Sen. Nesselbush’s Big Legislative Adventure

Published in the Pawtucket Times, April 26, 2013 

            As a young student at BrownUniversity in the early 80s, Donna Nesselbush discovered she was a lesbian.  However, it never occurred to this College coed that 30 years later, she would be a Rhode Island Senator fighting “tooth and nail” for marriage equality, and issue she calls “the greatest civil rights issue of our time.”  Nesselbush has advocated for marriage equality alongside many local businesses and some of the state’s top political officials, in addition to Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, as well as some Catholics, too, hoping to change Rhode Island’s marriage law to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.  

             Throughout the legislative session Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, issued statements calling on Rhode Island lawmakers to stand firm against changing the traditional definition of the word, “marriage.”  Before the Senate Judiciary vote, he urged them to “stand strong in resisting this immoral and unnecessary proposition” and to “defend marriage and family as traditionally defined.”   Throughout the legislative debate the National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island, would also stand by the side of the Catholic Church calling for the rejection of the same-sex marriage legislative proposals being considered by the Rhode Island General Assembly.  

 A Long-time Waiting

              For almost 20 years, state lawmakers had grappled with the religiously charged issue of same-sex marriage.  Nesselbush attended many of the legislative hearings to testify in support of allowing same-sex marriage, and other times just to watch, only to see bills “held for further study.”  As a Senator, Nesselbush now clearly understands that legislative code phrase to mean the bill is being “put out to legislative pasture,” or killed, she says.

             During last year’s legislative session, Nesselbush watched as the House, eyed the conservatively-leaning Senate. House pragmatists pushed Speaker Gordon Fox to endorse civil union legislation rather than push for full-marriage equality. Much to the dismay of Fox, the first openly gay Speaker of the House, his members exhorted “Why ask House members to make a difficult vote if the Senate was all but certain to take no action?”

              “The House chamber came to a very pragmatic, political and painful conclusion that passing the civil union bill was better than nothing,” said the Pawtucket senator.

             In 2010, being a new Senator, Nesselbush learned the legislative procedural ropes, and more importantly the fine art of vote counting in order to walk a political tight rope.  She scrambled to count votes to ensure that the civil unions legislation would pass in order to extend much needed rights to gay people, but she wanted to “take the high road,” voting against this less than desirable vehicle, “and standing for the proposition that separate is never equal; gay and lesbian couples deserve full marriage equality,” said Nesselbush.

 Taking the Torch

             Although the marriage equity bill was ultimately shot down in 2010, in 2013 Nesselbush was asked to carry the torch from former Senator Rhoda Perry to champion Senate passage of a marriage equality bill.  For over 15 years the former Providence Senator, advocating many liberal causes, had pushed for passage without success. Senator Sue Sosnowski of South Kingston, a long time civil rights advocate, the second co-sponsor on the marriage equality legislation, stepped aside and asked Nesselbush, the only openly gay Senator, to take the lead.  Senate Majority Whip, Maryellen Goodwin, of Providence, helped massage the customary seniority system to give Nesselbush the thumbs up to become the lead sponsor. “I’m forever grateful to Senators Goodwin and Sosnowski for entrusting me with this important civil rights legislation.

 Legislative History in the Making   

             Last Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 7-4 vote passed Nesselbush’s same sex marriage bill along with the House companion measure (H 5015B).  The legislative proposal, which would take effect Aug.1, removes gender-specific language from the section of the general laws that governs eligibility for marriage.  It inserts language that allows any person to marry any other person.

 

            Furthermore, it contains a provision that allows couples who have entered into civil unions in Rhode Island since they were established in July 2011, to convert those unions into marriages by applying to the clerk in the municipality where it was recorded to have it recorded as a marriage, without having to apply for anything else or pay a fee.  If they would prefer, they would be eligible to apply for a marriage license and have the marriage solemnized.

             Bowing to the powerful Catholic lobby, the bill contains language reiterating the constitutionally guaranteed freedom for religious institutions to set their own guidelines for marriage eligibility within their faith, and stipulates that under no circumstances will clergy or others authorized to perform marriages be obligated by law to officiate at any particular civil marriage or religious rite of marriage.

             One day after the vote of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the full Senate passed the marriage equality bills on Wednesday, April 24, 2013.  Both bills, because they were amended by the Senate, still have to clear an additional House vote before they can be sent to the governor. The full House vote is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, May 2, following a likely Judiciary Committee vote on Tuesday. 

             When Governor Lincoln D. Chafee signs the same-sex marriage bills into law, Rhode Island joins its New England neighbors and becomes the 10th state in the nation to enact marriage equality.  Nesselbush says, “I have never been prouder to be a Senator, and I have never been prouder of the full Senate Chamber.”

             The intensely public debate on the marriage equity issue has put real faces to this religiously-charged issue, notes Nesselbush. Now, it seems that “everyone knows someone who is gay, and the conversation now almost always begins or ends with, “yes, I know, so and so, who is gay and has a great partner.” 

 

Personal Journey

             Looking back, Nesselbush remembers her devote Catholic parents giving her a strong religious upbringing, as well as this religious tradition being reinforced at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the school she attended for eight years.

             But her strong religious faith would be tested during her undergraduate years at Brown when she came out and accepted that she was gay.  “To thine own self be true; you cannot change innately who you are.”

             “My sexuality was the single biggest reason I did not return to my family in Buffalo, New York after graduating from BrownUniversity,” says Nesselbush.  Like many others, Nesselbush would choose not to share this realization upon first meeting people, but only when a friendship “reached a depth” of  honesty and respect.

                   Accepting her sexual orientation but afraid back then of her family’s reaction, Nesselbush decided not to return to her very Catholic family in New YorkState.  She quietly left her the Catholic Church of her childhood because of its position on the gay issue.  “I love my church too much to cause it or my family any shame or pain,” she said.

             While not regularly attending Catholic Church services, her religious upbringing and Catholic education “set the foundation of my life and the standard for service to others,” admits Nesselbush, noting that “Catholicism simply imbues my bones and runs in my blood.” I am still a very religious person who believes strongly in the love of God and the power of prayer; Christ is still central to my life.”

             According to Nesselbush, her parents and 3 siblings, her extended family and classmates, friends, and “even my Portuguese friends who immigrated to the OceanState from the old country,” have all found  ways to love and accept her, even though the “gay” concept was initially very foreign to them. “Today, says Nesselbush, it’s not even an issue.”

 Finding the One…

              Nesselbush also serves as the Chief Judge of the City of Pawtucket and is a partner at the law firm of Marasco & Nesselbush.  Her life partner, Kelly Carse, 53, is a coach at CrossFit Providence. They have been a couple since 2011 when various mutual friends  became matchmakers knowing that Nesselbush and Carse were single.. With their first meeting, the attraction was both mutual and instantaneous,” quipped the Pawtucket Senator.  “She was cute, funny, philanthropic, high minded, and well travelled. I loved that she had served in the Peace Corps, and she corrected my African geography on the first date!,” noted Nesselbush.

             Nesselbush has always viewed Smith Hill’s denial of same sex marriage as discrimination, enforced by legal statute  As a Municipal Court judge, she always found it oddly ironic that she was somehow qualified to officiate wedding ceremonies (which she loves to do) but she was somehow not herself qualified to marry. “Yesterday, all that changed.”

             “The love between two people is often palpable and never stronger than the moment the two are committing their lives to one another [through marriage].  With the passage of the Senate’s same-sex marriage legislation, both Nesselbush and Carse will now be able to experience this, too, like many heterosexual couples. 

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

Aging Groups Consider Obama’s Fiscal 2014 Budget Proposal a “Mixed Bag”

Published in Woonsocket Call, April 21, 2013

President Barack Obama, missing the federal mandated budget submission deadline by over two month, finally unveils his fiscal blueprint on April 10, giving Capitol Hill a peek as to how he would fund the nation’s federal agencies, programs and services.

The President proposed a $3.8 trillion budget plan for fiscal 2014, that seeks to slash the huge federal deficit by a net $600 billion over 10 years, raises taxes on the wealthy, and puts the breaks to rising costs of two very popular senior programs, Social Security and Medicare.

Senior groups call President Obama’s the first budget proposal of his second presidential term, a “mixed bag.” His fiscal blueprint would eliminate the draconian cuts of the sequester, that is the arbitrary, across the board cuts Congress imposed this year. However, Obama seeks to reduce the federal deficit by calling for another $200 billion in cuts to discretionary programs – half from defense programs and half from domestic programs.

Braking the Rising Costs of Social Security Despite the Social Security Trustee’s 2012 Annual Report that the entitlement program has the financial resources to pay all benefits through 2033 (see my June 1, 2012 Commentary in Pawtucket Times), Social Security benefits are targeted in the recently released budget plan for substantial cuts by adopting the “chained” consumer price index (CPI) for the purpose of calculating Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the Obama Administration sees this switch as “a technical adjustment.” Aging group warn that using the “chained” CPI will substantially reduce the Social Security benefits of current and future beneficiaries. “If it is adopted, a typical 65 year-old would see an immediate decrease of about $130 per year in Social Security benefits. At age 95, the same senior would face a 9.2 percent reduction—almost $1,400 per year,” notes NCPSSM.

While all beneficiaries will feel the impact of this change, its effect will be greatest on those who draw benefits at earlier ages (e.g., military retirees, disabled veterans and workers) and those who live the longest, says NCPSSM, especially “women who have outlived their other sources of income, have depleted their assets, and rely on Social Security as their only lifeline to financial stability.”.

With Republican Congressional lawmakers generally supportive of Obama’s push to rein in Social Security costs, through the use of the “chained” CPI, liberal Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. David Cicilline, representing Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District, strongly oppose the President or any Congressional efforts to cut Social Security to lower the nation’s federal deficit.

Rep. Cicilline calls for reforming the nation’s tax code by ending subsidies for “Big Oil,” along with “making responsible target spending cuts,” to slash the nation’s huge federal deficit .

AARP Poll Says, Keep Your Hands Off Social Security
In a statement, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy A. LeaMond, quickly reacted to the Democratic President’s efforts to use the “chained” CPI to control rising Social Security program costs.

While AARP recognizes the need for the President and Congress to confront budget challenges facing the nation, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group calls for “responsible solutions, not harmful proposals” that would hurt older beneficiaries or threaten the retirement security of the generations that follow, says LeaMond.

LeaMond said, “AARP is deeply dismayed that President Obama would propose cutting the benefits of current and future Social Security recipients, including children, widows, veterans and people with disabilities, to reduce the deficit. Social Security is a self-financed program that doesn’t contribute to the deficit, so it shouldn’t be cut to reduce it.”

AARP’s polls indicated that older Americans, across the political spectrum, agree with nonprofit group’s opposition to the “chained” CPI. LeaMond, notes. The recently released national survey found that “fully 84% of voters age 50 and over oppose cutting Social Security benefits to reduce the deficit.”

“Instead of making harmful cuts to Medicare or shifting additional costs onto beneficiaries, we need to look for savings throughout the health care system, including Medicare,” suggests LeaMond. She says that also “lowering the costs of prescription drugs, innovations that promote better care, reward improved outcomes and make health care programs more efficient and less wasteful have the potential to hold down systemic high health care costs, including costs in Medicare.”

Finally, LeaMond adds, “We know that prescription drugs are one of the key drivers of escalating health care costs, so we appreciate the President’s inclusion of proposals to find savings in lower drug costs. And we applaud his plan to accelerate closure of the ‘donut hole’ in Medicare Part D by 2015, which would reduce seniors’ often burdensome out-of-pocket health care expenses.”

A Snap Shot of Other Aging Budget Issues
Howard Bedlin, Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy at the National Council on Aging (NCOA), in a written statement calls Obama’s budget proposal a “mixed-bag” when it comes to seniors.”

Bedlin acknowledges that the recently released Obama budget eliminates the sequester cuts to critical programs like Meals on Wheels and other Older Americans Act services, elderly housing, and other vital senior services. “It is unfortunate that cuts are proposed for low-income energy assistance and senior job training and placement programs,” he says.
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According to Bedlin, the President’s budget also protects SNAP (Food Stamps) and Medicaid, in sharp contrast to the drastic cuts approved in the Republican-controlled House budget proposal. “Cuts in Medicaid would be devastating to the millions of vulnerable seniors who rely on the program for long-term care and Medicare low-income protections,” he says.
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Meanwhile, a major concern for NCOA with the President’s budget surrounds Medicare and Social Security. While the organization supports some of the Medicare reductions, the proposed $370 billion in additional cuts are “excessive and several will harm” beneficiaries (more than half having incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line), says Bedlin, these cuts in addition to the $716 billion in Medicare cuts under health reform and significant reductions in spending growth over the past three years.

Also, the proposed new home health co-payment will fall primarily on lower-income older women with multiple chronic health conditions, and lead to premature nursing home placement, predicts Bedlin. “The proposed increase in the Medicare Part B deductible would be especially harmful and unaffordable to millions of seniors with incomes just above the federal poverty line ($958 per month),” he says.

Finally, Bedlin notes that the proposed Medigap surcharge would penalize seniors for decisions made by their doctors, cause major market disruption, and seriously confuse many current policy holders. The proposal to further increase Medicare premiums based on income could result in those with incomes of about $47,000 being forced to pay more.

NCOA joined AARP and NCPSSM and virtually every other national aging organization in opposing the President’s proposal to cut the Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) through the use of a “chained” CPI.

A Final Note… With Obama’s proposed budget now thrown in the ring with the House and Senate budgets already drafted and voted on, will Congressional gridlock keep the Democratic President, the GOP-Controlled House and Democratic Senate from working together to hammer out a consensus, bipartisan compromise? Only time will tell if elected lawmakers clearly get the message from the American people, “put the people first and not your political party.”

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

When its Time to Take Away Mom and Dad’s Car Keys

Published in Pawtucket Times, April 12, 2013

On May 2, 2003, Rhode Island State Rep. Mabel Anderson was looking to buy her husband George a surprise birthday present from one of his favorite stores, Home Depot. As she was walking and pushing a shopping carriage near the front entrance of the huge box store located in the Bristol Place Shopping Center in South Attleboro, Massachusetts, an 86-year old driver getting ready to exit his parking space, accidently shifted his vehicle into ‘reverse’ rather than ‘drive,’ stepped on the gas peddle. This jolted the vehicle in the wrong direction, running over Anderson. She was transported to the nearby hospital, where hours later, she would be pronounced dead. Anderson’s tragic death almost a decade ago continues to be played out today in communities across the nation.

Aging baby boomers, coping with a decline in their driving skills because of the aging process, keep driving well into their twilight years, when for safety’s sake, they should just retire the keys.

Driving Skills Decline in Later Years

According to the National Highway Safety Administration, in 2010, older individuals made up 17 percent of all traffic accidents and 8 percent of all people injured in crashes during that year. Compared to 2009, fatalities among this age group increased by 3 percent, 1 percent for these older persons being injured.

Meanwhile, John Paul, Manager of Public Affairs and Traffic Safety at AAA Southern New England, details research findings indicating that driving can be dangerous in your very later years. The report released by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, found the rate of deaths involving drivers 75 to 84 “is about three per million miles driven – on par with teen drivers,” says Paul. But, once they pass age 85, vehicular fatality rates jump to nearly four times that of teens, he says.

Older motorists lose their ability to drive when the aging process kicks in. For these individuals, driving skills lessen because of poor vision caused by cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration, compounded with poor hearing, lack of flexibility, limited range of motion and reduced reaction time make the complex tasks associated with driving more difficult. Oncoming cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and dementias, can also impact one’s ability to drive safely.

As older driver fatalities increase and the death toll tied to older-driver accidents skyrocket, a growing number of states are looking at licensing restrictions as a way to delicately approach this complicated issue.

Like many aging advocates, Gerry Levesque, AARP’s State Coordinator for Driver Safety Program, states that not all seniors are equally affected as they age. “One may lose the necessary skills needed to drive safely at age 60, while another will not lose those skills until 90”, states the 66-year-old Coventry resident.

“For older adults, losing driving privileges can be translated as a loss of independence,” notes Levesque. If this occurs, family or public transportation may not be available to replace the lack of transportation. “Older people may feel stranded or abandoned when they give up their keys,” says Levesque, noting that driving allows an older adult to pick up their prescriptions, shop for groceries or get out to socialize at the bridge club, bingo parlor or simply to be with family and friends.

“One thing that seniors have that the younger generation does not is a lifetime of driving. While they are losing physical abilities, they do have a wealth of experience from their years of driving,” adds Levesque.

Coping with an Aging Population that Drives

Over the years, states have grappled with the age-charged issue of restricting licenses of seniors not wishing to stir up their wrath. Aging advocates oppose any “blanket” solution to this problem that calls for licensing restrictions, rather it be made on a case-by-case basis. They say age should not be used as a “predictor” of unsafe driving.

In Rhode Island, the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) prorates its license renewal cycle for person’s age 71 and older. If you are 75 years of age or older, you license will be valid for two years. At license renewal time, the older person is required to pass a vision test or provide a valid medical examination certificate. A person’s physical or mental fitness to operate a motor vehicle is reviewed by DMV’s Medical Advisory Board whenever a case is brought to its attention by law enforcement, a physician or a family member.

With a growing aging population, Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation (RIDOT) has moved to tackle senior driving issues head-on. Two years ago, this state agency began to install a series of reflective markers or “roadside delineators” installed on the sides of roads as well as mounted on small posts and on top of concrete barriers. Especially geared for older drivers, these improvements were made to assist in making night-time driving easier and safer, while also aided driving during adverse weather

In addition to these improvements, RIDOT has installed cable guard rails along narrow medians on the Interstate where none previously existed. This safety feature significantly reduces the occurrence of head-on impacts with opposing traffic. State transportation officials have also made improvements to rural roads, by adding rumble strips, signing and roadside reflectors to help reduce road departure crashes.

Sharpening Your Driving Skills

AARP along with the AAA Southern New England recognized the thorny issues surrounding restrictive licensing and have developed special training courses to help older motorists freshen their skills to help them drive more safety, thus reducing the their risk of having their licenses revoked by state authorities.

AAA’s Senior Defense Driving Program (www.seniordriving.aaa.com) provides information about the aging process and its impact on a person’s ability to drive. The program gives tips on how a person can compensate for these changes and drive safer for a longer period of time. Additionally, a self-administered program, called “Roadwise Review” provides confidential and instant feedback on performance in key areas, allowing individuals to see how changing visual, mental and physical conditions do impact driving. In addition, the Auto Club’s “Roadwise RX” allows older drivers to look at the interaction between medications and driving.

AARP’s Safe Driving Program, (http://www.aarp.org/home-garden/transportation/driver_safety) the nation’s first and largest refresher course for drivers age 50 and older, has helped millions of drivers sharpen their driving skills. The four-hour program teaches defensive driving techniques, new traffic laws and rules of the road, as well as (and more importantly) how to adjust your driving style to those age-related changes to vision, hearing and reaction time. After successfully completing the Aging Group’s Safe Driving Program held in Rhode Island, the attendee is awarded a certificate of completion. The state mandates that the insurance carrier give a discount on their liability coverage to the policy holder with this certificate.

Surrendering the Keys

Ultimately, the burden may well fall on the family or the older motorist’s physician who must take the keys away from the driving-challenged senior for not only the driver’s safety, but for the safety of those sharing the road as well.

In the late 1990s my mother began exhibiting signs of dementia, and yet my father could not stop my mother from driving. The only solution appeared to come from making a call to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TDMV) for help.

Several times mother got lost driving around our neighborhood, a once familiar area for her, ultimately ending up on the dangerous LBJ Freeway, miles from home and confused. With her driving skills rapidly deteriorating, my siblings took on the task of making that hard decision of taking the car keys away from her. After several meetings with TDMV officials, the agency finally took away her driver’s license.

As difficult as this decision was for my family to make, ultimately for my mother who was in the mid-to-late stages of dementia, did not realize that she had lost her driving privileges and her precious keys.

Kristi Grigsby, Vice President of Content of AgingCare.com, agrees that taking the keys away from an elderly parent is one of the most difficult decisions that family caregivers must make. “The loss of independence can be traumatic for a senior,” she says, noting that some elderly parents can accept the life-altering change; others understandably can not.

Grigsby warns that the consequences of doing nothing far outweigh the wrath of an angry parent. “Stories of tragedies that could have been avoided had those keys been taken away are sometimes all the inspiration needed to stand firm and make a painful decision with confidence,” she says.

For more information about taking the keys away from an elderly parent go to http://www.agingcare.com/Articles/Taking-the-Keys-What-To-Do-If-Mom-or-Dad-Won-t-Give-Them-Up-112307.htm. Information on this web site, AgingCare.com,
connects people caring for their elderly parents with experts on aging issues and caregivers who visit this site help family members make the best care decisions for older loved ones.

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