Senate Aging Panel Calls for Improved Emergency Preparation and Response

Published in the Woonsocket call on October 8, 2017

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — George Santayana, a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist

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.

News coverage of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey provided heartbreaking reminders that seniors and persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during a natural disaster. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, an assisted care facility for dementia patients lost electrical power for three days, causing 20 seniors to suffer from high indoor temperatures. Meanwhile, in Dickinson, Texas, a widely-shared photo showed elderly residents of an assisted-living center awaiting rescue as flood waters rose waist deep inside the facility.

Heeding the Lessons from Past Disasters

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast 12 years ago, more than half of those who died were seniors, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health. Since that devastating storm, disaster response officials have placed much emphasis at the national, state, and local level to better protect older Americans during an emergency.

“As we have learned from Hurricanes Irma and Harvey as well as past catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, some of our neighbors – especially seniors – face many obstacles during a crisis, and we must focus on the attention older adults may need,” said Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee in a statement announcing the Senate panel hearing held in 562 Dirksen Senate Office Building.

In her testimony, Dr. Karen B. DeSalvo the former health commissioner for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, noted that medical records for most patients at the time of Katrina were kept only on paper and were destroyed, “turning to useless bricks,” or lost because of the disaster. For clinicians, treating patients who lost their medicines became a major challenge, she said.

Creating Registries to Protect the Vulnerable

Since Katrina, the New Orleans Health Department has been “working aggressively, to create a medical special needs digitized registry to maintain a list of high-risk individuals, those most in need of medical assistance for evacuation during preparations or in response operations, says Dr. DeSalvo

Dr. DeSalvo called for “leveraging data and technology” as a way of creating more efficient and effective strategies of identifying the most vulnerable in a community. All communities could create such registries by using state Medicaid data to locate where residents who are electricity-dependent live. The electronic system, called emPOWER, is available for use nationally, and she recommended Congress fund training exercises to respond to disasters. response.

A witness, Jay Delaney, fire chief and management coordinator for the City of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, suggests that Congress continue to fully fund the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Investing in surveillance tools can enhance decision making by making crucial weather data available before, during, and after a disaster.

For nursing homes and assisted living facilities, it is “critical” they have detailed shelter-in-place emergency plans, says Delaney, but for those who stubbornly choose to not leave their homes during a disaster, preparedness for those is a “tough nut to crack.”

“When you have to evacuate 15,000 people in 10 hours, you don’t have time to say, ‘Mam or sir, here’s why you have to go,’” Delaney said.

In his testimony, Paul Timmons Jr., CEO and president of Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, proposed the establishment of a National Center for Excellence inclusive Disability and Aging Emergency Management to improve emergency management responses to disasters to reduce injuries and save lives. “The initial focus of the center should include community engagement, leadership, training and exercise development, evacuation, sheltering, housing and universal accessibility,” he said, suggesting a five-year, $1 billion budget.

Finally, Witness Kathryn Hyer, a professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, provided eight tips for the Senate Aging panel to protect seniors during disasters. She called for emergency plan for nursing homes and assisted living; required generators to support generators in the event of a power failure, more research on what types of patients will benefit from evacuation or sheltering in place; construction of facilities in places that minimize flooding risk; identification of and prioritization for nursing homes and assisted living communities by state and local management organizations for restoration of services; litigation protection for facilities that abide by regulations and provide care during disaster scenarios; and continued commitment to geriatric education programs.

Prioritizing Senior’s Needs in Disasters

On Sept. 26, one week after the Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing on disaster preparedness and seniors, Senators Collins and Casey called for a swift federal response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In correspondence to three federal agencies, they urged the Administration to take all available steps to act swiftly and prioritize seniors in the response to Hurricane Maria The senators also urged the federal agencies to prioritize not only patients in acute health care facilities, but individuals in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as seniors living at home.

“We urge the Administration to heed the lessons of the recent hurricane response efforts in Florida and Texas and take all available steps to prioritize seniors in the response to this devastating storm,” the senators wrote. “Seniors must be quickly identified and resources deployed to ensure that no older American is left in unbearable heat without air conditioning or without water and food as response efforts continue… During this recovery period, it is even more important to multiply our efforts and deploy sufficient resources to support and rescue seniors.

It has been reported that the intensity of North Atlantic hurricanes and the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are increasing. With a high concentration of people and properties in coastal areas were hurricanes strike, it become crucial to learn emergency management lessons gleaned from past hurricanes and disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Irma. The Senate Select Committee on Aging is on the right track in seeking ways to put disaster emergency preparedness on the nation’s policy agenda. Now, it’s time for Congressional standing committees to adequate fund FEMA and the National Weather Service and strengthen emergency preparedness laws.

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Survival Story: Former Business Owner Overcomes Devastating Setbacks 

Published in Senior Digest, April 2016

If you are in pursuit of the American Dream, you probably weren’t given a roadmap that would guarantee a successful journey. Ask the average man or woman on the street today what immediate thoughts come to mind about owning your own business, and you’ll probably hear ‘being your own boss’, and ‘working your own hours’ that top the list of perceptions. But when opening your own business becomes the alternative to unemployment in your later years, as Donald, Russell, Jr. found out, it may not be what you expected or even planned. Like millions of middle-aged workers in the early 1990s, a severe economic downturn forced this Central Falls resident to make choices that ultimately would financially hit his pocketbook as he approached retirement.

Donald Russell had worked his way up from stock boy to manager at F.W. Woolworth Co., one of the areas original five-and-dime stores. During his 33 year career with this large big-box retail company, what was at the time the fourth largest retailer in the world operating over 5,000 stores, he eventually managed seven of the retail company’s stores, one located in Providence (at Westminster and Dorrance Streets), and the others in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York.

But everything changed in the late 1990’s, and this 117 year old company struggled to compete with the growing big discount stores. F.W. Woolworth filed for bankruptcy protection, and Russell, facing unemployment, had to quickly make major career decisions. He knew that, “at age 52, big box competitors don’t want you,” or if he was offered a position, the salary would be much lower than what he was used to. “I could not take less because I had to pay for my daughter’s college education,” he added.

Russell credits “courses he took at Boston College” for teaching him valuable lessons on how to open a small business, and with knowledge in hand, he was ready to take that leap of faith and open his own business. . Russell decided to cash out his $80,000 pension (less penalties) and combined with a loan from U.S. Small Business Administration, he would have enough capital to open a small retail business.

Getting into the Pet Business

Russell spent time researching a market niche, searching for one that would not put him in direct competition with the chain store. He discovered that the pet business was not really sought after by “big box retailers” and at that time “there were only 30,000 pet stores throughout the country. Today the number has decreased to 6,000.” Now . Russell found his niche, and in 1997 opened his business “Dr. Doolittle’s Pets & More”, a small pet store in an East Providence shopping plaza. Though situated between two large Petco stores – one in Rumford, RI and the other in North Attleboro, MA., Russell did not view the large chain stores as competition, for he knew his prices were better. In 1997 when Russell opened his store, small business accounted for about 85 percent of the nation’s economy, he states, noting that today this percentage has dropped to 70 percent.

Business was strong when Dr. Doolittle’s first opened and for over 13 years, Russell employed seven full and part time employees. However, by 2004 “the economy began to take a dive” and juggling the monthly rent, utilities and employee salaries became difficult when his cash flow slowed. Russell began to loose money.
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By 2006 his revenue had dropped 30 percent from the previous year, and neighboring big stores located in the plaza, like Ocean State Job Lot, began to close. In an effort to trim expenses, Russell was able to renegotiate his rent to a lower amount, however “losing the Stop & Shop Supermarket in the next plaza, which was a main draw to the area, “was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

Taking from Peter to Pay Paul

Like thousands of small business owners in the Ocean State, Russell had to juggle each month to meet his expenses, which included his RI sales tax. Choosing to pay his monthly sales tax or paying his employees salary was not an easy choice to make, but he could not pay both. “I chose to pay my employees” first, with the plan to make up my [delinquent] sales tax later” he stated, noting however, that the “economy put the brakes to that”. “I could not even borrow a dime even with an excellent credit rating of 750,” added Russell. The poor economy had forced banks to cut off credit to small businesses – period.

In 2009, the Rhode Island Department of Taxation came knocking on his door, and the now 65-year-old pet store owner was forced to close his business because he was in arrears on his payment of sales taxes. While his business was his sole-source of income, the forced closing of the business put him in a ‘catch 22’ situation – blocking any attempt to rescue his business and pay off the remaining sales tax owed, which had now grown to thousands of dollars. Rather than padlock the door, the State did allow him access to the store to feed and maintain the animals until other arrangements were made.

Two weeks after his closing, Russell hammered out an agreeable payment plan with the State of RI for back taxes, but the economy never recovered, and by September, 2010 the doors closed for the final time. In a valiant effort, Russell paid off $18,500 of the $20,000 owed before he closed, but two years later to his surprise, he was blocked from registering his car because of the remaining taxes (and penalties) still owed. A dispute as to the amount of sales taxes (plus penalties and interest) paid ultimately ended with the state’s tax agency backing off and allowing him to register his vehicle.

Russell’s forced closing and ultimately his bankruptcy caught the eye of both statewide and national media. Two radio talk shows and television coverage brought the news of his closure to the public. Even the nation’s most popular Web site, “The Drudge Report,” posted articles. Amazingly, he says that over 100 pages of blog posting were also generated, too.

Making Ends Meet

Today, Russell, 72, is collecting Social Security supplemented by a part-time job delivering pizzas. He notes that beneficiaries will not receive cost of living this year. Like millions of Social Security beneficiaries, Russell feels the impact of inflation. “There is no extra money to buy groceries after paying my rent and utilities,” he says. Local food pantries provide additional food and the Pawtucket-based Blackstone Valley Community Action Program pays for some of his heating bills.

Reflecting on the lay off in his fifties that led to the opening of his small business and ultimately its closing as he reached his mid-sixties because of an ailing economy, Russell admits he did not have a strategy for getting through the tough times in his later years.

“I just coped,” says Russell. The former business owner has a strong opinion on opening a small business in Rhode Island. “Never,” he says. .

Calling on Congress to Increase Alzheimer’s Funding

Published in Woonsocket Call on February 21, 2016

Three weeks before President Obama released his Fiscal Year 2017 Budget on February 9,  Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), who chairs the U.S. Select Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) along with seven of their colleagues, called on the Democratic President to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research as part of his last proposed budget request. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who sits on the Senate Aging Panel, was among the cosigners.

In the bipartisan January 28 correspondence,  the cosigners said, “If nothing is done to change the trajectory of Alzheimer’s, the number of Americans afflicted with the disease is expected to more than triple between 2015 and 2050,” the Senators wrote.  Already our nation’s costliest disease, Alzheimer’s is projected to cost our country more than $1 trillion by 2050… Surely, we can do more for Alzheimer’s given the tremendous human and economic price of this devastating disease.”

Furthermore, cosigners warned that “$2 billion per year in federal funding is needed to meet the goal of preventing or effectively treating Alzheimer’s by 2025.” 

 Aging Groups Express Disappointment

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), says that the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, (P.L.114-113) provided $936 million in FY 2016 (a $350 million or 59.7% increase over FY 2015) for Alzheimer’s disease research at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the nation’s leading funder of Alzheimer’s disease research.

Richtman expressed disappointment that Obama’s budget proposal did not recommend funding about the FY 2016 level for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia research, it was essentially flat funded.

“Scientists have estimated that spending at least $2 billion a year on research is necessary to accomplish the national Alzheimer’s plan goal of preventing or effectively treating Alzheimer’s disease by 2025,” says Richtman.

According to NCPSSM’s 2016 Legislative Report, “the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia is expected to skyrocket over the next few decades because many people are living longer and the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease increases with age.”

Richtman says “making a significant investment in funding towards finding a cure and appropriate treatments for persons with Alzheimer’s disease and dementias is key to reducing the massive financial drain this disease will impose on the future of the Medicare program, along with the devastating emotional and financial toll exacted on the millions of Alzheimer’s victims and their family members and caregivers.”

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) also expressed disappointment in the proposed $337 million cut in research funding at NIA, contained in Obama’s 2017 Fiscal year budget proposal. “The Administration has been a champion in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease; however, we are disappointed that, in his final budget, the President is retreating,” said CEO and President Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr., of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA). “We were hoping President Obama would take the dramatic step necessary to confront the dementia crisis in this country head-on. We will continue to work with Congressional appropriators to ensure we are on the path to a cure,” says Fuschillo, Jr.

Like NCPSSM, Cicilline, Reed, Whitehouse, and many members of congress, the New York-based AFA urged the Administration to build on the historic 60 percent increase in Alzheimer’s research funding that was included in this year’s budget that provided an additional $1 billion in research funding in the upcoming federal budget.  If done, total federal spending would reach almost $ 2 billion, an amount that Alzheimer’s experts say is necessary to finding a cure or meaningful treatment by 2025 (detailed in the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease.

According to AFA, currently Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with studies indicating it could actually be as high as the third-leading caused.  But this devastating disorder is the only disease in the top 10 for which there is neither a cure nor impactful treatment.  Furthermore, “even with the Fiscal Year 2016 funding increase, funding for Alzheimer’s lags far behind HIV/AIDS, cancer and heart disease.

On the Home Front

Congressman David N. Cicilline, who successfully led the effort in the House to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research by more than 50% last year, sees a need for increased funding a necessity in the Fiscal Year 2017. “Alzheimer’s disease afflicts 22,000 Rhode Islanders and their families each year,” the Democratic congressman representing Congressional District 1.

With Congress poised to begin hammering out next year’s federal budget, Cicilline plans to continue his efforts in the House to fight for an increase federal funding for a treatment and a cure of the devastating disorder.  He urges for Alzheimer’s disease research remain a major funding priority for policymakers at every level of government.

Senator Jack Reed, serving as a member of the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, says, “Last year, we successfully included a $350 million boost in new spending for Alzheimer’s research, a 60% increase over the previous year.  Looking ahead to the coming fiscal year, we still have our work cut out for us in this challenging budgetary climate, but I am pushing to secure additional resources to help prevent, treat, and cure Alzheimer’s, as well as for education and outreach.”

“More and more Americans are being impacted by Alzheimer’s disease and we need a serious national commitment to finding cures and treatments.  That means making strategic investments now that will help save lives and future dollars in the long-term,” notes the Senator.

A Call for Action

Experts tell us an impending Alzheimer’s disease epidemic is now upon us. Federal and state officials are scrambling to gear up for battle, developing national and state plans detailing goals to prevent or treat the devastating disease by 2025.

According to the Rhode Island Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated five million Americans over age 65 are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013.  The prevalence may well triple, to over 16 million, if research does not identify ways to prevent or treat the cognitive disorder, says the Rhode Island nonprofit.  By 2050, it’s noted that the estimated total cost of care nation-wide for persons with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to reach more than $1 trillion dollars (in today’s dollars), up from $172 billion in 2010.

Congress must not act “penny wise and pound foolish” when it ultimately comes to determining the amount of federal dollars that will be poured into Alzheimer’s research in next year’s fiscal budget.  Less dollars or level funding will only increase state and federal government’s cost of care for Alzheimer’s care in every municipality in the nation.  A total of 469 seats in the Congress (34 Senate seats and all 435 House seats) are up for grabs in the upcoming presidential election in November.  Lawmakers must remember that every voter may be personally touched, either caring for a family member with the cognitive disorder or knowing someone who is a caregiver or patient.  That ultimately becomes a very powerful message to Capitol Hill that it is important to increase the funding to NIA to find the cure.

 

 

Rhode Island Lawmakers Poised to Give Retirees Financial Tax Relief

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 31, 2015

During the 2014 legislation session, Rep. Robert E. Craven, (District 32) introduced and successfully pushed for passage in the General Assembly. This legislative proposal would ultimately being signed into law by the Governor. Little did the North Kingston law maker realize that door knocking to get reelected in last November’s election would give him an issue to tackle on Smith Hill this year.

At hundreds of homes, he heard the same issue from his older constituents. One such comment was etched sharply in Craven’s memory: “You’re a nice guy, buy I am not going to vote for you because I am leaving the state, the older voter told him. The puzzled lawmaker asked “why?” The response, “We decided the state is so expensive to live in because of taxes we’re going to sell our house and move to Florida. Wanting the specifics, Craven asked, what specific tax bothers you? “We are only of a few states that tax social security benefits, that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said the older voter.

Craven’s legislative proposal, H 5000, was heard Wednesday night before the House Finance Committee. Strongly supported by House leadership, he says, the legislation would ease the tax burdens on Rhode Island retirees by exempting them from paying state income tax all Social Security benefits as well as income received from federal, state and local government retirement plans, disability benefits, military pensions and private pension plans and deferred-compensation plans.

Among its more than 40 co-sponsors are Rep. Stephen M. Casey (D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket), Rep. Michael A. Morin (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket), Rep. Samuel A. Azzinaro (D-Dist. 37, Westerly) and Rep. Cale P. Keable (D-Dist. 47, Burrillville, Glocester).

If enacted, Rhode Island would join 27 other states – including Massachusetts and Maine – and the District of Columbia that specifically exempt Social Security income from taxation. (Although Rhode Island does not specifically tax Social Security benefits, that income is identified on federal tax returns. Since Rhode Island’s income tax is based on the federal adjusted gross income of federal tax form filers, the end result is that Rhode Island generates a portion of its income tax collections from Social Security benefits.)

According to Craven, his legislative proposal would financially benefit Rhode Island seniors who receive retirement benefits. ”After paying into the Social Security system their entire working lives, or putting a little money away into private pension plans, or working at jobs that provide them with a pension, it doesn’t seem right that retirees are having taxes eat away at benefits they depend on for their very livelihood,” he says.

“Retirees living on a fixed income are probably more severely impacted by taxes and tax increases than other population groups,” observes Craven. “If we are committed to helping retirees have a safe and secure life in their later years, and if we want to help seniors afford to stay in Rhode Island rather than moving to more tax-friendly locations, we need to ease their financial burdens. Exempting retirement income from the state income tax is one step we should take,” he adds.

Tax Exemption in House Budget

Weaving its way through the legislative process Craven ultimately expects his legislative proposal to be modified to not give older tax payers a complete exemption on paying taxes for their social security income. Specifically, the revised language would say, “If your house hold income is under $100,000 or less than your Social Security is tax exempt from state income taxation.”

While a Senate companion measure has been introduced by Senator Walter S. Felag, Jr., representing Bristol, Tiverton and Warren, an amended H 5000 will be placed in the House Budget because of its cost, says Craven.

The price tag could be between $30 and $35 million, Craven says, noting that better than expected revenues enable it to be funded. “It’s a priority to the state’s economic recovery, he says.

Older retirees, making from $35,000 to $100,000, from Social security and their pensions, will just put their dollars in the local economy, adds Craven. “It’s a good investment and we owe it to them. These retirees have been here all their lives, he says, noting that they ask very little for benefits from municipalities. “They have a lot of time on their hands to volunteer [in their communities] and are very philanthropically included in offering money and services to charities.”

Says House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, “Representative Craven’s bill to exempt the state tax on Social Security will be included as part of the budget that the House Finance Committee will be considering within the next few weeks. Governor Raimondo included this exemption for low-wage earners in her original budget proposal, but the House will be broadening it to assist the middle-class retirees as well. The House budget exempts retirees, age 65 and over, who have income thresholds of up to $80,000 for individuals and $100,000 for joint tax filers.”

“We believe that by incorporating Rep. Craven’s bill into the budget, this will begin to stop the exodus of retirees leaving Rhode Island for many other states where there is no state tax on Social Security benefits,” adds Mattiello.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo sees Social Security is a key source of income for older Rhode Islanders, noting that her submitted March budget proposal eliminates state taxes on Social Security benefits for low and middle income seniors “to help them make ends meet and stimulate our economy.”
With Rhode Island unions hit hard by the state’s recent pension reform, Craven’s proposal has received thumbs up from some.

James Parisi, field representative and lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, says his union supports Craven’s legislative proposal. “Unlike some other tax cut proposals introduced this session, his bill includes state and local government pension benefits. About half of the state’s teachers were never eligible to participate in social security so any tax cut proposal that is limited exclusively to social security benefits would be unfair to thousands of retired public school teachers,” he says.

Jim Cenerini, a lobbyist for Council 94, AFSCME also says his union is squarely behind H 5000. “Council 94 believes that legislation deserves careful consideration and support because: many other states provide some type of income tax exemption to retirement benefits/Social Security; in 2014 Kiplinger ranked Rhode Island as one the least tax friendly states for retirees; and since a significant majority of public employees remain in Rhode Island, and contribute to our local economy by spending on goods and services, it’s important to provide an incentive to remain in-state.”

A Final Note…
Other legislation proposals have also been thrown into the legislative hopper this session to protect older taxpayers. H 5446, introduced by Woonsocket law maker Rep. Stephen M. Casey, would protect the pocket books of retired teachers who are receiving a pension from Massachusetts. “These retirees, whose pension are overseen by Massachusetts Teachers Retirement System, are essentially double taxed because of the state’s tax code,” he says.

On Friday, May 29, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) issued a report noting that the state may have significantly more funds available in fiscal 2015 and 2016 than anticipated when Gov. Raimondo submitted her budget in March. Specifically, state revenues are expected to be up by $106.8 million this year and $36.6 million next year, with additional funds available from expenditure reductions.

For this writer, its sound public policy to use some of the anticipated surplus identified in RIPEC’s report to enact H 5000 and H 5446 to lessen the tax burdens of Rhode Island’s retirees. As mentioned earlier, older taxpayers pull less resources from their cities and towns. But, most important, these retirees have greatly contributed to the quality of life in their communities throughout their working years.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Protecting Retirement Savings Should Be a Priority

Published on March 7, 2015 in the Pawtucket Times

Last month, President Obama used his presidential bully pulpit to publicly support a proposed U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) rule, endorsed by a coalition of aging, labor and consumer groups, that reportedly limits conflicts of interest, increases accountability, and strengthens protection for Americans receiving retirement investment advice.

At the February 23 press conference held at the Washington, D.C.-based AARP headquarters, attended by Obama, Save Our Retirement Coalition members and lawmakers, the President called for the issuing of the proposed rule, still awaiting Office of Management and Budget (OMB) review and final DOL action. The updating of DOL rules and requirements would require higher standards for financial advisors, requiring them to act solely in their client’s best interest when giving financial advice, said Obama.

The Save Our Retirement Coalition says that the final rule is “needed to help protect Americans’ hard earned retirement savings from advisers who recommend investments based on their own interest – such as those that pay generous commissions – not because they serve their clients’ best interest.”

Existing Rules Outdated

In his remarks at AARP, Obama called the rules governing retirement investments written over 40 years ago “outdated,” filled with “legal loopholes,” and just “fine print,” needing an overhaul.  The existing rules governing retirement investments were written “at a time when most workers with a retirement plan had traditional pensions, and IRAs were brand new, and 401ks didn’t even exist,” the President explained.

At the event, Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez., claimed that his agency has substantially reached out to “a wide range of stakeholders,” to craft the proposed rule that was sent to OMB.  “The input we have received to date has been invaluable, but we’re not even close to being done. We have a lot more listening to do, and once the Notice of Proposed Rule Making is published in the coming months, I look forward to hearing from as many stakeholders as I can. We’re going to get this right, because the strength of the middle class depends on a secure retirement,” he says.

“We know the people we represent have worked hard to save for retirement, and we believe that they deserve to have financial advisers who work just as hard to protect what they’ve earned,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, in her remarks.  AARP is a member of the Save Our Retirement Coalition.

“AARP, a major consumer advocate, has been fought for this consumer regulation for over five years to ensure that Americans of all ages get the best financial advice when planning for their retirement,” says Jenkins. “Recently AARP also found that 9 out of 10 employers who sponsor retirement savings plans support holding advice to such a ‘best interest’ standard,” she adds. .

“In today’s world, it’s hard enough to save for retirement and achieve your financial goals” added Jenkins. “We don’t need to make it more difficult by allowing some on Wall Street to take advantage of hard-working Americans. Bad financial advice is just wrong,” she says.

According to Save Our Retirement Coalition, “the need for the proposed rule was made starkly apparent in a White House report released showing that conflicts of interest are costing middle class families and billions of dollars annually. The 30 page report, released last month, details the current regulatory environment for financial planners, providing evidence on the negative financial impact of conflicted professional investment advice draining older American’s retirement saving accounts.

The White House report, issued by Council of Economic Advisors, cited evidence pulled from the literature, showing that “conflicted advice reduces investment returns by roughly 1 percentage point for savers receiving that advice” The report also found that “a retiree who receives conflicted advice when rolling over a 401 (k) balance to an IRA at retirement will lose an estimated 12 percent of the value of his or her savings if drawn down over 30 years.  For those receiving conflicted advice “takes withdrawals at the rate possible absent conflicted advice, his or her savings would run out more than 5 years earlier.”

Holding Wall Street Accountable

“Many investment professionals do what’s right,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. ”But loopholes in the law are allowing some on Wall Street  to take advantage of hard-working Americans, recommending investments with higher fees, riskier investments, and lower returns to make even higher profits for themselves. Last year alone, hidden fees, unfair risk and bad investment advice robbed Americans of as much as $17 billion,” she states.

“AARP agrees that financial professionals of all types serve a valuable role in building the wealth and security of the investing public,” added Connell. “We simply want to achieve some consistency in the standards across the industry. Here is Rhode Island, many retirees are very concerned about their investment savings and they deserve protection. Our position is that retirement accounts managed by a broker should receive the same protections as regular investment accounts held with an advisor,” she says.

“Rhode Islanders have who have worked hard for their money and deserve a new standard that holds Wall Street genuinely accountable for helping them choose the best investments for themselves, their family and their future,” she adds.

Security Trade Group Concern

             The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), a trade group representing securities firms, banks and asset management companies, is waiting to see the details of the proposed rule.  SIFMA CEO Kenneth E. Bentsen, Jr., stated: “While we cannot comment on a proposal we have not yet seen, we have ongoing concerns that the DOL regulation could adversely affect retirement savers, particularly middle class workers.  The new regulation could limit investor choice, cause inconsistencies as different regulators would apply different standards to the same regulatory accounts, prohibit guidance, and raise the costs of savings for retirement.”

But, both Obama and the Save Our Retirement Coalition strongly disagree with SIFMA’s assessment of the potential impact of DOL’s proposed rule, which has not yet been issued and is ultimately subject to change after the public comment period.

A large majority of financial planners put their clients first when giving them investment advice. But, as you know a few bad apples can truly spoil the barrel.  If trade groups representing financial planners fail to act to rein in financial planners who give conflicted advice to pad their pockets, than federal regulations can quickly do that job by applying “simple, commonsense standards.”

It makes practical and political sense to me.

Here is a linked to President Obama’s comments at the AARP Press Conference: http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2015/02/23/president-obama-speaks-aarp.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com . Or call 401/ 742-5372.

Collette’s Employees Key to Soaring Profits

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 17, 2014

During one of the most devastating economic downturns since the Great Depression, companies throughout the nation put hiring decisions on hold, even slashing employee benefits and compensation. But, savvy CEOs create employee benefits and compensation, to retain their good workers and grow their businesses. Yes, they know that employees play a key role in positively impacting their bottom-line, even ensuring their organizations financial survival in really bad times.

Just listening to talk radio and you will continually hear how the high cost of doing business in the Ocean State, fueled by taxes and regulation, drives businesses out-of-state in droves. But, business is booming at Pawtucket-based Collette and its CEO and President Dan Sullivan, Jr., can easily tell you why – his 544 employees.

With Rhode Island and Nevada tied for having the highest unemployment rate in the nation, Collette, one of the oldest tour operators in the nation, is looking to fill jobs. “We are doing everything we can to improve the employment statistics in Rhode Island,” said Sullivan. “Right now, Collette is focused on growth and acquiring great talent right in our own backyard and increasing job opportunities.”

Back in 1918, when founder Jack Collette established the travel company, World War I had just ended. The Boston Red Sox had won the World Series and porterhouse steak was 54 cents pre-pound. The company’s first tour left Boston for Florida, taking their customers on a three-week adventure for just $61.50. Today, Collette offers more than 150 tours to destinations across seven continents.

Company Values Employee Longevity

According to Sullivan, Collette, now a third generation family owned company, has been honored seven times as the Best Places to Work in Rhode Island. “It’s not just a job; the people love what they do,” observes Sullivan. Whenever Collette hires someone, the company wants the employee to be there for a long time. “We value longevity. We take care of our employees like family,” touts Sullivan.

Although Collette annually offers a performance-based incentive based on the company’s overall performance to its workforce, just two weeks ago every full-time employee who was hired before a designated date received an additional whopping $1,000 bonus at a company celebration held at the Rhode Island Convention Center.
Not bad when Rhode Island companies are slashing benefits and employee compensation.

At this celebration, most of Collette’s 544 employees including others joining them from the company’s offices near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and London, England, came to get a big thank you from Dan Sullivan Jr., along with his family and other top corporate executives. At a random drawing held that evening, 10 lucky full-time employees each received a $10,000 prize.

“This is to celebrate the success the team had this year,” says Sullivan. “In 2013, the company experienced a second consecutive year of record-breaking revenue and double-digit growth. With a 95-year track record, this is a major accomplishment. It’s our heartfelt ‘thank you’ to every employee for all they do to drive the company forward.”

The tradition of incentivizing Collette’s employees based on the performance of the company dates back several decades, notes Sullivan, who says that he wants all of Collette’s employees to “act as if they own the business and to reward them based on the performance of the company.”

Sullivan pointed out that the $1,000, which was on top of the company’s annual performance base incentive, was a result (77 percent of the employees received it) of one of the most profitable years in its long history. Collette is currently up over 37% in advanced reservations for 2014, too.

According to Sullivan, 82-year old Betty Sullivan, sister of the late Dan Sullivan, former President and CEO of Collette, was honored for her 50 years of service to the company. In recognizing her years of service, Collette gave her a new car.

To improve the health and quality of its employees’ lives, which in turn will enhance their productivity and competitiveness, last July Collette also built a 4,620 square foot Wellness Center that offers two levels of exercise areas and amenities for use by its employees and their families. It also includes one group exercise room, full facilities for men and women (locker room with showers, bathroom, etc.), towel service and more.

Life Long Learning

“Part of our long-term strategy is to rely on learning and critical skills development for growth and performance [of its employees],” said John Galvin, Chief Financial Officer for Collette. “Our goal is to develop and maintain a culture of learning in the organization – this is from the top down. Even the Executives are required to pursue continued learning. We want our entire team committed to continuous learning because this will make all of us more successful in the long run.”

Galvin says, “We offer classroom training for our in-house employees as well as newly hired members of the sales team. In 2013, we provided over 11,000 combined hours of training. Training will be made even more accessible to our outside offices with the use of our new video conferencing software.”

Tuition assistance is available to full-time employees who have worked here for six months, adds Galvin, noting that courses, up to two courses per semester, must be taken through an accredited program that’s job related. He notes that all courses have to be approved by an employee’s supervisor or manager and also by Human Resources Department. Once a grade is verified the employee’s tuition reimbursement will be processed.

Currently, there are 14 Collette employees enrolled in school for advanced degrees, and 215 employees are participating in multiple online training programs through the company’s innovative Learning Management System. In 2013 alone, Galvin states, “14 of our employees completed the Bryant Certificate program and four others completed degree programs earning a master’s, bachelor’s degree, and two earned associate’s degrees.”

As an employee perk, Collette even offers discounted tours to employees and FAM, or “Familiarization,” time off,” adds Jeni Wilson, Collette’s Vice President of Human Resources. “It gives employees a chance to become familiar with the products Collette sells without them having to tap into vacation time, and it is certainly a nice perk for employees and their families,” she notes.

Giving Back to Your Community

A sense of community even drives its charitable endeavors, says Sullivan, who notes that since 1997, his company has given more than $7 million to local and worldwide projects. Through employee-led initiatives, 20,000 children have received enhanced education; balanced nutrition; and clean water.

Sullivan says that Collette employees have the opportunity to designate four work hours each month to volunteer, too. In 2013, the Collette employee volunteers gave 2,263 hours to its communities.

“I feel like I get so much joy out of life that it is only fitting for me to try and give back,” said Chris Cahill, Collette’s Applications Developer. More specifically, the company allows its employees to travel worldwide and experience new cultures and Collette’s volunteer program gives them an opportunity to “give back to the communities they visit. An 11 year Collette employee, Cahill volunteers at Pawtucket Proud Day, the Rhode Island Food Bank and Tourism Cares event.

Collette has received kudos for its spirit of volunteerism. The company recently won a World Travel Market Global Award in recognition of its global philanthropic work over the past 12 months. Locally, Sullivan noted that his company was one of the local companies honored with The Ernie Marot Humanitarian Award Dinner by the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen. The award honored some of the kitchen’s most committed supporters.

Employees Are Assets

In Rhode Island or across the nation, successful companies view their employees and customers as their most valuable assets, says Edward M. Mazze former Dean of the College of Business Administration (from 1998 to 2006) at the University of Rhode Island. “To remain in business you must have the type of employee who is going to be loyal to your company and at the same time be customer-oriented,” he says.

Compensation and Benefit programs, like Collette, offers, will allow you to both motivate and compensate the best people, keeping them from going over to your competitor, says Mazze.

But it just makes good business sense to retain your employees rather then starting a job search to hire employees to fill vacant positions. “Giving a person a thousand dollar bonus is much cheaper than having to go into the market and fill the position,” adds Mazze.

Collette, like many over savvy companies, puts its dollars in its employees’ pockets, even supporting a myriad of worthy nonprofit causes both locally and globally. Collette is a perfect case study for other CEOs to look at – being penny-wise and pound foolish can be hazardous to your company’s bottom-line. Recognizing the importance of your employees’ role in meeting your business objectives will come back a thousand fold. Just ask Dan Sullivan, Jr.

For more information about Collette, visit http://www.gocollette.com.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care, medical and even business issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Susan Sweet Takes the Reins of AARP’s Community Educational Initiative

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 11, 2013 

            Accepting the challenge offered by organizers of Rhode Island AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say”, veteran advocate and organizer, Susan L. Sweet, has come out of semi-retirement, stepping to the plate to coordinate a series of “community conversations”  to continue efforts of promoting dialogue throughout the OceanState on the future of Social Security and Medicare.

             After years of paying into Medicare and Social Security, AARP, a Washington, D.C.-based group representing 40 million Americans, believes that age 50 plus aging baby boomers and older persons deserve a voice in the Inside the Beltway debates that impacts their future retirement years.  “You’ve Earned a Say” is a AARP-led national conversation committed to providing people with critical information about the domestic policy proposals being debated in Congress — simply put without the political jargon and spin.

             Regional events to be held in Warwick, Pawtucket and elsewhere – free and open to all — will be scheduled throughout the summer into the fall as Congress and  President Barack Obama begin to weigh in on policy changes for these critical domestic programs.

             “Susan has a remarkable knack for encouraging people to become actively engaged in matters that deserve public attention and involvement,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “We are fortunate that she has agreed to take this on. She will bring great energy to AARP’s ‘You’ve Earned a Say’ outreach and engagement efforts. The fate of Social Security and Medicare is important to all Rhode Islanders and we hope many will take part in our forums. Working with our staff and other AARP volunteers, Susan will be a tremendous asset. She is a force of nature.”   After seeing her in action for over 18 years this columnist agrees.

             A veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, Sweet joined the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in 1972, where she founded and led numerous Rhode Island Division of Women’s programs.  She worked with the General Assembly to secure the first state funding for Domestic Violence Shelters.  While at the DCA, she also wrote a grant, funded by federal dollars, to establish community health centers throughout the state.

             In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Sweet was Associate Director of the R. I. Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA), creating and developing a number of award winning programs, including the RI Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Elderly Program, popularly known as RIPAE.  She initiated a first in the nation statewide Elder Housing Security program and various legislative and programmatic initiatives to assist elders in the state.

             Sweet, a Rumford resident, earned the monikor as the mother of RIPAE by initiating, planning, organizing, managing and finally directing the state program that would ultimately assist 32,000 Rhode Island  limited income seniors with state co-payment assistance for prescription drugs. After leaving the DEA, three attempts were made by sitting governors (both Independent and Republican) to eliminate the program and the advocate led all three successful efforts to restore RIPAE funding in the state budget.

             After retiring as DEA’s Associate Director in 2000, Sweet has been a consultant and lobbyist on Smith Hill for nonprofit agencies and an advocate for vulnerable populations and issues such as immigrants, domestic violence, homeless and seniors. Her clients have included the Senior Centers Directors Association, the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, International Institute, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and others.

             On a personal note, Sweet, 72, cares for five adopted cats, all abandoned or abused, putters in her large backyard garden, spends time with two children and two grandchildren.  Being an expert on Roman history she reads many tomes on that era, and on world archeology and history.

Social Security on the Chopping Block

               Democratic President Obama and a Democrat-controlled Senate and a GOP House of Representatives are trying to reach a budget deal in the coming months. President Obama has proposed a change that would slash $127 billion from Social Security benefits over the next ten years, hurting many older beneficiaries who are already living on very tight budgets stretched far to thin by costly prescriptions, rising utilities, and increased health care costs. AARP and other aging groups are pushing hard against these cuts, mobilizing their troops to oppose. 

             Social Security is a self-financed program, not a piggy bank for deficit reduction, noting that aging baby boomers and seniors have paid into this pension program their entire working lives.  According to AARP polls, older Americans expect their elected representatives in Washington to fiscally secure Social Security for future generations and keep the promise Congress made 78 years ago: that this retirement program would provide a financial safety network in their later years.

             According to Sweet, the proposed chained CPI is a flawed policy that will hit Social Security beneficiaries in their pocketbook. Each year the Social Security Administration (SSA) makes the determination, based on market prices, whether to adjust the Social Security payment to beneficiaries and, if so, by how much.  The chained CPI is a formula that assumes that people will simply buy cheaper products.  “But that is not the case for seniors, whose greatest expenses are health care, utilities and other costs that can’t often be replaced,” So, the chained CPI is just a term that means that the average senior will lose more than $2,000 in the next 10 years and even more after that.  It also means that people reaching retirement age and/or planning for retirement will have even more of a reduction.

             Furthermore, Sweet finds it extremely disappointing that a Democrat President would offer, as an opening gambit in the budget process, a reduction in Social Security benefits by using a new and inappropriate method for computing Cost Of Living Adjustments (COLAs).  In fact, Social Security, a program that pays for itself and has never run a deficit, should not be used to offset deficits in other programs. We should be talking about how to strengthen the program, not reducing it, she states.

 State Pension Changes Hits Retirees, Too

             But, with Social Security COLA cuts looming if Congress takes legislative action to endorse chained CPIs, aging baby boomers in the OceanState who will shortly retire or those already receiving their municipal or state pension checks will see less retirement income because of actions of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

                 “Any additional loss of retirement income is certainly a concern for public employees who, as a result of the 2011 slashes in their promised retirement income,” said AARP’s Connell. “Lawmakers need to understand that there are earned benefits. People plan their retirement based on what they are told they can count on – whether it is a public or private pension, or Social Security. As we have said for the past two years, Congress and the President should not address the deficit by pursuing harmful cuts to Social Security and Medicare.” 

             Sweet agrees stating that “Rhode Island was at the very front of the attack on older folks with an extraordinary coup which stripped public service retirees and workers of hard earned compensation for their work. They called it “pension reform”, but that is not what it was.  Everyone knows that it is not fair to change the rules in the middle of the game and certainly not after the game is over.  But that is what is happening around the country, in private and public employment.”

             Social Security and other pensions are not “entitlement programs” but more like insurance programs that you pay into with the promise and expectation of a certain coverage, notes Sweet. The aging advocate asks: “Should the insurance company be allowed to change the benefits upon payout? Should government (state or federal) cut benefits to retirees absent the most pressing of circumstances?”

             But, certainly in the case of Social Security, there is no emergency, but rather a timely need to insure that the program can continue to fulfill its mission, she says.

             Robert A. Walsh, Jr., Executive Director of NEA, National Education Association Rhode Island, representing 12,000 members in education and in city and state government, refers to the recalculation of COLAs by using chained CPIs as “voodoo economics.”  While supporters of this recalculation policy note it reins in Social Security costs, they should at least be honest about the fact that it personally hits the retiree financially, right in their checks, he says.  “If you’re going to cut people’s COLAs, just be honest about it,” he says.

             Many of Walsh’s union members only receive their city or state pension as they are not eligible for Social Security benefits. People retired with certain expectations [as to what retirement income they had] and to make pension changes after they retire is patently unfair, says Walsh, noting they had no opportunity to plan for the decreased income.

             Throughout the nation there is a growing movement of aging baby boomers and seniors, fueled by AARP’s educational efforts, who tell Congress to simply  “Leave Social Security Alone”.  Strengthen it for future generations, they say.

             Sweet and millions of others tell Washington politicians that “Social Security is not a cookie jar to fund other programs.”   Sweet says you can make this known to Rhode Island’s Congressional Delegation, Senators Reed and Whitehouse, Representatives Cicciline and Langevin, by attending the upcoming “community conversations.”  Support their position opposing the change in the COLA and urge them to support Social Security by leaving it out of any budget deal, she urges. 

             Herb Weiss LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com