Older Americans to Benefit from Bipartisan Budget Act

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 11, 2018

While many were sleeping, funding to operate the federal government expired midnight Thursday, though it was restored about eight and a half hours later with action from Congress to end the brief government shutdown, when President Donald Trump signing the 652-page Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 early Friday morning.

The $400 billion budget agreement funds the federal government through March 23 to give lawmakers time to pull together the details needed to craft full appropriations bills that become the official federal budget.

Lawmakers had expected the massive budget bill to pass before the midnight deadline to avoid a government shutdown but Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), delayed the Senate vote past midnight to protest the additional billions of dollars being added to the federal budget deficit by the legislation.

Ultimately the House approved the bill by 240 votes to 186, almost four hours after the Senate had passed the budget bill by 71 to 28 three hours earlier. The GOP-controlled House needed the help of 73 Democratic lawmakers to pass the budget bill because 67 House Republicans voted against the legislation.

The Nuts and Bolts

The two-year budget deal eliminates strict budget caps that were set in 2011 to reduce the federal deficit and allows Congress to increase military and domestic spending by $300 billion, along with adding another $90 billion for emergency disaster aid for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and throws in billions more for infrastructure, the opioid epidemic and health programs. It also suspends the debt limit for one year – until after the upcoming midterm elections.

Specifically, the newly enacted Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, would allocate $165 billion to the Pentagon and defense spending while $131 billion would be directed to domestic programs. In addition, $20 billion would be spent on infrastructure programs such as surface transportation, rural water and wastewater systems, $ 7 billion in community health centers to provide care to low-income people, $6 billion to fight the opioid crisis, and $4 billion directed to veteran’s health care.

The budget agreement also repeals the controversial Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which was designed to limit Medicare costs. It also gives a ten-year extension to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is four years longer than the previous spending bill passed last month. Finally, the legislation did not address the dilemma of 700,000 “Dreamer immigrants who are in the United States illegally after being brought here as children and who” are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, set to expire on March 5, nor did it provide funding for President Trump’s proposed southern border wall.

“A Pretty Good Deal for Seniors”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, sees the Bipartisan Budget Bill of 2018 “a pretty good deal for seniors.”

“Seniors will feel these changes in their pocketbooks and even in the way they feel physically,” says Richtman, in a released statement. “We have been fighting for these measures for quite some time and are happy to see Congress take action on a bipartisan basis.”

According to Richtman, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 closes Medicare Part D “donut hole” in 2019. The prescription drug coverage gap embedded in the original law, which the Affordable Care Act has been gradually closing, will be altogether eliminated one year early. This will save seniors thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket prescription drug costs., he says.

Richtman says that the enacted Budget agreement also repeals Medicare therapy caps. The bill scraps arbitrary caps on physical, speech, language and occupational therapies that have cost senior’s money – or delayed care at crucial times. Beneficiaries will now find it easier – and more affordable – to get the therapies they need without undue interruption, he notes.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 also lifts non-defense domestic spending caps, allowing Congress to appropriate more adequate funding for the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget, says Richtman, noting that the federal agency has suffered from draconian budget cuts since 2011 which have impinged on customer service, even as 10,000 Baby Boomers retire every day. He notes that “this badly-needed (but yet unspecified) higher level of funding should allow SSA to improve customer service for the program’s 67 million beneficiaries.”

But, on the negative side, says Richtman, the new law increases Medicare premiums for some individuals by further expanding Medicare means-testing. “Congress continues to expand Medicare means-testing, and they will not stop until middle-class seniors are burdened with higher Medicare premiums,” he warns.

“We are particularly pleased that this legislation permanently repeals Medicare’s therapy caps, something that AARP has long supported. Millions of vulnerable patients who need occupational, physical, and speech-language therapy will now be protected from an arbitrary limit on how much Medicare will pay for needed therapy,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, in a released statement..

“AARP is also pleased that Congress expedited the closing of the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap known as the ‘donut hole,’ which will now close in 2019, one year earlier than currently scheduled. Medicare beneficiaries will soon get permanent relief from higher out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs. We also applaud the provision that adds biosimilar drugs to the Medicare Part D Coverage Gap Discount Program. This change will lower out-of-pocket costs and encourage the development and use of these drugs,” adds LeaMond.

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Pets Can Bring You Health, Happiness

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 4, 2018

My newly adopted three-month old chocolate lab, Molly, keeps me on my toes. Literally. My daily walks around the block and playing ball in the back yard equal over eight thousand steps calculated by my Fitbit App. Being a pet owner I can certainly vouch for research findings published over the years that indicate that older adults who also are pet owners benefit from the regular exercise and bonds they form with their companion animal.

The Positives of Owning a Pet

According to Dr. William Truesdale, owner of Seekonk, Massachusetts Central Avenue Veterinary Hospital, “having a companion animal can greatly improve your life. Of course you should always choose the right pet based upon your lifestyle and activity levels,” says the veterinarian who has practiced for over 43 years.

“Studies have demonstrated that having a pet in the home can actually lower a child’s likelihood of developing related allergies or asthma. Children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall (as published in the Journal of Allergies and Clinical Immunology),” says Truesdale.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have conducted heart related studies on people who have pets. The finding showed that pet owners exhibit decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. All of which can ultimately minimize their risk for having a heart attack,” adds Dr. Truesdale, noting that people affected by depression, loneliness or PTSD may find that a companion animal may greatly improve their overall mood.

“As a dog owner myself and knowing so many people who find companionship and just plain fun as a pet owner, I can attest to the many benefits,” said AARP RI State Director Kathleen Connell. “While not for everyone, there is an abundance of evidence supporting this. I have heard so many stories about pets in senior living centers and even service pets that provide furry contact for patients in nursing homes and hospitals I know they can do so much to brighten a day. And when you are on Facebook, you almost expect to see friends’ proud dog and cat pictures.

“When it comes to dogs, they need walking. Anything that gets older people up and out of the house is a good thing, even if it requires carrying a supply of clean-up bags. Bending and stretching is exercise, you know. In addition, there inevitably is increased social interaction as people meet and make new pet-owner on the sidewalks and at dog parks. It’s all good.”

Pet-Friendly Policies Abound in Health Care Settings

Dr. Karl Steinberg, a San Diego-based hospice and nursing home medical director and Chief Medical Officer for Mariner Health Central, has seen the positive impact of pets in patient care settings. For over twenty years the long-term care geriatrician has taken his own dogs with him to nursing homes, assisted living facilities and on house calls to hospice patients almost every day. ”It generates a lot of happiness,” says Steinberg.

Steinberg sees first-hand on a daily basis the joy they bring to the residents, even those with severe dementia. “It slows down the day a little bit, because when you walk past a room and someone shouts, ‘Oh! A dog!’, you can’t just walk on down the hall. You stop and share the unconditional love, and it’s so worth it.,” says the geriatrician and hospice physician

For years, Administrator Hugh Hall has brought Bella, a Labrador Retriever, to visit residents of the West Warwick-based West View Nursing and Rehabilitation. Bella is considered “an important member” of the Rehabilitation staff of the 120 bed skilled nursing facility,” says Hall, noting the 8-year old canine is utilized by therapists to assist and motivate patients in their recovery.

“Residents love the ability to ability to interact and hold or cuddle with Bella and visiting pets,” observes Hall, noting that his dog is the “official greeter” at the facility’s main entrance. “The residents get to pet her and reminisce about their pets of the past and this memory is warm and happy,” he says.

Mike, a 12 -year old Labrador often makes the “rounds” with Geriatrician David A. Smith, MAD, CMD, at facilities in Central Texas. His pet’s impact on residents is very positive and improves the quality of his rapport with residents enabling him to get “better history and better compliance from them” he says.

“In a meta-analysis of non-pharmacologic therapies for behavioral problems in Nursing Home Residents with dementia, pet therapy was one of only a small number of interventions that showed statistical benefit,” says Smith, who is a past president of AMA: The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine.

Smith warns that there is a downside in owning a pet. Frail adults may trip over a pet. Elders may age out of the ability to care for a pet, placing an additional burden on a caregiver who must care for the pet. Plans need to be in place for the placement of a pet in case of a move to an assisted living facility or if an owner passes away.

Life-Like Pets Can Also Bring Benefits to Older Adults

But, for those who find taking care of a living pet taxing because of deceased mobility or memory loss, Hasbro, Inc., has created a new realistic pet, an animatronic cat with soft fur, soothing purrs, and pleasant meows and a barking dog, especially designed to bring companionship to older adults.

In 2015, the Joy For All Companion Pets brand, featuring the animatronic cat, was Hasbro’s first foray into products designed specifically for older adults. In addition to captivating older adults, Joy For All Companion Pets can help enhance the interaction between caregivers and their loved ones by incorporating lighthearted fun, joy, and laughter into time spent together.

In 2016, Hasbro’s the JOY FOR ALL Companion Pet brand included a lifelike pup that sounds, and feels like a real dog; when the pup’s “owner” speaks, it looks toward him/her and reacts with realistic puppy sounds. That year the Pawtucket-based toy company collaborated with Meals on Wheels America to fight senior isolation and loneliness, which affects one in four seniors across the country. Hasbro donated $100,000 to Meals on Wheels America and provided JOY FOR ALL Companion Pets to local Meals on Wheels programs across the country in order to provide comfort and companionship to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

“Aging loved ones and their caregivers have been thrilled with the Companion Pet Cats, and we are inspired by their positive feedback and personal stories,” said Ted Fischer, vice president of business development at Hasbro in a statement announcing the new life-like product. “The Cat delivers a unique way for all generations to connect deeply through interaction and play, but dog lovers continually asked when we planned to add a dog to the line. We are truly excited for the new JOY FOR ALL product – the Companion Pet Pup – to bring even more lighthearted fun and laughter to seniors and their families.”

“We heard from seniors across the country that companionship was important to their happiness. Many live alone, miss having a pet, or are no longer able to care for a pet,” said Fischer. “While it’s not a replacement for a pet, the Joy For All Companion Pet Cat is a life-like alternative that can provide the joy and companionship of owning a real pet, without the often cumbersome responsibilities,” he says.

The Joy For All Companion products are available for purchase on JoyForAll.com.

Fogarty Retiring as Elderly Affairs Director

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 28, 2018

Just days ago, Director of Rhode Island’s Division of Elderly Affairs (RIDEA), Charles J. Fogarty, announced his retirement to take place at the end of June, after 4 decades of public service. There have been nine directors since the establishment of DEA, including Fogarty.

Fogarty’s plans to retire at the end of the current legislative session. When this occurs, Governor Gina Raimondo will make an appointment to the RIDEA director position. The position requires advice and consent of the RI Senate.

Fogarty began his career in public service in 1978 as a junior policy advisor for Governor J. Joseph Garrahy. He served as lieutenant governor, from 1999 to 2007, having the distinction of being the last lieutenant governor to preside over the State Senate. From 2011 to 2015, Fogarty served as the director of the Department of Labor and Training, ending up his career as the Director of RIDEA.

During his years of public service, Fogarty, 62, has been focused on long term care and home- and community-based services and supports for older Rhode Islanders. He played a key role in steering and expanding the work of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council during his tenure as Lieutenant Governor for two terms. Under his leadership at the Department of Labor and Training, he reformed the unemployment insurance process. During his stewardship as Director at Elderly Affairs (since January 2015), he has led a division providing services and advocacy for over 166,500 older adults living in Rhode Island.

As a Glocester resident he was elected to the Glocester Town Council in 1984 and in 1990 was elected as a state senator, where he served for eight years. While a state senator, he served as both majority whip and Senate President Pro Tempore.

Fogarty Reflects on RIDEA Tenure

“Throughout my career, I have felt drawn to serve the people of Rhode Island. I look back fondly and feel fortunate to be a part of the forward progress Rhode Island is experiencing–particularly working with Governor Raimondo to empower seniors and help them to remain independent and living in the community,” said Fogarty.

According to Fogarty, under his helm, RIDEA has continued to process of supporting community-and home-based services for seniors and caregivers, but more needs to be done in order to really rebalance Rhode Island’ long-term care system. Aging in the community- in our own homes- is what many Rhode Islanders want for ourselves and our loved ones, he says.

“We’ve restored funding for Meals on Wheels, provided additional funding for respite services, and this year are proposing to double the amount the state invests in senior centers. Senior centers are primary gateways in the community that connect older adults and caregivers to services that can have profound impacts upon their ability to remain healthy and independent,” notes Fogarty.

Fogarty says, “If the general assembly follows Governor Raimondo’s lead and doubles the funding for senior centers, Rhode Island will be taking a huge step in the right direction of providing the appropriate support to these essential senior services.”

“We need to prepare for the shift in demographics that is occurring, and accept that the old model of providing long term care services isn’t working for the large number of Boomers who are marching towards retirement and old-age. RIDEA and other key partners are engaging in the Age-Friendly Rhode Island initiative, and we all need to work together to provide more choices and options for Rhode Islanders as they age, empowering them, and helping them to remain independent and healthy,” adds Fogarty.

Tributes to Fogarty

“Charlie has dedicated his entire professional life to Rhode Island and we thank him for his decades of service to our state,” said Governor Gina M. Raimondo, in a statement, recognizing the key role he played as DEA Director in expanding Meals on Wheels and in repealing the tax that seniors pay on their Social Security.

“As sitting Lt. Governor, I appreciate Charlie being a resource to me on issues important to our state’s seniors. Under his leadership, the Division of Elderly Affairs has been a hands-on partner in executing the initiatives of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council and the Alzheimer’s Executive Board,, says Lt. Governor Dan McKee.

“We are especially grateful for Charlie’s support in launching our Age Friendly RI Report in 2016. In a few weeks, we will be announcing an exciting development in Rhode Island’s Alzheimer’s State Plan that would not be possible without Charlie’s participation. I have enjoyed working with Charlie and I wish him all the best as he begins this exciting new chapter,” adds McKee.

Maureen Maigret, Vice Chair Long Term Care Coordinating Council, sees Fogarty’s experience as oversight as Lt. Governor of the state’s Long-Term Coordinating Council, gave him the insight ad understanding of long term care issues and the needs of older Rhode Islanders.

Maigret says that professionals in the aging network will remember Fogarty for his strong support for and educating the community about need to expand services that help older persons to stay at home and live independently for as long as possible and to pay attention to caregiver support needs.

Adds AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, “I have known Charlie for many years and know him to be a worthy heir of his uncle, the late-great RI Congressman, who was a leading champion of legislation and policy benefiting older Americans.”

“At Elderly Affairs, he utilized many skills and resourcefulness acquired through his time as a legislator, Lt. Governor and Labor & Training director — not to mention his personal interest in the health and wellbeing of all Rhode Islanders. His leadership has been an enormous asset at the Division of Elderly Affairs,” says Connell.

After his retirement from four decades of state service, he will continue to serve on the faculty at Johnson & Wales University, as Adjunct Professor of Leadership Studies. He also plans to volunteer with Meals on Wheels, having seen the significant impact the home-delivery meal program has on combatting senior isolation. He will also continue to be involved at his church.

On a personal level, Fogarty plans to “learn to cook,” by enrolling in cooking classes, travel and perhaps learn to speak Spanish.

 

Aging Groups Fear that Deficit May Lead to Attacks on Entitlement Programs

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 21, 2018

In early December, the GOP-controlled Senate passed by a partisan vote of 51 to 49 its sweeping tax rewrite, sending the $1.5 trillion tax package, detailed in a 492 page bill, to the Conference Committee to iron out the differences between the Senate and House bills. The House’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1), was passed by a 227-to-205 vote on November 16, 2017. Congress ultimately passed the Conference Committee’s revised tax bill, sending it to President Trump’s desk for signature. While the new tax law has a few positive provisions for seniors, aging groups predict a frontal assault by the GOP-controlled Congress and White House in 2018 to make cuts on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to balance to ballooning federal deficit.

Just days before President Trump signed into law on December 22, 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (P.L. 115-97), considered to be the biggest tax reform overhaul in over 30 years, AARP’s Chief Executive Officer, Jo Ann C. Jenkins, sent a letter to Congress raising the Washington, DC-based aging groups concerns with the law’s significant shortcomings as well as highlighting its impact “on the nation’s ability to fund critical priorities.”

Putting Medicare on the Chopping Block

In December 19 correspondence, Jenkins noted that AARP opposed the tax bill because of its negative impact on older adults. She expressed concern that there would be increased calls for greater spending cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and other domestic programs serving older Americans, with the tax legislation increasing the nation’s deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years (with an unknown amount beyond 2027).

“Indeed, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has confirmed that unless Congress takes action, the reconciliation legislation will result in automatic federal funding cuts of $136 billion in fiscal year 2018, $25 billion of which must come from Medicare,” said Jenkins. With the tax legislation’s repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, health care premiums would increase by 10 percent (with 64-year olds paying an average increase of $1,490) and there would be 13 million fewer Americans with health coverage, says Jenkins, citing a CBO’s analysis of the tax legislation.

However, AARP did appreciate that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act retained the medical expense , deduction and restored the 7.5 percent income threshold for all tax filers for two years, said Jenkins, noting that “almost three-quarters of tax filers who claimed the medical expense deduction are age 50 or older and live with a chronic condition or illness, and seventy percent of filers who claimed this deduction have income below $75,000.”

Finally, Jenkins also said that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act retained the additional standard deduction for those age 65 and older, as well as rejected proposals to make significant changes to the tax treatment of retirement contributions, which would have negatively affected the ability many tax filers to save for their retirement.

Targeting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

Like Jenkins, the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare also sees Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security becoming more vulnerable to benefit cuts due to the huge $1.5 trillion increase in the public debt resulting from the enactment of the GOP’s tax law.

According to the NCPSSM’s Government Relations and Policy staff in a January 2018 policy brief, key supporters of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act made it very clear that Medicare, Medicare and Social Security, would be targeted to balance the federal budget immediately after its approval. “For example, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that the tax bill is just the first step before “…instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare…” benefits to reduce the federal deficit. Similarly, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that “we’re going to have to get back next year [2018] at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.” In other words, the majority leadership will seek cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits as the next step to pay for the deficits this tax bill will create,’ NCPSSM’s policy brief.

In 2018, NCPSSM anticipates that the GOP-controlled Congress will seriously look at privatizing Medicare, raising the Medicare eligibility age, increasing beneficiary out-of-pocket costs, expand means testing of Medicare premiums, and block granting Medicaid, as a way to reducing the huge federal debt.

NCPSSM says that under the GOP’s Medicare privatization plan, when people become eligible for Medicare benefits they would not enroll in the current traditional Medicare program, which provides guaranteed benefits, but would receive a voucher to purchase private health insurance or traditional Medicare through a Medicare Exchange. The voucher’s amount would be determined annually when private health insurance plans and traditional Medicare participate in a competitive bidding process.

Medicare costs could also be cut by gradually increasing the eligibility age of Medicare to correspond with Social Security’s retirement age which is increasing from 65 to 67. Although this GOP strategy would initially save money, it would increase “system-wide health spending for everyone else,” warns NCPSSM.

NCPSSM says that “savings from redesigning the Medicare benefit [to reduce the federal deficit] by combining the Part A and Part B deductibles and making changes to supplemental insurance (Medigap) policies, would likely increase costs for people with Medigap policies.”

In 2018, the GOP Congress also might even consider expanding means-testing of Medicare premiums to reduce the federal deficit, says NCPSSM. “Expand income-related premiums under Medicare Parts B and D until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to these premiums [would reduce costs]. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that this proposal would affect individuals with incomes equivalent to $45,600 for an individual and $91,300 for a couple in 2013,” says NCPSSM’s policy brief.

Medicaid provides funding for health care to low-income seniors, people with disabilities, children and some families. “We anticipate [GOP] proposals will be made that would end the current joint federal/state financing partnership and replace it with per capita caps (or a block grant, at state option) giving states less money than they would receive under current law,” says NCPSSM’s policy brief, noting that repealing the Medicaid expansion under Obama’s Affordable Care Act would prevent low-income adults from accessing health care services.

Concerns Over Fast-Track Reforming Social Security

Finally, NCPSSM’s policy brief warns that GOP lawmakers might push for a “fast-track” procedure that would lead to cutting social security benefits. This proposal would require the President to submit a plan to be considered in Congress under “expedited procedures” to reform Social Security if the Social Security Trustees determine the Trust Funds do not meet a 75-year actuarial balance. NCPSSM views this proposal “as a way that to circumvent public scrutiny of proposals to reduce Social Security programs.”

NCCPSSM also anticipates a GOP proposal to eliminate concurrent receipt of unemployment insurance and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for beneficiaries who work, get laid off and as a result qualifies for Unemployment Insurance.

Last month, the GOP-controlled Congress and White House enacted the largest tax reform bill. AARP, NCPSSM and other aging advocacy groups warn that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will be targeted by the GOP lawmakers to balance the tax reform law’s $1.5 billion costs. Older voters must now become politically active in protecting and strengthening these programs for both current beneficiaries and future generations” With the looming 2018 mid-term elections, may be Congress might just listen.

Congress Passes RAISE Family Care Givers Act

Published in the Woonsocket Call on January 14, 2018

With the dust finally settling after the heated partisan battles over the dismantling President Obama’s landmark Obamacare and later reforming the nation’s tax code, Congressional Democrats and Republicans put political and philosophical differences aside to overwhelming pass by voice vote the Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage (RAISE) Family Caregivers Act of 2017.

The RAISE Family Caregivers Act of 2017, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), was passed on January 8, 2017. Two months earlier a House companion measure (H.R. 3759), introduced by Reps. Gregg Harper (R-MS) and Kathy Castor (D-FL), was passed. At press time, the legislation now heads to the President’s desk to be signed into law.

The caregiver legislation would direct the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop and sustain a strategy to recognize and support family caregivers across the nation. This bipartisan legislation has been endorsed by more than 60 aging and disability organizations, including AARP, the Alzheimer’s Association, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and the Arc.

Universal Praise for Congressional Passage

Congress clearly understands that caregiving is not a partisan issue but a life experience for millions of Americans.Yes, everyone at some time in their life may take on the role of caregiver for parents, spouses, children and adults with disabilities, or personally know caregivers.

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 caregiver 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.

“Family caregivers play an essential role in our communities by dedicating time and attention and making countless personal and financial sacrifices to care for their loved ones,” said Sen. Collins upon the Senate bills passage. “I am delighted that our bipartisan legislation to develop a coordinated strategic plan to leverage our resources, promote best practices, and expand services and training available to caregivers will now become law,” adds the Maine Senator, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse sees the value of the RAISE Family Caregivers and its impact to Rhode Island caregivers. “The passage of the bipartisan RAISE Family Caregivers Act is an important first step toward easing the burden on the caregivers who mean the world to the family members they care for.” says the Rhode Island Senator who serves on the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

“Family caregivers play a key role in supporting their loved ones in Rhode Island and throughout the nation. adds Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline. “The RAISE Family Caregivers Act ensures that family caregivers have the support and the resources they need to do their jobs safely and effectively. As a co-sponsor of H.R. 3759, I made sure my colleagues understood that this bill needed to become law as soon as possible, and I am glad that it passed both Chambers without objection. Now I urge President Trump to sign it and allow this important law to take effect”

“Thanks to the efforts of bipartisan Senate and House champions—Senators Collins and Baldwin and Representatives Harper and Castor—the RAISE Family Caregivers Act will help address the challenges family caregivers face,” said AARP Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy A. LeaMond, in a statement. “Family caregivers are the backbone of our care system in America. We need to make it easier for them to coordinate care for their loved ones, get information and resources, and take a break so they can rest and recharge,” she says.

According to LeaMond, family caregivers take on a range of tasks including managing medications, helping with bathing and dressing, preparing and feeding meals, arranging transportation, and handling financial and legal matters. She estimates that the unpaid care that family caregivers provide helps delay or prevent costly nursing home care, which is often paid for by Medicaid.

What’s in the RAISE Family Caregiver Act?

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 (meetings open to the public) 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 development of the initial strategy would take up to 18 months, followed by updates of the strategy biennially. The bill would improve the collection and sharing of information, including information related to evidence-based or promising practices and innovative models regarding family caregiving; better coordinate, assess, maximize the effectiveness, and avoid unnecessary duplication of existing federal government activities to recognize and support family caregivers. The strategy and work around it could help support and inform state and local efforts to support family caregivers, promoting greater adoption of person- and family-centered care in all health and Long-Term Service and Support (LTSS) settings, with the person and the family caregiver (as appropriate) at the center of care teams

In addition to requiring the development of a strategy to support the nation’s family caregivers, the bill also establishes an advisory body that will bring together stakeholders from the private and public sectors to make recommendations that communities, providers, government, and others are taking and may take to help make the big responsibilities of caregiving a little bit easier.

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.

Calls for More Caregiver Assistance

“In Rhode Island, we’re working hard at staying ahead on legislation supporting caregivers,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We passed temporary caregiver insurance, which covers thousands of working caregivers with salary protection much like TDI (Temporary Disability Insurance). Earned-paid sick leave fills in a gap that caregiver TDI may not cover in emergency situations. The AARP-back CARE Act now requires hospitals, upon admitting patients, identify a designated caregiver, inform that person on discharge and provide training for at-home medical tasks. We have passed legislation making it easier for caregivers to modify their homes. And just this month, the state opened applications for a grant program we fought for in the current budget that provides up to $5,000 in hard cash for caregivers who make qualifying home improvements.” (Download a grant application at http://www.aarp.org/ricaregiving)

“We cannot stop here,” added Connell. “And the RAISE Act keeps the need for ongoing strategic planning and smart policymaking on the front burner. The numbers demand escalating action that will improve conditions not just for people who need care, but their family caregivers as well. But it is very important to emphasize that all taxpayers benefit when someone with chronic illness or aging disabilities can stay in their homes, rather than move into Medicaid-supported nursing homes. We all win when we support caregivers.”

NOTE: “The Rhode Island Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association has a commitment to assisting caregivers navigate the various challenges of caring for someone living with Alzheimer’s and other related dementias,” says Donna McGowan, Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Association, RI Chapter. Call 1-800-272-3900 for details about caregiver and provider services (including confidential support, information, and referrals to local resources via access to a 24/7 Helpline, care consultation, caregiver support groups, education programs for families, and online information (www.alz.org/ri ).

Time to Hang Upon Phone Scammers for Good

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 7, 2017

With complaints flooding the phone lines at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), three months ago the Senate Special Committee on Aging took a look at one of America’s greatest scourges, robocalls. Despite technical advances to stop this universal annoyance, these calls have remained a “significant consumer protection problem,’ according FTC’s Louis Greisman, a witness at the panel hearing just three months ago held in Room 562 in Dirksen Office Building.

As part of their continued effort to crack down on illegal robocalls, U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, held the October 4, 2017 hearing titled, “Still Ringing Off the Hook: An Update on Efforts to Combat Robocalls,” to closely take a look at law enforcement and the telecommunications industry’s efforts to crack down on unwanted calls.

Complaints about Robocalls on the Rise

According to FTC’s Greisman, in 2016, more than 3.4 million robocall complaints were received. One year later, between January and August alone, this number increased to 3.5 million. Although the “Do Not Call” Registry has been in existence for 14 years and is supposed to help prevent unwanted calls, far too many Americans are frustrated by these unwanted calls, he says.

Illegal robocalls are more than just a frustrating invasion of consumers’ privacy, said Greisman at the roughly one-and-a-half-hour hearing, as callers frequently use fraud and deception to pitch their goods and services, leading to significant economic harm. Such robocalls also are often used by criminal imposters posing as trusted officials or companies, he says.

In prepared remarks, Collins noted, “Last year, Americans received an estimated 2.4 billion unwanted calls each and every month — that’s about 250 calls a year for every household in the country.” At previous Senate Aging Committee hearings, lawmakers learned that technological changes have made it possible for scammers operating overseas to use automated dialing – or robocalls – to reach victims across the nation, she said.

Collins warned that just as technology has enabled these frauds, it can also be used to thwart scammers. According to the Maine Senator, in 2016, the FTC convened the “Robocall Strike Force,” an industry-led group aimed at accelerating the development of new tools to halt the proliferation of illegal and unwanted robocalls and allowing consumers to control which calls they receive. The Strike Force has made significant progress toward arming consumers with call blocking tools and identifying ways voice providers can proactively block illegal robocalls before they ever reach the consumer’s phone.

“Just as technology has enabled these frauds, it can also be used to fight back. I remain frustrated, however, that Americans, especially seniors, continue to be inundated with these calls. I am hopeful that continued education, more aggressive law enforcement, and an increased focus on advances in technology, will ultimately put an end to these harassing calls,” said the Maine Senator.

Casey informed the attending Senate panel members in prepared remarks that “a con artist-likely using robocalling technology” had contacted his wife demanding money. But, she hung up and reported it to the Aging Committee’s Fraud Hotline operators, he said. Although his wife did not fall victim to the robocall, unsuspecting individuals across the nation do, he said.

Calling on the FCC to Finalize a Proposed Rule to Fight Scammers

“It has been nearly eight months since the FCC first proposed a rule that would make it harder for scammers to spoof certain telephone numbers to trick people into answering their phones and creating opportunities for fraud and scams,” noted Casey, who sent a joint letter with witness Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro calling on the federal agency to finalize this rule immediately.

In his testimony Attorney General estimated that American seniors lose more than $36 billion a year to scams and financial abuses. “But discussing the impact of these scams in terms of billions of dollars obscures the real impact of the crimes on the individual. Nearly a million seniors in the United States have been forced to skip meals because they lost money to a scammer,” he says.

“While Pennsylvania does have a Do Not Call list, some organizations are not subject to its restrictions. Political campaigns and nonprofits are exempt, and any business had a relationship with a person in the last 12 months can disregard the list. Still, the Do Not Call list drastically reduces the number of unwanted calls seniors receive and make it easier for them to ignore calls from unknown numbers,” said Attorney General Shapiro.

“Our agents have developed a mnemonic device around the word “scam.” Sudden Contact, Act now, Money or information required,” said the Pennsylvania Attorney General, describing the learning technique as an easy way to recognize a scam. “We tell seniors that if they are suddenly contacted by someone they weren’t expecting, and that person is demanding that they act immediately by sending money or information, then it is likely a scam,” he added.

“If you don’t recognize a number calling you, let it go to voicemail. Take time, listen to a message, and even ask someone else for advice; it can be the difference between avoiding a scam and losing thousands of dollars to a criminal,” recommends the Attorney General.

Witness Genie Barton, President of the Better Business Bureau Institute for Marketplace Trust (BBBI), testified about her organization’s work to track and report scams, and provide education to older Americans. Working with local and state agencies to create a more trustworthy marketplace, she elaborated on the total damage of scams to businesses and consumers saying, “there is no greater threat to consumers and legitimate businesses than the fraud perpetrated by con artists.”

Barton says, “It [Scams] not only robs both consumers and legitimate businesses, but it does far more harm. It humiliates the individual scam victim. It damages the reputation of ethical businesses whose identities scammers assume. Finally, scams erode consumer trust and engagement in the marketplace.”

Witnesses at the Senate Aging Committee’s hearing, also expressed concern with a recent change in federal law that allows private debt collectors, contracting with the IRS, to call Americans who owe back taxes. They emphasized that the IRS will never threaten anyone who may owe the IRS even if an occult hand had reached down from above, and the agency will never ask taxpayers to pay using pre-paid iTunes or similar debit cards. According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, more than 10,000 Americans have been defrauded through this scam at a cost of an estimated $54 million.

Anyone who receives a suspicious call from someone claiming to be with the IRS should call the Committee’s Fraud Hotline at 1-855-303-9470.

A Call for Action

In July 2017, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to block robocalls made from fake or “spoofed” caller ID numbers. Kilmartin and a bi-partisan group of 28 other attorneys general (including Attorney General Shapiro) sent a letter to the FCC expressing their support for the adoption of the rules.

“Robocalls made from fake numbers are more than just a nuisance – they’re illegal. We should be doing everything in our power to eliminate these types of calls, which far too often lead to identify theft and financial loss. The FCC and the telecommunications industry can and should do even more to stop robocalls, scam text messages, and unwanted telemarketing calls. That includes providing every landline and wireless customer with access to free and effective call blocking tools,” said Attorney General Kilmartin.

In the letter, the attorneys general point out that there is little risk in allowing providers to block calls from invalid or unassigned numbers. “Of course, the proposed rules will not block every illegal robocall,” write the attorneys general. “Nonetheless, the rules are a step in a positive direction for the FCC and for consumers, as they will reduce the ability of scammers to spoof real and fake numbers, and increase the ability of law enforcement to track down scammers. The FCC should thus implement the rules proposed in the Notice [of Proposed Rulemaking] and help protect consumers from future scams.”

Covering All the Aging Bases in 2017

Published in Pawtucket times on January 1, 2017

As an age beat columnist, it has been a very eventful year in covering aging, health care and medical issues that impact older Rhode Islanders. During 2017, over 42 “fresh” commentaries along with previous printed ones appeared in the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call. Readers were kept abreast on a dazzling array of political issues, including a GOP President and Republican-controlled Congress attempting to whittle popular domestic entitlement programs like Social and Medicare programs, attempts to derail Obamacare, and the passage of the largest tax code changes in the past 30 years.

Throughout 2017, a few of my weekly commentaries drew attention to individuals who worked tirelessly on behalf of older Rhode Islanders. It is important to recognize volunteers who assist Rhode Island’s aging network provide programs and services to the state’s growing older population. One commentary noted Phil Zarlengo tireless efforts, and his receiving AARP’s most distinguished volunteer award. Another commentary gave kudos to the Rhode Island Minority Task Force’s 10 “Everyday Heroes.”

Meanwhile, other commentaries penned that year touched on a wide range of aging issues, from a Senate calling to better protect seniors during disasters, improving your cognitive health, enhancing communication at home, taking a look at how innovative companies help caregiver employees, to taking a look how a person made “lemonade out of life’s lemons” who shared her insight others.

Below are five article, providing you with the breadth and depth of this year’s commentaries. Over 300 commentaries including the below ones can be viewed on my blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com.

1. “Spumoni’s: “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”: Study Says Being Socially Active May Improve Cognitive Functioning,” published I the Feb. 26, 2017 issue of the Woonsocket Call, and one day later in the Pawtucket Times.

Mark and Nancy Shorrock, of Attleboro, Massachusetts, now in their seventies and married for 52 years, began dining at Spumonis twice a week with their children in the 1980s, and remember being drawn to the Italian-style restaurant because of its reputation of serving “good food.” Over the years, as the Shorrock’s three children became more independent and “doing things on their own,” the couple began increasing their trips daily to the Pawtucket resident for dinner since it was so close by. Of course, their network of friends increased, too.

What the Shorrocks know innately, a 24-page report, “The Brain and Social Connectedness: GCBH Recommendations on Social Engagement and Brain Health, “released by the Global Council on Brain Health in February 14, 2017, tells us that larger social networks may positively impact your health, wellbeing, even your cognitive functioning. This report is available at http://www.GlobalCouncilOnBrainHealth.org.

“It’s not uncommon for our social networks to shrink in size as we get older,” said Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., GCBH Chair, Professor of Neurology and Director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “This report provides many helpful suggestions about the things we can do to improve the quality of our relationships with family and friends, which may be beneficial in maintaining our mental abilities.”

The Brain and Social Connectedness report addresses the social benefits of having pets, the role that age-friendly communities play in fostering social ties, and how close relationships promote both physical health and psychological well-being. The report also covers how social media like Facebook and Skype helps older adults maintain their social connections.

2. “Carvelli: Making Lemonade Out of Life’s Lemons,” published in the April 9, 2017 issue of the Woonsocket Call, and one day later in the Pawtucket Times.
Author and life coach Linda Carvelli believes that everything in life has a purpose and that resilience will get you through any obstacle in your path. She succinctly illustrates this philosophy in her 340 page memoir, “Perfectly Negative: How I Learned to Embrace Life’s Lemons Lessons.” The self-published book details how she faced personal and family tragedy (divorce, becoming unemployed, and caring for her mother and sister with breast cancer who ultimately died, and herself being diagnosed with breast cancer.)

Carvelli a Warren resident, dedicated over twenty years of her professional career to computer technology and project management before writing her first full-length memoir, published in 2016, that reveals how she ultimately came to terms with her life’s mission. That is helping people overcome and learn from the challenges in their daily lives. As a board certified life coach, she brings lessons from her book to people to help them regain control of their lives, discover new perspectives, create more options, and move forward with confidence and courage.

3. “Assistance to Employee Caregivers Good for Everyone’s Bottom Line,” published on June 11 issue of the Woonsocket Call, and one day later in the Pawtucket Times.

In 2017, AARP and the Respect a Caregiver’s Time Coalition (ReACT) released a report detailing innovative practices and policies of 14 organizations (including Fannie Mae, CBS Corporation, Allianz Life, and Emory University) to support their employees with caregiver responsibilities. With the graying of America, supporting caregiver employees should be considered “a potentially new weapon” to attract or retain talented employees, say the researchers, by flexible work arrangements and paid leave policies. And there will be a need for this support.

“Family caregivers juggle their loved one’s needs with their own personal and professional goals every day. AARP hopes this report will encourage more employers understand caregiving and support their employees’ success,” said Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer in a statement. AARP sponsored the 49-page report.

`According to researchers, interviews with business and human resources executives from the profiled organizations in the report indicated that time and flexibility are what matter most to employees when it comes to balancing work and caregiving. Close to half of the employers interviewed provide paid time off for caregiving as well as emergency backup care and flexible work arrangements.

All offer employee caregivers a combination of information resources, referral services and advice by phone. Most provide resources online, typically through an employee assistance (EAP) or an intranet portal. More than half offer phone consultations or 24/7 expert hotlines. Several interviewees stressed the value of providing on-site, independent eldercare consultants, noting that employees appreciate both the convenience and the respect for their privacy.

4. “Save the Roses and Try These Tips: Six Ways to Improving Communication at Home,” published in the February 5, 2017 issue of the Woonsocket Call, and one day later in the Pawtucket Times

Effective Communication at home with your husband, wife, or partner is key to maintaining a meaningful, healthy, environment and thriving family. Author Donna Mac, a well-known corporate trainer, based in South Eastern, Massachusetts, with 25 years of experience in the broadcasting industry, translates effective corporate communication details tips in her book, “Six Pillars of Effective Communication” which can bring healthy energy into an ailing relationship and bring you closer together with your loved one.

According to Author Donna Mac, president of Rehoboth, MA-based DMacVoice Communications, sexual infidelity, commonly linked to divorce, is not the leading cause for couples separating. The corporate communications expert notes that a recent article in Psychology Today says that whether a partner’s communication “lifts you up or brings you down” is the single largest predictor of divorce.

Mac’s six pillars call for a person to: know and own who they are; understand the audience you are speaking to; master the topic of your conversation; anticipate the questions and reactions to your conversation; “speak to serve” by making sure the conversation is not about you; and be detach from the outcome of your discussion.

5. “Senate Aging Panel Calls for Improved Emergency Preparation and Response,” published in the October 8, 2017 of the Woonsocket Call, and one day later in the Pawtucket Times

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.

The expert panel detailed a variety of recommendations at this Senate panel hearing. One suggestion included creating registries to quickly locate were residents who are electricity-dependent live, for swift evacuations. Another called for fully funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and investing in weather surveillance tools for better decision making.

Other recommendations included: requiring nursing and assisted living facilities have emergency evacuation plans; having support generators in the event of a power failure; gathering more research on what types of patients will benefit from evacuation or sheltering in; only allowing construction of facilities in places that minimize flooding risk; and litigation protection for facilities that abide by regulations and provide care during disaster scenarios.

If you like my weekly coverage of issues of interest to the aging network and older Rhode Islanders, a book compiling 79 of these commentaries is now available for purchase. To order “Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly,” go to http://www.herbweiss.com.