President’s Budget Addresses Issues of Interest to Seniors

Published in Pawtucket Times on February 27, 2015
President Obama released his 141 page ‘policy and wish list” when he unveiled his politically ambitious FY 2016 budget on Feb 2, not having to worry about running for president in the upcoming 2016 presidential election cycle.

Yes, even inside the Washington Beltway a picture is truly worth a thousand words. Gone is the budget’s plain blue cover replaced by a black and white photo of the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, an image that projects one of the President’s spending priorities of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure to create jobs and improve the transportation system.

The $4 trillion presidential budget, a political campaign document outlaying his policies and priorities, would cancel automatic sequestration cuts to domestic and military programs over a 10 year period. According to the New York Times, Obama’s budget proposal would add $6 trillion to the national debt, and the single-year deficit would rise to $687 billion by 2025.

Obama’s FY 2016 budget puts more funding into education, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, increased defense spending, along with providing tax relief for America’s middle class while increasing the taxes for corporate America and the wealthy. Political insiders say that Obama’s budget, one that gives to the middle class and assesses higher taxes from corporate America and the wealthy, sets the issues to be surely debated in the upcoming presidential election. .

A Look at Aging Priorities

On her Feb. 3 blog post, Nora Super, executive director of the upcoming White House Conference on Aging, details how the recently released budget proposal will “ensure that older Americans enjoy not only longer but healthier lives.”

As to retirement security, Super notes that the Obama Administration strongly opposes any legislative measures that would privatize the nation’s Social Security program, or slash benefits for future generations or reduce basic benefits to current beneficiaries. Super says that half the nation’s workforce, that’s about 78 million, does not have a retirement savings plan at work. “Fewer than 10 percent of those without plans at work contribute to a plan of their own. The President’s FY 2016 Budget expands retirement opportunities for all Americans to help families save and give them better choices to reach a secure retirement,” she says.

According to Super, Obama’s Budget proposal supports healthy aging by strengthening the Medicare program by “aligning payments with the costs of providing care, along with encouraging health care providers to deliver better care and better outcomes for their patients, and improving access to care for beneficiaries.”

To put the brakes to rising prescription drug costs, Super notes that the President’s Budget proposes to close the Medicare Part D donut hole for brand drugs by 2017, rather than 2020, by increasing discounts from the pharmaceutical industry. The Budget proposal also gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services new authority to negotiate with drug manufacturers on prices for high cost drugs and biologics covered under the Part D program.

Linking nutrition to healthy aging, Super says that Obama’s Budget provides “over $874 million for Nutrition Services programs, a $60 million increase over the 2015 enacted level, allowing States to provide 208 million meals to over 2 million older Americans nation-wide, helping to halt the decline in service levels for the first time since 2010.” Also, Obama’s budget ratchets up funding for supportive housing for very low-income elderly households, including frail elderly, to give these individuals access to human services, she adds. .

Protecting older persons from elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, Super blogs that the President’s budget proposal includes $25 million in discretionary resources for Elder Justice Act programs authorized under the Affordable Care Act. “Funding will “improve detection and reporting of elder abuse; grants to States to pilot a new reporting system; and funding to support a coordinated Federal research portfolio to better understand and prevent the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable adults,” she says.

Here’s Super’s take on the Obama budgetary blueprint: “Taken together, these and other initiatives in the Budget will help to change the aging landscape in America to reflect new realities and new opportunities for older Americans, and they will support the dignity, independence, and quality of life of older Americans at a time when we’re seeing a huge surge in the number of older adults.”

In a released statement, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond gives thumbs to the president’s efforts to “lower the cost of prescription drugs, promote better care, reward improved outcomes and make health care programs more efficient and less wasteful.” She also expresses her nonprofit group’s support for the President’s budgetary priorities to “create opportunities for the middle class” and his goal “to make saving for retirement easier.”

But, LeaMond expresses concerns that higher premiums, deductibles and copays might shift costs to older Americans. “As the federal deficit continues shrinking, we must find responsible solutions for strengthening critical programs and improving the retirement and overall economic security of current and future generations. We must also look for savings throughout the entire health care system, as the rising cost of health care threatens people of all ages,” she says.

In his statement, President/CEO Max Richtman, of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, agrees with LeaMond’s concerns of higher premiums, deductible’s and co pays, too. “While some tout increasing means testing in Medicare as a way to insure ‘rich’ seniors pay their share, the truth is, the middle-class will take this hit as well,” he predicts.

Political pundits say that Obama’s 2016 budget was dead-on arrival at Capitol Hill the day it was released at the beginning of February. In the shadow of the upcoming 50th Anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 80th Anniversary of Social Security, GOP leadership in both chambers of Congress must work with the Democratic President to hammer out a bipartisan compromise. Putting budgetary proposals that strengthens the nation’s programs and services for older Americans on the chopping block for purely political reasons is not acceptable, especially to a nation that opposes political gridlock.

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

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Prominent Oncologist’s Death Wish at Age 75

Published in Pawtucket Times, December 12, 2014

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, Ph.D., a nationally-recognized oncologist and bioethicist, definitely marches to a different drummer.  While millions of older Americans pop Vitamins and supplements like M&M Candy, regularly exercise at their local gym, religiously jog and carefully watch what they eat to increase their life span, the chair of medical bioethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, says living past the ripe old age of 75 is not on his bucket list.  We would be doing both society and our loved ones a favor by agreeing with this belief, he says.

When I am 75…

Why not age 80 or even 85?  Emanuel admits that his 75th birthday day was just a randomly chosen number, but the year was selected because scientific studies indicate that increases in physical and mental disability occur around this age, as well as a decline in both creativity and productivity.

The renowned 57-year old breast oncologist is at the top of his professional game.  Emanuel has received dozens of awards from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society, including being elected to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Science, the Association of American Physicians, and the Royal College of Medicine (UK). Hippocrates Magazine even selected him as Doctor of the Year in Ethics.

Emanuel is a prolific writer, editing 9 books and penning over 200 scientific articles. He is currently a columnist for the New York Times and appears regularly on television shows including Morning Joe and Hardball with Chris Matthews.  .

The prominent physician, is also considered a key designer of the Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare).  At a personal level, he has two well-known brothers, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff, and Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel.

With this prominence, Emanuel’s death wish to die at 75, (the year 2032) before the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and decreased physical stamina (it’s harder to walk a quarter of a mile, even to climb 10 stairs) is drawing the ire of critics who charge that he advocates for health care rationing and legalized euthanasia.

But Emanuel claims that these charges are not true.  Setting his death at 75 is just his personal preference, he says, leaving his mortal coil. In his writings and media interviews he notes that setting the age when he hopes to die just drives his daughters and brothers crazy.

Last October, at the BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit in Manhattan, Emanuel’s prop, a full-page AARP ad from a newspaper, featuring an older couple hiking above a line of text that read, “When the view goes on forever, I feel like I can, too. Go long.”  Reinforcing his point, Emanuel is not buying AARP’s message pushing the positives of living an extended life.  For him, he doesn’t buy it and most definitely, seventy is not the new 50.

Sharing a Death Wish on the Air Ways

On Dec. 7, on CBC Radio Canada’s Sunday Edition, Emanuel, discussed his controversial October 21, 2014 article published in the The Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”  His Sunday interview detailed his unconventional and controversial stance, especially to AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group, and aging organizations who strongly oppose this type of thinking.

Throughout the 28.12 minute interview with Michael Enright, Emanuel, he warns listeners, “Don’t focus on years, and focus on quality.”

“A good life is not just about stacking up the years and living as long as possible. People need to focus on quality of life,” says Emanuel, noting that “Setting an actual date for a good time to die helps you focus on what is important in your life.”

“It is really about what you are doing to contributing and enriching the world.  I want people to stop focusing on just more years, focusing on quality,” he says.

Emanuel says that you need to be realistic on living forever, your body and mind doesn’t  go on forever.  You should just be satisfied with living a complete life, he says.

By age 75, people will have gone through all stages of life, says Emanuel.  As a child you begin to develop skills and figuring out your place in the world. You go to college, raise a family, work to hone your skills and talents. At the later stages of your life you give advice and mentor people, he says, noting that in your mid-seventies, physical deterioration and mental slowing along with loss of creativity, begin to be felt.

During his radio interview, Emanuel claimed he is very active, recently climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with is two nephews, stressing that he is in relatively good health and doesn’t have a terminal illness and has no plans to commit suicide.   As a matter of fact, the physician even condemned physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, in a 1997 article published in The Atlantic, a policy allowed in the states of Oregon, Vermont and Washington.  His philosophical view of ending one’s life is to allow the body to age naturally, he stresses.

In eighteen years, Emanuel pledges to refuse all medical procedures and treatments, including taking medications such as statins, cholesterol lowing drugs, and antibiotics that could prevent life-threatening illnesses or extend his life.  He notes that his last colonoscopy will be at 65, to screen for cancer.  No more colonoscopies after 75.  And, he’ll only accept palliative care after that milestone age, too.

“I’m not suggesting people kill themselves at 75 but, rather, let nature take its course,” Emanuel says.

How Others See it

Emanuel’s personal preference not to seek medical procedures or to use medications at age 75 that might lead to his death is not the same as physician assisted suicide, says Rev. Christopher M. Mahar, S.T.L., of the Providence Catholic Diocese, noting that this choice has always been respected by the Catholic Church.

“He is not actively choosing to take his life, and as long as he is not rejecting any of the ordinary means necessary for the preservation of life, such as nutrition and hydration, and is not intentionally destroying his body, he is free to decide for himself, says Mahar.

As Emanuel says, there is a downside to aging.  My 88-year-old mother died after a 14 year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.  At age 89, my father, whose quality of life declined over his later years, died suddenly, by having a pulmonary embolism.

For me, 89 is the year I choose to meet my maker, hanging up my spurs.  Yes, I will let nature take its course, but I will most continue to take Vitamins and antibiotics, even my Lisinopril, for high blood pressure.  I will not turn my back on medical procedures or technology that might enhance the quality of my life, even lengthen it.

I agree with the statement of late Actress Betty Davis stated, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”   There is no alternatives, you can only hope for nature to ultimately take its course, and it will.  And so, we all are inclined to pick our own magic number.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.

So, Who Was Harry Weathersby Stamps

Published in the Pawtucket Times, March 22, 2013

         Once upon a time, the New York Times was reputed to publish the best, the most colorful obituaries that wove resume-like facts and personal stories together, to concisely sum up a person’s life and death.  Now the legendary daily newspaper has competition.  With the passing of Harry Weathersby Stamps on March 9, 2013, his obituary was printed in the Sun Herald, his hometown newspaper.  The daily paper, covering South Mississippi, called it “the best obit ever.”  I totally agree.  More interesting to me is that the obituary, written by his daughter, has gone viral on Twitter and Facebook, and emails, receiving rave reviews around the world. .   

             During a very long drive to Long Beach, Mississippi, where Stamps had died at home, surrounded by family, daughter Amanda Lewis, an attorney at Irving, Texas-based TRT Holdings, penned the obituary  [edited by her sister Alison Stamps] of her eighty-year old father, a former educator at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College at the Jeff Davis Campus.

             Lewis’s colorful, light-hearted and humorous 841 word obituary, detailing her father’s extreme quirky, likes and dislikes, has now caught the attention of the nation through the news media, even the entire world via the world-wide web.

 So who was Harry Stamps?

             According to Lewis, her father was a “ladies’ man,” “foodie,” “natty dresser,” and even a “accomplished traveler.”  He disliked phonies, she noted, especially “know-it-all Yankees, Southerners who used the words ‘veranda’ and ‘porte cochere’ to put on airs, eating grape leaves, Law and Order (all franchises), cats, and even Martha Stewart. That is in reverse order, she quipped.

            But he did love his 1969 Volvo. 

            As to the important women throughout his eight decades, there were many, Lewis reveals in the published obituary.  Almost 50 years ago her father married his “main squeeze, Ann Moore, a home economics teacher, raising two girls, Amanda and Alison, she said.   

            Lewis fondly remembers that her father taught her along with her sister how “to fish, to select a quality hammer, to love nature, and to just be thankful,”  taking “great pride in stocking their tool boxes.”

            The obituary notes that Stamps beloved mother, the late Wilma Hatzog, raised him in his teenage years with the help of her sisters and cousins in New Hebron.“He worshipped his older sister Lynn Stamps Garner (deceased), a character in her own right, and her daughter Lynda Lightsey of Hattiesburg,” Lewis said.

             More over, Lewis says that her father loved his grandchildren. “He took extreme pride in his two grandchildren Harper Lewis (8) and William Stamps Lewis (6) of Dallas for whom he would crow like a rooster on their phone calls, she said.

 Who Says Politics and Religion Don’t Mix?

             As to politics, “One of his regrets was not seeing his girl, Hillary Clinton, elected President,” adds Lewis, who noted that her father was a former government and sociology professor.  She shared that Stamps, with an interest in both politics and religion, “enjoyed watching politicians act like preachers and preachers act like politicians.”

             Lewis remembers him often saying, “I am not running for political office or trying to get married” when he was “speaking the truth.” .

             The obituary noted that over Stamp’s lifetime, he had developed culinary tastes for particular delicacies.  Her father made his “signature” bacon and tomato sandwich with “100% all white Bunny Bread from Georgia, Blue Plate mayonnaise from New Orleans, Sauer’s black pepper from Virginia, home grown tomatoes from outside Oxford, and Tennessee’s Benton bacon from his bacon-of-the-month subscription.”   

            He even openly had “a life-long love affair with deviled eggs, Lane cakes, boiled peanuts, Vienna [pronounced Vi-e-na] sausages on saltines, his homemade canned fig preserves, pork chops, turnip greens, and buttermilk served in martini glasses garnished with cornbread,” she admitted.  

Juggling Many Hobbies in Retirement

            What does Stamps’ obituary say about his many hobbies and leisure activities?

            Her farther, having green thumbs, “excelled at growing camellias,” says Lewis. His knack for carpentry, were just the skills needed for “rebuilding houses after hurricanes [like Katrina],” she notes.

            Because history was important to Stamps, he would read any history book he could get his hands on, Lewis said. As for his love of cable programming, the history buff “loved to use his oversized ‘old man’ remote control, which thankfully survived Hurricane Katrina, to flip between watching The Barefoot Contessa and anything on The History Channel,“ she added.

            “Rocking,” eradicating mole crickets from his front yard,” composting pine needles,” living within his means,” and even “outsmarting squirrels, never losing a game of competitive sickness,” also tweaked his interest, too, in his later years, Lewis observed.  

            As to military service, “he also took pride in his service during the Korean conflict, serving the rank of corporal–just like Napoleon, as he would say,” Lewis penned in the obituary. .

            Lewis acknowledged that her father “took fashion cues from no one.”  Usually his daily dress, was a “plain pocketed T-shirt designed by the fashion house Fruit of the Loom.  Black-label elastic waist shorts were worn above the navel and sold exclusively at the Sam’s on Highway 49.  He sported a pair of old school Wallabees.  But most will remember his wearing of a grass-stained MSU baseball cap, she said.

            On his many family vacations, Lewis remembered her father “only stayed in the finest quality AAA-rated campgrounds, his favorite being Indian Creek outside Cherokee, North Carolina.”   The avid outdoorsman always upgraded his tent rental to have a creek view.  Later in life he would purchase a used pop-up camper for “his family to travel in style, which spoiled his daughters for life,” she said. 

            The obituary concluded by noting that a private, family only service would be held, because of Stamps’ “irrational fear that his family would throw him a golf-themed funeral despite his hatred for the sport.”  A “theme” free funeral was held.

            The family urged friends, and colleagues of Stamps to “write your Congressman and ask for the repeal of Day Light Savings Time.”  Why?  Stamps wanted “everyone to get back on the Lord’s Time.”  

Stamps Obituary Goes Viral

            On a very slow news day, the “finely crafted words of this loving tribute” published in the Sun Herald quickly spread, from one person to another by Facebook postings, Tweeting, and emails, sending the heartwarming obituary viral, from Long Beach to all corners of the world, noted Vice President and Executive Editor Stan Tiner, in his March 14th column touching on Lewis’ “seamless” obituary.

            “In the days that followed, the tsunami-like power of the Harry Stamps obituary washed away records on our website, with only Hurricane Katrina remaining above this viral surge of page views,” said an amazed Tiner in his column, who noted within days the company’s website recorded a whopping 530,000 page views with the obituary drawing a considerable part of that traffic. Even the following day visits exceeded 500,000 page views, he said. 

            Meanwhile, a front page story in the Sun Herald about the previously printed “well crafted” obituary attracted reader interest, in the next days becoming the newspapers “all-time single-story record-holder with more than 100,000 page views,” added Tiner.

            “Untold thousands heralded the late college dean and the perfect obituary. One tweet called him “the most interesting man in the world,” said Tiner in his column, noting that Stamps “everyman common sense, taste and humor brought to mind a modern-day Will Rogers.”

            Yes, Lewis’ colorfully-written obituary clearly details her father’s total persona, his spirit, most certainly, his uniqueness.  In life, he chose to march to a different drummer, his family knew this and accepted it, too. In death, his life story told by his obituary keeps his memory alive in the hearts of his wife, Ann, daughters Amanda and Alison, and to the millions of people, including this columnist, who now know him.

            To see the original obituary, go to http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/sunherald/obituary.aspx?pid=163538353#storylink=cpy

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