Senate Health Bill Vote Expected Next Week

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 25, 2017

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

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

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

Senate Health Bill “Meaner” than House Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aging Groups See Writing on Wall if Senate Passes Health Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking at a Crystal Ball

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

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

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

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

Assistance to Employee Caregivers Good for Everyone’s Bottom Line

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 11, 2017

Days ago, AARP and the Respect a Caregiver’s Time Coalition (ReACT) released a report detailing innovative practices and policies of 14 organizations 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.

It is estimated that of the 40 million unpaid family caregivers in the U.S., 60 percent are employed. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP Public Policy Institute, nearly 25 percent of all family caregivers are millennials, and 50 percent are under the age of 50. This means that the growing number of family caregivers in the workforce is an issue that all employers will face. The NAC/AARP research also revealed that 61 percent of working caregivers must make workplace accommodations including modifying hours, taking a leave of absence, choosing early retirement or turning down a promotion.

Report Cites Best Practices to Support Employee Caregivers

The 14 case studies in the new report, “Supporting Working Caregivers: Case Studies of Promising Practices,” include well-known organizations from both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, and both large and small employers. They represent a broad set of industries, including financial services, health care, higher education, home care, management consulting, media, and technology.

There is “no one size fit all” solution to meeting the needs of employee caregivers, say the researchers. But, even with the diversity of the 14 participating organizations “there is clear evidence of promising practices” identified through these interviews, they note.

Researchers gleaned best practices from 14 nonprofits and for profits (from very large employers with over 200,000 workers to ones with less than 200 workers), detailing in the report released on June 8, 2017, how these organizations assist their caregiver employees. These companies provide a broad array of information resources and referrals, flexible work arrangements, paid time off for caregiving, emergency backup care, and, in some cases, high-touch counseling and care management advice.

“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 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 program (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.

“ReACT represents a cross-sector employer effort to raise awareness of and spur action to meet the challenges millions face every day while taking care of an older loved one,” said Drew Holzapfel, convener of ReACT, in a statement. “It’s exciting to see how leading organizations are showcasing the value of employee caregivers’ dual roles at home and in the office.”

Organizations Give Thumbs Up to Assisting Employee Caregivers

Interviewees at the participating organizations were not shy in explaining the importance of offering caregiver assistance to employees.

Michelle Stone, Fannie Mae’s Work-Life Benefits Senior Program Manager, says, “We have been asked, ‘How can you afford to do this?’ Our response is, ‘How can we afford not to?’ The program helps our company and our employees save time and money, and the return on investment is substantial.”

Michelle Martin, Vice President, Human Resources Specialty Services, CBS Corporation, states, “Our hope is to fill the gaps in support along the continuum of care so that employees not only have what they need to care, but also the peace of mind to do so without worrying about their job.”

“At Allianz Life, we like to say, ‘we’ve been keeping promises to our employees and customers since our founding.’ Nothing matters more than our employees and we work every day to provide them with benefits that allow for work-life balance and peace of mind,” says Suzanne Dowd Zeller, Chief Human Resources Officer.

Adds Audrey Adelson, manager of work-life, Emory University, “Our program is based on a continuum of care model, designed to support not only entrenched caregivers, but also those who anticipate becoming a caregiver and those whose caregiving responsibilities have ended and are beginning to move beyond caregiving.”

AARP Rhode Island Champions Caregiving Temporary Disability Insurance

Most employers recognize that some of their best workers are not at their best when they are caregivers in crisis for feeling the onset of burnout,” AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen noted. “One of the reasons is that most employers and their human resources managers respond to the needs of caregivers is because they are not far removed from caregiving if not caregivers themselves. They know that caregiving responsibilities sometimes must take precedence over work. And they understand that what is good for the caregiver is also good for their business.

“In Rhode Island, caregiving temporary disability insurance – legislation championed by AARP – gives caregivers paid leave to attend to caregiving tasks or as respite when a break from work benefits all concerned. Employers should assess their policies and give thought to the importance of supporting their caregiving employees’ success. This is true of businesses large and small and non-profits as well. These bosses can start by simply asking themselves what their expectations would be if they were an employee.”

Rhode Island CEOs might consider obtaining a copy of this report, passing the document to Human Resources for review and ultimate implement of eldercare policies. Stressed employee caregivers will appreciate any assistance they can get to help them in their caregiving responsibilities. But, this makes good business sense, too. Assisting employee caregivers will increase employee productivity, improving the company’s bottom line.

To read the full report, go to:
http://respectcaregivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/AARP-ReAct-MASTER-web.pdf

GOP Health Care Reform Moves to Senate

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 7, 2017

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s words are now coming back to haunt him and GOP leadership that rammed American Health Care Act (AHCA), without procedural safeguards, through the House chamber days ago. “I don’t think we should pass bills that we haven’t read that we don’t know what they cost,” said Ryan in a 2009 interview on MSNBC when Congress was debating President Obama’s 1990-page Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare.

Last month, the Trump Administration efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, with the American Health Care Act (AHCA) went down in flames when so many GOP moderates and conservative House lawmakers opposed the bill that the leadership didn’t dare bring it up for a vote. Successful negotiations of the GOP factions crafted a new version that passed last Thursday by a razor-thin vote of 217-213, a slim margin of four votes. All 193 Democrats opposed passage, along with 20 Republican lawmakers. With House passage, the bill moves to the Senate for deliberation.

Before the House vote on the GOP health bill there were no legislative hearings held to debate its merits and its full text was posted on the Web less than 24 hours before the vote. Ryan did not even wait for the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to provide an updated financial analysis of AHCA. The CBO’s analysis of the original bill, pulled moments before a scheduled vote on March 24, 2017, found that the GOP health care proposal estimated that if passed 24 million or more Americans could be uninsured by 2026.

Opposition Mounting to GOP Health Care Proposal

With the passage of AHCA, Democratic Policy and Communication Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline (D-RI) issued the following statement, saying “This is the cruelest and most immoral thing I’ve seen the Republican Party do to the American people. They just passed a bill that they know will result in the deaths of thousands of working people each year. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”

“All you need to know about this bill is that Republicans tried to exempt themselves from coverage [of the GOP health care proposal]] before they got caught. That’s because they know it’s a raw deal,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. This legislation sets us on a path to the bad old days when insurance companies could refuse coverage to those with preexisting conditions and deny people health benefits that should be in every plan – like ‎maternity and mental health care, he says.

Whitehouse warns that AHCA’s passage will leave millions of Americans without access to affordable health insurance. “Rhode Islanders rely on the Affordable Care Act and it’s working here. If they want to improve it, that’s one thing, but this House bill will hurt Rhode Islanders,

Within hours of the House vote on AHCA, a joint statement was issued by six prestigious national medical organizations (American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Psychiatric Association American and the American Osteopathic Association), representing over 560,000 physicians and medical students, denouncing the GOP health bill. Dozens of other state and national health care organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association and American Hospital Association (and this number grows daily) also gave a thumb down on the Republican health bill that is considered “unworkable and flawed.”

Aging advocacy groups came out swinging, too.

AARP, representing 38 million members and considered to be one of the nation’s most powerful aging lobbying groups, plans to hold GOP House lawmakers accounting for their support of AHCA while gearing up to oppose the Republican health care proposal in the Senate.

In a statement, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond reiterated AARP’s opposition to the GOP health bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, calling it “flawed” and warning that the legislative proposal “would harm American families who count on access to affordable health care.”

LeaMond says, “the bill will put an Age Tax on us as we age, harming millions of American families with health insurance, forcing many to lose coverage or pay thousands of dollars more for health care. In addition, the bill now puts at risk the 25 million older adults with pre-existing conditions, such as cancer and diabetes, who would likely find health care unaffordable or unavailable to them.”

According to LeaMond, AARP will continue its opposition of AHCA as it moves for Senate consideration because it “includes an Age Tax on older Americans, eliminates critical protections for those with pre-existing conditions, puts coverage at risk for millions, cuts the life of Medicare, erodes seniors’ ability to live independently, and gives sweetheart deals to big drug and insurance companies while doing nothing to lower the cost of prescriptions.

LeaMond warns, “We promised to hold members of Congress accountable for their vote on this bill. True to our promise, AARP is now letting its 38 million members know how their elected Representative voted on this health bill in The Bulletin, a print publication that goes to all of our members, as well as through emails, social media, and other communications.”

Medicaid Takes a Major Blow

“The bill threatens the very heart of the Medicaid program, taking away the guarantee that Medicaid will be there when seniors need it most. By slashing Medicaid funding by over $800 billion, the AHCA will place tremendous strain on state budget, says Kevin Prindiville, Executive Director of Justice in Aging, a nonprofit advocacy group for low-income seniors. “States will be forced to cut services, restrict eligibility, and reduce benefits for seniors, children, people with disabilities, and low-income older adults, he says.

“Congress is forcing families to pay more out-of-pocket when grandparents and other loved ones need nursing home care or home care. Two-thirds of all Medicaid spending for older adults pays for long-term services and supports. The AHCA puts this vital care for seniors in jeopardy,” says Prindiville. “By passing the ACHA, the House chose to cut taxes for the wealthy and pharmaceutical companies while harming Medicare beneficiaries by increasing Part B premiums and reducing the life of the Medicare Trust Fund, he says.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare calls the AHCA vote “appalling” for retirees and views the “raid of Medicare, cuts to Medicaid among the most problematic parts of the AHCA.”

“Despite the bill’s name, risking the health of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens to give the wealthy an $ 600 billion tax cut is tremendously uncaring — and does not reflect real American values,” says Richtman. In modifying the original AHCA bill to give reluctant Republicans political cover, the House leadership made a bad piece of legislation even worse,” he says.

No Protection for Pre-existing Conditions

“Recent amendments to this cruel, ill-advised bill could put coverage for older Americans with pre-existing conditions like cancer and diabetes out of reach. The $8 billion (over 5 years) added to the legislation at the last minute to defray the cost of higher premiums is woefully inadequate. It’s a thin veil that covers a head of snakes,” notes Richtman

“Equally inadequate are the meager tax credits that the GOP bill offers older Americans to buy insurance. A $4,000 annual tax credit doesn’t come to close to covering premiums for seniors ages 60-64, meaning millions of older Americans will lose coverage altogether,” says Richtman.

According to Richtman, AHCA slashes nearly $1 trillion from the Medicaid by converting the social health care program into a block grant program or imposing per capita caps. “This would make it harder for impoverished seniors to access long term skilled nursing care and community or home care. Overall, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 14 million people will be kicked off the Medicaid rolls in the next 10 years if this bill becomes law,” he says.

Richtman observes that the enactment of AHCA would reduce Medicare’s solvency by repealing Obamacare’s 0.9 percent payroll tax on wages above $200,000. This could lead to cuts in Medicare, including privatizing the program — harming current and future beneficiaries, he says.

“Under the GOP bill, insurers can charge older enrollees five times more than younger ones. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that by 2026 this provision will substantially raise premiums for older people by as much as 25 percent,” notes Richtman.

Senate Becomes New AHCA Battle Ground

After the politically decisive House vote to pass AHCA, President Donald Trump and House GOP lawmakers celebrated their major political victory at the White House Rose Garden claiming that they had fulfilled a promise made 7 years ago to repeal and replace Obamacare. But this celebration was short lived. Like House Democratic lawmakers, Democratic and Republican Senators began voicing their skepticism and strong opposition to the House’s passed health bill. Holding a slim 52-to-48 advantage in the upper chamber, GOP Senate Leadership must craft a bill that can win the support of at least 50 of their caucus members.

Washington insiders are now reporting that the House’s unpopular AHCA is “Dead on Arrival” in the Senate. Senate Republicans say they will not vote on the House passed bill and the upper chamber is expected to move slowly in crafting its health bill, starting from scratch. Many GOP Senators opposed AHCA, especially those who want to protect their constituents with pre-existing conditions and others who represent states that have expanded their Medicaid program under Obamacare.

A group of 13 Republican Senators (all men) have begun the process of hammering out their own health bill. Senate rules do not allow a review of the legislation or the determination of the rules of the debate until the CBO provides its official fiscal impact estimate. Because of this the health policy debate may not begin until summer.

Hopefully, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, and his partisan working group will reach across the aisle to Democratic Senators to assist in crafting a bipartisan solution. Won’t that be refreshing.

Experts Say Isolation and Loneliness Impacting More Older Americans

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 30, 2017

Sarah Hosseini, a blogger on Scary Mommy, a website bringing entertainment and information to millennial mothers, penned a touching story about Marleen Brooks, a California resident, who came home to find a heartbreaking hand-written note from Wanda, her 90-year-old neighbor, asking her to be friends.

Wanda wrote: “Would you consider to become my friend. I’m 90 years old – live alone. All my friends have passed away. I’m so lonesome and scared. Please I pray for someone.”

According to Hosseini’s blog posting, Brooks shared this note with KTVU News Anchor Frank Somerville, who posted it on his Facebook page. She responded to the posting by saying, “Came home to this note from a lady that lives down the street from me. Makes my heart sad, but on the bright side it looks like I will be getting a new friend.”

That evening Brooks visited her new friend, bearing a gift of cupcakes. After the visit, she wrote to Somerville describing this initial visit (which was posted on his Facebook page), says Hosseini. In this update posting, Brooks observed, “She’s such as sweet lady! And she was over the moon when we came over.” Brooks reported what Wanda said during the impromptu get together: “I hope you didn’t think I was stupid for writing you, but I had to do something. Thank you so much for coming over. I’ve lived here for 50 years and don’t know any of my neighbors.”

Wanda shared with her new acquaintance that she is on oxygen has congestive heart failure, osteoporosis and other age-related ailments, and her two surviving sons do not live by her,” noted Hosseini’s blog posting.

Zeroing in on a Growing Societal Problem

Wanda’s isolation and loneliness is not a rare occurrence. It happens every day throughout the nation. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging recently put a spotlight on the growing number of Americans who are socially isolated and lonely, like Wanda, and expert witnesses detailed the negative consequences of this tragic societal problem.

In Room 403 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Bob Casey, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, held a morning hearing on April 27, 2017, “Aging Without Community: The Consequences of Isolation and Loneliness.”

he Senate Aging panel hearing (lasting almost two hours), the first in a two-part series, took a close look at the mental and physical health effects of social isolation and loneliness. The next hearing will explore ways to reconnect older people to their communities.

“The consequences of isolation and loneliness are severe: negative health outcomes, higher health care costs, and even death. The root problem is one that we can solve by helping seniors keep connected with communities,” said Senator Collins in her opening statement. “Just as we did when we made a national commitment to cut smoking rates in this country, we should explore approaches to reducing isolation and loneliness. Each has a real impact on the health and well-being of our seniors,” noted the Maine Republican Senator.

Adds, Senator Bob Casey, “Older Americans are vital to the prosperity and well-being of our nation.” The Democratic Senator said, “Our work on the Aging Committee to ensure that we all remain connected to community as we age is important to maintaining that vitality. It is for that reason that we, as a federal government, need to sustain and improve our investments in programs that help seniors stay connected — from Meals on Wheels to rural broadband to transportation services.”

When approached for her thoughts about the Senate Aging panel, Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer said, “We know that social isolation and loneliness has severe negative effects on older Americans and we’re pleased the US Senate Committee on Aging held a hearing on this important issue. As they explore solutions for social isolation and loneliness amongst older Americans, AARP looks forward to working with them on these issues in 2017.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse says, “When seniors get involved, the community benefits from their valuable contributions. And the personal connections seniors make engaging in the community can help them stay healthy and productive.” Whitehouse, who sits on the Senate Aging panel, will work to protect funding for senior centers and programs that Rhode Island seniors rely on to stay connected, like Meals on Wheels and Senior Corps.”

Social Isolation is a “Silent Killer”

Speaking before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging today, social work professor Lenard W. Kaye, DSW, PhD, urged lawmakers to support programs that help older adults stay connected to their communities.

Kaye serves as director of the University of Maine Center on Aging. Joining three other experts, he reported to the committee that social isolation is a “silent killer” — due to placing people at higher risk for a variety of poor health outcomes — and he warned that more Americans are living in isolation than ever before.

“The prevalence may be as high as 43 percent among community dwelling older adults,” Kaye said. “And the risk is high as well for caregivers of older adults given that caregiving can be a very isolating experience.”

Kaye’s testimony also highlighted the state of current research in solving the problem of social isolation among older adults.

“Due to the various life events that can trigger social isolation, from death of a significant other, to loss of transportation to health decline, effective interventions will need to be diverse and they will need to be tailored to the personal circumstances of the isolated individual,” he said.

Kaye added that there is still significant progress to be made in determining what works for helping to reduce social isolation. Lack of rigor in studies of interventions aimed at reducing loneliness can make it difficult to evaluate some of these strategies.

In Pima County, 46 percent of nearly 2,300 seniors surveyed in its 2016 community needs assessment cited social isolation as a significant concern of those living alone, said W. Mark Clark, president of the Pima Council on Aging.

In his testimony, Clark says, “Changes to mobility, cognitive ability or health status can cause an individual to hold back from previously enjoyed social activities. Older adults in rural areas who can no longer driver are at incredible risk of physical and social isolation unless transportation options are available.”

“While aging at home is cited as a top priority by a majority of older people, and doing so has both emotional and economic benefits, aging in place at home can also lead to isolation,” said Clark, noting that connections to the community wane as one gets older due to less opportunities to build new social networks.

In her testimony, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology researcher at Brigham Young University, estimated that over 8 million seniors are affected by isolation and social disconnect is increasing.

Holt-Lunstad told the Senators that research shows that social isolation and loneliness is as dangerous as being obese, as risky as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. and associated with higher rates of heart disease, a weakened immune system, anxiety, dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and nursing facility admissions.

Finally, Witness Rick Creech, who was born with cerebral palsy, shared to the Senate Aging panel how disabilities can isolate a person. He described how an alternative communication (AAC) device, costing $10,000, a van concerted for a powered wheel chair passenger and smart home equipment to help him grow a “productive, independent adult.”

Meals on Wheels Program Vital Program for Isolated Seniors

It was clear to Senate Aging panel members and to expert witnesses that local Meals on Wheels programs can bring good nutrition and companionship to older American’s reducing social isolation and loneliness. Over two years ago, a Brown University study confirmed another benefit of visitors regularly knocking on the doors of seniors in need: a significant reduction in their feelings of loneliness.

“This continues to build the body of evidence that home-delivered meals provide more than nutrition and food security,” said study lead author Kali Thomas, assistant professor of health services, policy and practice in the Brown University School of Public Health and a researcher at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Thomas, a former Meal on Wheels volunteer said that the study is one of few to rigorously examine the long-presumed psychological benefits of home-delivered meal service. She believes it is the first randomized, controlled trial to assess the effect on loneliness, which has been linked by many studies to a greater risk for medical problems, health care utilization, and mortality.

“In a time when resources are being further constrained and demand is increasing, it is important that we have evidence that guides decision-making in terms of what services to provide and how best to provide them,” Thomas said.

Senator Susan Collins, chair of the U.S. Select Senate Committee on Aging, sees Meals on Wheels as policy strategy to address the growing number of isolated seniors and their loneliness. At the Senate Aging panel, Collins said, “For many, Meals on Wheels is not just about food – it’s about social sustenance, also. Seniors look forward to greeting the driver with a bit of conversation.” And the Republican Senator called for adequate funding to the nationwide Meals on Wheels network, comprising 5,000 local community-based programs. President Trump’s proposed cuts to Meals on Wheels were, “pennywise and pound foolish because in the end they’re going to cause more hospitalizations, more nursing home admissions, and poor health outcomes.”

Like Brooks, we should reach out to our older isolated neighbors in our community. A simple gesture like this can have a lasting, positive impact on both parties.

GOP Health Care Proposal Pulled at Last Moment

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 26, 2017

Days ago, unified Democratic lawmakers combined with a deep philosophical wedge between the conservative House Freedom Caucus and moderate Republicans over policy details of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), forced the Trump Administration and House Speaker Paul Ryan to pull the AHCA proposal minutes from a floor vote to steer it away from a humiliating legislative defeat last Friday. Interestingly, the seventh anniversary of President Barack Obama signing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), his signature health care law, took place one day before the House vote.

A day before Friday’s scheduled vote to dismantle and repeal Obama’s ACA, President Donald Trump taking a high-risk negotiation tactic straight out of his bestselling book, “The Art of the Deal,” gave a late-Thursday night ultimatum to the House GOP lawmakers. Trump told to them to vote up or down on AHCA or he would be prepared to move on to other legislative agenda items.

As to Trump’s ultimatum to GOP House lawmakers, CNN Presidency Historian Timothy Naftali noted on CNN Newsroom with Fredricka Whitfield, “He played chicken and he blinked.”

House GOP Making Legislative Sausage

In a report issued on March 13, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), detailed the drastic impact of the initial AHCA legislative proposal. CBO, a federal agency that provides budget and economic information to Congress, found that AHCA would result in 24 million losing health insurance coverage by 2026, Medicaid would be cut by $880 billion over the next ten years, and premiums and out-of-pocket costs would skyrocket increase, particularly for older adults and individuals with lower incomes.

Earlier this week, on Monday, Ryan and his House GOP Leadership team made eight amendments to AHCA to pull in skeptical GOP moderate and conservative lawmakers, including the controversial speeding up tax cuts while whittling down the Medicaid program. Later, on March 23, CBO confirmed that these amendments would lead to essentially the same level of coverage losses, about 24 million people and cost increases for individuals and would yield $187 billion less in savings than the original GOP health care proposal.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Senator Wyden and Congressman Pallone revealed that the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ independent Actuary “estimated that the repeal of the tax on prescription medications, known as the ‘pharma fee,’ beginning January 1, 2017 would increase Medicare Part B premiums by $8.7 billion through fiscal year 2027.” noted the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

On Thursday, three more amendments were offered to sway GOP House critics. One would strip the requirement that insurance companies cover essential health benefits (EHB). This amendment would effectively eliminate annual out-of-pocket caps, reinstate annual and lifetime coverage limits, and gut protections for pre-existing conditions. Another would delay – but not remove – the Medicare payroll tax cut that will undermine Medicare’s financing and its future stability.

After the defeat of AHCA, Trump blamed the Democrats for the House GOP’s failure to pass its health care proposal to scrap Obamacare. “The Democrats were not going to give us a single vote,” he said, warning that “Obamacare will explode” forcing the opposition party back to the negotiation table to craft a better health care law.

House Speaker Ryan also noted that “We are going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”

“We just really did not get a consensus today,” say Ryan. “That’s why I thought the wise thing to do was not proceed with a vote but to pull the bill. When asked if he was going to try “to prop it up, Ryan responded by saying “it is so fundamentally flawed, I don’t know that that is possible.”

Sighs of Relief from Aging Groups, Democrats

“The American Health Care Act is not American in spirit or health care in substance. In fact, it’s a tax cut bill for the wealthy, not a health care bill for the people. It will make America sicker. Congress should reject this charade and this disaster of a bill today,” states Judith Stein, Executive Director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

“The House Congressional leadership was destined to lose on their disastrous American Health Care Act, which would have effectively repealed Obamacare and hurt seniors, including beneficiaries of Medicare and Medicaid. It doesn’t matter whether they pulled or failed to pass the bill,” says Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in a statement. “It needed to go down and we thank the millions of National Committee members and supporters – and those of other senior advocacy organizations – whose protests were loud, numerous, and furious.”

“No one knew’ that health care could be so complicated. Hopefully, he has learned a lesson… that health legislation is built on a complex foundation that considers the real human needs – and costs – of changes to the system. A common refrain from Donald Trump during the campaign was, ‘What do you have to lose by electing me?’ Now we know what’s at stake: affordable health care for older Americans, Medicare, and Medicaid,” says Richtman.

“The leadership’s decision to withdraw the bill from consideration proves that the voices of Americans are very powerful. This harmful legislation would have added an Age Tax on older Americans and put vulnerable populations at risk,” says AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement.

LeaMond calls on Congress to focus on the issues important to older Americans and their families, including: protecting and improving Medicare’s benefits and financing; providing access to affordable quality coverage; preventing insurers from engaging in discriminatory practices; lowering prescription drug costs; providing new incentives to expand home and community based services; and strengthening efforts to fight fraud, waste, and abuse.

Adds, Justice in Aging Executive Director, Kevin Prindiville, “Congress tried to rush this disastrous bill through Congress without regard for the health and safety of older Americans and their families, and such a bill cannot and should not be revived. Older adults and their families rely on Medicaid and Medicare and these programs must be protected.”

Compromise might well be the way to make sound changes to the nation’s health care law, says Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI), who serves as House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. “The Affordable Care Act is a good law, and Republicans and Democrats should be working together to make it even better. If Republicans ever decide to come to the table, we should work together to increase competition, expand coverage, and bring down premiums. That’s a decision that Republicans have to make – whether to work with Democrats or continue down the path they’re on,” he says.

Rep. James Langevin (D-RI) also stresses the importance of reaching over the aisle to create a better health care law and getting away from partisan bickering. “It’s time for Republicans to move on from their misguided crusade to dismantle the ACA. The health care law has brought insurance coverage to millions of Americans. Its consumer protections, premium assistance, essential health benefits, and countless other provisions that were at risk of elimination have improved our nation’s health and saved lives. We must work together in a bipartisan manner to strengthen and improve the ACA, not risk the health and wellbeing of everyday Americans for an empty, partisan victory,” he says.

House GOP Leadership Puts its Health Care Proposal on Fast-Track

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 12, 2017

After years of calling for the dismantling of Obama’s signature health care law, the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), dubbed Obamacare, an emboldened GOP controlling both the White House and two chambers of Congress, began legislative efforts to substantially change the way the federal government subsidizes health coverage for millions of Americans and puts the brakes on Medicaid expansion that extended coverage to millions more.

On March 6, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis), with the blessing of President Donald Trump, began his legislative efforts to enact the House GOP’s 123 page health care proposal, the new American Health Care Act (AHCA). Democratic lawmakers and aging groups charge that the AHCA lacks a fiscal estimate from the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office as to how many people will lose their health insurance coverage as a result of the bill or how much it will cost.”

According to rating agency S&P Global Ratings, between 6 million and 10 million people could lose health insurance coverage if the GOP’s health care proposal to “repeal and replace” Obamacare passes. Specifically, there would be a decline in enrollment in the individual health insurance plan market of between 2 million and 4 million people. There would also be a decline of between 4 million and 6 million people in the nation’s Medicaid system after 2020 to 2024, says the recently released analysis.

GOP Health Proposal on Fast-Track

Just hours after AHCA was introduced early in the week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Ways and Means Committee began holding markups on their specific portions of the GOP’s health care proposal. After deliberating for almost 18 hours the Ways and Means approved its portion by a vote of 23-16, along party lines. After a marathon 27-hour markup session, the AHCA proposal was approved by the second House panel, Energy and Commerce Committee, by voted 31 to 23, by party line, too. Next week, the House Budget and Rules committees is expected to take up the GOP health care proposal, with a full House floor scheduled for the week of March 20. It has been reported that Ryan hopes to have a bill to President Trump for signature before April recess.

“Obamacare is rapidly collapsing. Skyrocketing premiums, soaring deductibles, and dwindling choices are not what the people were promised seven years ago. It’s time to turn a page and rescue our health care system from this disastrous law,” said House Speaker Ryan in a statement released when AHCA was thrown into the legislative hopper.

Ryan asserted that the GOP health care proposal would “drive down costs, encourage competition, and give every American access to quality, affordable health insurance. It protects young adults, patients with pre-existing conditions, and provides a stable transition so that no one has the rug pulled out from under them.”

The GOP health care proposal would keep two of the most popular provisions of Obama’s ACA, specifically providing health care coverage to people with pre-existing conditions (though insurers would be allowed to charge higher premiums to individuals with lapsed health care coverage) and allowing children to stay on their parents’ health plans until the age of 26.

But, the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace Obama Care has brought aging groups together to put the brakes on House passage.

Aging Groups Come Out Swinging

Seniors’ advocates object to the ACHA’s impact on federal programs that provide both healthcare and long-term care to retirees. The bill rescinds an 0.9% tax on upper income earners’ wages, which had been used to extend the solvency of Medicare until 2028. Removing the tax decreases Medicare’s solvency by four years, which could lead to benefit cuts down the road. Advocates also decry the age-rating provisions in the repeal bill, which would allow insurers to charge older Americans up to five times as much for premiums as younger enrollees pay. The $4,000 tax credits for near seniors (aged 50-64) which replace Obamacare subsidies won’t make a dent in the premiums that this age group will pay under the GOP plan. Older Americans who can’t afford insurance will then arrive at the threshold of Medicare less healthy, putting additional strain on the system.

“This legislation is a triple whammy for seniors. It’s bad for Medicare beneficiaries, bad for near seniors, and bad for the Medicare program,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.”

Richmond is especially alarmed that the AHCA also makes radical changes to the Medicaid program. The bill cuts $370 billion from Medicaid over 10 years by imposing “per capita caps,” meaning that states will get a fixed federal payment per beneficiary instead of the guaranteed match they now receive. Those fixed payments will not be able to keep pace with rising healthcare costs, leaving the states with significant shortfalls. “Millions of seniors rely on Medicaid for skilled nursing care, both in the home and at community-based facilities. The cut in federal payments will compel states to remove seniors from Medicaid rolls or radically reduce benefits, forcing them and their families into poverty.”

Following the release of the GOP’s AHCA, the Washington, D.C.-based AARP, the nation’s largest advocacy group representing over 37 million members, came out swinging. The GOP legislative proposal would weaken Medicare, leaving the door open to a voucher program that shifts costs and risks to seniors, warned AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond in a statement.

“Before people even reach retirement age, big insurance companies would be allowed to charge them an age tax that adds up to thousands of dollars more per year. Older Americans need affordable health care services and prescriptions. This plan goes in the opposite direction, increasing insurance premiums for older Americans and not doing anything to lower drug costs, noted LeaMond.

LeaMond charged, “On top of the hefty premium increase for consumers, big drug companies and other special interests get a sweetheart deal. “Finally, Medicaid cuts could impact people of all ages and put at risk the health of 17.4 million children and adults with disabilities and seniors by eliminating much needed services that allow individuals to live independently in their homes and communities.”

“Although no one believes the current health care system is perfect, this harmful legislation would make health care less secure and less affordable,” says LeaMond, noting that her nonprofit aging group will work with either political party to hammer out a health plan that “puts Americans’ health care first, not the special interests.”

Adds Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy in a statement, “the proposed AHCA would also gut key financing mechanisms of the Affordable Care Act that would amount to tax cuts for the wealthy – by some estimates, by hundreds of billions of dollars. Regrettably, these tax cuts include provisions that would jeopardize Medicare’s financial stability. “We fear such cuts will lead to renewed calls to ‘save’ Medicare by privatizing it for future generations,” says Stein.

According to the Center for Medicare Advocacy’s statement, the proposed GOP legislative proposal would dismantle key structural supports of ACA, including eliminating the employer coverage mandate and the individual mandate to obtain health coverage, and instead would impose a 30 percent penalty for lapses in coverage. Instead of the ACA’s subsidies that make health coverage more affordable for millions, the new legislation would offer age-based tax credits ranging from about $2,000 to $4,000 – likely insufficient to pay for meaningful insurance coverage.

The Medicare Advocacy Group also warns that older Americans needing health insurance coverage before becoming Medicare eligible would also be hit hard by the proposed AHCA. The ACA’s protection of older adults that prevents insurance companies from charging no more than three times the premium amount charged of younger individuals (a 3:1 ratio) would be replaced by a higher 5:1 ratio – this dramatically increasing the premium amount insurance companies can charge older adults. Critics call this change an “age tax.”

Finally, the Republican’s AHCA would also phase out ACA’s expansion of Medicaid starting in 2020, structurally reforming virtually the entire Medicaid program (including Medicaid expansion). These changes would have a devastating impact on providing health care by capping federal Medicaid payments to each state to a limited, preset amount per person (often referred to as a “Per Capita Cap”).

Could Political Backlash Happen with Passage of AHCA?

Last Thursday, Ryan, with sleeves rolled up, urged GOP lawmakers to back AHCA, promising tweaks to address Republican conservatives’ concerns. At the 23 minute news conference, Ryan said: “This is the closest we’ve been to repealing and replacing Obamacare and it’s the closest we will ever get to repealing and replacing Obamacare.” It is either voting for the House bill, or let ACA survive, he said.

President Trump also chimed in to the AHCA debate, too, by calling for the controversial health care proposal’s enactment in an afternoon tweet. “Despite what you hear in the press, health care is coming along great. We are talking to many groups and it will end in a beautiful picture!,” he tweeted.

As the Congressional April recess approaches opposition to AHCA is building as physician, nurse and hospital groups warn that the legislative proposal’s enactment will take health care coverage away from millions of Americans. While Democratic and progressive organizations oppose ACA’s passage, too, a growing number of GOP lawmakers and conservative groups, from the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party Patriots, are expressing their concerns.

Days ago, Andrev Ostrovskv, chief medical officer for Medicaid at the Baltimore, Maryland-based Centers for Medicare and Medicaid based, risking the wrath of Trump’s political appointees in his federal agency, tweeted his displeasure and opposition. “Despite political messaging from others at HHS [Health and Human Services], I align with the experts from @aafp @AmerAcadPeds @AmerMedicalAssn in opposition to #AHCA,” he tweeted. Dr. Ostrovskv’s agency oversees the administering of Obamacare.

Even if the GOP House Leadership are able to address conservative lawmaker concerns, one being AHCA does not require an earlier halt to Medicaid expansion enrollment, the GOP’s health care proposal appears to have a rocky road to travel in the upper chamber. Senate. Republications, having just a 52-48 slim majority, can only lose two votes.

Says Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) in a tweet to House GOP Leadership: “ House health-care bill can’t pass Senate w/o major changes. To my friends in House: pause, start over. Get it right, don’t get it fast.”

With the popularity of Obamacare the GOP’s death wish to repeal and replace the law may well be hazardous to the Republican Party’s political health. We’ll find out for sure in the mid-term elections.