Congress moves to fix SSA customer service issues 

Published in RINewsToday on October 3, 2022

After Sen. Joe Manchin (D- WV) abandoned his efforts to legislatively speed up the permitting process for energy projects, as part of the Senate’s Continuing Resolution, it began to get bipartisan traction. With a shutdown looming just days before federal agencies would run out of money on Oct. 1, the Senate passed a stop gap government funding bill by a vote of 72 to 25 on Thursday afternoon, sending the package to the House of Representatives for consideration on Friday. That day, passing in the House chamber by a vote of 230 to 201, the bill was sent to President Biden to be signed before midnight, the end of FY 2022.  

The continuing resolution funds the federal government through Dec. 16 and keeps spending at the same levels, giving appropriations committees in both the House and Senate more time to craft a broader budget deal for the rest of the fiscal year.

Before passage in the Senate Chamber, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called for Senators to vote for the bipartisan bill that would fund the government and avert a weekend shutdown. The bill provided Ukraine with $12.35 billion in emergency assistance and bolstered funding to LIHEAP by $1 billion dollars to help American families heat their homes this winter.

Two billion dollars in Community Development Block Grants were also provided to assist communities recovering from major disasters in 2021 and 2022.  The Continuing Resolution also contained $18.8 billion for the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund, which would bring available resources in the fund to approximately $35 billion to respond to disasters.  

To ensure passage the Continuing Resolution did not include funding that the Biden administration requested for vaccines, testing and treatment for the coronavirus or monkeypox.

Ratcheting up funding for SSA

On Sept. 2, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT) applauded President Biden for requesting additional funding for the Social Security Administration (SSA), to maintain customer service, in his proposal regarding the FY 2023 continuing resolution.

“President Biden’s request for the SSA provides much-needed funds to ensure the agency can continue to serve the public as Congress works to complete full-year appropriations bills. SSA’s mission is to help Americans access benefits they have paid for and deserve. Unfortunately, rising workloads following years of underfunding for SSA customer service have led to delays and growing wait times for services. The President’s request is a necessary down-payment that would prevent SSA services from degrading and becoming even more delayed while a continuing resolution is in place,” stated Larson.  

Six days later, Jeff Nesbit, SSA’s Deputy Commissioner for Communication, authored a “Dear Colleague” letter calling for Congress to increase funding in the Continuing Resolution to ratchet up the agency’s customer service outreach that would be voted on before Oct. 1.  Due to continual underfunding and the resulting hiring freezes, reduce staffing levels cannot keep pace with the demand,” the SSA official warned. 

“An extended or full year Continuing Resolution in FY 2023 without additional funding would be disastrous,” says Nesbit, noting that it would require SSA to absorb fixed cost increases of over half a billion dollars. “We would be unable to replace nearly 6,000 additional SSA and State DDS employees we expect to lose next year due to expected attrition,” he said.

“We would be forced to significantly cut overtime levels that we rely on to complete our workloads, like making initial disability decisions or even helping people who come into our offices at the end of the day.  These cuts would further delay important services and increase the public’s frustration,” he stated.

According to Nesbit, the pandemic has created a backlog of initial disability claims, estimated to be approaching the one-million mark (929,000 as of August 2022, an increase of 189 claims from the end of last fiscal year, Sept. 2021). 

Additional funding in the Continuing Resolution would help SSA continue to automate its work, enhance security of recipient’s information, and provide more efficient and convenient service for the public, says Nesbit.  

NCPSSM pushes for more SSA funding 

The Biden Administration has requested $14.8 billion for the SSA for fiscal year (FY) 2023 in the upcoming Continuing Resolution, says Dan Adcock, Director of Government Relations and Policy for the Washington-DC based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM).  “Continuing Resolutions are stop-gap appropriations bills that temporarily fund day-to-day government operations while congressional appropriators draft legislation to fund government for the full fiscal year,” explains Adcock, noting that Continuing Resolutions usually fund agencies and programs based on the previous fiscal year (FY 2022) appropriated levels. 

“The Administrations’ request to Congress is that they include an “anomaly” provision in the FY 2023 Continuing Resolutions that funds SSA at a level higher than what the agency received for FY 2022.  The Biden Administration made this request because the agency is chronically underfunded and has mounting costs due to staff shortages and reopening field offices after being closed for two years,” he said.

Public outcry over the inadequate funding of Social Security Administration (SSA) that led to delays of service and long waits for disability decisions pushed the Senate to increase funding for SSA.  According to Adcock, the bill included $400 million in addition to FY 2022 funding levels for the pro-rated amount to be paid October 1 (start of FY 2023) through December 16 (expiration of funding in the bill).

“SSA had not been adequately funded, says Adcock, noting that from 2010 to 2021, the agency’s  operating budget declined by about 13 percent after inflation, while the number of beneficiaries rose by 21 percent, primarily as a result of the growth in new retirement beneficiaries as the baby boom generation reached retirement age. “These budget cuts have left SSA with its lowest levels of staffing in 25 years.,” he said. 

Call for Action 

“The level of funding in the Senate-passed Continuing Resolution will help SSA maintain current services, but it is not enough to improve services beyond what is provided now,” warns Adcock. “We’ll work with friendly members of Congress and other advocacy groups to get SSA more funding in the Omnibus Appropriations bill which would fund day-to-day operation of the federal government for the balance of FY 2023 (from December 16, 2022, to September 30, 2023),” he says, noting that Congress will try to pass the Omnibus during the lame duck session.

“The President submitted the FY 2023 budget to Congress on March 28.  Members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will be negotiating the discretionary side of the FY 2023 budget within the next few months,” adds Adcock, noting that their first step is to pass a Continuing Resolution before September 30th.  Then they will try to agree on FY 2023 appropriations in the form of an omnibus appropriations bill to be passed during the lame duck session after the elections.

“The additional funding for SSA in the stopgap spending bill is an important first step towards correcting many years of starving the agency. It is the bare minimum that Congress should provide,” adds Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works. 

“In next year’s budget, Congress should increase funding levels to what SSA truly needs. In light of the years of underfunding, the current rate of inflation, the loss of experienced staff (necessitating not only hiring but extensive training), and the deterioration of SSA’s phone system, Congress should increase SSA’s budget by $3 billion or more, allowing the agency to spend at least $16.2 billion in the upcoming fiscal year. After all, that represents just 0.6 percent of SSA’s accumulated reserve,” says Altman.  

Final Thoughts

According to SSA, in 2022, over 70 million seniors and disabled workers received social security benefits. We’ll see who will control the levers of power in the Senate and House during the 118th Congress when the dust settles after the midterm elections.  Whether it be Democrat or Republicans, providing adequate funding to SSA for its operations to improve its customer service to these  beneficiaries MUST be a legislative priority.   

When next year’s budget debates begin, seniors must ask their lawmakers to adequately fund SSA.  Most important, they must call for the strengthening and expansion of this program, created to promote the economic security of older Americans.    

AARP study shows Seniors favor a good life, over a lengthy one

Published in RINewsToday on September 26, 2022, 

Even with many older adults facing health challenges in their later years, they maintain an optimistic view of their aging and expect their lives to improve as they grow older, according to new research findings from AARP in collaboration with National Geographic Partners. The study found that three-quarters or more of those age 60 and over have at least one serious health condition, nearly half rate their health as very good or excellent.  

“The insights in this [57 page] study demand that we reexamine our assumptions about aging, especially outdated stereotypes around growing older,” said Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP in a statement released on June 1, 2022, announcing the findings of the study. “Far from being dragged down by worries about their health and finances, adults in their 70s and beyond are optimistic and positive about their lives.

They have a clear-eyed view of what it means to age, and they want their final decades of life to be independent and healthy – as they define the terms!” she says. 

According to the Second Half of Life Research study, Americans are doing more to stay healthy as they move into their later years.  They are more likely to take control of their health by getting health screenings, eating more produce and monitoring their sugar intake. And having more healthy years matters more than simply living longer – most respondents say that they were interested in a hypothetical pill that could slow down aging, but far fewer would take a pill to extend their life by a decade. 

The AARP study also found that the oldest Americans are also some of the happiest people: about one in three people aged 80 and older said they were very happy with their life, compared to just 16% of those ages 40-49. The researchers paired a national survey of adults 18 and older with in-depth interviews to paint a detailed picture of Americans’ outlook on life in the years from 40 to 100, and how those perceptions evolve with each decade. They found that relations with families and friends become an important feature and a source of purpose and joy as we age. Retirement allows one to control their lives and they choose to spend it with loved ones and having hobbies. Travel is expected but falls off as the person ages.  

The AARP study’s findings indicate that as people move into their later years, they don’t seem concerned about the length of their life, and as they live longer it becomes even less of a concern. “Fear of dying is low and drops as you age; feeling the need to prepare grows as you age,” notes the researchers.

On the financial front, just over half of adults 70 and older say their financial situation is excellent or very good – but responses vary widely by household income. More than half of those with an income of less than $30,000 per year rate their financial situation as fair or poor, while 60% of those with an income over $100,000 rate their finances as excellent or very good.

Among adults who are still working, most want to retire at a younger age than they think they will be able to – a gap that gets smaller with age. 

Most Americans want and expect to live independently as they age; only in their 80s did more respondents say they would need support to do so. Living in “my home” is also preferred over living in a retirement community, but this desire declines in the later decades, says the study’s findings.

The AARP Study also found that brain health, independence, and relationships were the top concerns of the respondents. The study’s findings indicate that memory loss was a top concern, too. For the respondents, memory and strength becomes a top concern as the person reached age 50 and over, while fear of cancer became less of a concern.

The study’s respondents expressed fear of becoming incontinent and have diminished hearing in their later years, but fear of diabetes and sexual performance loss declined after their 60s. 

For older study respondents, reliance on Social Security becomes a certainty. Hopefully this finding will reach the ears of Congressional lawmakers as they debate the merits of strengthening and expanding the nation’s Social Security program.

The study’s findings note that researchers also say that fears about the ability to live independently steadily increase over the decades.  Assistance from family and friends are more preferable to respondents when living at home, than hiring help. This preference increases as they age.

AARP’s Second Half of Life study, conducted in collaboration with National Geographic Partners with Heart+Mind Strategies, included an online and telephone survey of 2,580 US adults ages 18 and older, conducted January 7-28, 2022, and 25 in-depth, individual 30-minute interviews conducted virtually from February 22 to March 4, 2022.  Final data have been weighted to the U.S. Census for analysis by age group, gender, census division, ethnicity, and education.

To view the Second Half of Life Study’s report, go to:  https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/research/surveys_statistics/life-leisure/2022/second-half-life-desires-concerns-report.doi.10.26419-2Fres.00538.001.pdf.

For more information, please contact Vicki Levy, AARP’s Senior Research Advisor, at vlevy@aarp.org.

Senior Centers key provider in RI’s Long-Term Care Continuum 

Published in RINewsToday on September 19, 2022

Over nine years ago, this columnist penned a commentary, “Senior Centers, Not Just a Place to Play Bingo,” that appeared in the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call.  As we celebrate National Senior Centers Month in September, today’s Senior Centers continue to take a wholistic view of providing programs and services to their older participants. They are providing programming and services that truly takes into account the body, mind and social needs of their members, aged 55 and up. As I stated years ago, “senior centers are not a place that our parents once visited years ago to just knit or play bingo.” That continues to be true, and even more so, today. 

“Every day, senior centers bring our grandparents, parents, older neighbors, and friends together to build community and share trusted services and information to help all age well,” said Dianne Stone, NCOA’s Associate Director of Network Development and Engagement in a statement announcing the September celebration of the nation’s Senior Centers. “Research shows that compared with their peers, people who attend senior centers have higher levels of health, social interaction, and life satisfaction,” she says.

“There’s never been a better time to come home to your senior center,” Stone said. “Come see everything your local center has to offer,” adds Stone.

Senior Centers continue to be a catalyst for mobilizing the creativity, energy, vitality, and commitment of the older participants, says Mayor Donald R. Grebien in a proclamation he released on September 1, recognizing September as Senior Citizens Month. The City’s Leon Mathieu Senior Center, like the 35 senior centers around the state, empower their older participants to take control of their own health and well-being and the health of their fellow participants, says the mayor. 

Established in the 1980s by the U.S. Administration on Aging, the centers programming has slowly evolved to encompass activities that encourage healthy aging and wellness. Senior Centers across the Ocean State offer activities and programs, case management and social services and public benefits counseling, also social and cultural programming, social and recreational opportunities, even offering a place to eat a nutritional meal.

Many of the Senior Centers have their own vans and drivers who transport seniors to and from their homes for shopping, social cultural activities, to medical appointments and into each Senior Center’s meal sites.

Even during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senior Centers responded by connecting with their members by making health checks thru telephone calls, offering programs and services via internet and social media sites, and delivering meals to the homebound seniors. During the ongoing pandemic, Senior Centers continue to provide countless hours of support to older adults, and have become integral to health care delivery throughout Rhode Island by providing COVID-19 guidance home testing kits and vaccine education to their participants.

At Pawtucket’s Leon Mathieu Senior Center, health screenings, specifically taking blood pressure readings, are performed by nursing students from Rhode Island College and URI Pharmacy students discuss the importance of being compliant with taking prescribed medications, too. Proper nutritional counseling is also offered. 

Starting in church basements, many as small social clubs, the passage of the Older Americans Act in 1965, propelled Senior Centers into a key provider role in the nation’s long term care continuum of care.

Today, more than 10,000 Senior Centers serve one million older adults every day. In Rhode Island, 35 agencies, serving over 200,000 persons, are geographically spread out from Westerly to Woonsocket and from Foster to Tiverton. Some are managed by municipalities, others by nonprofit groups. While catering to serving the state’s burgeoning elderly population, some have expanded their mission to offer programs for young and middle-aged adults.

According to the state’s Office of Healthy Aging, Rhode Island’s older adult population is growing rapidly. Over 31 percent of Rhode Islanders are 55 or older versus 28 percent nationally, and our state has the highest proportion in the United States of those 85 or older. 

With the graying of Rhode Island, the state’s Senior Centers are offering programming and services to attract the state’s aging baby boomers by focusing on health and wellness, recreation, and lifelong learning.  Yes, Senior Centers are a key provider in the state’s long-term care continuum to keep aging boomers, healthy, independent and allow them to age in place in the community.

Providing resources for local senior programs should be a shared responsibility of federal, state, and local governments, says Maureen Maigret,  chair of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s Aging in Community Subcommittee and a Board Member of Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island (SACRI).  “It was frustrating to see drastic state cuts to these programs in the mid 1990’s and we were pleased funding was restored. Governor McKee put $200,000 in the current budget, with the idea this was a step toward to providing funding equal to ten dollars per person aged 65-plus in each community,” she notes. 

“Aging advocates such as the SACRI will be pushing to get to the ten dollar level,” says Maigret. As state funding increases, Maigret calls on local communities to continue to provide funding and resources to their local senior centers to meet projected population growth of their older adult residents.  

According to Maigret, research has shown their importance in slowing or preventing functional decline and promoting a good quality of life.

Today’s Senior Centers are not your parent’s bingo hall, as some still mistakenly believe. Why not visit the Leon Mathieu Senior Center or your local Senior Center during National Senior Center Month and you may even be surprised with what you find? Call the Leon Mathieu Senior Center for more details about its offered programs and services at 401/728-7582. Or go to https://pawtucketri.com/senior-center.

To find a Senior Center in your community go to https://agefriendlyri.org/tools-resources/senior-centers-rhode-island/./Herb Weiss