Nursing Home Care in the Spotlight

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 4, 2019

Following on the heels of its March 6 hearing, “Not Forgotten: Protecting Americans from Abuse and Neglect in Nursing Homes,” the Senate Finance Committee held its second nursing home hearing this year, “Promoting Elder Justice: A Call for Reform,” on July 23, in 215 Dirksen, to study proposed reforms to reduce neglect and abuse in the nation’s nursing homes and to put a spotlight on the need to reauthorize key provisions of the Elder Justice Act.

During the two hour and twenty-minute morning hearing, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) along 11 members of the Senate committee listened to the testimony of five panel witnesses.

In his opening statement, Grassley acknowledged that the work isn’t done yet to improving the care in the nation’s nursing homes and Congress must protect nursing home and assisted living residents and those in group living arrangements from harm. The Iowa Senator noted in the recently released U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report the federal agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, noted that while one-third of nursing home residents may experience harm while under the care of these facilities, in more than half of these cases, the harm was preventable.

Calls for Bipartisan Efforts to Improve Nursing Home Care

Grassley called on Congress to reauthorize programs, such as the Elder Justice Act, to put the brakes on the growing trend of elder an abuse fueled by social media.

Adds, Wyden, in his opening statement, there is now an opportunity for Congress to come together to hammer out bipartisan legislative reforms to fix the nation’s nursing home oversight efforts. He urged his fellow Senate committee members to work to reduce the instances of physical, sexual, mental and emotion abuse in nursing homes, that appears to be increasing. He also called for a redo to the federal nursing home rating system because it does not reflect the increased prevalence of abuse.

During the first panel, Megan H. Tucker, Senior Advisor for Legal Review, of the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), stated that abuse and neglect oftentimes are not properly identified, reported or even addressed. While most providers are delivering good care, Tucker warned that Health and Human Service safeguards are lacking.

Tucker testified that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should use data more effectively and close the gaps in their reporting process to ensure that abuse and neglect are identified and the deficiencies corrected.

Concluding the first panel, John E. Dicken, Director, Health Care, of the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), discussed a newly released GAO report, released at the hearing, that detailed a growing trend of abuse and neglect of residents. According to one GAO report findings, abuse deficiencies more than doubled between 2013 (430) and 2017 (875), with the greatest increase in actual harm and immediate jeopardy deficiencies, and that abuse is still under-reported, he said. The GAO report also expressed concern over “significant gaps” with CMS’s oversight.

Leading the second panel, Robert Blancato, Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, called on Congress to reauthorize, the Elder Justice Act. With elder abuse becoming a “national emergency,” he urged lawmakers to dedicate funding for Adult Protective Services at the local and state levels. Blancato also stressed the importance of strengthening the long-term care ombudsman program, continuing the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, authorizing an Advisory Board on Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation, and finally funding for elder abuse forensic centers.

President and CEO, Mark Parkinson, of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association (AHCA), representing nearly 10,000 of the 15,000 plus nursing homes in the country who provide care to nearly four million individuals each year, stated he was not at the hearing to defend poor care but to provide solutions to Congress to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Fixing the Problem

Parkinson testified that over the past seven years, facilities participating in AHCA’s quality initiative, have shown improvement in 18 of 24 quality measures. Specifically, there are less hospital readmissions, fewer antipsychotic medications being prescribed, staff are spending more time than ever before with residents and today’s nursing homes are more person-centered care today than ever before.

Parkinson called on lawmakers to improve employee background check systems, add patient satisfaction data to CMS’s nursing home rating system, address the severe staffing shortage and to adequate fund Medicaid.

Finally, Lori Smetanka, Executive Director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, ended the second panel discussions, by warning that more must be done to protect nursing home residents from abuse.

Smetanka urged Congress to take steps to enforce minimum requirements for sufficient staffing, establish standards and oversight for nursing home ownership and operations, prevent rollback of nursing home regulatory standards, increase the transparency of information and to strengthen and adequately fund elder justice provisions.

Now, with the Congress putting poor nursing home care on its policy radar screen, both Democratic and Republic congressional leadership must work closely together to come up with bipartisan solutions. Fix this problem once and for all.

Senate Finance Committee members — Senators Lankford, Stabenow, Daines, Menendez, Carper, Cardin, Warner, Casey, Brown, Cortez Masto, and Hassan – attended the July 23 hearing

To listen to this Senate Finance Committee hearing, go to http://www.c-span.org/video/?462733-1/finance.

For a copy of the GAO report, http://www.gao.gov/assets/710/700418.pdf.

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Attacking Rising Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 7, 2019

The Washington, DC-based AARP timed the release of its latest Rx Price Watch report as the House Energy Commerce Committee marked up and passed a dozen bills just days ago, six that would lower prescription drug costs. The legislative proposals now go to the House floor for consideration.

AARP’s new report, a continuation of a series that has been tracking price changes for widely used prescription drugs since 2004, was circulated to House Committee members before their markup and vote and its findings sent a message to the lawmakers that they hear from their older constituents, that is the costs of pharmaceutical drugs is skyrocketing, making it difficult to fill needed prescriptions.

Poll after poll findings reflect the concerns of seniors about their ability to pay for prescribed medications. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last month, 79 percent of survey respondents view drug prices to be “unreasonable,” while just 17 percent found the costs to be “reasonable.” Twenty-four percent of these respondents found it difficult to pay the costs of their prescription drugs.

Generic Drugs Can Save Dollars

According to the new AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) report, by Leigh Purvis and Dr. Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, the average annual cost of therapy for one widely used brand-name prescription drug in 2017 was over 18 times higher than the cost of therapy for one generic drug. The cost for a generic medication used on a chronic basis averaged $365 per year. In contrast, the average annual cost for a brand-name prescription drug was $6,798. But, four years earlier the price differential between these same market baskets was substantially smaller ($4,308 verses $751 respectively).

“Generics account for nearly nine out of every 10 prescriptions filled in the U.S. but represent less than a quarter of the country’s drug spending,” said Debra Whitman, Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer at AARP, in a statement released with the PPI’s 28 page report “These results highlight the importance of eliminating anticompetitive behavior by brand-name drug companies so that we get more lower-priced generic drugs on the market,” says Whitman.

AARP’s PPI report, entitled “Trends in Retail Prices of Generic Prescription Drugs Widely Used by Older Americans,” found that retail prices for 390 generic prescription drugs commonly used by older adults, including Medicare beneficiaries, decreased by an average of 9.3 percent in 2017, compared to the general inflation rate of 2.1 percent. The decline follows two consecutive years of substantial generic drug price decreases; the previous two consecutive years saw increases in generic drug prices. All but three of the 390 generic prescription drugs analyzed in AARP’s report had a retail price change in 2017. While prices for 297 (76 percent) drug products decreased, 90 (23 percent) products had price increases.
Six commonly used generic drug products had retail price increases of greater than 70 percent, including a nearly 200 percent increase for sertraline HCL, an antidepressant, finds the AARP.

AARP’s PPI report found that with older adults taking an average of 4.5 prescription drugs every month, those using generic prescription drugs were likely to have an average annual retail cost of $1,642 in 2017.

“The gap between average annual brand-name and generic drug prices has increased dramatically—brand name drug prices were six times higher than generic drug prices in 2013 but more than 18 times higher in 2017,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Policy Institute, and co-author of the report. “As long as brand name drug prices continue to skyrocket, the value of prohibiting brand name drug company practices that slow or prevent competition from generic and biosimilar drugs cannot be overstated.”

AARP Pushes for Passage of Bills to Lower Drug Costs

Before the Committee on Energy and Commerce vote on April 3, in correspondence AARP urged Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-Ore) to enact two bills (along with four other proposals) being considered at the morning markup session. These legislative proposals would lower prescription drug costs and had previously been approved by the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee.

In the correspondence, AARP’s Nancy A. LeaMond, Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, pushed for passage of H.R., 1499. the “Protecting Consumer Access to Generic Drugs Act of 2019.” introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). This proposal would make it illegal for brand-name and generic drug manufacturers to enter into agreements in which the brand-name drug manufacturer pays the generic manufacturer to keep a generic equivalent off the market. The bill was passed by voice vote.

LeaMond also supported H.R., 965, the “Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples (CREATES) Act of 2019,” introduced by Reps. David Cicilline (D-RI), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Doug Collins (R-GA), Peter Welch (D-VT), and David McKinley (R-WV). The proposal would establish a process by which generic manufacturers could obtain sufficient quantities of brand drug samples for testing thereby deterring gaming of safety protocols that brand manufacturers use to delay or impede generic entry. The bill passed by a bipartisan vote of 51-0.

At the markup, Pallone and Walden were able to work out philosophical differences on H.R. 1499 and H.R. 965. The two lawmakers also hammered out a compromise on H.R. 1503, the “Organize Book Transparency Act of 2019,” that would ensure that the Orange book, which identifies drug products approved on the basis of safety and effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration, is accurate and up-to-date.

Washington Insiders say that Democratic control of the House will ensure the passage of these legislative proposals on the House floor and the bipartisan vote on the CREATES Act in the lower chamber creates an opportunity for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to successfully push his CREATES Act companion measure in the Senate.

Grassley says the broad, bipartisan action by the House Energy and Commerce Committee to advance the CREATES Act is a major win for consumers. “I look forward to advancing this bill because it will cut down on abuses in the system that keep prices high for patients. I’m also pleased that the committee advanced a bill to address pay-for-delay schemes. Although that bill is not identical to the bill I’ve sponsored in the Senate, the bill’s movement shows that the committee is serious about addressing the pay-for-delay problem,” says the Senator.

As They See It…

AARP’s LeaMond, says “Brand-name drug companies want to stifle generic competition to protect their monopolies and profits. AARP believes that eliminating these deliberate anticompetitive behaviors will result in a more robust generic drug market and greater savings for both patients and taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that legislation such as the CREATES Act could save taxpayers more than $3 billion over a decade, and the Federal Trade Commission estimated pay-for-delay deals cost consumers and taxpayers $3.5 billion a year.

“We have long supported the CREATES Act and banning pay-for-delay agreements, and are heartened that Congress is acting to improve access to generic drugs. These bills will promote competition driving down costs for seniors,” says Lisa Swirsky, Senior Policy Analyst, at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“Congressman Cicilline has been a leader in our caucus for putting prescription drug prices at the front of our agenda. Moving generics to market faster is an important step to lower prescription drug costs for every American,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “House Democrats have made it a top priority to lower Americans’ health costs by reducing the price of prescription drugs, and these bipartisan bills show we mean to deliver,” she says.

Senate Republicans Pushing to Vote on Latest Health Care Proposal

Published in the Woonsocket Call on September 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age Tax Hits Seniors Right in their Wallets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Final Take

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

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

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