GAO Report, Congress, Urge Better Disaster Response to Seniors and Disabled

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 23, 2019

Following a newly released 75-page report on the nation’s disaster response from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), and after an outbreak of destructive tornadoes in the Midwest and the start of the 2019 hurricane season, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), Ranking Member and Chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, throw a bill into the legislative hopper to assist seniors and disabled persons before, during and after natural disasters strike.

The Casey-Collins legislation, S. 1755, titled the “Real Emergency Access for Aging and Disability Inclusion (REAADI) for Disasters Act” would support the development of preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation plans that are inclusive of seniors and people with disabilities. The legislation would also ensure that these individuals would have a voice in creating emergency plans that directly affect them. Senators cosponsoring the bill include Doug Jones (D-AL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Another bill, S.1754, titled the “Disaster Relief Medicaid Act” (DRMA), sponsored by Cassey, would ensure Medicaid services are consistently available for individuals forced to relocate to another state due to disaster or emergency. It would protect those residing in an area covered under a presidential disaster declaration as a “Relief-Eligible Survivor,” and grant them the support needed to easily access or apply for Medicaid services in their host state. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are cosponsoring this bill.

Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Chris Smith (R-NJ) plan to introduce the House companion measure of REAADI Act. Congresswoman Donna Shalala (D-FL) will introduce DRMA in the House chamber.

Inadequate Disaster Planning Can Result in Death

“Inadequate planning for disasters can mean life or death, so it is critically important that every
community is prepared to meet the needs of all citizens—including older adults and people with disabilities—before, during and after a disaster strikes,” says Casey in a June 11 statement announcing the introduction of REAADI, calling for seniors and people with disabilities to be actively involved in developing emergency preparedness plans that will keep them safe.

In this statement, Collins adds, “As we have learned from natural disasters such as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, some of our neighbors – especially seniors and individuals with disabilities – face many obstacles during a crisis. We must focus on the attention they may need. The bipartisan legislation improves training and coordination to help ensure that local, state, and federal officials are adequately equipped to care for the most vulnerable in their communities during a natural disaster.”

“As someone who lives with a disability, I take this issue to heart. The REAADI for Disasters Act will help eliminate barriers faced by people with disabilities and older adults during disasters by providing them a greater role in the policymaking process,” says Langevin, co-chair of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus, stressing the importance of passing the DRMA to continue Medicaid support services to America’s disabled and seniors.

GAO Report Gives Roadmap to Integrating Assistance During Natural Disasters

Released June 5, GAO’s Report, titled FEMA Action Needed to Better Support Individuals to Better Support Individuals Who Are Older or Have Disabilities, examines the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster response to three sequential hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria – that affected more than 28 million people in 2017. According to FEMA, seniors and persons with disabilities faced challenges in these natural disasters when evacuated to safe shelter, accessing medicine and obtaining recovery assistance. In June 2018, FEMA began implementing a new approach to assist individuals with disabilities.

GAO’s report addressed the challenges FEMA partners reported in providing assistance to seniors and the disabled and took a look at the challenges such individuals faced accessing assistance from the federal agency and the actions FEMA took to address these challenges. The federal study also examined the FAMA’s new strategy to assist persons with disability.

Here are GAO’s seven recommendations to FEMA:

The federal agency, charged with providing auditing, evaluation and investigated services to Congress, called on the FEMA Administrator to develop and publicize guidance for partners, during the data sharing process, who are requesting individual assistance data from seniors and persons with disabilities during natural disasters.

The GAO report also called on the FEMA Administrator to implement new registration-intake questions to improve FEMA’s ability to identify and address survivors’ disability-related needs, by directly soliciting survivors’ accommodation requests.

GAO also suggested that the FEMA Administrator improve communication of registrants’ disability-related information across FEMA programs, by developing an alert within survivor files that indicates an accommodation request.

As to the federal agency’s new strategy to specifically assist persons with disability, GAO urged the FEMA Administrator to establish and disseminate a set of objectives for the federal agency’s new disability integration approach.

The GAO report also recommended that the FEMA Administrator provide a written plan for implementing its new disability integration staffing approach to Regional Administrators and Regional Disability Integration Specialists. The plan would be consistent with the new objectives established for disability integration. It would also include an implementation timeline and details on staff responsibilities, which regions could use to evaluate staff performance.

Additionally, the GAO report recommends that the FEMA Administrator should develop a plan for delivering training to FEMA staff that promotes their competency in disability awareness. The plan should include milestones and performance measures, and outline how performance will be monitored.

Finally, the GAO report suggests that the FEMA Administrator develop a timeline for completing the development of new disability-related training that the federal agency can offer to its partners that incorporates the needs of individuals with disabilities into disaster preparedness, response and recovery operations.

For a copy of the GAO report, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/GAO%2019-318%206-3-19.pdf.

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New Report Charges that States Disfranchise Older Voters

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 11, 2017

Since 1948, Wisconsin resident Christine Krucki had voted in every presidential election, but effectively lost her right to vote when her state enacted a voter ID law in 2011. An old Illinois photo ID and proof of her residence in Wisconsin was just not good enough to allow her to cast a vote.

Krucki did not have a birth certificate and was forced to purchase one for $20. However, her last name on the document did not match her current last name, changed when she married. She then paid $15 dollars for a copy of her marriage certificate , but that document listed her list name differently than her birth name, as she was adopted a different name after moving in with her stepsister when she was in her early 20s. Changing her name on the Illinois marriage certificate to match her birth certificate to solve the problem would cost between $ 150 and
$ 300.

The obstacles Krucki faced when attempting to exercise her right to vote are encountered by millions of older Americans when they attempt to vote. With the 2018 mid-term elections less than a year away, two U.S. Senators release a report detailing Krucki’s problem at the polls, and notes how suppressive state laws and inaccessible voting locations disenfranchise older voters.

Pushing Older Voters Away from the Polls

Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ranking Member of the Committee on Rules and Administration’s 15 page report, “Barriers to Voting for Older Americans: How States are Making it Harder for Seniors to Vote,” finds that strict voter identification (ID) laws, closure of voting locations, inaccessible polling places and limits on early voting and absentee ballots are preventing seniors and people with disabilities from casting votes.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. But, that right is under threat for millions of older Americans and individuals with disabilities across the nation,” stated Sen. Bob Casey in a statement announcing the report’s release. “This report brings awareness to the unique challenges that seniors face in exercising their constitutional right. We must work to ensure that all Americans have equal access to the voting booth.”

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is becoming harder and harder for many Americans, especially our seniors,” add Sen. Klobuchar, noting that long lines, inaccessible polling places, and strict voter ID laws have become barriers to voting for older Americans. “This important report shines a light on the hardships these voters face and proposes common sense solutions to make voting easier for everyone. We need to do more to restore Americans’ confidence in our political system. Our first step should be making it easier for their voices to be heard on Election Day,” he says.

The report, released on Nov. 2, also includes new information from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that only 17 percent of the polling places it examined during the 2016 election were fully accessible. Most polling places GAO examined had one or more impediments from parking to the voting area and had accessible voting stations that could impede private and independent voting.

According to the report, suppressive voting laws and issues of accessibility affect tens of millions of older Americans and people with disabilities. In the 2016 election, 30 percent of the voters were between the ages of 50 and 64-years-old and 13 percent were 65 and older. Sixteen million (11.5 percent) of the 139 million votes were cast by people with disabilities. As the baby boomer population continues to age, these restrictions and barriers are likely to adversely impact more Americans.

In order to protect the voting rights of older voters and persons with disabilities, the report calls on Congress to ensure the full authorization and empowerment of all federal voting laws, which will make polling places accessible to older voters. Access to polls can also be increased by allowing opportunities for accessible early voting and absentee voting. Finally, it calls on limiting restrictions on voting and ensure that election laws fully consider the needs and abilities of older Americans.

Reflections from Rhode Island

“The depth of this issue varies from state to state,” says AARP State Director Kathleen Connell, who herself is a former Rhode Island Secretary of State. “I believe that older Rhode Islanders are well protected here, but we must be vigilant. Older Rhode Islanders are traditionally the most engaged voting group. Their voices are important and should not be silenced in any way.”

“I would add, however, that deliberate voter suppression is a threat to voters of all ages and the implications are as serious as they are obvious.

“When Voter ID legislation was passed in Rhode Island, we worked with then Secretary of State Ralph Mollis to set up photo booths to create ID cards for voters who did not have proper photo IDs. It was well received, but transportation was identified as a barrier to reaching some potential voters. Fortunately there were other remedies in place and, I have to say, no one contacted us saying they were prohibited from voting.”

Adds, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, this report presents a troubling situation across our country. The right to vote is sacred. I have spent the past three years modernizing our elections so that we can engage and empower all Rhode Islanders. Civic participation at all age levels is critical to our success as a state. I will continue to work to remove barriers so that eligible Rhode Islanders can have easier access to the ballot.”

Joe Graziano, Gorbea’s Communication Coordinator, notes that the GAO findings cited in this “Barriers to Voting” report is based on Council on State Governments research that his Department did not have a chance to review. “While it is not called “early voting”, Rhode Island does have an emergency mail ballot period that allows Rhode Islanders to cast their ballot ahead of Election Day without an excuse, says Graziano, noting that older voters have been able to use this system, in fact, 45 percent of the emergency mail ballots cast last year were by Rhode Islanders 65 and older.

Graziano admits that the GAO report shines a light on some of the barriers to voting across the nation. “Secretary Gorbea agrees that access to voting is critical and has successfully strived to improve it in the last three years including the introduction of online voter registration, automatic voter registration and the implementation of new, easier to use elections technologies (voting machines and ePoll books). Additionally, she has redesigned the ballot and the voter information guide to make them easier to read and understand. She also introduced legislation to update and expand opportunities for early, in-person voting,” he says.

“As a way to mitigate the negative impact of the photo ID requirement for voting, the Rhode Island Department of State has made sure that free photo Voter IDs are available to people in the communities where they live,” says Graziano, noting that last year alone, the Secretary of State staff held 51 events at senior centers and retirement facilities to ensure that eligible, older voters had proper voter identification, were introduced to new voting technologies and had any of their elections related questions answered by our Elections Division staff.

Looking to the upcoming General Assembly Session, Graziano says that Secretary Gorbea will once again introduce legislation for early in-person voting. “The legislation would eliminate the need for emergency mail ballots by allowing voters to cast their ballot at their local city or town hall, up to 20 days prior to an election, including the Saturday and Sunday prior to Election Day,” he says.

For more details about the Senate voting obstacle report, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Voting%20Rights%20Report.pdf.

GAO Report Reveals Social Security Benefits Gap between Rich, Poor

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 1, 2016

We intuitively know that there is a growing income gap between America’s rich and poor. We heard it for months during the presidential democratic debates. But a newly released GAO report documents this charge, the disparities and their impact on Social Security Benefits.

Growing disparities in life expectancy between America’s rich and poor is eroding the progressive nature of Social Security. A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Shorter Life Expectancy Reduces Projected Lifetime Benefits for Lower Income,” requested by Senator Bernie Sanders, shows that low-income American men (making about $20,000 a year) will lose 11 percent to 14 percent of their lifetime Social Security benefits while high-income men (making $80,000 annually) will see a 16 percent to 18 percent benefit boost due to this growing gap.

Life Expectancy Impacts SSA Benefits

The GAO study, released on April 4, 2016, found that raising the Social Security retirement age would result in even fewer benefits for lower-income groups. Lower-income men are living between 4 and 13 fewer years than higher-income men, and lower-income women are living between 2 and 14 fewer years than higher-income women.

“Poverty should not be a death sentence,” said Sanders, who serves as ranking member on the Primary Health and Retirement Security Subcommittee. “When over half of older workers have no retirement savings, we need to expand, not cut, Social Security so that every American can retire with the benefits they’ve earned and the dignity they deserve,” he says.

According to 64 page GAO report, the wealthiest Americans are not only living longer and collecting more in Social Security benefits, they are also contributing less of their income toward Social Security. Almost all of the income gains over the past three decades have gone to those earning above the $118,500 earnings cap and have therefore been exempt from Social Security taxes, costing the Social Security Trust Fund over $1.1 trillion, says the report.

“Today, the wealthiest Americans contribute less to Social Security than at any other time in recent history. We must reject calls to raise the retirement age and instead strengthen Social Security by ensuring millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share,” Sanders said.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), says that the GAO report is especially important when you consider the push in Congress to raise Social Security’s retirement age to reduce benefits. “Forcing average Americans to delay retirement until 70, as suggested by some in Washington, would mean even smaller benefits for lower-income groups,” he says.

Richtman notes that NCPSSM has long opposed increasing the Social Security retirement age, stating that it is “nothing but a cruel cut in benefits” The GAO report shows exactly how cruel it would be, he says.

Instead of cutting Social Security, Richtman calls on Congress to boost benefits so that retirement income program can continue to fulfill its promise providing an adequate base of income for America’s seniors.

Lawmakers Push to Protect Social Security

Sanders, a presidential Democratic candidate, has introduced legislation that would ensure that Social Security would be able to pay every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 58 years. His plan would increase benefits by more than $1,300 a year for seniors with less than $16,000 in annual income. This includes boosting yearly cost-of-living adjustments by making the consumer price index better reflect seniors’ rising costs for health care and prescription medicine.

To shore up the retirement program’s trust fund, the Senator would lift the cap on taxable income so everyone who makes more than $250,000 a year would pay the same percentage of their income into Social Security as middle-class working families.

“This report reinforces the importance of strengthening Social Security and preserving the guarantee of Medicare, especially for working and middle class Rhode Islanders,” said Congressman Cicilline (D-RI), who is a co-sponsor of the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act. “After a lifetime of hard work, Rhode Islanders should be able to retire with economic security and peace of mind, he says, pledging to continue his efforts to support “commonsense” legislation that strengthen Social Security benefits.

The GAO study is a warning that proposals to raise the retirement age “would fall hardest on those who can least afford it,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). As a founding member of the Defending Social Security Caucus, Whitehouse plans to explore ways to strengthen the Social Security, “the bedrock of American retirement security.”

GAO made no recommendations in this report. However, in comments the Social Security Administration (SSA) agreed with GAO’s finding that it is important to understand how the life expectancy in different income groups may affect retirement income. The federal agency sees financial literacy as a key factor in preparing for a “secured retirement.”

According to a SSA official, “Social Security offers one of the best tools for the public to plan for their retirement and educate themselves about their benefits – a my Social Security account which is a secure, personalized online account that can be created at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount. With a my Social Security account, people can check their Social Security Statement to learn about future Social Security benefits, verify annual earnings, and plan for their financial future. More than 23 million people have already created secure, convenient accounts,” he says.

In recent years Congress has looked for ways to keep the Social Security program afloat by adjusting Social Security tax contributions, increasing retirement age, and reducing benefit amounts. Now with the release of the new report findings, the message is clear. Congress must not tinker with Social Security until it understands the unanticipated impact on those receiving the benefit checks, especially on the lower-income retirees.

For more information, contact Charles Jeszeck at (202) 512-7215 or jeszeckc@gao.gov.