AOA Reauthorization Bill Goes to President Obama for Signing

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 10, 2016

The Older American’s Act (OAA) current authorization expired in fiscal year 2011 because lawmakers were unable to reach an agreement on its reauthorization. On a bipartisan basis, Congress has finally passed the long-stalled legislation reauthorizing the OAA when the Senate passed the House-amended bill on April 7. Three weeks earlier the House had passed an amended version of S. 192, the Older Americans Act Reauthorization Act of 2016, by a unanimous voice vote. This legislative proposal amended the bill passed by the Senate on July 16, 2015. Now the passed legislation goes to President Obama, once signed it becomes law.

The very bi-partisan Senate reauthorization bill was sponsored by Chairman Lamar Alexander (TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and had 27 co-sponsors from each party.

OAA Authorization Has Lots of Positives

OAA’s latest reauthorization offers new support for modernizing multipurpose senior center, highlights the importance of addressing senior’s economic needs, permanently requires health promotion and disease prevention initiatives to be evidence-based, and promotes chronic disease self-management and fall prevention.

The law also includes: stronger elder justice and legal services provisions; needed clarity for caregiver support and Aging and Disability Resource Centers; new opportunities for intergenerational shared sites, and promotes efficient and effective use of transportation services.

Legislative inertia and a general undercurrent of opposition to any government programs by some members of Congress slowed consideration of the bill , says Dan Adcock, Director of Government Relations and Policy for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM). “You need champions to break through the ‘legislative inertia’ and OAA just did not have enough,” he says.

Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) along with Reps. John Kline (R-MN) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) worked hard to finally get the Senate and House to pass this year’s OAA reauthorization, Adcock noted, stressing that there was no opposition to the bill when it passed the House and Senate on voice votes

While the passed OAA reauthorization bill has many positives, its chief weakness is that it does not raise the funding authorization level enough, says Adcock. “Unfortunately, the Older Americans Act has suffered under flat funding and sequestration cuts for several years and will need significant increases in appropriations to meet the critical demands of a senior population that will nearly double by 2030, warns Adcock, noting that that an increase of 12 percent a years is needed for the next several years to raising funding to an acceptable level.

“AARP urges President Obama to quickly sign this bill,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins. “We are appreciative of the bipartisan work to get this bill passed. Reauthorizing the OAA will help the millions of vulnerable older Americans who depend on the programs and services that the OAA helps to fund.

“Reauthorizing the OAA is as important as ever to modernizing and improving the aging services network in our country. It’s passage reflects the heroic efforts of many advocates working together to educate Congress about how programs funded by the OAA support older Americans,” observed Steven R. Counsell, MD, AGSF, American Geriatrics Society President.

Adds Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who serves on the Senate Select Committee on Aging, “I am glad we were able to reauthorize and improve the Older Americans Act. This legislation authorizes more funding for meals and social services seniors depend on. It includes new protections against elder abuse, which I’ve been fighting to pass. And it gives residents of long-term care facilities-who often can’t communicate their wishes-a stronger advocate to speak on their behalf.”

Ratchet Up AOA Funding

For more than 50 years the Administration on Aging with its National Aging Network (State Units on Aging and Area Agencies on Aging) has provided federal funding, based on the percentage of the locality’s population 60 and older, for nutrition and supportive home and community-based services, disease prevention/health promotion services, elder rights programs, the National Family Caregiver Support Program and Native American Program.

Aging advocates will tell you that Congressional funding has not kept with the rising inflation or the increased demands of an aging society. Deep Congressional budget cuts, push by the GOP, have significantly reduced OAA’s ability to provide services to those on increased waiting lists. Being “penny-wise and pound foolish” should not be the way Congress looks at future OAA reauthorizations. NCPSSM’s Adcock will tell you that programming geared to helping seniors to age in place at home in their communities can save billions by reducing costly nursing facility and hospital stays.

Hopefully, the President is expected to sign it in a week or two. Hopefully he signs this it quickly on Monday .

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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.

 

 

Obama’s Budget DOA, Thanks to GOP Gridlock

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 14, 2016

With a GOP-controlled Congress President Obama’s final budget arrives “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill.  The 182-page 2017 Fiscal Year budget, submitted on February 9, detailing $4.1 trillion in federal spending, which starts October 1, seems to be not worth the paper it’s written on.

Obama, a “lame duck” president in his last term, will not get his day in court.  Since the 1970s, a long-standing political tradition has brought the Office of Management and Budget Director and other senior administration officials, to present the president’s entire budget to Congress.  However, the Chairs of the House and Senate budget committees snubbed the Democratic President by issuing a joint statement saying, there will be no hearings before their panels this year. Sadly, political gridlock, fostered GOP Senate and House leadership, still seems to be alive and well on Capitol Hill.

Crafting the budget proposal now is in the hands of a very conservative Congress. But there a positives in Obama’s budget proposal, provisions that hopefully be placed in an enacted budget.

Obama’s budget proposal makes critical investments to fund domestic and national security priorities while adhering to the bipartisan budget agreement signed into law last fall.  It lifts sequestration in future years.  The budget proposal also attempts to drive down the federal deficit through smart savings from health care, immigration, and tax the wealthy and banks.

The Budget also seeks to tackle a multitude of domestic issues including confronting climate change, finding new clinical treatments for attacking cancer, advancing biomedical research, fighting infectious diseases, protecting the nation’s water supply and fostering clean energy initiatives, ratcheting up military readiness, revitalizing the American manufacturing sector, and funding job training and education initiatives.

Obama’s Final Budget and Seniors

But Obama’s 2017 Fiscal Year Budget has a number of budget provisions that directly impact older Americans, too.

According to  President and CEO Max Richtman, of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, like last year’s Obama recently released budget proposal proposes no changes in the way Social Security benefits are determined which is “good news for seniors.”

Richtman says that his aging organization worked tirelessly to make sure the FY 2017 budget did not include any Social Security proposals that would negatively impact benefits for current or future beneficiaries.  He notes, “The new budget proposes a substantial increase in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) budget — $13.067 billion for SSA’s FY 2017 appropriation for administrative funding.  This is a $905 million, or 7.44 percent, increase over the FY 2016 enacted level.”

Finally, Obama’s newly released budget helps SSA to improve customer service for those applying for SSA and/or disability benefits by hiring additional front-line employees for its teleservice centers and local offices as well as additional staff to reduce the backlog of disability applications that have accumulated in SSA’s hearing offices, he says.

NCPSSM also applauded the President’s budget proposal for allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

Richtman observed it has taken Congress a long time to acknowledge that the high cost of prescription drugs has hit older American’s hard in their wallets.  “Medicare spends billions providing Part D drug coverage each year while beneficiaries including seniors, the disabled and their families also face rising out-of-pocket costs and higher premiums, he says, noting that “All the while, drug makers continue to reap the profits of their price gouging.”

In his budget proposal Obama has again proposed lifting the ban preventing Medicare from negotiating prices with the drug companies, notes Richtman, warning that “Big Pharma has lobbied hard to keep the ban in place but seniors expect, this time, Congress will do the right thing and finally allow Medicare to negotiate for fair prices.”

Richtman says there are other budget provisions that benefit the nation’s seniors.  Specifically, the closing the Part D donut hole two years earlier, additional funding for in-home services, and reforms for overpayments going to private insurers in Medicare Advantage.

Meanwhile, the President’s budget was not all good news, adds Richtman, noting that “Once again, the budget proposes shifting even more healthcare costs to seniors by extending Medicare means-testing to the middle class and increasing out-of-pocket costs such as the home health care copayment and the Part B deductible.”

The President’s new funding request also targets vulnerable older Americans, by increasing funding from the 2016 Fiscal year Budget.  The President has increased last year’s budget by more than $10 million in discretionary resources for supportive services, also increasing the Congregate and Home-Delivered Nutrition Programs (like Meals on Wheels) by $14 million.  The Aging and Disability Resource Centers is also given a $2 million increase.

Other programs benefit from Obama’s budget proposal, too.  Elder Justice Initiative and Lifespan Respite Care Programs each would receive $2 increases from last year.  The Commodity Supplemental Food Program would get $14 million more.   The budget proposal also puts $10 million in for a new initiative to improve senior access to the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program.  Section 202 Housing for the Elderly also gives a bump from last year in the tune of $72 million.

But the budget request slashes funding for programs that serve low-income seniors, specifically the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Programs and the Community Development Block Grant takes huge fiscal hits.

Views from the Side Line 

             Obama’s budget proposal preserves programs for seniors, funding Social Security and Medicare, says Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, “Not many Republicans are taking this budget very seriously as they plan to write their own budget. The GOP alternative likely is going to include changes to programs affecting senior citizens, he warns.

Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation weighs in on the looming heated partisan budget debate where law makers will be toeing the part line.

Congressman David Cicilline, notes that he is disappointed that the House Budget Committee will not ‎holding hearings on President Obama’s budget proposal. “We should be discussing ways to strengthen Social Security, preserve Medicare, and ensure retirement security for every American. Unfortunately, it’s clear that House Republicans don’t want to have this discussion,” he says.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse weighed in on the brewing pre-election budget battle.  “I’m pleased to see that the President’s budget protects Social Security and Medicare from the cuts sought by many Republicans.  As the President has proposed, we should reduce the deficit by closing wasteful tax loopholes, not by compromising the programs essential to our seniors, and not after saving Rhode Island seniors $14.4 million in prescription costs thanks to the Affordable Care Act.”

Finally, U.S. Senator Jack Reed notes that the President’s budget proposal reflects a number of his ongoing efforts to support Rhode Island seniors.  “This budget blueprint proposes significant investments in the health and well-being of aging Americans, and I will work hard to champion these proposals as we work through the appropriations process this year, he says.

“I am particularly glad the President heeded my call to propose meaningful steps towards lowering the cost of prescription drugs, which is critical for middle class families,” adds the Senator.

Now the work begins as Congress starts to craft it’s 2017 Fiscal Year Budget.  Democratic Congressional lawmakers can glean and fight for provisions in Obama’s eighth and final budget that positively benefit older Americans. With Senator Reed, sitting on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Rhode Island’s Senior Senator and the state’s Congressional Delegation will play a major role in shaping the nation’s future aging programs and services.

 

Kleyman Gives Post Mortem Report on 2015 WHCoA

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 17, 2016

In 1958, Rhode Island Congressman John E. Fogarty, a former bricklayer, introduced legislation calling for a White House Conference on Aging (WHCoA) to “promote the dignity, health and economic security of older Americans.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the enacted legislation and the first conference was held in 1961, with subsequent conferences in 1971, 1981, 1995, 2005 and 2015.

Looking back, the 1961 WHCoA played a major role in the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, even the Older Americans Act. Ten years later, the conference’s recommendation’s for automatic cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security ultimately became law in 1975. The founding of the Senate Aging Committee came from recommendations at the 1971 WHCoA.

A Year Marked with Anniversaries

The one-day 2015 WHCoA (usually three days) was actually held at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but with a much smaller assembly than in previous years at Washington hotels, such as in 1995, which had 2,221 delegates and 2005, where about 1,100 selected delegates gathered. But his time, new technologies allowed others to tune in. The White House could only accommodate a few hundred dignitaries.

Over 700 watch parties were held in every state and thousands of people tuned in on Monday, July 13, 2015, to watch the day-long proceedings by live webcast. Over 9,000 people participated, too, through social media on Twitter and Facebook.

But, Paul Kleyman, editor of the Generations Beat Online (GBONews.org), a E-Newsletter for age beat journalist, noted in the Jan. 17, 2016 issue, that this year’s aging conference had no delegate selection process like previous ones. “As we’ve noted previously, though, more than one expert expressed disappointment that the Obama Administration made little effort to muster bipartisan support among GOP congressional members who might well have wanted some representation on the issue going into the 2016 election season. Historically, governors and members of Congress got to pick local constituents in fields from retirement finance to health services with a prestigious delegate appointment to the conference,” says the seasoned journalist who served as a delegate at the 1995 WHCoA.

A Call for an Expansion of Social Security

The WHCoA’s scheduled date in 2015 fell in the year where advocates in aging celebrated the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security. Kleyman notes that the newly released 34 page WHCoA report (with 49 pages of appendices) says, “The 2015 White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) provided an opportunity to recognize the importance of these key programs as well as to look ahead to the next decade.”

President Obama was sent a letter with 74 Congressional cosigners reminding him that over half of today’s older workers are not expected to be able to have sufficient resources upon their retirement to maintain their current standard of living. Although they called for an expansion of Social Security, Kleyman says discussion was “barely audible” at the aging conference.

In addressing the WHCoA attendees, Obama called for “keeping Social Security strong, protecting its future solvency,” pledging to fight “privatization of the program. Kleyman observed that proposed new rules to help workers increase their retirement “stopped short of supporting stronger benefits that they need.”

It’s a Mixed Bag

But, Kleyman says that aging advocates consider the WHCoA’s recommendations a mixed bag. In his E-newsletter article, he references a Jan. 6, 2015 blog penned by Kevin Prindiville who serves as executive director of Justice in Aging. “The report details piecemeal public actions and private initiatives, but ignores the opportunity to lay out an ambitious policy proposal to address pressing systemic challenges,” he says.

Kleyman also zeros in on Prindiville’s observations as to why this year’s WHCoA was of the scaled down. He observed, “To those who followed the WHCOA closely, this was not a surprise. Congress’ failure to reauthorize the Older Americans Act, and the lack of appropriate funding for the conference, meant WHCOA organizers had to produce a conference without a budget. With little infrastructure and support, the White House did not propose any new big, bold ideas to prepare for a population that is literally booming.”

Kleyman says that attendees were pleased to see a recommendation calling for improving the quality and safety requirements in the nation’s 15,000 long-term care facilities and a proposal to allow low-income and frail home bound elders and people with disabilities to use food stamps for meals on wheels.

Meanwhile, attendees were told at this event that physicians would be paid starting in 2016 to counsel patients about their end-of-life care, adds Kleyman, noting that recommendations did not address the nation’s increasing diversity.  Yet, there was no discussion on hospice and palliative care, affordable senior housing issues, and little discussion of elder abuse, the need for adequate transportation and long-term care, he says.

See You in 2025

According to the Census Bureau, in 2050, the 65-and-older population will be 83.7 million, almost double of what it was in 2012. The 2015 WHCoA conference has taken place with a skyrocketing older population, referred to as the “Graying of America.” Can this year’s conference provide policy makers with a road map to shape the delivery of services for years to come? As Kleyman says, probably not. “So it goes, at least until 2025,” he says.

 

AARP Pushes for Higher Standards When it Comes to Financial Advisors

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 28, 2015

AARP continues its efforts to push for a proposed U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Fiduciary Rule that would require financial advisors to put their client’s interests first when giving retirement advice.  In advance of last weeks hearing, before the House Education and Workforce Committee, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group delivered nearly 60,000 petitions containing the signatures from every state to support a higher standard in financial advising to prevent conflicts of interest.    .

In a June 16 release, the Washington, D.C.-based AARP stated that the June 27th Congressional hearing only showcased financial firms and their concerns, but did not provide much of an opportunity to hear directly from consumers about how the new proposed rule would benefit them.  But, AARP’s petitions drive should send a powerful message to Congress, that the nonprofit group, representing 37 million older Americans, and 60,000 voters identified on those petitions want to have their voices heard by Congress on this very pressing retirement issue.

When Advising, Do No Harm

“While a number of investment advisers also support a rule requiring advice to be in the best interest of clients, some opponents have recently weighed in with comments that offer time worn code words for harming consumers,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, AARP.  She says that the delivered petitions would ensure “that all, not just some, financial advisers put their clients’ interests first.”

“Many opponents of the proposed new rule, who are asking for delays or say the regulatory costs are too high, are simply looking to protect high fees at the expense of consumers.  But consumers deserve advice in their best interest, not advice that benefits the adviser,” says LeaMond.

In addition to forwarding petitions to the Department of Labor, AARP volunteers continue their efforts to call on Congress to prevent legislation that seeks to stop or slow an updated “best interest” standard.  According to the AARP, “each year hidden fees, unfair risk and bad investment advice rob Americans of $17 billion of retirement income.”

LeaMond says that AARP plans to submit comments to the DOL on the proposed rule in the weeks ahead. The nonprofit group’s petition delivery included over 33,000 signatures and follows an initial petition delivery last month that included over 26,000 signatures that support eliminating conflicts of interest in retirement advice.  “It is important that the Department hear from individuals who are negatively impacted by the current standard, not just financial firms who benefit from it,” she said.

AARP’s petition drive efforts followed President Obama’s February visit to AARP Headquarters where he used the opportunity to publicly support the proposed DOL rule, endorsed by a coalition of aging, labor and consumer groups that limits conflicts of interest, increases accountability, and strengthens protection for Americans receiving retirement investment advice.

At the AARP press event, Obama called for the updating of DOL rules and requirements that would mandate higher standards for financial advisors, requiring them to act solely in their client’s best interest when giving financial advice.

Obama noted that the existing rules governing retirement investments written over 40 years ago “outdated,” filled with “legal loopholes,” and just “fine print,” to be in need of 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,” said the President.

According to Megan Leonhardt, senior editor for WealthManagement.com, in a June 15th article, “New Coalition Pushes for DOL Fiduciary Rule,” DOL’s proposed rule has “been delayed multiple times since the agency first rolled it out in 2010.  It was expected to be released in August according to the agency’s regulatory agenda, but an update in May pushed back the date to January.”

“Industry lobbyists have mounted significant pushback. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the Financial Services Institute have argued a rule similar to the DOL’s initial proposal could limit the public’s access to quality financial advice,” says Leonhardt.

Acting in the Client’s Best Interest

“Rhode Island has been part of the national effort to move the Labor Department rule forward,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We’ve talked to people who have been quite surprised to know that their savings could be at risk by having an adviser fail to act in their client’s best interest. The response to the petition campaign is a measure of the concern. Retirement planning is daunting for the vast majority of Rhode Islanders. There’s plenty to worry about. Having confidence that your financial adviser is working in your best interest would relieve some of the anxiety.  That’s why there seems to be overwhelming support for the rule change.”

Along with AARP, Rhode Island federal lawmakers are weighing in on this key retirement issue, seeing its importance to older Rhode Islanders.

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI) says, “Protecting the financial well-being of our seniors is a top priority for me, and ensuring that they have access to complete and accurate information before making investment decisions is an essential component of that effort.  President Obama and Labor Secretary Perez are leading a good faith effort to protect consumers, including seniors and I look forward to evaluating the final rule after the public comment period ends and I have had the benefit of considering these comments.”

Adds, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D) “Investors should have the security of knowing that the advice they receive is in their best interest.  I applaud the Obama Administration for updating regulations on retirement investments and for working with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure the new rules help Americans save more for retirement.”

For this writer, hiring a financial advisor is like purchasing a used care, that is you always feel that you might have made the wrong decision.   New DOL requires that call for higher standards for financial advisors, who would be required to act solely in their client’s best interest when giving advice, just might give me peace of mind, when planning my retirement…and probably to millions of older Americans, too.

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

“Doc Fix” Law Brings Permanent Changes to Medicare Physician Payments

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 19, 2015

Congress put aside its fierce partisan bickering and came together to pass H.R. 2 – the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA). This week President Obama took the opportunity to sign the legislation package into law.

The Congressional fix repeals and replaces the flawed Medicare physician reimbursement system known as the sustainable growth rate or Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR). For the past 13 years, physicians have faced the possibility of an arbitrary cut in their Medicare payments unless Congressional lawmakers passed a so-called “Doc.fix” Medicare bill. Since 2003, Congress has passed 17 short-term bills to block these cuts in Medicare doctors’ fees that were called for under the existing law.

On April 14, the U.S. Senate passed the MACRA by a whopping 92 to 8 (the House passing its version of the bill in late March by a large margin, 392-37). Two days later, at an outdoor signing ceremony in the Rose Garden, President Obama signed the legislation into law, with the House bill brokers, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in attendance. .

A Permanent Fix Prevents Payment Cuts

Just hours before a cut in reimbursement that would take place this week, a rare bipartisan Congressional effort prevented a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to occur. It’s a permanent fix. And the new law extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which has provided coverage to millions of American children.

At the signing, Obama called the passage “a milestone for physicians, and for the seniors and people with disabilities who rely on Medicare for their health care needs,” noting that it would also strengthen the nation’s health care delivery system for the long run.

Obama stated this new law “creates incentives to encourage physicians to participate in new, innovative payment models that could further reduce the growth in Medicare spending while preserving access to care.”

According to the Center for Medicare Advocacy (CMA), a national nonprofit, nonpartisan law group that provides education, advocacy and legal assistance to older people and people with disabilities, the estimated cost of the new law is roughly $214 billion over 10 years. CMA says roughly half (approximately $35 of the total $70 billion over 10 years) will come from Medicare beneficiaries through changes that will increase their out-of-pocket costs for health care.(through means testing of higher-income Medicare beneficiaries, increased Part B premiums, and added deductibles to Medigap plans purchased in the future.”

CMA adds that the nation’s pharmaceutical and insurance industries were not required to pay for any of this law, although doing so would have paid for a major portion of the SGR replacement.

On the Back of Medicare Beneficiaries

Aging advocacy groups, including the Center for Medicare Advocacy and AARP, failed in their attempts to improve the Senate bill Medicare beneficiaries, including a repeal of the annual therapy caps, raising eligibility standards for low-income programs and permanently extending outreach and education funding for critical programs aimed at low-income beneficiaries. The Senate bill passed without amendments.

While many gave thumbs up to the new law, Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC –based National Committee to Preserve Medicare and Medicaid, sees big problems with MACRA. “The Senate ‘Doc Fix’ vote has traded one bad policy for another, shifting the costs of Congress’ failed Medicare payment formula for physicians to seniors who can least afford to foot that bill. Contrary to claims by supporters, on both sides of the aisle, this ‘doc fix’ will hit millions of seniors who aren’t ‘wealthy’ by any stretch of the imagination. Seniors at all income levels who are already paying steep premiums for Medigap plans to help control their health care costs will now be hit with even higher costs. Forty-six percent of all Medigap policy holders have incomes of $30,000 or less.”

Richtman added, “Medicare beneficiaries will also be forced to contribute nearly $60 billion in premiums over the next decade thanks to passage of this so-called ‘fix.’

It’s no surprise that conservatives applaud this legislation as ‘the first real entitlement reform in two decades’ because it fulfills their political goal of shifting costs to seniors, cutting benefits and expanding means-testing to push Medicare further and further away from being the earned benefit seniors have long valued and depended on.”.

“Trading a bad deal for doctors for a bad deal for seniors is not a legislative victory and it is a surprising move from so many in Congress who have previously vowed to protect Medicare from harmful benefit cuts and seniors from cost-shifting,” says Richtman. .

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins also expressed strong disappointment in the Senate not passing an amendment that would have removed Medicare’s arbitrary cap on physical therapy, speech language pathology, and occupational services. “Many Medicare patients, particularly stroke victims and people with Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis would have benefited,” says Jenkins. With a majority of the Senate agreeing with this amendment, Jenkins says that AARP will continue to lobby to remove the arbitrary coverage cap.

But, Jenkins sees the positives. “Passage of MACRA moves Medicare in the right direction toward better quality health care and greater transparency for patients. These changes will benefit Medicare beneficiaries, as well as physicians and other providers, hospitals, and the overall health care system,” she says.
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Through the enactment of MACRA Congress put aside its political differences that made a permanent fix to a flawed law. If you can do it once, let’s see our lawmaker do this again, to provide improved programs and services to our nation’s older population.

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.