Report: Cognitive-Simulating Activities Good for Your Brain’s Health

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 6, 2017

Don’t expect playing “brain games” to have the long-term brain health benefits oftentimes reported in newspapers. According to a statement released last month by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), the scientific evidence supporting the benefits of “brain games” is at best “weak to non-existent.” But, the researchers say you can engage in many stimulating activities to help sharpen your brain as you age.

GCBH’s latest statement on “Cognitive Stimulating Activities” follows earlier reports issued by this independent organization created by AARP, advocating on behalf of its 38 million members with the support of Age UK, one the United Kingdom largest charities advocating for seniors. Previous areas included: “The Brain Body Connection;” The Brain Sleep Connection;” and “The Brain and Social Connectedness.”

The 25-page GCBH report, released on July 25, says that while many find “brain games” to be fun and engaging activities, oftentimes the claims made by companies touting the game’s cognitive benefits are exaggerated. The researchers noted that there are many ways to support and maintain your memory, reasoning skills, and ability to focus, such as engaging in formal or informal educational activities, learning a new language, engaging in work or leisure activities that are mentally challenging, and connecting socially with others.

Keeping Mentally Sharp

The report debunks “brain health” myths, too. Contrary to the many stories told about the brain as we age, the GCBH finds that a person can learn new things, no matter their age. Getting dementia is not an inevitable consequence of growing older. Older persons can learn a second language. And, people should not expect to forget things as they age.

“The GCBH recommends people incorporate cognitively stimulating activities into their lifestyles to help maintain their brain health as they age,” said Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., GCBH Chair, and Professor of Neurology and Director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “The sooner you start the better, because what you do now may make you less susceptible to disease-related brain changes later in life.”

“We know that the desire to stay mentally sharp is the number one concern for older adults,” said Sarah Lock, AARP Senior Vice President for Policy, and GCBH Executive Director. “Seeking out brain-stimulating activities is a powerful way for a person to positively influence their brain health as they age.”

GCBH pulled 13 independent health care professionals and experts together, who work in the area of brain health-related to cognitive functioning, to examine “Cognitively Stimulating Activities.” This group crafted the report’s consensus statement and recommendations after a close examination of well-designed randomized scientific studies published in peer review journals and studies replicated by other scientists.

Taking Control of Your Brain Health

The report concluded that people have control and influence over their brain changes throughout their lifespan. People can maintain their memory, cognitive thinking, attention and reasoning skills as they age by doing brain-stimulating activities. There is sufficient evidence that brain-stimulating activities are beneficial to staying mentally sharp over your lifespan

The researchers found through their literature review that training on a specific cognitive ability such as memory may improve that specific ability, but scientific evidence suggests you need to continue to apply that training to maintain or improve the ability over time.

The researchers also found that there is insufficient evidence that getting better at “brain games” will improve a person’s overall functioning in everyday life. Maintaining or improving your brain health is tied to the activity being “novel, highly engaging, mentally changing and enjoyable.”

The GCBH report suggested that just by learning a new skill, practicing tai-chi, learning photography, even investigating their family history, you can stimulate their brain and challenge the way they think, improving “brain health.” Also, social engagement and having a purpose in life, like “volunteering as a companion and mentoring others in your community,” can be mentally stimulating and improve your “brain health.”

But, the researchers say don’t forget physical activity, such as “dancing and tennis.” because the mental engagement and physical exercise can mentally benefit you, too.

The GCBH, founded in 2015, is an independent international group of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts working on brain health issues. Convened by AARP with support from Age UK, the goal of the GCBH is to review the current scientific evidence and provide recommendations for people so that they can maintain and improve their brain health.

The full GCBH recommendations can be found here: http://www.globalcouncilonbrainhealth.org.

Yes, routinely challenging your brain can lead to improved “brain health. As the old adage says, “Use it or lose it.”

Three GOP Senators Derail ‘Skinny’ Repeal Maneuvers

Published in the Woonsocket Call on July 30, 2017

After seven years of vowing to repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, nicknamed Obamacare, Congressional GOP efforts went down in flames on Friday when Sens. John McCain, of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, voted nay in supporting the Senate Republican’s “skinny” repeal bill.

Sen. McCain, giving his no vote with a thumb down gesture, left Republican Senators gasping and Democratic Senators clapping. The 80-year old Arizona Senator, recently diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer, had flown back to vote. The Senator’s vote was considered the decisive vote to derail the GOP’s long-time efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Senate Republicans Begin Efforts to Repeal Obamacare

On July 25, GOP leadership began its efforts to begin debate on the Senate health care bill to repeal AHA. On that Tuesday afternoon, the Senate passed a “motion to proceed” vote by 51-50, the deciding vote being cast by Vice President Mike Pence. The votes outcome allowed the upper chamber to begin debate on the Senate Republican’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace proposal. Sens. Collins and Murkowski had opposed this motion, but McCain, returning to Washington, D.C. after being diagnosed with brain cancer, voted yes to proceed with the debate.

Senators began a 20- hour period of debate, considering various amendments to the House version of the health care bill. By a vote of 43 to 57, the Senate rejected one version that included Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) controversial amendment that would have allowed those with pre-existing conditions to be separated into plans with much higher premiums. The Senate also rejected, by a vote of 45 to 55, another version that would have repealed the ACA with no replacement but with a two-year delay, giving GOP senators more time to create their replacement.

Late Thursday evening, GOP Senate leadership finally unveil its expected “skinny” repeal bill, formally called the Health Care Freedom Act, that would repeal ACA’s individual and employer mandates, temporarily repeal the medical device tax, and give states more flexibility to allow insurance that doesn’t comply with Obamacare regulations.

CBO’s analysis of the “skinny” repeal bill, estimated that 15 million more people would be uninsured next year than under Obamacare, with 16 million more in 2026, and that premiums would increase 20 percent next year, compared to current law.

Earlier that day, Sen. McCain and Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, held a news conference threatening to oppose the “skinny” repeal bill if the House Speaker did not offer sound guarantees that the House would enter negotiations after the Senate passed it. They feared that the House would end up passing “the skinny bill” rather than a more comprehensive bill hammered out in conference committee.

Ryan’s carefully crafted statement to the concerned Senators that the House would be willing to go to a conference committee did not include a specific guarantee that the House would not vote on the Senate’s proposal. Both Graham and Johnson went on to vote for the legislation. But, after his surprising vote it seems that McCain still had his concerns.

Before the Senate vote, President Trump even tweeted his displeasure of Murkowski’s opposition, her no vote against debating Obamacare repeal, says the Alaska Dispatch News. The state’s daily newspaper reported that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called the state’s Senators, Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, to inform them that Murkowski’s vote would “put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy.”

After Zinke’s call, “Murkowski, who chairs the Senate and Natural Resources Committee, sent a message back to the Interior Secretary and Trump. Overseeing the agencies confirmation process, a committee hearing on nominations to the Interior and Energy departments, was “postponed indefinitely” with no reason given, stated the Alaska Dispatch News.

Finally, early Friday, by a vote of 49-51, Senate Republicans failed to repeal Obamacare with three Republican senators — McCain, Collins and Murkowski – joining 48 Democrats to vote against the “skinny” repeal bill. Sen. McCain’s reputation as a political maverick was evident when he voted against GOP Senate leadership. But, this vote will be considered his political legacy.

A Sigh of Relief

Reacting to the defeat of the Senate’s ‘skinny’ repeal bill, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement, called the vote “a victory for Americans age 50-plus.”

“The ‘skinny’ bill the Senate defeated would have dramatically increased health care costs, caused millions to lose their health coverage, and destabilized the insurance market,” says LeaMond.” She also thanked Senators Collins, McCain, and Murkowski, Senate Democrats and Independents who “called, emailed, rallied and wrote to object to this seriously flawed bill.”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security, in a statement stated, “Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain were under extreme pressure from the White House and their colleagues to vote with the party instead of voting for the American people. It’s important to applaud them for stopping this train wreck of a healthcare bill. We have to wonder, however, why other Senators were willing to put their constituents at risk by cutting off their healthcare coverage.”

“We urge the majority party to put raw politics aside and work with Democrats to improve the Affordable Care Act in a way that benefits millions of American families in both blue states and red states. Let’s move forward, not back,” said Richtman.

A Bipartisan Approach

President Trump and Congress must finally listen to listen to their constituents to create policies to bring health care coverage to those in need. It is time to put politics aside and work in a bipartisan manner to hammer out a viable solution to provide affordable health care insurance to millions of Americans without coverage. McCain, Collins, and Murkowski, did just that when they resisted their party’s pressure to vote their own personal conscience not party line. They believed that the bill they voted against would do more harm than good.

Obamacare can be reworked to become more cost effective and to provide more health insurance to those in need of coverage. A recently released USA Today/Suffolk University poll at the end of June says that “just 12 percent of Americans support the Senate Republican health care plan. But, “a 53 percent majority say Congress should either leave the law known as Obamacare alone or work to fix its problems while keeping its framework intact.”

The majority of America says keep Obamacare, but make it better. Hopefully, lawmakers will listen.

House Budget Committee Plan Calls for Privatization of Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 23, 2017

Over four months ago President Trump released his draconian FY 2018 Budget, now Congress begins to hammer out its budgetary spending plan. Last Wednesday, the House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), sent the Republican drafted budget plan to the House floor for consideration. After a 12-hour markup held in Room 1334 Longworth HOB, the budgetary blueprint passed by a vote of 22 to 14, along party line. Rep. Black’s GOP controlled panel defeated 28 amendments offered by Democrats.

Once the House and Senate pass their budget resolutions, the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees “markup” appropriations bills. The House and Senate vote on appropriations bills and reconcile differences.

Rep. Black says that the GOP FY 2018 Budget Resolution, “Building a Better America,” passed on July 19, will balance the federal budget within 10 years by cutting spending, reforming government and growing the economy. According to the House Budget chair, the recently released budget achieves $ 6.5 trillion in total reduction over 10 years. It sets overall discretionary spending for the fiscal budget at $1.132 trillion ($621.5 billion in defense discretionary spending and $511 billion in non-defense discretionary spending).

The House budget plan is the first step that Republicans must take to begin their efforts to overhaul the nation’s tax code to grow the economy. It also provides increased funding for defense and the building of Trump’s border wall. It also requires food stamp recipients to work for their benefits.

Although the Social Security program is spared, it bars recipients from receiving Social Security Disability Income recipients from also receiving unemployment benefits. But, most worrisome to aging group advocates, the passed House Budget Committee budget makes major cuts to Medicaid, turning the Medicare program into a voucher program. But, Medicare is targeted for major changes.

In the Eyes of the Political Beholder

Upon passage, the House Budget Chair, Rep. Black, said in a statement, “I am proud of the work done by the members of the committee. We’ve spent months reviewing all aspects of the federal government and have put together a plan that will balance the budget, promote economic growth, strengthen our national defense, and make Washington more accountable to taxpayers. Our budget also takes the crucial first step in the reconciliation process to fix our broken tax code and make long overdue mandatory spending cuts and reforms.”

But, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, in a statement expressed a vastly different opinion as to the impact of the panel’s passed budget resolution. “Republicans on the House Budget Committee just approved a budget that the American people do not want and do not deserve from their government. Their budget adopts the worst extremes of the Trump proposal by cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires at the expense of everyone else. It cuts at least $1.5 trillion from Medicare and Medicaid, and puts at risk investments in nearly every national priority, from education and veteran services, to transportation, environmental protections, and medical research. Democrats believe we should be investing in the American people, our economy, and greater opportunity for all, and we will continue to fight against this irresponsible budget when—or if—it is brought to the House floor,” he said.

House Budget Plan Calls for Substantial Changes to Medicare

Medicare takes a huge hit, $ 487 billion over a ten-year period, in the House Budget Committee’s passed FY 2018 Budget, says Paul N. Van De Water, in a blog post on the website of Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The Senior Fellow serving as CBPP’s Director, Policy Futures, says that the budget plan’s changes to Medicare include higher income-related premiums for those making $85,000 and over (twice the amount for couples), limits on malpractice awards, raising Medicare’s eligibility age from 65 to 67, also increasing cost sharing of beneficiaries.

In his posting, Van De Water details the substantial changes made to Medicare, one of the nation’s largest entitlement programs, in the House Budget Committee’s passed budget. He notes, it would “replace Medicare’s guarantee of health coverage with a flat premium support payment or voucher, [starting in 2024] that beneficiaries would use to help buy either private health insurance or a form of traditional Medicare.” Although there are no details in the House Budget Committee’s plan to determine its impact on beneficiaries, he says that most people enrolled in traditional Medicare would pay more with the new changes than under the current law, according to a previous Congressional Budget Office analysis.

NCPSSM Sounds the Alarm About Privatization of Medicare

As the House Budget Committee began its markup of the FY 2018 budget, Max Richtman, President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) warned in a statement that the GOP-controlled panel “is targeting the health and financial well-being of America’s seniors by making another attempt to privatize Medicare.”

“Recent polling indicates that large majorities of Americans across party lines prefer that Medicare be kept the way it is, not to mention that President Trump repeatedly promised to protect the program during the 2016 campaign,” says Richtman.

Richtman says that converting Medicare into a voucher program is an existential threat to the program itself. “Over time, giving seniors vouchers to purchase health insurance would dramatically increase their out of pocket costs since the fixed amount of the voucher is unlikely to keep up with the rising costs of health care,” he says. “And, as healthier seniors choose less costly private plans, sicker and poorer seniors would remain in traditional Medicare, leading to untenable costs, diminished coverage, and an eventual demise of traditional Medicare, plain and simple. Of course, raising the eligibility age to 67 – as the House spending plan also proposes – is a drastic benefit cut.”

Undermining Medicare has been a long-held dream of fiscal conservatives. Their “premium support” proposal is a thinly veiled scheme to allow traditional Medicare to “wither on the vine,” as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once put it,” adds Richtman.

Privatization is being sold as “improving customer choice,” but based on the way current Medicare Advantage plans work, private insurance will continue to offer fewer choices of doctors than traditional Medicare does. If traditional Medicare is allowed to shrink and collapse, true choice will disappear, too, says Richtman.

Stay tuned….

Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Social Security, Medicare Are Solvent…at least for Now

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 16, 2017

Just days ago, a released annual federal report, the 2017 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds, says the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs continue to work, are fiscally solvent, but future fixes will be needed to maintain their long-term actuarial balance.

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) annual snap shot of the fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare, two of the nation’s largest entitlement programs, released on July 13, is important to millions of beneficiaries. According to the federal agency, in 2017 over 62 million Americans (retired, disabled and survivors) received income from programs administered by SSA, receiving approximately $955 billion in Social Security benefits.

The Good News

The trustee’s report projects that Social Security will be financially solvent until 2034 (unchanged from last year), after which SSA can pay 77 percent of benefits if there are no changes in the program. The 269-page report also noted that the Medicare Trust Fund for hospital care has sufficient funds to cover its obligations until 2029, one year longer than projected last year, then 88 percent afterward if nothing is done to strengthen the system’s finances

The trustees report says that there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year — and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.

Social Security Administration efficiently manages its entitlement program, says the trustee report. The cost of $6.2 billion to administer to program in 2016 was a very low 0.7 percent of the total agency’s expenditures.

The trustee’s project a 2.2 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security beneficiaries in 2018, the largest increase in years. In addition, Medicare Part B premiums will also remain unchanged next year. Most beneficiaries pay a monthly premium of $134 (this amount increases for those with higher incomes.)

Social Security is “Stable and Healthy for Now”

According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security (NCPSSM), the recently released trustee’s report confirms that the federal entitlement program is “stable and healthy for now,” while acknowledging there will be future challenges if “corrective action is not taken.”

“Forty percent of seniors (and 90 percent unmarried seniors) rely on Social Security for all or most of their income. The average monthly retirement benefit of $1,355 is barely enough to meet basic needs, and the Trustees’ latest projected cost-of-living increase of 2.2 percent will not keep pace with seniors’ true expenses. Under these circumstances, any benefit cuts (including raising the retirement age to 70 as some propose) would be truly painful for our nation’s retirees,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s president and CEO, in a statement responding to the release of the federal report.

“Opponents of Social Security may once again try to use this report as an excuse to cut benefits, including raising the retirement age,” warns Max Richtman. “We must, instead, look to modest and manageable solutions that will keep Social Security solvent well into the future without punishing seniors and disabled Americans,” he says.

Depending on what the final Senate health bill looks like, the legislation could reduce the solvency of Medicare by two years, say Richtman. “The National Committee opposes the GOP health plan and rejects efforts to privatize Medicare. We advocate innovation and continuing efficiencies in the delivery of care, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies used to pay the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual-eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid) – in order to keep Medicare in sound financial health,” he says.

Safeguarding and Expanding Social Security Benefits

In a statement, Richard Fiesta, Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based Alliance of Retired Americans, notes that the Trustees project that the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) trust will be fully solvent until 2028, five years longer than last year’s report. “In light of this data, it makes no sense that the President’s FY 2018 budget seeks to cut Social Security Disability Insurance funding by $63 billion,” he says.

Despite the trustees’ strong report, Fiesta believes that improvements can be made that would benefit all workers and retirees. His organization supports safeguarding and expanding Social Security benefits, providing a more accurate formula for cost-of-living adjustments, and lifting the cap on earnings for the wealthiest Americans.

Fiesta adds, “reining in the prices of prescription drugs would strengthen Medicare for the future and reduce costs to retirees.”

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, in a statement, calls for bipartisan action in Congress and the Trump administration to ensure the strong fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare programs. “Social Security should remain separate from the budget. Medicare can improve if we reduce the overall cost of health care, rather than impose an age tax, and if we lower prescription costs, instead of giving tax breaks to drug and insurance companies,” she says.

Finally, in a statement, Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works, also chairing the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, says that this year’s trustee’s report clearly indicates that the nation can fully afford an expanded Social Security. Altman says that polling continues to show that Americans support expanding the program’s benefits.

Altman believes the Social Security program can solve the nation’s “looming retirement income crisis, the increasing economic squeeze on middle-class families, and the perilous and growing income and wealth inequality.” So, when confronting these challenges, she says, “the question is not how can we afford to expand Social Security, but, rather, how can we afford not to expand it.”

Ensuring the Long-Term Solvency of Social Security

Those nearing retirement or retired will be assured existing Social Security benefits, promises the 2016 Republican Party Platform. “Of the many reforms being proposed, all options should be considered to preserve Social Security. As Republicans, we oppose tax increases and believe in the power of markets to create wealth and to help secure the future of our Social Security system,” says the Platform. Simply put, the GOP opposes the raising of payroll taxes on higher income taxpayers to stabilize or expand Social security and supports privatization, allowing Wall Street to control your Social Security benefits.

On the other hand, last year’s Democratic Party Platform opposed Social Security cuts, privatization or the weakening of the retirement program, along with GOP attempts to raise the retirement age, slash benefits by cutting cost-of-living adjustments, or reducing earned benefits. The Democratic Platform called for taxing people making above $250,000 will bring additional funding into the entitlement program.

Congressional gridlock has not blocked legislation from being introduced to fix the nation’s Social Security program. According to Social Security Works, over 20 Social Security expansion bills have been introduced in the House and Senate since 2015. Recently, the Social Security 2100 Act, introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), has 162 House cosponsors —around 85 percent of all Democratic representatives. Similarly, around 90 percent of Senate Democrats are on record in favor of expanding, not cutting Social Security.

Many consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia notes that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.” With the Social Security and Medicare programs now on firm financial footing, it is now time for Congress to seriously consider legislative actions to ensure the longevity and expansion of these programs. When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2018 elections, we’ll see if Social Security is truly “a third rail.”

GOP Senators Avoid Angry Constituents During July Recess

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 9,2017

With Senate Republican leadership pulling their health care bill, titled “Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017,” scheduled for vote before the Fourth of July recess, because they were unable find 50 votes, opponents continue their lobby against an anticipated rewrite of the unpopular Senate bill. Mobilization to oppose passage of a GOP health care bill began immediately after the House passed its legislation, titled “The American Health Care Act” in May.

“It is essential that all of those who oppose this dangerous bill have their voices heard,” said Richard Fiesta, Executive Director of the Alliance for Retired American, one of many aging groups mobilizing its membership during the Fourth of July recess. “The fact that most Republicans in the Senate are too afraid to show up in public should tell you everything you need to know. The Senate bill is dangerous to all Americans, particularly older Americans, and must be stopped,” he said.

Lawmakers Choose to Not Face Angry Constituents

Throughout the nation, thousands of constituents of GOP senators made it clear to their lawmakers returning to their home districts, “vote no on the Senate version of the healthcare bill,” that would repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act of 2017 (ACA), popularly, called Obamacare. Opponents of Trumpcare held sit-ins (referred to as die-ins) to remind their GOP Senators that 22 million low-and medium-income Americans would lose their health coverage with the slashing of $800 billion from Medicaid, warning that there would be a significant increase in premium costs.

According to the Town Hall project, between January to May, 33 GOP senators have not held a single in person town meeting this year, these lawmakers choosing not to face angry constituents who oppose the Senate health care bill. During this 11-day recess, most Republican senators chose not to hold town meetings, most skipping their community’s Fourth of July parades, to keep away from hostile crowds.

But, Moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, appeared at Fourth of July parade in Eastport, Maine and was overwhelmingly thanked for her opposition to the Senate health bill. At the parade, the Washington Post stated that spectators urged Collin’s “to stay strong” in opposing the GOP Senate’s version of the health care bill. The Post noted that only three other Republican senators, Ted Cruz, of Texas, Dean Heller, of Nevada, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, also appeared in their community’s Fourth of July parades.

Seeing the Writing on the Wall

Political reality is now setting in for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who has shifted his position on repealing Obamacare if he cannot pull the 50 votes necessary to pass his health care bill. With all Democratic and Independent senators in their caucus opposing passage of the bill, GOP senate leadership can only afford the defection of two Republican senators if they want their bill to pass. Can he revise this legislation to satisfy the concerns of moderate and conservative members of his caucus to ensure passage?

The Washington Post reported, last Thursday, at a Kentucky Glasgow Rotary Club lunch, McConnell admitted to the attending Rotarians that Republicans would have to work with Democrats to stabilize the health insurance markets if they failed to pass the Senate bill.

As predicted with the GOP senators returning from recess, facing angry constituents, a growing number are now publicly withholding their support for the senate bill. At press time, there have been multiple reports that ten senators are now opposing the legislation.

“There have been little to no senator-level discussions on amendments to the Senate health bill during the July recess,” says Dan Adcock, Director of Government Relations and Policy for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM). He expects more negotiations to take place when the Senate reconvenes this Monday.

Adcock says, “there would be a delay between an announced “compromise” bill and Senator floor consideration since the Congressional Budget Office would first need time to perform a cost estimate on the amended sections of the bill.”

Senator Cruz’s Fix for Senate Health Bill?

According to Adcock, that is being most talked about in the corridors of the Capitol is Sen. Ted Cruz’s proposal to replace the existing language in Senate bill — that would allow insurance companies to pick and choose which Obamacare essential benefits they would offer — with a plan to require that insurance carriers offer at least one plan with Obamacare essential benefits and all other plans could decide which benefits to include and exclude.

But, Adcock sees a multitude of problems with the Cruz proposal, making it difficult to be inserted into a final Senate health bill.

“First, it really is not that different from the current language that allows insurance companies to offer plans without the required ACA essential benefits,” says Adcock. “Under the Cruz proposal, healthy people would enroll in health plans that aren’t required to cover all ACA essential benefits, while sick people or enrollees with pre-existing conditions would tend to enroll in plans with all of the ACA essential benefits. As a result, the latter plans would be very expensive and unaffordable for less healthy enrollees,” he says.

Adcock estimates that Texas Senator’s proposal and the Senate health bill’s essential benefits waiver provisions would be particularly harmful to the 40 percent of enrollees age 50 to 64 who have one or more pre-existing condition.

“Second, there is a good chance that the Senate Parliamentarian will rule that the Cruz proposal violates Budget Reconciliation rules because it is superfluous to reducing federal spending,” says Adcock, noting that if this happens his proposal in the form of an amendment would face a 60-vote point of order. The Senate Republicans do not have the 60 votes they need to waive this budget rule.

Another point that is being negotiated between Senate leadership and moderate and conservative senators is provisions that would restructure federal payments to state Medicaid programs, says Adcock, noting that the Senate bill and House-passed healthcare bills would restructure the way federal funding is provided to the states – changing from the current matching rate formula to per capita caps or block grants at state option.

Medicaid Cuts Hit LTC Sector

“Per capita caps limit federal funding for state Medicaid programs to an arbitrary per beneficiary funding level. This would ultimately shift costs to states by eliminating the guarantee of additional federal funds if state costs increase because of underlying health care costs, demography or complexity of care. We are particularly concerned about how these cuts would affect Medicaid long-term care coverage – both home and community and nursing home care,” Adcock added.

Adcock also sees other negatives of the draft Senate health care bill.

“From the year 2025 on, the senate bill bases the per capita cap on an even less generous measure than the House bill. While the House bill used a measure based on medical inflation, the Senate bill would allow Medicaid to grow only at the rate of general inflation. Medical inflation has historically grown at a higher rate than general inflation. And, even the index used in the House-passed AHCA would be unlikely to keep up with growth in health care costs,” notes Adcock.

Adcock added, “some moderate Republican senators object to linking Medicaid payments in 2025 and thereafter to general inflation. However, Sen. Pat Toomey – who drafted this provision – does not want to compromise on it.”

And, Sen.Portman and Capito also continue to express interest in increasing funding for Opioid substance abuse treatment, adds Adcock. The Senate health bill includes $2 billion for this purpose. Portman has called for $40 billion for treating Opioid addictions, he says.

With senators returning to Washington, D.C., after their roughly one-week Fourth of July recess, there are only 14 legislative working days before their month-long August recess begins on July 28 with their return Sept. 5.

Recently, ten Senate Republicans have called on Senate Majority Leader McConnell to cancel the upcoming August recess to allow them to focus on five priorities: fixing health care, funding the federal government by Oct.1 to avoid a shutdown, dealing with the debt ceiling, passing the budget resolution and improving the nation’s tax code.

This will not likely happen due to the Senate’s legislative workload.

According to Adcock, the Senate either needs to approve its health care bill or abandon it by the upcoming August recess because the repeal of Obamacare is holding up consideration of the FY 2018 budget resolution and tax reform.

“That’s because the Senate healthcare bill is being considered in the form of the FY 2017 budget reconciliation bill. There cannot be a conference agreement on the FY 2018 budget reconciliation bill until the FY 2017 budget reconciliation is either enacted or abandoned,” he says.

Finally, Adcock notes, “A conference agreement on the FY 2018 budget resolution is necessary to set in motion consideration of a FY 2018 budget reconciliation bill that would include tax reform and perhaps cuts to mandatory spending programs, like Medicare and Medicaid. Budget reconciliation bills are filibuster-proof in the Senate.”

Calling for Political Compromise

A recently released USA Today/Suffolk University poll at the end of June says that “just 12 percent of Americans support the Senate Republican health care plan. On the other hand, “a 53 percent majority say Congress should either leave the law known as Obamacare alone or work to fix its problems while keeping its framework intact.”

So, now it’s time for the White House and Congress to read the political winds. Americans want health care fixed for the right reasons, not for political reasons. Lawmakers must put aside their philosophical differences and craft a “win-win” compromise to fix Obamacare’s flaws.

It’s the right thing to do.

Senate Health Bill Vote Expected Next Week

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 25, 2017

The long-awaited Senate health bill text crafted by a group of 13 GOP senators (all male) appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to replace and repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act of 2017 (ACA), popularly, called Obamacare, was unveiled days ago. Republican lawmakers have worked for over seven years to dismantle the Democratic president’s landmark health care law. Supporters say that ACA brought health care coverage to an estimated 20 million Americans, covered between marketplace, Medicaid expansion, young adults staying on their parent’s plan, and other coverage provisions. Critics charge that Obamacare imposed too many costs to business owners.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats lashed out at GOP Senate leadership charging that the Senate health bill, titled “Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017,” was written behind closed doors without a single committee hearing being held or draft bill text being circulated to the public. Some Republican senators also expressed frustration for not seeing the details of the GOP bill before its release on June 22, 2017.

Like Senate Democrats, Health and Human Secretary Tom Price was left in the dark, too. At a Senate hearing before the release of the Senate bill the Trump Administration’s top health official stated that he had not seen any legislative language.

Senate Health Bill “Meaner” than House Version

Despite President Trump’s campaign pledge not to touch popular entitlement programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, he strongly endorsed the House Republican passed health bill, the American Health Care Act of 2017 (AHCA). At the eleventh hour, Trump twisted the arms of reluctant GOOP House members to gain their support of the controversial health care bill. Celebrating the passage of AHCA at the White House Rose garden, the president told the attending Republican lawmakers and guests that the GOP health bill was a “great plan,” adding that it was “very, very, incredibly well-crafted.” It was reported weeks later, after a closed-door luncheon with 15 Republican Senators, Trump had called AHCA “mean” and urged the attending Senators make their legislative proposal “more generous.”

With the release of the Senate health bill, Senate Minority Leader Schumer called the bill “meaner” than the House passed version, stressing its negative impact was far worse than AHCA. Trump called the House health bill “mean.” Schumer views the Senate’s version “meaner.”

GOP Senate leadership is pressing for a floor vote before the upcoming July 4th Congressional recess. To meet this deadline, this vote must take place by the end of next week, either Thursday or Friday, after 20 hours of debate. Early next week the Congressional Budget Office will release its score, detailing cost and coverage impact, on the Senate health bill. Moderate Republican senators might just be influenced not to vote for the bill if reduces health coverage for millions of Americans.

It usually takes 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate. But, GOP Senate leadership is using a technical parliamentary procedure, referred to as reconciliation, to allow the Senate health bill to pass with only 50 votes, including the Vice President as a tiebreaker.

At press time, there are four conservative senators (Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin) and one moderate senator (Dean Heller of Nevada)., who have publicly expressed their opposition to the Senate health bill. With all Democratic and Independent senators in their caucus opposing passage of the bill, GOP Senate leadership can only afford the defection of two Republican senators if they want their bill to pass.

Meanwhile, a 100-year old organization, Planned Parenthood, is gearing up to fight a provision of the Senate health bill that would cut $555 million in funding. Two moderate GOP Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are on the fence voting for the bill if cuts are made to Planned Parenthood.

Aging Groups See Writing on Wall if Senate Passes Health Bill

The released 142-page GOP Senate health bill, written hastily behind closed doors, will overhaul the nation’s health care system, impacting on one-sixth of the nation’s economy. Dozens of aging, health care and medical groups, including AARP, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the American Medical Association, and the American Hospital Association, are voicing their strong opposition to the GOP Senate’s health care fix.

And this list keeps growing as next week’s Senate vote approaches.

The Washington, DC-based AARP, representing a whopping 38 million members, vows to hold GOP Senators accountable for a bill that hurts older Americans. The nonprofit group charges that “the legislation imposes an “Age Tax” on older adults – increasing health care premiums and reducing tax credits [that made insurance more affordable under Obamacare], makes cuts to both Medicaid funding, and yet gives billions of dollars in take breaks to drug and insurance companies.”

“AARP is also deeply concerned that the Senate bill cuts Medicaid funding that would strip health coverage from millions of low-income and vulnerable Americans who depend on the coverage, including 17 million poor seniors and children and adults with disabilities. The proposed Medicaid cuts would leave millions, including our most vulnerable seniors, at risk of losing the care they need and erode seniors’ ability to live in their homes and communities,” says
AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement.

“The Senate bill also cuts funding for Medicare which weakens the programs ability to pay benefits and leaves the door wide open to benefit cuts and Medicare vouchers. AARP has long opposed proposals that cut benefits or weaken Medicare, adds LeaMond.

LeaMond says, “As we did with all 435 Members of the House of Representatives, AARP will also hold all 100 Senators accountable for their votes on this harmful health care bill. Our members care deeply about their health care and have told us repeatedly that they want to know where their elected officials stand. We strongly urge the Senate to reject this bill.”

Another Washington-DC based organization, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group whose mission is to protect Social Security and Medicare, issued a stinging statement criticizing the Senate health bill.

“The Senate’s version of AHCA is an exercise in political expediency that does nothing to safeguard access to quality healthcare for older Americans. President Trump rightly called the House-passed bill ‘mean’ and lacking ‘heart.’ Unfortunately, the Senate bill is only marginally less mean in some ways, and even more heartless in others, says Max Richtman, President & CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Adds, Richtman, “The Senate health bill is “a lose-lose for seniors and the American people. The biggest loss is that the AHCA ends the Medicaid program as we know it. Astoundingly, the Senate bill makes even deeper cuts to Medicaid than the House did. This is devastating news for today’s and tomorrow’s seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s, cancer, the after-effects of stroke and other serious conditions who depend on Medicaid to pay for long-term care. Millions will lose Medicaid coverage over the next ten years.”

“Despite some tweaks to premium subsidies, the Senate legislation will make healthcare unaffordable for many near seniors aged 50-64. The legislation allows insurers to charge older Americans five times as much as younger adults. Though the Senate bill nominally protects people with pre-existing conditions, the waiver of essential benefits means older patients with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease will pay sky-high premiums [making these premiums unaffordable to most]. Finally, the bill weakens Medicare by reducing the solvency of the Part A Trust fund,” notes Richtman.

Looking at a Crystal Ball

Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, says that the Senate health bill does not fix the issues critics had with the House version. “It moves Medicaid from an entitlement to a discretionary program. It uses a longer phase-in period than the House, but imposes deeper cuts on the program. This is very problematic from the standpoint of poor and disabled people who need help,” says West.

According to West, Republican Senators from more moderate states already have said they will not support the current version. There also are conservative Senators who feel the bill does not go far enough in repealing Obamacare. If those positions hold up, it doesn’t look like the bill will pass.

West warns those who oppose the passage of the Senate health bill to not underestimate Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “He is willing to negotiate with individual Senators to get their votes so it is premature to call the bill dead. McConnell knows the Senate well and understands what compromises need to be made to get to 50 votes,” notes West.

If Senate Republicans pass their health care bill next week, I predict they might just find out that they have “awakened a sleeping giant,” the Democrats. When the dust settles after the 2018 mid-term elections we will find this out.

AARP Scorecard: Taking a Closer Look at Rhode Island’s Long-Term Services and Support to Older Adults

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 18, 2017

With America’s baby boomers beginning to turn age 80 in 2026, days ago the Washington, DC-based AARP released Scorecards detailing how each state spends its dollars on long-term services and supports (LTSS) to assist older adults and adults with disabilities. The report findings revealed a need for state legislatures to quicken the pace of improving LTSS for their older residents. LTSS include assistance with activities of daily living provided to older adults and people with disabilities who cannot perform these activities on their own because of physical, cognitive, or chronic health conditions. The types of assistance include such things as help with bathing, dressing, managing medications, preparing meals, and transportation, as well as support for family caregivers.

The latest comprehensive state-by-state Scorecard report was funded by AARP Foundation with support of the nation’s leading organizations behind quality long-term care, The Commonwealth Fund and SCAN Foundation. This is the third edition of the Scorecard, initially released in 2011 and again in 2014.

AARP’s 2017 report, “Picking Up the Pace of Change: A State Scorecard on Long-Term Services and Supports for Older Adults, People with Physical Disabilities, and Family Caregivers (“Scorecard”), released on June 14, finds that although Rhode Island and most states have taken small steps to make some progress, this pace of change overall remains too slow and has not kept up with demographic demands.

“This Scorecard sounds the alarm, but it also provides a range of tools states can use to spark new solutions and create systems that are aligned with the new realities of aging and living with a disability,” said Susan Reinhard, RN, PhD, Senior Vice President and Director, AARP Public Policy Institute. “The proposed cuts to Medicaid—the largest public payer of long-term assistance—would result in millions of older adults and people with disabilities losing lifesaving supports.”

“This new Scorecard shows that it’s time for all states to accelerate care improvements for older adults and people with disabilities,” said Bruce Chernof, MD, FACP, President and CEO of The SCAN Foundation. “States that consistently rank at the top have strategically planned for their aging population across the main sectors of health, housing, transportation and family caregiving.”

Like previous two LTSS scorecards, states are ranked on their performance in five categories: Affordability and access, Choice of setting and provider; Quality of life and quality of care; Support for family caregivers; and Effective transitions between nursing homes, hospitals and homes. Within the five categories, states are scored on their performance in 25 specific indicators, including such things as Medicaid spending, nursing home cost, home health aide supply, antipsychotic medication use in nursing home residents, long nursing home stays, employment rate of people with disabilities, and support of working caregivers.

But this year, AARP has made changes in LTSS Scores in the way information is presented on its interactive website (www.longtermscorecard.org), making it easier for a user to customize data to suit their specific needs. Visitors to the Scorecard site will be able to access videos, called Impact Stories, that show how improving on the Scorecard can impact the lives of real people.

Users can also download Promising Practices as well as Emerging Innovations (updated throughout the year) that state officials can use as they work to improve their long-term care delivery systems.

Rhode Island Improves in Delivering LTC Services

In the 2017 AARP report, Rhode Island ranks 32nd overall when it comes to meeting the long-term care needs of older residents and people with disabilities, but showed improvement in all but one Scorecard category. AARP warns more must be done, at an accelerated pace, to meet changing demographic demands. Rhode Island ranks 22nd nationally Support for Family Caregivers and 24th in Quality of Life & Quality of Care. The state ranks 35th in Effective Transitions – the only category in decline

“The vast majority of older Rhode Islanders want to live independently, at home, as they age—most with the help of unpaid family caregivers,” says Kathleen Connell, State Director of AARP Rhode Island, which serves more than 138,00 members age 50 and older in the state. “Even facing tight budgets, Rhode Island is making progress to help our older residents achieve that goal. However, this Scorecard shows we have more to do, and we need to pick up the pace.”

According to Connell, today, unpaid family caregivers provide the bulk of care for older Rhode Islanders in part because the cost of long-term care remains unaffordable for most middle-income families. In Rhode Island, more than 134,000 residents help their aging parents, spouses and other loved ones stay at home by helping with bathing and dressing, transportation, finances, complex medical tasks like wound care and injections, and more. The value of this unpaid care totals about $1.78 billion.

“When it comes to helping older Rhode, Islanders live in the setting of their choice, family caregivers take on big responsibilities,” explains Connell. “Many juggle full-time jobs with their caregiving duties; others provide 24/7 care for their loved ones. With every task they undertake, these family caregivers save the state money by keeping their loved ones out of costly nursing homes – most often paid for Medicaid. They have earned some basic support.”

“That’s why AARP Rhode Island has fought for Caregiver, Advise, Record, Enable (CARE) Act; caregiver temporary leave insurance; and caregiver tax credits, adds Connell.

Rhode Island has made progress to improve long-term services and supports for older adults and people with disabilities, as highlighted in this Scorecard. But, proposals in Washington, D.C. to drastically cut federal Medicaid funding would threaten these advancements, likely resulting in our most vulnerable citizens losing the lifesaving supports that they count on,” says Connell.

“The single strongest predictor of a state’s long-term care system is the reach of its Medicaid long-term care safety net,” says Connell, noting that’s why AARP fights to expand services provided at home and in the community, by shifting funds away from and more expensive nursing home care. “While the percent of long-stay nursing home residents hospitalized within a six-month period has decreased, the Scorecard highlights additional serious issues related to institutional care in Rhode Island, such as residents with pressure sores and residents with low care needs],” she notes.

While Rhode Island has improved its rank from 50th to 44th in the percentage of Medicaid long-term care dollars for older adults and people with physical disabilities that support care provided at home and in the community—the care setting that most Rhode Islanders prefer—the Scorecard spotlights areas that call for improvement, including choice of setting and provider; and effective transitions.

Specifically, the percent of

• Medicaid and state-funded LTSS going to HCBS;
• Medicaid LTSS users first receiving services in the community;
• People with 90+ day nursing home stays successfully transitioning back to the community;
• Nursing home stays lasting 100 days or more.

“This Scorecard gives us a snapshot of how well Rhode Island serves our older residents, those with disabilities, and family caregivers—and shows us where we must sharpen our focus to better assist hardworking Rhode Islanders,” concludes Connell. “We will continue to work with the governor, legislative leaders and policymakers to take the actions needed now to protect our expanding needs.”

Connell says that of the 25 Scorecard indicators, many may be improved through state policy changes, pointing to the importance of AARP’s multi-state advocacy campaign, launched in 2014, to help older Americans live independently, at home, and the family caregivers that support them.

Director Charles Fogarty, of Rhode Island’s Division of Elderly Affairs, sees the importance of AARP’s Rhode Island’s Scorecard, to evaluate progress in meeting the needs of older Rhode Islanders. “This report reinforces what we already know: while Rhode Island is showing improvements in some areas, there is still much to be done to provide the level of care and services our seniors deserve. Our improved ranking from 50th to 44th in the percentage of Medicaid long-term care dollars spent on home and community care options is a step in the right direction,” says Fogarty.
“We must continue to build upon the success of Reinventing Medicaid and move towards rebalancing of the long-term care system while preserving access and quality of care for older Rhode Islanders,” adds Fogarty.

AARP Scorecard Snap Shot of the National Delivery of LTSS

Washington State and Minnesota are top-ranked states again (followed by Vermont, Oregon and Alaska), but all states lag in helping care for the nation’s growing populations of older persons with people aging and living with disabilities.

AARP’s LTSS Score card noted that the bottom ranking states were Indiana, (No. 51), Kentucky (No. 50, Alabama, (No. 49), Mississippi, (No. 48), and Tennessee (no. 47).

According to researchers, overall, states made incremental LTSS improvements since the previous report in 2014, but the pace of change has been slow and uneven. However, two states—Tennessee and New York—showed the most improvement across measures since the last Scorecard.

States made the most significant progress in reducing inappropriate ‘off label’ use of antipsychotic medications among nursing home residents and increasing support of family caregivers.

In general, states showed the most significant declines in employment rates for people with disabilities and rates of transitioning long-stay nursing home residents back into the community. Notably, the majority of states showed no real change on ‘Affordability and Access,’ meaning that the cost of LTSS over time continues to be much higher than what the majority of families can afford.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.