Government Shutdown Hurts Seniors, Too

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 21, 2019

At press time, the federal government has been partially shut down for over 29 days because of Democrats and Republicans being at odds over President Trump’s ask for $5.7 billion to be included in continuing spending resolutions for the Oct. 1 start of the new federal fiscal year. Trump calls for billions of dollars to build a border wall along the 234 miles of the nation’s southern border.

The partial shutdown began on Dec. 22 because Congress had not passed legislation, signed by the President, to fund nine federal departments, so these departments do not have funding to operate. The department’s include Agriculture (USDA), Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Interior, State, Transportation and Treasury.

During the partial government shutdown, Trump has so refused to retreat from his request for funding to build a wall. With strong Democratic opposition the political standoff has made this partial shutdown the longest one of its kind in the nation’s history. There have been 21 shutdowns since 1976.

Local media has widely reported that this shutdown has left 800,000 federal workers furloughed without pay, as well as those working in several federal agencies. But half of these employees are still working, being recalled but without being pay. But Trump has signed legislation this week to pay these employees retroactively once a funding bill is enacted.

What About Aging Programs and Services?

According to AARP’s Senior Writer Dena Bunis in a Jan. 18th web article, “Essential Services Stay in Place Despite Massive Federal Employee Furloughs,” the government shutdown does not impact major domestic programs, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security but other programs and services for seniors are affected.
Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will continue operating and not be disrupted by the shutdown because these programs are funded by an advance appropriations and Social Security [ an earned benefit] is separately funded, says Bunis.

Bunis adds, even with the shutdown aging veterans will still have access to VA hospitals, medical centers and clinics because the Department of Veterans Affairs is funded.

Retirees will find many of the nation’s 400 national parks open but having limited services. Park rangers are furloughed and volunteers are stepping up to help where needed, says Bunis, noting that with employees not reporting for work, bathrooms and other facilities remain unattended with trash piling up and vandalism reports are increasing.

Although flights are not affected and air traffic controllers remain working, Transportation Security Administration’s airport security screeners are calling in sick in large numbers, increasing waiting times, notes Bunis. She says that Federal Aviation Administration has brought back thousands of safety inspectors and engineers to keep the planes in the air flying safely.

Seniors receiving SNAP (formerly called food stamps) from the USDA can expect getting their February benefits, says Bunis, but Meals on Wheels and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program food-box deliveries will be available through March.

Bunis notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has brought back nearly 150 furloughed employees without pay “to resume safety inspections on certain drugs, medical devices and high-risk foods, such as cheese, fruits and vegetables, and infant formula.”

The current government shutdown has closed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Those workers age 40 and over who file age discrimination claims may experience difficulties in applying and getting these claims processed, says Bunis.

USDA loans for low- and moderate-income Americans who live in rural areas have stopped because of the shutdown, says Bunis. “The Federal Housing Administration is not issuing the needed paperwork for reverse mortgages to get approved. More than 1,000 contracts between HUD and landlords who provide rental assistance to low-income tenants have expired, and hundreds more will expire in February,” she notes.

Meanwhile, USDA has recalled 2,500 Farm Service Agency employees to temporarily assist agricultural producers with existing farm loan payments to ensure they get the tax documents necessary to file their returns, says Bunis.

It’s tax season…Bunis says that although the Internal Revenue Service is affected by the shutdown because it is part of the Treasury Department, over 46,000 furloughed employees have been called back to work to process income-tax returns and refunds. Filing season officially begins on Jan. 28.

Casey Calls on Trump to Reopen Government

Last week, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, urged Trump to end the partial shutdown charging that the federal government’s closing jeopardizes the transportation, housing, and nutrition needs of older Americans and people with disabilities.

“I am particularly concerned about the adverse impact of the shutdown on seniors, people with disabilities and their families,” stated in Jan 15 correspondence to the President. Food assistance programs administered through the UDSA, rental assistance payments from HUD, transportation services through the Department of Transportation (DOT), and frauds and scams investigations and enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are all negatively impacted during the shutdown, said Casey.

“Elected and appointed officials in Washington have a sacred responsibility of ensuring seniors can age with dignity and people with disabilities can live independently. I request you direct the USDA, HUD, DOT, FTC and FCC to provide additional information to Congress on the steps they will take to mitigate the harmful impact this shutdown will have on seniors and people with disabilities. And, I urge you to reopen the government so that the health and financial security of our aging loved ones are no longer put in jeopardy,” Casey adds.

For a copy of Casey’s correspondence, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/press-releases/casey-to-trump-the-shutdown-hurts-seniors_.

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Complete Streets Legislation Stalled in House Committee

            Published May 19. 2012, Pawtucket Times

            A properly designed road system helpsolder Rhode Islanders to successfully “age in place” and stay safely and comfortably in their homes for as long as they choose. But the benefits of so-called Complete Streets design benefits people regardless of age, abilities or mode of transportation.  AARP Rhode Island has joined a broad-based coalition of 17 aging, health and transportation groups and smart growth advocates to push state policy makers into making the Ocean State’s streets, highways and byways more accessible and safer for all users. Out of 2,111 legislative proposals submitted this year for consideration by the Rhode Island General Assembly, H 7352 and S 2131, its companion measure in the Senate, would accomplish this lofty goal.

          Coalition members fear that their efforts to make sure that the state’s transportation infrastructure becomes more user friendly for all ages and abilities is in jeopardy with the House Committee on Municipal Government which has held H 7352 for further study.  While the Senate passed the companion measure (for the second year in a row) last month, this House Committee might just kill the legislation unless it can be resuscitated. 

The Details of H 7352

            The legislationwould require that whenever the state is building or modifying a road, planners and designers must consider Complete Streets design conceptsthat is, considering safe travel by all users, current and projected, particularly pedestrians and bicyclists of all ages and mobility capabilities.  Features of Complete Streetsdesign include sidewalks, paved shoulders suitable for use by bicyclists, lane striping, bicycle lanes, “share the road” signage, “road diets” (narrower lanes to discourage speeding and leave room  for pedestrians and bicyclists), roundabouts, crosswalks, pedestrian control signalization, bus pull-outs, curb cuts, raised crosswalks and ramps and traffic-calming measures.

            Meanwhile, this legislation allows common-sense exceptions, such as on interstate highways, where pedestrians and bicyclists are prohibited, and on projects where the space is too limited or costs would be disproportionate to the use such features would likely get.

            Furthermore, this legislation also requires the State’s Department of Transportation to issue a report within two years detailing what it has done to comply with the law, how it has changed its guidelines on such features as lane width, design speed and more, and what best practices the agency has employed.  It would also be required to include information on exceptions made, and why they were made.

            In a press release touting the passage of S 2131, bill sponsor, Senator Louis P. DiPalma, noted that the legislation’s goal is to plan streets that encourage people to use healthy, greener, transportation modes whenever possible, contributing in their own health as well as the wellbeing of the environment.

            “Cars shouldn’t be the only consideration when public roads are being built.  The health and environmental benefits of walking, bicycling and other active modes of transportation are well know, and we should be building our roads in ways that are safe for those activities and encourage people to choose them,” said Senator DiPalma.

Pushing for Safer Roads, Highways and Byways

            In her testimony before the House Committee on Municipal Government, AARP State Director Kathleen Connellsaid the goal of H 7352 is to direct the Department of Transportation  to plan with all users in mind.  “Making it easier for older people to get around is an obvious reason we’re involved, but Complete Streets design promotes public safety, helps revive our towns and cities and increases property value,” she said.

            Molly Clark, Manager, Health Promotion and Public Advocacy for the American Lung Association, also testifying to support H 7352, predicted that Complete Streets design that would promote walking and bicycling and this would ultimately improve the health of Rhode Islanders.

             Also attending the Committee Hearing, Co-Chair John Flaherty, of the Coalition for Transportation Choices, advocated for 21st century transportation system “that’s good for the economy, good for the environment and that provides clean, healthy and affordable transportation choices for all Rhode Islanders.”

            There is no fiscal note estimating the true costs of H 7352 due to the multitude of factors that must be considered.  However, bill supporters believe that this legislative proposal does not necessarily add costs to the road construction project.

            Addressing concerns about the legislative proposals “possible” fiscal impact on the State’s budget, Senator DiPalma notes that H 7352 has been crafted in such a way to reduce the fears of fellow lawmakers that there could be initial and future costs if the legislation is enacted.  Provisions would protect the state’s coffers by requiring common sense exceptions to take effect if a road construction design project incurs a cost that is disproportional to its benefits, he says.

It’s All About the Economy

            Doing it right the first time makes economic sense,” says AARP Associate Director for Advocacy Deanna Casey.

             Enacting H 7352 is just good economic policy, adds Scott Wolf, Executive Director of Grow Smart Rhode Island.  According to Wolf, “forRhode Islandto thrive economically it needs to attract and retain talented young people. These people, research shows, are looking for places that are vibrant, user friendly and possess an abundant natural and architectural beauty.” 

            Wolf stated “Rhode Island has many of these ingredients but we need to be much more user friendly with regard to transit, walk ability and bike ability to maximize our appeal to this new segment of workers. He added, “Adopting an aggressive complete street strategy that requires all roads built to accommodate bikes, pedestrians, and mass transit as well as autos could do a lot to increase our appeal to this critical cadre of mobile young talented workers.”   

             In these tough economic times usually a price tag on a legislative proposal is just enough for General Assembly leadership to doom a legislative proposal’s passage by not taking action on it.  Just refer it for further study.  Complete Street supporters are puzzled by the inaction in the House panel because of the protections built into the measure to rein in initial or future costs of a project.  At press time, the City of Pawtucket along with eight other cities and towns, have already passed resolutions supporting the Complete Street legislation being considered by the Rhode Island General Assembly and another eight communities are also considering supporting this legislation by enacting  resolutions.  Most important, the State’s Department of Transportation is not even blocking passage but endorsing it.

           According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, in 2011 alone “over 140 jurisdictions adopted a policy, up from 80 that committed to Complete Streets in 2010. In total, 352 regional and local jurisdictions, 26 states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have adopted policies or have made written commitment to do so.”

           Elections are looming and House and Senate leadership are looking to adjourn in early June.  The Rhode Island General Assembly must move quickly in the waning days of the 2012 legislative session to join 26 states that get it.  House leadership must do the right thing to make streets, highways and byways more accessible and safer for all Rhode Islanders, regardless of age, abilities or modes of transportation.   That is to pass H 7352.    

             Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging and health care issues.  His Commentaries are published in two Rhode Island Daily’s The Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call.