’s Daughter’

MOVIE REVIEW

“THE KING’S DAUGHTER”

Rated PG. At Regal Fenway, suburban theaters and VOD.

Grade: B

It’s good to be the king, even if it’s 17th century French King Louis XIV played with joie de vivre, but not very credibly by Irishman and former James Bond Pierce Brosnan. In the cock-eyed, fairy tale-like “The King’s Daughter,” the beautiful heroine is a girl named Marie-Joseph D’Alember (Kaya Scodelario, “Maze Runner: The Death Cure”), who has grown up locked inside a seaside convent, where she has learned to play the cello like a virtuoso and likes to take dips in the sea, even though the mean Abbess (Rachel Griffiths) threatens her with burning her cello.

At about the same time, hunky young sea captain Yves De La Croix (Liam Neeson look-alike Benjamin Walker) has captured a real mermaid for the king, who believes, thanks to his evil court scientist Dr. Labarthe (Pablo Schreiber), that the mermaid can give the king eternal life. Unfortunately, this will require cutting out the mermaid’s heart during a solar eclipse. Pardon?

“The King’s Daughter,” which was partly shot on location in Versailles, boasts opulent production values, fabulous costumes, coifs and a first-rate cast. That narration you hear is by Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews. That is Chinese star Bingbing Fan, also in the current release “The 355,” as the CG mermaid with magical powers and a baby and male partner back in Atlantis.

The fact that Marie-Joseph is the king’s daughter is a secret for reasons never clearly explained. She becomes the king’s new composer and is inspired by the “song” of the captured sea creature, who is tended by Capt. Yves and lives in a pool beneath Versailles’ fountains and whom Marie-Joseph befriends and with whom she swims. Marie-Joseph and Capt. Yves make a fine-looking couple, on foot and horseback on the grounds.

The king’s confessor Pere La Chaise (William Hurt) is nervous and uncertain about the king’s plans. Are they blasphemy? Marie-Joseph is at first alone at court, where she was summoned. But she makes a new friend in the form of her handmaiden Magali (Scotswoman Crystal Clarke). The Sun King is partial to fruit and wine. He teaches the sylph-like newcomer to court how to dance the minuet. Because the royal coffers are empty, Marie-Joseph is acknowledged by the king and then ordered to marry the super-rich, but vile Duke Lintillac (Ben Lloyd-Hughes).

Director Sean McNamara (“Soul Surfer”) keeps the story ambling along, however predictable it may be. The screenplay by Academy Award-winner Ronald Bass (“Rain Man”), Barry Berman (“Benny & Joon”) and Laura Harrington based on a novel by Vonda N. McIntyre (“Dreamsnake”) is appealingly fanciful and occasionally evocative of the work of the great Alexandre Dumas (yes, there are musketeers). The score by a trio of composers has a decided Disney/pop music vibe. This includes the power ballad over the end credits performed by Australian singer-songwriter Sia.

In the title tole of this middling effort, Scodelario is appealing and convincingly headstrong, and she looks truly fab in her semi-modernized frocks that might have been designed by Cruella herself.

(“The King’s Daughter” contains violence and mature themes.)

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Pozniak: Is CDC Director Walensky failing as a pandemic leader?

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Pozniak:  Is CDC Director Walensky failing as a pandemic leader?

In many ways, Massachusetts resident Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who President Biden selected to lead the Centers for Disease Control, has dropped the ball as a crisis communications leader during the unprecedented COVID pandemic. As a communications professional, let me focus on several major missteps she has made that harmed the credibility of the CDC and the Biden administration.

The Centers for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, is a sub-agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The agency, with more than 12,000 employees, works to protect America from health and safety risks and attacks both foreign and domestic. It is also responsible for effectively communicating health and disease risks to the nation with honest, credible, unambiguous and clear information.

Dr. Walensky has impeccable credentials: a John Hopkins trained physician-scientist with a master’s in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health who served as director of Infectious Disease at the world-famous Massachusetts General Hospital. It is now evident that her academic pedigree and experience running a 50-person hospital department has not prepared her for leading this massive federal bureaucracy and serving as the high profile crisis communicator-in-chief during the COVID public health crisis.

Walensky has been at the center of mixed and misunderstood messaging on the pandemic leading to a level of distrust that is never good during a crisis. As the chief executive officer of the CDC, she has stumbled too many times on a heavily scrutinized stage. CDC officials have had to clarify many of her pronouncements. She has delivered confusing messaging on vaccinations, booster shots, testing, masks and quarantine. As omicron began to hit all 50 states, Walensky embraced a plan to dismantle large parts of the CDC pandemic response team that she later rescinded due to loud opposition from CDC employees.

Walensky has had very little major league communications experience in her position at MGH. Her missteps could have been avoided if she received, soon after her appointment, professional media training by an experienced media coach.

Based on my experience in risk communications during health crises, it is imperative that the chief spokesperson for a health care organization like the CDC be trained to communicate honest, credible and accurate information. It is imperative that the messaging be clearly understood by not only health care professionals and businesses large and small, but by your average American who may only have a high school education.

The messaging by Walensky has often times not been clearly understood. A highly skilled media coach with an extensive track record of successfully training Fortune 100 CEOs during high profile organizational crises is what Dr. Walensky needed to credibly communicate. I state this as someone who has trained and retained media coaches to work with health care CEOs on communicating complex and controversial health care issues.

Another misstep is her lack of a consistent onsite presence at CDC headquarters. Walensky has been spending too much time working remotely from her Massachusetts home. Working remotely might be OK for an insurance or high tech CEO, but not for the CDC director during a historic pandemic. With her employees suffering from low morale and burnout and taking many hits because of confusing COVID and variant guidelines and information, the onsite presence of Walensky is needed more than ever. If hospital CEOs are working onsite during chaos in the hospital delivery system, and Gov. Baker and the mayor of Boston are at their office desks leading a COVID response, the CDC director should do the same.

She needs to be in Atlanta at least 70% of the time, walking the corridors of CDC headquarters to show her besieged employees that she is standing hand in hand with them during this crisis.


Billerica resident Rick Pozniak has spent 40 years as a public relations and communications executive. He now teaches communications at several colleges and at a county house of corrections. The New England Society for Health Care Communications appointed him their COVID public relations expert.

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Editorial: A burning question for gov candidate Healey

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Editorial: A burning question for gov candidate Healey

After one of the longest drumrolls in history, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has finally taken the stage and announced her candidacy for governor.

We’d hate to think she put on those waders for nothing.

Healey spent the last year on many photogenic outings, from touring the non-profit Food for Free site in Cambridge in March, to making some impressive moves in a game of kickball during the All Dorchester Sports and Leadership event in July, and finally, a visit to Plymouth’s Piney Wood cranberry bog in November, all while coyly deflecting questions about her running status.

Finally, on Thursday, Healey made it official — she’s in it to win it.

And already the 50-year-old Democrat is the front-runner, buoyed by name recognition across the state after two terms as AG, and an impressive war chest. As the Herald reported, Healey’s got more than $3.6 million salted away.

All she needs now is for Massachusetts voters to develop amnesia.

“We need a leader who sees everyone, who listens, and holds fast to their values. That’s the kind of campaign we’re going to run, and it’s the kind of governor I will be,” Healey said Thursday.

That’s not quite in line with her views from June 2020, when amid the riots following the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota, as cities were aflame. and  businesses vandalized and looted — including in Boston — Healey addressed the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce via Zoom and said, “Yes, America is burning. But that’s how forests grow.”

Listening to and seeing everyone would seemingly include those whose livelihoods could be destroyed in a riot, or the police officers injured trying to maintain order on the streets. But the looted and vandalized were merely collateral damage in a progressive backdraft. What good is holding fast to your values if your own leaders don’t respect you for it?

The question for Healey, and indeed for all the Democratic contenders for governor — state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Harvard professor Danielle Allen — is will the race for the corner office be a battle to out-liberal each other?

All three are progressive Democrats, which, in a state as blue as Massachusetts, will find plenty of fans. But for Independents especially, a group that keeps expanding, agenda matters less than substance.

And as the country grows more dissatisfied with the president and Congressional Democrats look to the midterms with a sense of dread, riding a blue wave isn’t the guarantee it was two years ago.

The embers haven’t gone out from that burning forest statement — it’s up to Healey to convince us that she’s truly in the game to represent everyone.

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