Older Americans to Benefit from Bipartisan Budget Act

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

The Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

“A Pretty Good Deal for Seniors”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 21, 2018

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

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

Putting Medicare on the Chopping Block

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

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

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

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

Targeting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerns Over Fast-Track Reforming Social Security

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

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

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

Congress Passes RAISE Family Care Givers Act

Published in the Woonsocket Call on January 14, 2018

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

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

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

Universal Praise for Congressional Passage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s in the RAISE Family Caregiver Act?

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

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

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

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

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

Calls for More Caregiver Assistance

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

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

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

Covering All the Aging Bases in 2017

Published in Pawtucket times on January 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zarlengo Earns AARP Rhode Island’s Most Prestigious Volunteer Award

Published in Pawtucket Times on December 18, 2017

“To Serve and Not be Served” – Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus

AARP Rhode Island recognizes its own, Phil Zarlengo, for his decades of serving the state’s and the nation’s seniors. Over 130 family and fellow AARP Rhode Island members gathered at the Warwick Country Club at a luncheon ceremony to recognize his remarkable service to America’s largest aging advocacy group.

AARP top national officials (Joan R. Ruff, Chair of the AARP National Board of Directors, Kelly Clark, AARP Eastern Region Vice-president and Megan Hookley, AARP Vice President, Volunteerism & Services), came bringing their greetings.

Last week, Zarlengo, 71, a resident of Jamestown for over 30 years, became the 16th recipient AARP Rhode Island Ethel Percy Andrus Award for Community Service — the nonprofit group’s most prestigious and visible state volunteer award for community service.

Every year, Andrus Award recipients across the nation are chosen for their ability to enhance the lives of AARP members and prospective members, improve the community in or for which the work was performed, and inspire others to volunteer.

An Easy Pick

Zarlengo, a native of Chicopee, Massachusetts, was nominated for the Rhode Island Chapter’s prestigious award by Alan Neville, a retired executive in the financial services sector who now serves as AARP Rhode Island state president. “It was a very easy to pick Zarlengo,,” says Neville, acknowledging that “working with him has been a great privilege for me.”

“He is dedicated to public service and I consider him to be an authentic leader,” says Neville.

“As I have gotten to know him, I have come to appreciate the depth and breadth of Phil’s knowledge and experience,” says Neville, echoing many at the December 10 award ceremony who observed that the former teacher and school administrator’s volunteer efforts extend far beyond AARP to countless other regional and national groups and span decades of giving back to his community.

Zarlengo’s professional and educational credentials are impressive. He has a bachelor’s degree in Social Science from UMASS Amherst, an MA in History from Brown University, a doctorate in Management & Evaluation from the University of Connecticut and a Public Affairs Certificate from Tufts University.

Zarlengo Brings a lot to the Plate

A quick glance at his bio reveals his love for education. Zarlengo was Executive Director of Brown University’s National Education Research Lab, where he developed new models for teacher and school program evaluations disseminated across the nation. As an administrator in the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Providence School Department he monitored state and local programs for special population children. Currently, he is CEO of his own management consulting firm that evaluates and helps improve innovative school programs for low achieving students in urban schools, and is a member of the ACE Charter School Board of Directors.

Zarlengo’s award “acts as a symbol to the public that we can all work together for positive social change,” AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell told the attending. “AARP has long valued the spirit of volunteerism and the important contributions volunteers make to their communities, neighbors, and the programs they serve,” she said.

Connell considered Zarlengo a guiding light to AARP Rhode Island when he was asked to assist in organizing the first AARP Rhode Island state office in Providence. She had reached out to her former boss after working with him at Brown to serve as the aging advocacy group’s first volunteer state president.

“His advice on elderly and elderly issues was invaluable and his commitment extraordinary,” Connell says, stressing that Zarlengo “helped to put our office on the map early on, and in recognition of his work he moved swiftly on to his position on the National Board.”

Zarlengo eventually put his energies at the national level by serving on AARP National Board and Board Chair before stepping down in 2012. During his 14 years of volunteer service, he has been an energetic defender of Social Security and Medicare and a strong voice in improving healthcare quality and access for all. Since he left his national position three years ago, he still remains active in AARP in many roles, including AARP’s designee on the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, with a focus on helping older Americans prepare for natural disasters. He works closely with AARP Rhode Island’s legislative committee, bringing his understanding of complex national aging policy issues to the General Assembly when they are considering legislation impacting older Rhode Islanders.

“Nonetheless, he never left our fold, offering counsel and assistance whenever asked – and often when we didn’t ask. That’s Phil’s style and everyone who has ever worked with him here has benefited from his vision, wisdom and his warm enthusiasm,” says Connell.

Top AARP Volunteer Comes to Rhode Island

The award was presented by Joan Ruff, current AARP National Board Chair, who has worked as a executive, human resources consultant and attorney. “You have left more than a legacy of service for those of us who have followed in your footsteps,” she said, before presenting the award.

“Your instinct to emphasize the value of state offices and engines for positive social change and to focus on what we now call engaging locally was spot on. You made the case that the more engaged our membership is with AARP the more likely they are to get involved, to renew their commitment and to tell friends and family members about the value of the work we do,” noted Ruff.

“To Zarlengo’s surprise, Huff also conveyed a letter from AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, which read in part, “Having previously served as AARP Rhode Island’s State President, as a national board member for six years and as AARP Board Chair for two years, you know as well as anyone the high level of commitment and dedication this honor represents.

“As a former state president, you were always thinking about how to make the states and national office work more closely together and how to make AARP a stronger presence in local communities across the country.

“You were instrumental in pushing for the integration of the states into AARP’s strategy development and in making AARP more of a local presence across the country. As president of AARP Foundation at the time, I was energized by your support for The Drive to End Hunger and our efforts in financial services,” Jenkins wrote.

“When AARP decided to bring Experience Corps into the AARP family of programs, you saw the benefit of serving all generations to help strengthen our communities. And, as AARP’s representative to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), you spearheaded AARP’s relief efforts in communities hit by natural disasters, leaving a legacy we continue to build on today.

Accolades, Accolades, Accolades

Dr. Reid Appleby, 38, ophthalmologist in East Greenwich who has known Zarlengo for over 48 years, calls him “a wonderful man who is dedicated to society and a friend to everyone he ever met.” It is very appropriate that he receive this prestigious award at this point in his life, says Appleby.

“It’s incredibly important to recognize his work,” says Senator Dawn Euer, representing Newport and Jamestown, noting that she had heard stories about his impact on the state’s aging policy. “It’s valuable for organizations like AARP to recognize their volunteers working to address aging issues that have an impact on the state and nation,” she said, noting that her legislative district has the highest concentration of AARP members in the Ocean State.

Senator Louis P. Dipalma, representing Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton, was not surprised that Zarlengo was receiving AARP’s most prestigious award because “his record is impressive.”

According to Dipalma, you need more people like Zarlengo with their extensive knowledge of Social Security and Medicare with such trying times at the federal level with a GOP Congress looking to cut these programs.

When accepting his recognition, an overwhelmed Zarlengo stated that he was not ready to hang up his spurs and there was still much work to do with Congress targeting Social Security and Medicare for cuts. “ AARP has given me the opportunity to grow, to contribute, to learn and to enjoy – at a very exciting time – when the older population is rapidly increasing – you know today nationally we have surpassed the 50 million mark of seniors age 65 and over and we’re well on our way to reaching 83 million by 2080.”

AARP’ Zarlengo and tens of thousands of committed AARP volunteers throughout the nation will be there “to serve and not be served.”

Zarlengo resides in Jamestown with his wife Charlotte. They are parents of, Nancy Gilbert (who resides in Wellesley, Mass., with her husband Michael) and are grandparents of Jeffrey, Elizabeth and Abigail.

Aging Groups: House GOP Tax Rewrite a Turkey

Published in the Woonsocket Call on November 19, 2017

Thanksgiving approaches the GOP-Controlled House has passed H.R. 1, “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” its tax reform legislation, on November 16, by a partisan vote of 227 to 206, with 13 Republicans siding with the Democrats. The House tax bill would dramatically reduce corporate and individual income taxes and would increase the deficit by $ 1.7 trillion over 10 years — — possibly offset by $ $338 billion saved by repealing the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) individual mandate.

On Thursday, after four days of debate, members of the Senate Finance Committee voted 14 to 12 along party lines to approve their version of the tax package. Now the full Senate is expected to consider the bill after Thanksgiving hoping to quickly get it to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature.

Medicare and ACA Takes a Hit

Matt Shepard, of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, warns that the GOP’s attempt to overhaul to nation’s tax code is an immediate threat to the Medicare program and healthcare coverage to millions of Americans covered by ACA.

According to Shepard, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that the huge cost for the Republican tax plan would result in immediate, automatic and ongoing cuss to Medicare — $25 billion in 2018 alone.

After the GOP’s failed attempts to repeal the ACA, the Senate now uses a provision in its tax rewrite plan to finally repeal the ACA’s individual mandate to purchase insurance coverage in order to help pay for tax cuts, he says. If the GOP tax reform legislation becomes law, 13 million more people will be without health coverage and increasing premiums will disproportionately affect people age 50 who are not yet eligible for Medicare.

“These new dangers are on top of an already bad bill. Congress is engaged in a rushed effort to push through a massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, presenting a clear and present danger to health coverage, other vital programs, and families throughout the nation,” says Shepard.

“After adding $1.5 trillion to the federal debt, policymakers will use the higher debt – created by the tax cuts – to argue that deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other bedrock programs are necessary,” predicts Shepard.

Responding to the House passage of its tax reform bill, just days ago, in a statement AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond expressed disappointment in passage, warning that the legislation is harmful to millions of Americans age 65 and over.

Older Tax Payers Get Financial Hit with GOP Tax Code Fix

“AARP estimates H.R. 1 will raise taxes on 1.2 million seniors next year alone. Millions more older Americans will see tax increases in the future, or at best, no tax relief at all,” says LeaMond.

As Congress continues its debate to hammer out tax reform, LeaMond calls on lawmakers to retain the medical expense deduction at the 7.5% income threshold for older tax filers. “Nearly three-quarters of tax filers who claim the medical expense deduction are age 50 or older and live with a chronic health condition or illness. Seventy percent of filers who claim this deduction have income below $75,000.,” she says, urging that Congress also retain the standard deduction for older taxpayers, which helps reduce tax liability and can help seniors avoid a tax increase.

AARP also urges Congress to assist working family caregivers in a new tax code that creates a new, non-refundable tax credit to offset the often high out-of-pocket costs associated with caring for a loved one.

Finally, LeaMond calls on Congress to reject adding a provision in the tax bill that will lead to higher premium costs in the individual insurance market, as well as 13 million Americans losing their health coverage, including 2 million Americans who would lose employer-sponsored coverage.

In a statement, Max Richtman, President and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, calls the House passed tax rewrite, “Robin Hood-in-Reverse tax legislation.” Now, the House Republicans have sent out a “crystal-clear message “that the elderly, disabled, poor, and working class are no longer part of the GOP’s vision for America,” he says.

Blooming Deficit Might Trigger Raid Social Security

“This craven giveaway to the wealthy and big corporations at the expense of everyone else flies in the face of public opinion, basic decency, and good old common sense, says Richtman, “By ballooning the deficit, Republicans have teed up a raid on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to make up the difference,” he warns.

“The repeal of the medical expense deduction will punish seniors paying out of pocket for treatment of chronic and serious diseases – or long-term care., says Richtman.

With Senate Republicans gearing up their efforts to pass their version of the House’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” Richtman calls on Senators “to show courage and to do what House Republicans refused to [do]: stop the tax juggernaut before it does irreparable harm to our nation.”

If the GOP tax reform legislation is passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump, we will quickly find out by Christmas if it a financial gift to America’s middle class or a lump of coal in their stockings. Aging groups already know this answer.

Senate Republicans Pushing to Vote on Latest Health Care Proposal

Published in the Woonsocket Call on September 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age Tax Hits Seniors Right in their Wallets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Final Take

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

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

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