AARP’s President Romasco Great Rhode Island Adventure

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 23, 2013

AARP’s top volunteer, President Robert G. Romasco, sees a key role for AARP in supporting the nation’s families, which is why he made a quick one-day trip to the Ocean State last week to help kick off the Back to School Celebration of RI, visiting three of the eleven sites throughout the state. Romasco came to endorse AARP Rhode Island’s strong involvement with this ongoing learning initiative. The state affiliate is a long-time Celebration Sponsor and Deborah Miller, Associate Director of Community Outreach, sits on the School Celebration’s Board of Directors.

Programs like Back to School Celebration of RI are important for AARP to strongly support, says Romasco, because of the changing demographics of its membership. Once viewed as an organization representing those in their mid-sixties and older, now aging baby boomers 50 plus make up one of the largest membership constituencies, over 100 million Americans.

AARP does not just serve the needs of these members, but their families as well, their elder parents, adult children and even grandchildren. AARP’s mission statement spotlights its focus, “issues that matter most to families such as healthcare, employment and income security, retirement planning, affordable utilities and protection from financial abuse.”

Years ago, a pair of shoes was seen as a status symbol for young students returning to school. Today it’s a backpack, says Romasco, who says that this annual community initiative gets children excited about going back to school after the long summer recess. “It’s also about helping families to prepare their children to have a successful school year,” he says.

The Back to School Celebration, in its ninth year, began with a modest effort to support children in struggling families. It all started with 300 backpacks. It has grown dramatically to 14,000 backpacks distributed this year, with local companies donating the school supplies for the initiative. Any parent will tell you that school supply costs add up, especially in large families. This assistance keeps back-to-school costs from sinking a tight family budget every fall.

A Jam Packed Schedule

On Saturday, August 17, after opening ceremonies at the William D’Abate School in Providence, Romasco traveled to the West End Community Center in the city to pass out backpacks, working side by side with AARP State Director Kathleen Connell and Phil Zarlengo of Jamestown, a past chairman of the AARP national board. From there, Romasco drove to Newport to observe backpack distribution at the East Bay Community
Action Program. While there, he toured the new facility, which provides community-based health services utilizing an innovative patient-centered approach to medical care.

Said Romasco at the opening ceremonies, “When people want to see how America can work, I say, ‘Let them come to Rhode Island … and see how a community can work together for the benefit of all families and the children who are our future.’”

Romasco concluded his visit with a luncheon in Newport with city officials and community leaders that included a presentation by Newport Director of Public Services William Riccio, who discussed the Broadway Streetscape redesign. AARP Rhode Island, as part of its statewide “complete streets” advocacy (as reported in my May 19, 2012 Commentary), supported the project, which will make Broadway more pedestrian and bike friendly while adding features embraced by retailers and business on the thoroughfare.

Breakfast at the Diner

Around 8:00 a.m., at Pawtucket’s historic Modern Diner on East Avenue, Romasco, 65, sat down with this columnist to explain the issues on the policy radar screen of the nation’s largest advocacy group.

We don’t oftentimes see powerful national leaders who oversee major aging organizations come to the Ocean State. But we did last week. As AARP President, Romasco’s 22-member volunteer Board of Directors approves all policies, programs, activities, and services and oversees a $1.5 billion operational budget for the Association’s 37 million members. The huge nonprofit, nonpartisan organization employs 2,400 employees, many based in every state and in the nation’s territories.

While many of AARP’s volunteer Board Members come up thru the rank and file in local State Chapters, this was not the case with Romasco. In 2005, at age 57, an old friend, who met him 35 years earlier when he consulted for AARP, urged him to respond to an open call for consideration for the top AARP leadership position. When the dust settled he was among “seven lucky individuals” chosen from a pool of 400 applicants.

According to Romasco, AARP brings in seven new board members every two years. “We look at a person’s diversity, not just in ethnicity and where a person lives, but what skills and points of views they bring,” he says, stressing that this creates a “good mix” on the group.

Many would consider Romasco’s appointment a very good choice. The retired businessman is a graduate from Harvard Business School with a Master of Business Administration, who previously received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Brandeis University.
During his 35 year working career, Romasco has held senior level positions at a number of prestigious national companies, including QVC, Inc., CIGNA, Inc. and J.C. Penny. Over the years at these companies, he has honed his skills in marketing, branding and organizational change. However, during his long career he did take a one-year sabbatical from his full-time job. “I actually got to see my kids go to school. I got to see them come home from the bus. ”

His presidency at the helm of AARP is very time consuming, “a full-time activity,” he quips. When responding to people who ask him if he is retired, Romasco nods, stating “I just don’t get paid anymore.”

Before becoming President, Romasco served as AARP board secretary/treasurer, and chaired the Audit and Finance Committee. He is a former member of the Board of Directors, of AARP’s Andrus Foundation.

Romasco personally gets it, that receiving a Social Security check can often times mean the difference between eating or not eating. With his mother bringing home a meager wage earned as a part-time seamstress, her survivor benefit check literally put food on the table for the young child and his sister.

His speaking schedule is jam packed, as he travels around the nation sharing his personal experiences as to the importance of Social Security impact on a family’s budget. These visits are used to get this message out: “Social Security is the only lifetime, inflation-protected guaranteed source of retirement income that most Americans will have.”

As the Congressional debate heats on Capitol Hill, as to modifying Social Security’s existing cost of living formula thru a chained CPI, Romasco warns that it’s not a minor tweak but one that can substantially reduce the amount of a retiree, a disabled person or veteran’s benefit check. According to AARP calculations, a 65 year old retiree would lose $662 over five years of retirement. After 20 years of Social Security, the benefit cut would amount to $9,139.

A chained CPI is just “bad policy, a bad idea” says, Romasco, one of the nation’s most visible aging advocates. “It is an attempt by Congress to balance the federal deficit on the back of the nation’s seniors,” he charges.

During my breakfast, Romasco tells me that AARP has unleashed one of its largest outreach efforts in its history. Its “You’ve Earned a Say,” initiative educates Americans about the policy debates on Social Security and provides them an opportunity to voice their views and concerns on the ongoing retirement policy debates in Congress. Rhode Island AARP oversees this initiative in the Ocean State (as detailed in my Commentary published Oct. 26, 2012),

Just last week, he says that petitions from 1.5 million people who voiced their opposition to the chained CPI calculations for annual COLA adjustments on 10,000 pages in 15 large boxes were carried to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Romasco says that AARP, through its successful efforts to collect these petitions from 4,000 town meetings held nationally, has enabled citizens to have an opportunity to express their opinions to their elected officials.

He smiles, noting that Congress has certainly heard from the nation’s aging baby boomer and seniors. “Congress certainly cannot ignore us with those delivered petitions.”

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

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 11, 2013 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Security on the Chopping Block

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

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

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

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

 State Pension Changes Hits Retirees, Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AARP Brings Main Stream America into Social Security Debate

            Published July 27, 2012, Pawtucket Times

            With Congressional and the Presidential elections looming, just a few months away, aging baby boomers and seniors might well consider the recently released Social Security Trustees’ annual report as “a canary in a mine.”  Like a dead canary that warns  miners that a deadly gas is seeping underground, the 242 page report details the fragile health of the nation’s Medicare and Social Security Trust Fund, giving early warning to drastically cut retirement benefits if the President and Congress takes no action. 

             While thousands of media outlets across the nation reported on the impending bankruptcy of these programs, the Social Security Trustees called for immediate  action.  Meanwhile, the upcoming November elections keeps Congressional Democrats and Republications along with the Obama Administration from working to find a viable bipartisan fix.   Fear of turning away older voters has truly derailed needed policy reforms for this year.  

             The Trustee’s reaffirm that the Social Security program can pay full benefits until 2033, however, they warned that probably only three-quarters of promised benefits could be paid out beyond that time.  If this observation is correct it will become more difficult for aging baby boomers to plan their retirement. 

Fixing Social Security Ranked High

            Fixing Social Security is a high priority for the nation’s growing older population and will most likely be a key domestic policy issue to be discussed by Congressional candidates looking for votes to put them into office in Washington, DC next November.  Congressional and Presidential candidates be warned… According to an AARP survey, released in January 2012, of respondents age 50 and over, Social Security and Medicare ranked three out of 13 issues, with job growth and rising health care costs being number one and two respectively. 

            AARP Rhode Island, the OceanState’s largest aging advocacy group, has geared up its “You’ve Earned a Say,” initiative to gather grassroots feedback from “Outside the Beltway” to bring to Congressional lawmakers as they continue their debates as to how to bolster the solvency of the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs.  AARP hopes that this initiative will create a national conversation to ensure that every worker, who has contributed into Medicare and Social Security, has a direct say in the future reforms of these programs.

             According to AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen S. Connell, AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say” initiative was created to bring balanced information to people — both the pros and the cons — about the policy options being debated during the upcoming Presidential and Congressional elections for both programs. 

            “You’ve Earned a Say’ is giving the American people a strong and visible voice in the Social Security and Medicare discussion,” says Connell. “We are reaching out to our 130,000 Rhode Island members and nationally to nearly 40 million members.  Television commercials are now playing in Rhode Island, raising the awareness of viewers to AARP’s initiative and its website, www.earnedasay.org.  The website provides both factual and straightforward information as to policies that are being considered and enables a person to share their ideas with Congress and those running against Congressional incumbents, as how to strengthen these programs.

            According to Connell, one million people have participated in the “You’ve Earned a Say” grassroots initiative nationwide that kicked off in early Spring.  Their opinions have been shared online.  Meanwhile, tens of thousands have participated in more than 1,400 community meetings throughout the nation, she said, noting that more than a dozen have been held in the Rhode Island.

No More Political Spins, Jargon

            Americans are just plain tired of the political spins, jargon and rhetoric surrounding fixing the Social Security and Medicare programs, says Connell, even the backroom deals to change these programs in smoke filled rooms.  Over the years policy debates in Washington, DC have focused too much on budgetary line items and numbers and not on the immediate concerns, and real needs, of older Americans, she says.  

          But there is a central theme that comes from AARP’s dialogue with mainstream America.  That is most people feel that Washington is out of touch and not listening “They’re not listening to the concerns of people or talking about the real health and retirement income needs of older Americans. They’re not talking about what’s fair or about the effects of proposed changes on real people, quips Connell.

 A Bleak Retirement…

            Connell says that in Rhode Island 200,202 residents depend on Social Security benefits to help pay the bills every month, and 181,264 count on Medicare to help them afford health care, including guaranteed coverage for doctors, hospitals and prescription drugs.  

            Yes, policy decisions impact people’s lives.  If the President and Congress next year don’t find a bipartisan solution with input from those outside the Washington, D.C., a significantnumber of older Rhode Islanders might just well find their retirement year’s bleak at best.

            AARP’s  “You’ve Earned a Say” grassroots initiative may be just the way to finally educate older American voters, those who might just begin to put intense pressure on both the Democrats and Republicans alike, to make a long-term policy fixes.  Band aide solutions will haunt the upcoming generations who will financially suffer in their twilight years.  Shame on Congress if this occurs.

           Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical care issues.  The article was published in the July 27th issue of the Pawtucket Times. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.