Senate Aging Panel Calls for Improved Emergency Preparation and Response

Published in the Woonsocket call on October 8, 2017

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — George Santayana, a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, after the death of at least nine nursing facility residents due to heat-related illness due to sweltering heat at a Hollywood, Florida-based facility that had lost power to run its air conditioner, the Senate Special Committee on Aging put the spotlight on the challenges facing seniors during natural disasters at a hearing on Sept. 20, 2017.

News coverage of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey provided heartbreaking reminders that seniors and persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during a natural disaster. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, an assisted care facility for dementia patients lost electrical power for three days, causing 20 seniors to suffer from high indoor temperatures. Meanwhile, in Dickinson, Texas, a widely-shared photo showed elderly residents of an assisted-living center awaiting rescue as flood waters rose waist deep inside the facility.

Heeding the Lessons from Past Disasters

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast 12 years ago, more than half of those who died were seniors, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health. Since that devastating storm, disaster response officials have placed much emphasis at the national, state, and local level to better protect older Americans during an emergency.

“As we have learned from Hurricanes Irma and Harvey as well as past catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, some of our neighbors – especially seniors – face many obstacles during a crisis, and we must focus on the attention older adults may need,” said Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee in a statement announcing the Senate panel hearing held in 562 Dirksen Senate Office Building.

In her testimony, Dr. Karen B. DeSalvo the former health commissioner for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, noted that medical records for most patients at the time of Katrina were kept only on paper and were destroyed, “turning to useless bricks,” or lost because of the disaster. For clinicians, treating patients who lost their medicines became a major challenge, she said.

Creating Registries to Protect the Vulnerable

Since Katrina, the New Orleans Health Department has been “working aggressively, to create a medical special needs digitized registry to maintain a list of high-risk individuals, those most in need of medical assistance for evacuation during preparations or in response operations, says Dr. DeSalvo

Dr. DeSalvo called for “leveraging data and technology” as a way of creating more efficient and effective strategies of identifying the most vulnerable in a community. All communities could create such registries by using state Medicaid data to locate where residents who are electricity-dependent live. The electronic system, called emPOWER, is available for use nationally, and she recommended Congress fund training exercises to respond to disasters. response.

A witness, Jay Delaney, fire chief and management coordinator for the City of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, suggests that Congress continue to fully fund the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Investing in surveillance tools can enhance decision making by making crucial weather data available before, during, and after a disaster.

For nursing homes and assisted living facilities, it is “critical” they have detailed shelter-in-place emergency plans, says Delaney, but for those who stubbornly choose to not leave their homes during a disaster, preparedness for those is a “tough nut to crack.”

“When you have to evacuate 15,000 people in 10 hours, you don’t have time to say, ‘Mam or sir, here’s why you have to go,’” Delaney said.

In his testimony, Paul Timmons Jr., CEO and president of Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, proposed the establishment of a National Center for Excellence inclusive Disability and Aging Emergency Management to improve emergency management responses to disasters to reduce injuries and save lives. “The initial focus of the center should include community engagement, leadership, training and exercise development, evacuation, sheltering, housing and universal accessibility,” he said, suggesting a five-year, $1 billion budget.

Finally, Witness Kathryn Hyer, a professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, provided eight tips for the Senate Aging panel to protect seniors during disasters. She called for emergency plan for nursing homes and assisted living; required generators to support generators in the event of a power failure, more research on what types of patients will benefit from evacuation or sheltering in place; construction of facilities in places that minimize flooding risk; identification of and prioritization for nursing homes and assisted living communities by state and local management organizations for restoration of services; litigation protection for facilities that abide by regulations and provide care during disaster scenarios; and continued commitment to geriatric education programs.

Prioritizing Senior’s Needs in Disasters

On Sept. 26, one week after the Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing on disaster preparedness and seniors, Senators Collins and Casey called for a swift federal response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In correspondence to three federal agencies, they urged the Administration to take all available steps to act swiftly and prioritize seniors in the response to Hurricane Maria The senators also urged the federal agencies to prioritize not only patients in acute health care facilities, but individuals in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as seniors living at home.

“We urge the Administration to heed the lessons of the recent hurricane response efforts in Florida and Texas and take all available steps to prioritize seniors in the response to this devastating storm,” the senators wrote. “Seniors must be quickly identified and resources deployed to ensure that no older American is left in unbearable heat without air conditioning or without water and food as response efforts continue… During this recovery period, it is even more important to multiply our efforts and deploy sufficient resources to support and rescue seniors.

It has been reported that the intensity of North Atlantic hurricanes and the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are increasing. With a high concentration of people and properties in coastal areas were hurricanes strike, it become crucial to learn emergency management lessons gleaned from past hurricanes and disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Irma. The Senate Select Committee on Aging is on the right track in seeking ways to put disaster emergency preparedness on the nation’s policy agenda. Now, it’s time for Congressional standing committees to adequate fund FEMA and the National Weather Service and strengthen emergency preparedness laws.

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Senate Republicans Pushing to Vote on Latest Health Care Proposal

Published in the Woonsocket Call on September 24, 2017

With the September 30 expiration of its special Senate budget reconciliations status that allows the chamber to repeal and replace Obamacare with just a simple majority, Senate Republicains are rushing to bring their latest health care fix up for vote by the end of next week. The GOP’s last attempt failed by a razor thin margin.

Critics charge that the Senate Republicans push to quickly vote on their latest health care bill, crafted by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, comes before the issuance of a complete analysis of the Congressional Budget Office (CB)) that would detail the legislative proposal would impact coverage nationwide.

AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and health care provider groups say that Graham-Cassidy’s fix to put the brakes to rising health care costs will increase premium and out-of-pocket costs for millions. They say that the nonpartisan CBO would give the details to its negative impact.

Even Gov. Chris Christie came out opposing the GOP health care over haul bill that Senate Republicans are pushing. “I can’t support a bill that takes $3.9 billion away from the people of the state of New Jersey,” said the New Jersey Governor, reported last Wednesday by the Trentonian News. Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Gov. Republican Governor John Kasich, of Ohio, held a bipartisan news conference this week calling for a bipartisan approach to reforming health care.

Talk Show Host Jimmy Kimmel also came out swinging against the Graham-Cassidy proposal, calling Sen. Cassidy, a co-sponsor of the bill, a liar. Earlier this year the Republican Senator had appeared on his show and after hearing that Kimmel had an infant son with a heart condition, he assure Kimmel that any GOP proposal would protect those with pre-existing conditions. It does not, at least to Kimmel’s satisfaction.

For days, aging and provider groups and even Democrats on cable shows expressed concern that the Graham-Cassidy Bill would allow states to permit insurance companies to charge people with preexisting conditions (an estimated 25 million Americans age 50 to 64) just because they have cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, etc.

Age Tax Hits Seniors Right in their Wallets

On September 20, 2017, AARP writer Dena Bunis, charges in a blog posting, “Latest Senate Health Care Bill Revives Age Tax for Older Americans,” the GOP’s latest effort to repeal President Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act (ACA), imposes an “age tax” on older Americans by eliminating premium tax credits and cost sharing payments that helped low-income persons afford deductibles and copayments for medical services.

The Graham-Cassidy bill would also allow states to get federal waivers for insurers to charge older Americans more so as to lower the cost for younger policyholders. The ACA limits the expense for older policyholders at three times the amount younger ones pay, says Bunis.

To illustrate the “age tax” Bunis, citing an AARP analysis, notes, that for a 60-year-old earning $25,000 a year, premiums and out-of-pocket costs could increase by as much as $16,174 a year. If that 60-year-old lives in a state that allows insurers to charge older individuals dramatically higher premiums, he or she would face an additional $4,124 increase in premiums,” she says.

The Graham-Cassidy bill takes away the premium tax credits that help older adults pay for their health care coverage, notes Bunis. . “About 6 million 50- to 64-year-olds buy their health coverage in the individual market, and about half of those individuals receive tax credits to help pay their premiums, she says, citing an analysis by the AARP Public Policy Institute.

The Graham-Cassidy bill would also eliminate vital cost-sharing payments that help low-income persons — especially those over age 50 — afford deductibles and copayments for medical services, too, adds Bunis, noting that “about 58 percent of adults enrolled in ACA marketplace plans get cost-sharing assistance, and 35 percent of those individuals are between 50 and 64 years old.”

Bunis notes that the latest Senate health care proposal would shift federal funds to the state through block grants that would allow each state to develop their own specific health care coverage initiatives to reduce costs. But, she says that Medicaid per capita cap or block grants funding proposals, “fundamentally change the Medicaid program [covering 17.4 million older Americans and people with disabilities], which has been a safety net for millions of poor Americans and people with disabilities.

Receiving Medicaid eligibility for coverage and services would leave fewer doctors and other providers willing to take Medicaid patients or provide needed care because reimbursement is too low.

Block grants, mandated by the Graham-Cassidy bill, would only last through 2026, offering no replacement health care plan, says Bunis. “Over 20 years, Graham-Cassidy would slash Medicaid funding by $1.2 trillion to $3.2 trillion, turning control of the program to the states and shifting costs over time to states and Medicaid enrollees,” she says.

“Americans have a right to know how this bill would impact them. Regretfully, the Majority Leadership is rushing the Senate to blindly consider Graham-Cassidy without fully vetting this proposal in committee hearings and mark-up, where amendments could be considered, and without a full Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score. CBO previously estimated that repeal-without-replace would cause 32 million people to lose health coverage,” said Max Richtman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), in a statement to Senate Finance. The Senate panel is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Graham-Cassidy bill next week.

“Senate consideration of any bill that would change the accessibility and affordability of essential health care for millions of Americans without a complete CBO analysis and committee debate would be the height of legislative malpractice,” says Richtman.

NCPSSM calls the latest GOP Senate Health care proposal “deeply flawed” and suggests that it be referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions where Chairman Lamar Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray are attempting to hammer out a bipartisan solution to strengthen the ACA’s individual health insurance market reforms.

A Final Take

A press time, Republican Sens. Ron Paul (Kentucky) and John McCain (Arizona) give thumbs down to the Graham-Cassidy bill with the Portland Press Herald reporting that Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, saying “I’m leaning against the bill.” Fifty Republican Senators must give their thumbs up, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote, to get a simple majority for passage. Now, the votes are just not there for passage.

But, one long-time Republican Senator speaks honestly on the record why President Donald Trump his fellow Senate caucus members are pushing so hard for passage of the latest Senate health care proposal. “You know, I could maybe give you 10 reasons why this bill shouldn’t be considered,” Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. “But Republicans campaigned on this so often that you have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign. That’s pretty much as much of a reason as the substance of the bill.”

Sadly, if true the Republican-controlled Congress has put millions of Americans at risk of losing their health care coverage and at risk for the sake of a political promise. Our lawmakers must become statesmen and vote on legislative proposals because it is the right thing to do, not politicians who vote by party-line.

It’s Time to Pass RAISE Family Caregivers Act

Published in the Pawtucket Times on September 18, 2017

Editor’s Note: Four months after S. 1028, titled the Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage (RAISE) Family Caregivers Act, was introduced in the Senate, an updated House companion bill (H.R. 3759) gets dropped into the chamber’s legislative hopper. On September 13, Reps. Gregg Harper (R-MS) and Kathy Castor (D-FL) along with original cosponsors Reps Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) introduced the legislation that calls for the development of a strategy to support family caregivers. It was referred to House Committee on Education and the Workforce. At press time, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) will shortly become a cosponsor of H.R. 3759.

On May 3, Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), the Chairman of Senate Aging Committee, and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) reintroduced the RAISE Family Caregivers Act, with Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) Michael Bennet (D-CO) signing on as cosponsors. At press time, there are now 12 cosponsors. Sen. Collins and Baldwin and Reps. Harper and Castor first introduced the family caregiver legislation in July 2015, and it passed the Senate unanimously in December 2015.

Eight days later the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee unanimously passed this legislation by a voice vote later that month and the bipartisan legislation will now be considered by the full Senate.

The Nuts and Bolts

The House bill introduced this week is updated from the Senate version introduced in early May. That Senate version is almost identical to the Senate-passed version from 2015.

The RAISE Family Caregivers Act directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop and update a national strategy to support family caregivers. The legislation would also create a Family Caregiving Advisory Council comprised of relevant Federal agencies and non-federal members, also including family caregivers, older adults with long-term care needs, individuals with disabilities, employers, health and social service providers, advocacy organizations engaged in family caregiving, state and local officials, and others with expertise in family caregiving.

The newly established Advisory Council would be charged with making recommendations to the Secretary. The strategy would be updated to reflect new
developments. The Advisory Council’s initial report would include an initial inventory and assessment of federally funded caregiver efforts that would be incorporated into the initial strategy. The strategy would then identify recommended actions that government, providers, communities, and others could take to support family caregivers.

The activities under the bill would be funded from existing funding appropriated for the Department of Health and Human Services. No new funding is
authorized and it would sunset in five years.

This bipartisan caregiver legislation has been endorsed by over 60 aging and disability organizations, including the AARP, the Alzheimer’s Association, the w Michael J. Fox Foundation and the Arc.

Shouldering Caregiver Burdens

“Every day, more than 40 million ordinary Americans take on the challenge of caring for parents, spouses, children and adults with disabilities, and other loved ones so they can live independently at home and in their communities,” says AARP Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy A. LeaMond. “The RAISE Family Caregivers Act is a commonsense, bipartisan step to recognize and support our nation’s family caregivers. AARP appreciates the leadership of Representatives Harper and Castor, and we urge Congress to pass this important piece of legislation,” she notes.

According to LeaMond, the nation’s family caregivers assist loved ones with eating, bathing, dressing, transportation, medical tasks, managing finances, and more. Many do this while working full time and raising families. The unpaid care family caregivers provide—37 billion hours valued at about $470 billion annually—helps delay or prevent more costly care and unnecessary hospitalizations, saving taxpayer dollars.

“Caregiving is, in one way or another, now an inevitable part of everyone’s future,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “It has been said that if you ask people about caregiving they fall into one of three or more categories: They know a caregiver, they are a caregiver or they will require a caregiver. AARP works hard at the state and federal level to direct resources and support to family caregivers. In Rhode Island, we have fought successfully for temporary caregiver insurance (TCI), the CARE Act, accessory dwelling unit legislation and a new fund to help offset the cost of ‘livable’ home improvements that benefit caregiving and make aging in place easier.”

“In the upcoming special session of the General Assembly, another key caregiving bill will be before lawmakers,” Connell added. “Earned Paid Sick Leave will be especially helpful to working family caregivers whose employers do not offer paid time off. Temporary caregiver insurance requires several days advanced notice. That can be helpful, for example, if a family member has a scheduled test or medical procedure. Earned paid sick leave would allow employees to used paid sick time when they are called away to attend to immediate emergencies.”

“The RAISE Family Caregivers Act is intended to provide a policy framework for improving caregiver support from national level down to states, cities and towns. In short, where the caregiver rubber meets the road,” Connell said.

Caregiver Legislative Proposal a Bipartisan Issue

According to AARP’s Public Policy Institute, there are 40 million family caregivers in the United States who provided an estimated $470 billion in uncompensated long-term care in 2013. In the Ocean State at any time during the year, an estimated 134,000 Rhode Island family caregivers step up to provide 124 million hours of care for an aging parent or loved one, most often helping them to live independently in their own homes.

With many caregivers putting their own health at risk, experiencing experience high-levels of stress and have a greater incidence of chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, and depression, these individuals need the support and assistance that the enactment of the RAISE Family Caregivers Act could help bring about. Both sides of the aisle must put their political differences aside and push for passage. Both Republicans and Democrats shoulder caregiving duties.

Quickly passing the RAISE Family Caregivers Act in the Senate and House and sending it to the desk of President Donald Trump for his signature is the right thing to do.

On Taking a Stand Against Racism and Antisemitism

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 27, 2017

Morris Nathanson, an 89-year-old who served in the United States Navy in World War II, was outraged for President Trump’s failure to strongly speak out against the hateful philosophy of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and militia groups exhibited at a violent protest that escalated out of control in the streets around the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va.

Growing up Jewish, Nathanson is horrified about the growing racism and antisemitism so visibly flaunted at the Charlottesville rally and seen throughout nation. Before the Second World War, his parents had escaped the violent pogroms in Russia, ultimately settling in a three decker house with relatives in Pawtucket. Family members who remained in Europe were killed, victims of the Holocaust, he said.

“It’s is indefensible,” says Nathanson, an Eastside resident who in an internationally acclaimed artist and semi-retired restaurant designer, for Trump to not outright denounce the neo-Nazi groups. He warns, “We must recognize the growth of the neo-Nazi movement for what it is, a terrible disease that must be eliminated.”

The jarring historical imagery of the torchlight procession of supporters of Adolf Hitler moving through the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin on the evening of January 30, 1933, came to life for Nathanson and millions of Americans last weekend when hundreds of neo Nazis, white nationalists, KKK, militia members and other right-wing groups gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. Carrying tiki torches, flags with swastikas and confederate flags, they came to the City’s Emancipation Park to ostensibly support a protest against the removal of a statue of Civil War confederate General Robert E. Lee. But it was really an opportunity to display their strength.

Battle Lines Drawn

On the evening of Friday August 11 at 10:00 p.m., the torch bearing marchers, some wearing Nazi-style helmets, carrying clubs, sticks and round makeshift shields emblazoned with swastikas and other Fascist symbols, and others entered the one-block square in downtown Charlottesville, the site of the controversial monument, chanting “Jews will not replace us”, “Blood and Soil” (a Nazi rallying cry), “White Lives Matter,” along with homophobic, racists and misogynistic slurs. Heavily armed militia members, carrying semi-automatic weapons and dressed in camouflage military fatigues came to support and embolden their fellow extremist groups that identify as the “alt-right”.

At the site of the controversial monument in the City’s park and surrounding streets, throughout Friday evening and Saturday, August 12, members of alt-right groups opposed counter-protestors including Antifa, a far-left militant political movement that opposes fascist groups, members of Black Lives Matter, and church groups along with others who oppose racial bigotry and antisemitism. During the weekend rally, it was reported that 15 people were injured. On Saturday, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20- year-old, drove his gray Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32 year old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other counter-protestors. Two Virginia State Police officers, monitoring the protests, died when their helicopter crashed.

Immediately following the rally on Saturday and the death of Heyer, Trump went to Twitter and posted an opened ended statement, calling the nation to “condemn all that hate stands for.” Following this tweet, on Sunday, August 13, he issued a statement at his golf club in Bedford New Jersey, stating, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”

Trump Vacillates on Who’s to Blame

On Monday, August 14, intense political pressure would force Trump to make a statement at the White House to strongly condemn KKK and neo-Nazi groups after he blamed violence at the Charlottesville, Va., two days earlier in a tweet on “many sides”

By Tuesday August 15, Trump had backed off his public scolding of America’s hate groups At an impromptu press conference held at Trump Tower, he cast blame for Charlottesville’s violence equally on the “alt-right” and “alt-left” counter- protestors. “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” Trump said, noting that “Nobody wants to say that, but l say it.”

“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis and white supremacists, believe me,” says the president, noting that some protestors wanted to stop the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. Some were “nice people” he stated.

“So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after. You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” said Trump.

Trump’s comments that not all rally marchers were neo-Nazis or white supremacists caused a political tsunami, with critics pointing out that these individuals marching with the neo-Nazis were not “nice people”. It was guilt by association.

The two former Bush Presidents joined world leaders, GOP and Democrat Senators, Governors, and rank-and-file Republicans, Democrats, and Fortune 500 Executives to chastise Trump for his failure to speak out against Nazi and white supremacist ideology and that his comments trivialized the antisemitism and racism of these extremist alt-right groups.

Even the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior uniformed military leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the President, posted tweets denouncing the alt-right extremists and blaming them for Saturday’s bloody violence in Charlottesville.

However, white supremacists took Trump’s Charlottesville statements as an endorsement to their legitimacy and acceptance to allow their members to become more visible in society. David Duke, a white nationalist and former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, tweeted, “Thank You Mr. President Tamp; God Bless You for setting the record straight for All Americans.” The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, quickly called Trump’s statements on blaming both sides a sign that he implicitly supported their goals and objectives.

The Increasing Visibility of Racism and Antisemitism

Ray Rickman, 65, Executive Director of the nonprofit Stages of Freedom, says, “I am deeply worried about the piercing images of men marching with Nazi torch lights on the University of Virginia campus. These men were screaming “Jews won’t replace us.” It was Nazi Germany all over again. The idea of seeing a Nazi flag, the most vicious symbol of antisemitism on American soil, is almost unbelievable to me. All of this is followed by the deeply divisive comments from Mr. Trump”, says the long-time Rhode Island activist.

“This man in the White House has shown total disrespect for the millions of American soldiers both living and dead who died to save the world from the Nazis,” adds Rickman, noting that “It’s the first time since Woodrow Wilson that a president has refused to condemn racism after such an act of violence.”

Rickman says that the neo-Nazi groups used the Charlottesville gathering as a public show of force and to promote hatred. “Maintaining the Robert E. Lee Monument was just an excuse to attack Jews and Blacks,” he says, noting that the three-day protest was planned as a “hateful rally by people who hate people of color and Jews. It is as simple as that.”

One of the most interesting aspects of beliefs held by General Lee was that he was not in favor of raising Confederate monuments, says Rickman, noting that in 1869 he wrote that it would be wiser “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow those nations who endeavored to obliterate the mark of civil strife.”

Combating Intolerance and Hatred

While both GOP and Democrat lawmakers lambasted Trump’s choice of words for laying the blame of violence at the Charlottesville rally on both the far right demonstrators and counter protestors, there were some who remained silent or defended his comments, saying his words were adequate.

With the increased public visibility of the neo-Nazis, white supremacist and other hate groups, if Trump fails to use his national bully pulpit, and the moral authority of the Office of the Presidency to steadfastly condemn hate groups, national and state elected officials and Americans of all walks of life must take on this responsibility.

In response to the violent weekend in Charlottesville, Va., the Illinois Senate adopted a resolution, sponsored by Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, urging law officials to recognize white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups as terrorist organizations.

Nathanson, who in 1965 marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama to fight racism, calls for organizing rallies at the state and national level to “reduce the damage of Trump’s comments.”

It would be an appropriate time to remember the speech given by Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran minister who opposed the Nazis and was sent to several concentration camps. He survived the war and explained:

First they came for the Jews. I was silent. I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists. I was silent. I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists. I was silent. I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me. There was no one left to speak for me.

 

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.”