Congress Gears Up its Legislative Efforts in its Fight Against Age Discrimination

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 3, 2019

With the 116th Congress beginning on January 3, 2019, Congress moves quickly to protect older Americans from rampant age discrimination. It is a key reason why Americans, age 40 and over, are fired or offered buyouts (with younger persons being hired in their place) and why they can’t find work after a period of unemployment and struggle to return to the workforce.

On Valentine’s Day, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Ranking Member of the Special Committee on Aging, with cosponsors Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) re-introduced S 485, The Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA). The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Fixing a Supreme Court Ruling

Over a decade ago, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gross v. FBL Financial Services weakened the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) by imposing a significantly higher burden of proof on older workers alleging age discrimination than is required of workers alleging other forms of workplace discrimination. As a result, workers that allege age discrimination must meet an undue legal burden not faced by workers alleging discrimination based on race, sex, national origin or religion. This sent a clear signal to employers: some age discrimination is perfectly fine.

Enacting the bipartisan POWADA bill would restore the pre-Gross standard, recognizing once again the legitimacy of so-called “mixed-motive” claims in which discrimination is a, if not the deciding, factor. It would also reaffirm that workers may use any type of admissible evidence to prove their claims.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor and seven original cosponsors have introduced a House companion bill, H.R. 1230. Scott’s bill should get traction in the House because it’s referred to his committee.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I), who serves on the House Seniors Task Force, has requested to be added as a cosponsor. “There is no place for age discrimination in this country,” says Cicilline, when explaining his support for POWADA. With the Rhode Island congressman recently being elected to House leadership, taking the position of Chairman of Democratic Policy and Communication Committee, the bill will most certainly get attention.

Here is a sampling of organizations that are lining up to support POWADA: AARP, American Association of People with Disabilities, Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, National Employment Law Project, National Employment Lawyers Association, and National Partnership for Women and Families and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Efforts Begin in 116th Congress to Tackle Age Discrimination

“As a lawyer I worked on age discrimination cases, and I relied heavily on the ADEA to help workers fight back,” said Casey in a statement released when the bill was thrown into the legislative hopper. “More Americans are continuing to work until later in life and we must recognize and address the challenges they face. We must make clear to employers that no amount of age discrimination is acceptable, and we must strengthen antidiscrimination protections that are being eroded,” said the Pennsylvania Senator.

“The Supreme Court case involving Iowan Jack Gross affected employment discrimination litigation across the country. It’s long past time we clarify the intent of Congress to make sure people like Jack Gross don’t face discrimination due to age,” said Grassley, who served as Chair of the Senate Aging Committee from 1997-2001.

“No matter whether it is a determinative or contributing factor in an employment decision, discrimination is wrong and should be treated as such. I am proud to once again cosponsor legislation that reinforces these fundamental rights for our nation’s seniors,” says Leahy.

Adds, Senator Collins, current Chair of the Senate Aging Committee, “Older employees bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the workplace. Individuals who are willing and able to remain in the workforce longer can also improve their retirement security for their golden years. We should do all we can to ensure that these employees are not faced with age-related bias while doing their jobs.”

Adds, Virginia Congressman Scott, who introduced the House companion measure, “Discrimination shuts too many people out of good paying jobs. All Americans – regardless of their age – should be able to go to work every day knowing that they are protected from discrimination.”

AARP Calls for Congress to Act

“We commend these lawmakers for sponsoring this crucial legislation,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer. “Too many older workers have been victims of unfair age discrimination and are denied a fair shake in our justice system. The time for Congress to act is now.”

According to AARP, the legislation is especially needed with the graying of the nation’s workforce. By 2022, 35 percent of the U.S. workforce will be 50 or older, and workers age 65-plus are the fastest growing age group in the workforce. Three in five older workers report they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. POWADA would restore the ADE’s longstanding protections and fix the same problem under two other civil rights laws.

An AARP survey, “The Value of Experience: Age Discrimination Against Older Workers Persist,” published in 2018, found that older workers still face discrimination at their workplace.

The researchers noted that more than 9 in 10 of these older survey respondents say they see age discrimination as somewhat or very common. At work, more than 61 percent report they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination on the job, and of those concerned about losing their job in the next year, 34 percent list age discrimination as either a major or minor reason. Only 3 percent report they have made a formal complaint to a supervisor, human resource representative, another organization or a government agency.

On the job hunt, almost 44 percent) of older job applicants say they have been asked for age-related information from a potential employer.

The older AARP survey respondents would support the recently introduced POWADA, too. Nearly 59 percent strongly supported strengthening the nation’s age discrimination laws.

We need vigilance at every regulatory level and awareness and compliance in every workplace,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “Most workers reach a point in their lives when society wants to diminish their relevance and dismiss their knowledge and abilities by simply adding the prefix ‘older-’ to worker or employee. It’s not acceptable and can be proven to be unlawful. I would add that is can be disturbing to many others in the workplace. We all get older every day. No one – even younger workers – should be comfortable thinking it is okay to deny employment, harass or terminate someone on the basis of age.

“The problem goes beyond hiring and firing or being denied a promotion over a younger, less capable co-worker,” Connell added. “Day to day negative comments that point to age or suggest someone should just retire ‘and give someone younger a chance to advance’ also can make people feel disrespected and vulnerable. POWDA is important because it codifies the notion we all have to take this as seriously as other, more familiar, types of workplace discrimination.

“Age discrimination is a big part of AARP’s effort to ‘Disrupt Aging,’” Connell Concluded. “As promised at http://www.aarp.org/DisruptAging (and in CEO Jo Ann Jenkins’ book of the same title), AARP ‘will celebrate all those who own their age. We will hold a mirror up to the ageist beliefs around us. We will feature new ways of living and aging, and the products and solutions that make this possible. We will partner with companies and communities to create new solutions that work for all of us at any age. And we will get this story — our story — out there. It’s time to change the conversation.’

“Society as a whole needs to be a part of this change. Everyone will benefit now and when they are … older.”

Third Time’s the Charm

In 2009, the initial POWADA bill was introduced in the Senate chamber by Grassley and Sen. Harkin (D-Iowa). No action was taken. In 2015 Casey and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) reintroduced it. Again no action was taken. Now, with the POWADA bill again being reintroduced this month, Congress now has the opportunity to make the needed legislative fix to a Supreme Court ruling to restore protections of the ADEA to older workers. Congressional action will put the brakes to an epidemic of age discrimination complaints. Those pushing for passage express the hope that “The third time is the charm.” Yes, it is finally time to pass POWADA once and for all.

Any individual who believes that they have been or are being the victim of age-related employment discrimination can call the RI Commission for Human Rights at (401) 222-2661 or visit the office at 180 Westminster Street, 3rd floor, in Providence, to talk with staff to file a complaint.

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

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Butterflies Bring Comfort in Time of Grieving

Published in the Pawtucket Times on February 18, 2019

Susan feels “joy in her heart and complete happiness” whenever she sees a butterfly. A butterfly came into her life as she mourned her brother’s death in 1990. Before he died, she remembers her brother saying that he would come back as a butterfly. The 62-year-old Pawtucket resident says “he meant it” and she believes he has sent messages to her through butterflies each year for over 30 years.

She believes that butterflies that play in the garden during the late spring and summer every year could possibly be other family members (deceased husband and father) and friends that have since departed. “Most of them knew the story of the butterfly and perhaps they too wished to come back as a beautiful butterfly. I know I would love to come back as a beautiful butterfly if I had the chance,” she says.

Significance of Butterflies Brings Sign from Beyond

Looking back, Susan remembers meeting her future husband, Stephen, after the death of her first husband. She was introduced to him by her close friend, Jackie. As the three dined at an outdoor restaurant in Tiverton, Jackie quickly pointed at a beautiful monarch butterfly sitting on a purple butterfly bush not far from their table. As they gazed at the lovely sight, a text message came into Susan’s cell phone from her next-door neighbor who had sent a photo of a monarch butterfly sitting on a purple butterfly bush in Susan’s backyard in Pawtucket. Both sightings of the monarch butterfly were at the same time of day, both directed to Susan- one in Pawtucket and one in Tiverton.

“I knew what was happening here. My brother, maybe my husband and my Dad (both deceased) were telling me that Stephen is the man for me. That’s why I married him! Well, besides he’s a good man too,” said Susan.

Like Susan, Phyllis Calvey,68, a writer, speaker, educator, and storyteller, sees the significance of the butterfly and how it can bring comfort in one’s darkest hours after the death of a loved one. “It’s a book that people can pass onto someone they know who has lost a loved one,” she says.

In “The Butterfly Club: “Is That You?”’ the Bellingham, Massachusetts writer shares her inspirational true-life stories of how God can, and does, use signs to communicate His presence to “those in need.”

“My book has brought comfort to many who had not yet found the closure they were hoping for. And still, for some, the age-old question persists, “Was it a sign or just a coincidence?” Their underlying need bleeds through – I need more proof! I believe I have found “more proof” in the Butterfly Phenomenon,” she says.

When Calvey began hearing from others who crossed her path about how God used the sign of a butterfly to comfort those grieving the loss of a loved one, she began to explore these occurrences, becoming more aware of their frequency of happening. Calvey began to hear about other “sign stories”– red cardinals, dragon flies, feathers, music, flowers, and even a “divine fortune cookie,” to name a few.

The 136-page nonfiction book of inspirational stories detailing the butterfly phenomenon, brings the age-old debate up for discussion, ‘Are these signs or merely coincidences or an incidental occurrence?’ For Calvey they are not coincidental.

As a caregiver for four parents who were allowed to die in their own homes, there is always “great matters of life and death,” to deal with, says Calvey in writing her book. “Two people in the equation – one wondering if their loved one will be okay, along with the finality of facing if they truly believe there is an afterlife. And one soon to be on the other side wondering the same. Both hoping to somehow be able to communicate that answer. The Butterfly Club is the communication of their answer,” she says.

Calvey recounts a story told her by Jackie, her cousin, who attended the wake of her brother. She had met a man wearing a butterfly pin on his lapel. In conversation, he mentioned that his daughter, AnneMarie, had died of leukemia in 1997. It seems that the 17-year-old had clearly found a way to send a signal to her father that she was okay, through a butterfly. When asked about the lapel pin, he smiled and said, “Welcome to the Butterfly Club,” and then walked away.

“There wasn’t a name for this experience, but in talking to people, you learn just how many people share it,” Calvey said, thus- naming her tome “Welcome to the Butterfly Club.”

Calvey herself had shared in a butterfly encounter many years before she wrote The Butterfly Club when Danny, an 18 year-old outgoing, charismatic, loved by everyone, boy from her church community was killed by a hit-and-run driver after leaving for college only three weeks earlier. “His mother was at a point where she felt she couldn’t bear to go on,” Calvey explained. “She took a walk in the woods and sat on a fallen log wanting to bury herself in her grief, when a monarch butterfly alighted on a small stick near her feet. Danny’s mother bent down to pick it up and sensed that the butterfly would not fly away. She looked at it in her hands and described this feeling to me, that it was as if her son were speaking the words to her himself, “Mom, it’s okay. I’m alright.” “The transformation I saw in her and the healing that followed was no less than miraculous,” Calvey said. “Now, when people ask her if they could have real proof that a butterfly can be a sign from God or a loved one, she tells them people like Nancy are all the real proof I need!”

Fortune Cookies Bring Messages, Too

At a Cranston book signing event, Calvey told this writer a story from her book, describing a divine sign that came through a message from a fortune cookie, delivered in perfect timing, one that brought comfort to her and was an “undeniable message” from her deceased father that he “was okay, and with God.”

As her father was dying Calvey sensed his fear of dying and the unknown and sought to comfort him by saying “you do know that you are going to heaven.” She stressed that he had lived his whole life as an example of the Good Samaritan in the parable that Jesus told. Calling him a “Good Samaritan” she recounted all the people throughout his life that he had helped. The day after he died, Chinese food was brought in and Calvey’s mother opened a fortune cookie, receiving this message, “The Good Samaritan did not get his name through good intentions.” “The sign of the fortune cookie could not have been a more perfect communication to deliver the message to our family that our father was indeed in heaven,” Calvey explained.

Calvey has heard from readers from all over the world who found comfort in reading her book and closure by knowing a loved one can still communicate through signs across the veil by reading her book. Their shared experience is the key for those who haven’t seen their sign as of yet and, perhaps will help them learn how to recognize their own encounter.

“A sign is undeniable. It’s making the connection of the perfect timing of a loved one delivering a message to you, that constitutes the difference,” adds Calvey. “But through the years, I’ve found it never works to ask God for a sign. Signs come to you only in God’s perfect timing,” she says.

Calvey’s book details stories of people who experience universal signs. “They don’t know they are part of a club,” she says. “But they are.”

Readers can share their views or tell their own “sign story” or purchase, “The Butterfly Club: “Is That You?”’ by going to http://www.butterflyclubbook.com.

To order, go to pcalvey@hotmail.com. Or call (617) 869-2576.

McKee to Unveil Updated State Alzheimer’s Plan

Published in Woonsocket Call on February 10, 2019

Seven months ago with the hiring of Michael Splaine and Kate Gordon of Splaine Consulting, a nationally recognized health policy firm that has provided content matter expertise to over two dozen state Alzheimer’s plans, Lt. Governor Daniel J. McKee, who serves as chair of the state’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, rolled up his sleeves to begin his legislative charge to update the 2013 state Alzheimer’s plan.

The hiring of the Columbia, Maryland-based consultants was made possible by two grants totaling $30,000 given by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation and Rhode Island Foundation. When announcing the successful fundraising effort to raise those monies, McKee observed, “Each day, we make great strides in expanding clinical trials and innovating treatments. Over the last few years alone, the local landscape of prevention and treatment has changed dramatically and positively.”

“The updated plan will be an invaluable tool for local leaders, researchers, physicians, advocates and families as we work together to build the momentum in the fight against Alzheimer’s,” says McKee, noting that it is one of the most challenging public health issues facing Rhode Island today. “With the number of affected Rhode Islanders projected to rise to 27,000 by 2025, elected leaders, advocates, caregivers, clinicians and researchers must come together to take unified, targeted action,” he says.

The compilation of the plan is the result of collaboration between McKee, the Alzheimer’s Association Rhode Island Chapter and the state’s Division of Elderly Affairs (DEA). In 2012, the General Assembly directed the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council to serve as the organizational umbrella for a work group that would oversee the development of the plan. In 2013, the state’s five-year Alzheimer’s plan was published. Last year, efforts to update it began.

Last July under the leadership of McKee, Splaine and Gordon worked closely with the Alzheimer’s Association Rhode Island Chapter, DEA, researchers, advocates, clinicians and caregivers sitting on the Lieutenant Governor’s Executive Board on Alzheimer’s,to develop a community-focused strategy for the 2019 State Plan on Alzheimer’s disease and Related Disorders. Over a six-week period, that group held 23 town hall meetings, conducted 45 expert interviews and surveyed (in both England and Spanish) more than Rhode Islanders impacted by Alzheimer’s.

The Official Release…

On Feb. 26 at a press conference in the State Library at 3:30 p.m., McKee will join Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne (D-Barrington) to officially unveil the plan, Rhode Island’s official roadmap to combat the growing Alzheimer’s epidemic. Coyne will announce the introduction of a Senate resolution on behalf of McKee to officially adopt the plan. (House staff are still reviewing the updated plan. There is no House sponsor at this time)

Coyne’s resolution follows her introduction of legislation to create a Rhode Island program to address Alzheimer’s disease within the Department of Health (DOH). The bill would also create an advisory panel to review and make recommendations to improve the state policies, research and care.

Once the Rhode Island General Assembly approves the plan, the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s executive board will seek legislative and regulatory changes to carry out its bold set of recommendations for improving supports to those afflicted by Alzheimer’s and other dementias. More than 30 recommendations are detailed in the 35-page plan, which calls for the implementation of three main recommendations.
In order to keep the plan from sitting on a dusty bureaucrat’s bookshelf, the first recommendation calls for the creation of one director-level position within DOH to assist in the coordination of its recommendations. The second urges promoting Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia research opportunities of all types, including federal opportunities to a broad group of Ocean State researchers. Finally, the third calls for the inclusion of brain health in existing publicly-funded promotion and chronic disease management activities.
Many of the recommendation can be easily implemented without additional state funding or legislative approval, says McKee. But, for those that may require state funding, he plans to make it a priority to lobby for those monies.

Taking a Close Look

Maureen Maigret, co-chair, state’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, says, “It is terrific to have the plan update completed as it provides direction to our state government leaders and other persons in key positions to proceed with implementation of the recommendations, which can have such far-reaching impacts on the many thousands of individuals with neuro-cognitive conditions and their dedicated caregivers, both those who are unpaid and those in the paid work force.”

Maigret notes that the updated plan’s recommendations also call for assisting family caregivers who provide the vast majority of care for persons with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, expanding subsidies for home and community care services offered by the state’s Division of Elderly Affairs, and making family caregiver support services part of the Medicaid program.

According to Maigret, one issue not mentioned in the updated plan is the need for increasing state funding for the DEA’s respite care program, which has a waiting list. “This is an important program that gives caregivers small subsidies to purchase ‘care breaks.’ Our Aging in Community Subcommittee and the AARP and Senior Agenda Coalition will all be advocating to restore state funds to this program (in the upcoming legislative session),” she says.

“The Alzheimer’s State Plan is a thorough blueprint to address the growing Alzheimer’s crisis by creating an infrastructure and accountability that will help build dementia-capable programs,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We applaud the work that has gone into the report and the continuing efforts to address Rhode Island’s growing needs. We are especially encouraged to see that the plan supports community education about caregiver health and caregiver rights under the CARE Act, which is legislation that AARP championed in the General Assembly. AARP also encourages and supports age-friendly communities, which includes dementia-friendly awareness and resources so that people of all abilities can thrive as they age.”

Sen. Coyne added, “Alzheimer’s impacts tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders, and we need a coordinated strategy to improve education among the public and training for providers, and to promote research opportunities. This plan provides a strategic framework for moving forward to bring positive policy change where it is needed.”

See you at the press conference.

For details about the press conference and the Alzheimer’s State Plan, contact Andrea Palagi, Communications Director, Office of Lt. governor Daniel J. Mckee at
Andrea.Palagi@ltgov.ri.gov.

House Bill to Expand, Strengthen Social Security

Published in Woosocket Call on February 3, 2019

With the 116th Congress kicking off on January 3, 2019 and the Democrats seizing control of the House, it did not take long for a bill to emerge that would strengthen and expand the nation’s Social Security program. Seven years ago, when U.S. Congressman John Larson (D-CT) first introduced the Social Security 2100 Act during the 113th Congress, the GOP controlled Congress blocked a fair hearing and vote. Now, with a Democratic majority in the House Larson’s Social Security proposal will finally get a thorough review as Democrats take control of the House Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor. These committees have oversight of Social Security.

Larson chose to throw the bill into legislative hopper on the 137th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birth, who signed Social Security into law in 1935.

On January 30, 2019, Larson, recently appointed to chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, introduced H.R.860, the Social Security Act 2100 Act, with over 202 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin), to ensure the retirement security of working Americans for another century.

Passage of the Social Security 2100 Act only requires a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass. But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

H.R. 860’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. It would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients will receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

Increasing the Financial Solvency of Social Security

According to an independent analysis of the Social Security’s Office of the Chief Actuary, H.R. 860 proposal would also strengthen and protect the Trust Funds by 75 years.

H.R. 860 would have wealthy individuals pay the same rate as everyone else. Presently, payroll taxes are not collected on wages over $132,900.
Larson’s legislation would apply the payroll tax to wages of $400,000, affecting the top 0.4% of wage earners. The bill gradually phases in an increase in the pay roll contribution rate beginning in 2020, of 50 cents per week, so that by 2043 workers and employers would pay 7.4 percent instead of 6.2 percent. Finally, the bill’s provisions would combine the Old-Age and Survivors, called Social Security, and the Disability Insurance trust funds into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure that all benefits will be paid.

“Social Security is a promise that after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity and economic security. It’s critical that Congress preserve and strengthen this promise for years to come,” said Cicilline, who serves as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, representing Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district.

Larson, recently appointed chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, noted, “With 10,000 baby boomers becoming eligible for Social Security every day, the time to act is now. The Social Security 2100 Act will provide economic security not just for today’s seniors but for future generations too,” said Larson, as the bill was thrown into the legislative hopper.”

There have not been any significant adjustments to Social Security since 1983, when Tip O’Neill was Speaker and Ronald Reagan was President, said Larson. “It’s time for Congress and the President to come together again, just like Speaker O’Neill and President Reagan did to make this a reality, he said.

“For years, fiscal hawks have told us that the only way to ‘save’ Social Security is to cut benefits for future retirees. Congressman Larson’s bill is a resounding rebuke to those claims. The Social Security Act 2100 keeps the program financially sound for most of this century while boosting benefits for millions of beneficiaries,” said Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Richtman says, “Congressman Larson has promised that, for the first time, this legislation will receive thorough consideration in the U.S. House, including hearings with testimony from experts and the public. We applaud him for his vision, persistence, and advocacy on behalf of America’s current and future retirees in moving this bill forward.”

Today, more than 222,000 Rhode Islanders receive Social Security benefits today. It is the most important retirement income for 4 out of 5 seniors and provides financial protections to disabled workers and families who have lost a breadwinner.

For decades, GOP lawmakers pushed its Social Security reforms by privatization, raising the retirement eligibility age and imposing stingier COLA formulas. But, national poll after poll, across party lines and age groups, revealed the public’s strong support for the nation’s retirement program.

Washington Insiders expect Larson’s Social Security bill to pass the House. While GOP Senate leadership keeps the companion measure at arms-length, the upcoming 2020 elections may well grease the legislative wheels for passage. Over 20 Republican Senate, whose seats are at serious risk, may well vote for passage with Democratic Senators.
Stay tuned…

Funding for Seniors in Raimondo’s FY 2020 Budget Blueprint

Published in the Woonsocket Call on January 27, 2019

By Herb Weiss

Almost two weeks ago, Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo formerly unveiled her $9.9 billion budget proposal to the Rhode Island General Assembly. The House and Senate Finance Committees then begin the task of holding hearings on budget plan, getting feedback from the administration and the public. Once the revised estimates of tax revenue and social-services spending is available in May, negotiations seriously begin between Raimondo, the House Speaker and Senate President to craft the House’s budget proposal. Lawmakers will hammer out and pass a final state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Local media coverage of Raimondo’s ambitious spending initiatives zeroed in on her call for expanding free tuition to Rhode Island College and adding some public pre-kindergarten, increasing minimum wage from $ 10.50 to $ 11.10 per hour, allowing mobile sports betting and legalizing recreational marijuana.

But, Raimondo’s budget proposal gives state lawmakers a road map for what programs and services are needed for a state with a graying population.

According to Meghan Connelly, DEA’s Spokesperson, a nearly 60 percent increase in the State’s population of residents aged 65 and older from the years 2016 to 2040 highlights the need for continued investments in programs servicing Rhode Island’s older adults and their family caregivers.

Connelly says Raimondo’s budget proposal, released on January 17, elevates Elderly Affairs from a division under the Department of Human Services to an Office within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. The governor shifts financing for the office and 31.0 FTE positions to EOHHS to accomplish this recommended action.

“The projected increase in the state’s senior population – from 174,000 in 2016 to 265,000 by 2040 – coupled with the proven impact of community-based supports and services, highlights the need for continuing to invest in helping our seniors remain home, connected to their families and networks. Support of aging-related health-promotion initiatives are essential to maintain a high quality of life for Rhode Island seniors while minimizing aging-related healthcare costs,” says Connelly

“We are focused on making it easier for older adults to live independent, fulfilling lives for as long as possible,” said Michelle Szylin, Acting Director of the Division of Elderly Affairs. “The Co-Pay expansion [in the governor’s proposed budget] enables additional older adults to age-in-place, remaining safely in their homes and engaging in their communities.”

The Co-Pay expansion enables additional older adults to age-in-place, remaining safely in their homes and engaging in their communities. The governor’s proposal to expand the state’s Co-Pay program [by $ 550,000] will allow more seniors to reside in their communities, staying connected to their family and network of friends and neighbors.

Providing access to the Co-Pay program to individuals earning up to 250% of the Federal Poverty Level will allow more seniors to age-in-place with a better quality of life and delay nursing home admission. The DEA Co-Pay program was established in 1986 as an option for elders who would otherwise be ineligible for subsidized home and community care assistance because they did not qualify for the Rhode Island Medical Assistance program.

Recognizing the importance of the state’s Elderly Transportation Program to keep older Rhode Islander’s independent, Raimondo’s budget proposal calls for additional funding of $1.8 million from general funds to support the State’s elderly transportation program. This program provides non-emergency transportation benefits to Rhode Islanders age 60 and over who do not have access to any means of transportation. The program provides transportation to and from medical appointments, adult day care, meal sites, dialysis/cancer treatment and the Insight Program.

Raimondo’s proposed budget also increases Health Facilities regulation staffing to increase the number of inspections to state-licensed health care facilities. The governor recommends a $327,383 increase in restricted receipt funds for 3.0 FTE positions. These positions will bolster existing staffing to increase the number of inspections to state-licensed healthcare facilities.

The Governor’s proposed FY 2020 budget also through the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority continues to subsidize the transit of elderly and disabled Rhode Islanders through the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

Raimondo’s proposed budget also continues the support for the Independent Provider model P model with almost $200,000 in general revenue funds budgeted (about $770,000 all funds) to cover implementation costs. The goal of this model is to increase workforce capacity and create a new option for delivery of direct support services for both seniors and people with developmental disabilities.

Finally, the governor’s FY 2020 budget also allocates funding to an array of programs and services for seniors. Here’s a sampling: $800,000 to support the state’s senior centers through a grant process (the amount was doubled last year); $ 530,000 to support Meals on Wheels; $ 85,000 to implement security measures in elderly housing complexes; $ 169,000 for the long-term care ombudsman through the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, which advocates on behalf of residents of nursing homes, assisted living residences and certain other facilities, as well as recipients of home care services; and $ 500,000 funds the state’s Home Modifications program at Governor’s Commission on Disabilities.

Nursing Facility Provides Take a Hit

Raimondo’s proposed budget plan seeks to freeze the state’s Medicaid payment rates to hospitals, slashing funding by an estimated $15 million overall for the year, and to limit the rate increase for nursing homes to 1%, costing them nursing home providers about $4 million.
“We are beginning the budget process with a 1 percent increase in the COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment), says Scott Fraser, President and CEO of Rhode Island Health Care Association (RIHCA), warning that “this is not enough.”

“Since 2012, nursing facility costs have risen 21.6 percent while Medicaid payment rates have only gone up by 9.6 percent, adds Fraser, noting that by statute, rates are supposed to be adjusted annually for inflation. “We will be advocating for additional funding for nursing facilities throughout the remainder of the budget process,” he warns.

Jim Nyberg, Director LeadingAge RI, an organization representing not-for-profit providers of aging services, joins with RIHCA in calling on Rhode Island lawmakers to restore the full inflation adjustment. “Ongoing increases in minimum wage (up 42 percent since 2012) make it harder for publicly funded providers to compete for skilled workers,” says Nyberg, noting that most of his nonprofit nursing homes have 60 percent to 70 percent of their residents on Medicaid. “A rate increase is needed help nursing homes recruit and retain the direct care workers that are so critical to providing quality care,” he says.

“Since 2016, our nursing homes and consumers have been severely disrupted by UHIP, financially and operationally. The ongoing problems with Medicaid application approvals and payments has resulted in significant increases in staff workload just to maintain operations, let alone the impact on cash flow and financial stability, adds Nybrg.

Nyberg’s group is also advocating to expand the CoPay program for individuals under the age of 65 with dementia. “This has been proposed in the past but not included in this budget. We think that such an expansion will help this at-risk population for whom no publicly-funded programs and services currently exist,” he says.

Lawmakers, AARP Rhode Island Gives Comments

AARP Rhode Island is encouraged to see that the Governor placed an increase in the State Budget for the Department of Elderly Affairs home healthcare Co-Pay program,” said AARP Rhode Island Advocacy Director John DiTomasso. “By increasing the income eligibility from 200% of the poverty level to 250%, more older Rhode Islanders will be able to obtain home care services at reduced hourly rates,” he added. “This will help large numbers of people to extend the time they can age in place in their home and in their community rather than in more costly state-paid long-term care facilities,” says DiTomasso.

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio says, “Upon a first look at the budget, I am very pleased that some of the Senate’s top priorities are incorporated. The Governor had to close a significant deficit, and difficult choices had to be made. However, the budget is a statement of priorities, and initiatives like the no-fare bus pass program for low-income seniors and disabled Rhode Islanders are a priority for us in the Senate. I am very pleased to see this program funded in the budget, along with many other services for seniors, and I look forward to deeper analysis of all aspects of the budget in the months ahead.”

AddsD House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, “The House Finance Committee will soon begin holding public hearings and reviewing every aspect of the Governor’s budget proposal. We will make certain that the level of care and services to older adults will be maintained and hopefully enhanced. We are facing significant budget challenges this year, but we will always keep the needs of our seniors at the forefront of the discussions.”

Older Rhode Islanders and aging groups must continue to push the House to at a minimal maintain the governor’s senior agenda. Hopefully, as Mattiello said, senior programs and services can be enhanced.

For a Senate Fiscal Analysis of Raimondo’s FY 2020 budget, go to http://www.rilegislature.gov/sfiscal/Budget%20Analyses/FY2020%20SFO%20Governor’s%20Budget%20-%20First%20Look.pdf.

Government Shutdown Hurts Seniors, Too

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 21, 2019

At press time, the federal government has been partially shut down for over 29 days because of Democrats and Republicans being at odds over President Trump’s ask for $5.7 billion to be included in continuing spending resolutions for the Oct. 1 start of the new federal fiscal year. Trump calls for billions of dollars to build a border wall along the 234 miles of the nation’s southern border.

The partial shutdown began on Dec. 22 because Congress had not passed legislation, signed by the President, to fund nine federal departments, so these departments do not have funding to operate. The department’s include Agriculture (USDA), Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Interior, State, Transportation and Treasury.

During the partial government shutdown, Trump has so refused to retreat from his request for funding to build a wall. With strong Democratic opposition the political standoff has made this partial shutdown the longest one of its kind in the nation’s history. There have been 21 shutdowns since 1976.

Local media has widely reported that this shutdown has left 800,000 federal workers furloughed without pay, as well as those working in several federal agencies. But half of these employees are still working, being recalled but without being pay. But Trump has signed legislation this week to pay these employees retroactively once a funding bill is enacted.

What About Aging Programs and Services?

According to AARP’s Senior Writer Dena Bunis in a Jan. 18th web article, “Essential Services Stay in Place Despite Massive Federal Employee Furloughs,” the government shutdown does not impact major domestic programs, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security but other programs and services for seniors are affected.
Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will continue operating and not be disrupted by the shutdown because these programs are funded by an advance appropriations and Social Security [ an earned benefit] is separately funded, says Bunis.

Bunis adds, even with the shutdown aging veterans will still have access to VA hospitals, medical centers and clinics because the Department of Veterans Affairs is funded.

Retirees will find many of the nation’s 400 national parks open but having limited services. Park rangers are furloughed and volunteers are stepping up to help where needed, says Bunis, noting that with employees not reporting for work, bathrooms and other facilities remain unattended with trash piling up and vandalism reports are increasing.

Although flights are not affected and air traffic controllers remain working, Transportation Security Administration’s airport security screeners are calling in sick in large numbers, increasing waiting times, notes Bunis. She says that Federal Aviation Administration has brought back thousands of safety inspectors and engineers to keep the planes in the air flying safely.

Seniors receiving SNAP (formerly called food stamps) from the USDA can expect getting their February benefits, says Bunis, but Meals on Wheels and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program food-box deliveries will be available through March.

Bunis notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has brought back nearly 150 furloughed employees without pay “to resume safety inspections on certain drugs, medical devices and high-risk foods, such as cheese, fruits and vegetables, and infant formula.”

The current government shutdown has closed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Those workers age 40 and over who file age discrimination claims may experience difficulties in applying and getting these claims processed, says Bunis.

USDA loans for low- and moderate-income Americans who live in rural areas have stopped because of the shutdown, says Bunis. “The Federal Housing Administration is not issuing the needed paperwork for reverse mortgages to get approved. More than 1,000 contracts between HUD and landlords who provide rental assistance to low-income tenants have expired, and hundreds more will expire in February,” she notes.

Meanwhile, USDA has recalled 2,500 Farm Service Agency employees to temporarily assist agricultural producers with existing farm loan payments to ensure they get the tax documents necessary to file their returns, says Bunis.

It’s tax season…Bunis says that although the Internal Revenue Service is affected by the shutdown because it is part of the Treasury Department, over 46,000 furloughed employees have been called back to work to process income-tax returns and refunds. Filing season officially begins on Jan. 28.

Casey Calls on Trump to Reopen Government

Last week, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, urged Trump to end the partial shutdown charging that the federal government’s closing jeopardizes the transportation, housing, and nutrition needs of older Americans and people with disabilities.

“I am particularly concerned about the adverse impact of the shutdown on seniors, people with disabilities and their families,” stated in Jan 15 correspondence to the President. Food assistance programs administered through the UDSA, rental assistance payments from HUD, transportation services through the Department of Transportation (DOT), and frauds and scams investigations and enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are all negatively impacted during the shutdown, said Casey.

“Elected and appointed officials in Washington have a sacred responsibility of ensuring seniors can age with dignity and people with disabilities can live independently. I request you direct the USDA, HUD, DOT, FTC and FCC to provide additional information to Congress on the steps they will take to mitigate the harmful impact this shutdown will have on seniors and people with disabilities. And, I urge you to reopen the government so that the health and financial security of our aging loved ones are no longer put in jeopardy,” Casey adds.

For a copy of Casey’s correspondence, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/press-releases/casey-to-trump-the-shutdown-hurts-seniors_.