Resolutions to getting back on track financially a catalyst for positive change

Published on December 27, 2021 in RINewsToday

With the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, we will see a scaled back Times Square celebration where the ball swiftly drops as 15,000 people, in a viewing area that holds around 58,000 revelers, will loudly count down to one at the stroke of midnight. At this time, we traditionally make New Year Resolutions to accomplish in the coming year – to perform acts of kindness, take steps to ensure our financial security, or for self-improvement.

Experts say that making resolutions can help us set goals and provide us with time for reflection as to what is important to us in the coming year. They can serve as catalysts for positive change and increase our self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. Here are the findings of two resolution studies, recently released by Voya Financial, Inc. and Fidelity Investments that may well be good for your physical health and well-being, and financial health.

Many Seek to Re-Focus Their Life Priorities

As we approach 2022, Voya Financial, Inc. released its latest study with findings indicating that nearly one-third (31%) of survey respondents say they are not planning to make any new year’s resolutions in 2022. According to researchers, the results suggest that nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans might be seeking to re-focus their life’s priorities. 

However, Voya’s latest consumer research survey also revealed that when asked specifically what resolutions individuals do plan to make in 2022, more than half (60%) noted an interest in improving their overall well-being, with 44% noting a focus on physical health and 31% on their mental health.

“For many, it may seem refreshing to see that perhaps many Americans are taking a more holistic view of what’s valuable to them as we approach almost two years of pandemic life, and we understand that the impacts of the pandemic have shifted priorities for many individuals,” said Heather Lavallee, CEO of Wealth Solutions for Voya Financial, in a Dec. 9 statement announcing the study’s findings. “With the much-needed focus on what is most important and valuable, it seems that a good number of Americans are ready to take a pass on the resolution ritual this year. That said, it is reassuring to see that those who are planning to do so are most focused on their physical and mental health,” says Lavallee.

However, surviving the financial impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has many of the survey recipients say that they are monitoring financial changes that might be occurring in 2022, thus indicating that financial security continues to be a priority resolution. 

Voya’s research shows a large number of individuals are likely or extremely likely to: save more for emergencies (76%); reduce or pay down their overall debt (72%); and save for retirement (72%). The researchers also say that these numbers are even higher for those generations who might have been impacted financially more during the pandemic, with Generation Z (89%) and millennials (83%) noting that they are likely or extremely likely to save more in the coming year. 

“We continue to see interest in making changes to feel more financially secure, which is something we have found consistently since the beginning of the pandemic. But what’s most encouraging is the continued interest in saving for those generations who may have been impacted from job loss or furloughs throughout the pandemic,” added Lavallee. “And we’re seeing this shift to more positive savings behaviors in our own data as well — as more than 60% of Generation Z and millennial workers who changed their savings rates in their workplace retirement plan during the third quarter of 2021, increasing their contribution,” he said.

As individuals continue to begin building back savings and improving their overall financial well-being, many also appear to be seeking support from their employer. When asked about the importance of employer-offered benefits, Voya’s survey revealed that the majority of individuals rank the following benefits as important or extremely important: employer-sponsored retirement savings (82%); flexible work hours (77%); mental health benefits (72%); short-term/long-term disability income insurance (76%); and whole life or term life insurance (69%).

“With these findings in mind, and for those employers who are looking to help their employees as we approach the new year, we recommend considering reminding employees of the benefits and resources that are available to them at the workplace, whether that may be an employee assistance program, a resource for helping with elder or child care, or making the most of their benefits to achieve those more financially focused resolutions,” said Rob Grubka, CEO of Health Solutions for Voya Financial. “The reality is that we often find many individuals don’t recognize how many great resources are available to them — and many without cost — directly from their employer,” he says.

Fidelity Survey’s Take on 2022 Resolutions  

According to Fidelity’s 2022 Financial Resolutions Study released just weeks ago, Americans are feeling a little bit more hopeful about their finances in the upcoming year. More than 62% of Americans feel optimistic about their future, despite the unknowns of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and 72% are confident they’ll be in a better financial shape. Sixty-eight percent are considering making a financial resolution for the new year.

Despite the optimism reflected in this survey, respondents noted that inflation (43%), unanticipated expenses (43%) and COVID-19’s impact on the economy (36%) are their top concerns for the upcoming year. 

Like the Voya’s study, the respondents indicated that they are also making resolutions around physical (74%), mental health (61%)  and general well-being (73%) at higher levels than in the past year. The researchers note that this may be the result of achieving success in 2021 with goal-setting, as greater numbers of people report being able to stick to resolutions in 2021 in all areas; notably, 71% of respondents were able to stick with their 2021 financial resolutions, up from 58% in 2020.

“The country has been through a seemingly unrelenting roller coaster over the past two years, so it’s encouraging to see people feeling more hopeful about the coming year and placing a priority on themselves,” said Stacey Watson, senior vice president of Life Event Planning, Fidelity Investments in a Dec. 9 statement announcing the study’s findings. “This study confirms that actions taken at the start of the pandemic – such as budgeting better and replenishing that emergency savings fund – are becoming permanent habits for many,” she said.

What silver linings did American’s experience during the past two years of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?  Respondents say they became more thoughtful about savings and spending (42%), followed by “becoming closer to family” (39%) and “becoming stronger as a person” (34%). 

The survey respondents also noted they will be taking a more thoughtful approach to finances next year, taking a more practical view toward creating their financial resolutions. 38% say they are considering more conservative goals, a number that is even higher (46%) among the next generation. The top three financial resolutions, identified by this study were saving more money (43%), paying down debt (41%) and spending less money (31%). 

For those looking to save more in 2022, the objectives are somewhat split—51% plan to save for the long term, while 49% are looking at shorter-term objectives, such as boosting emergency savings or saving for a mortgage. Among the next generation, 62% plan to increase their retirement contribution in the year ahead, at a far higher level than older Americans (34%).

And what do people say they want to do once they’ve paid off the bills and set aside money for the future? By far, Americans are looking to get away if it’s safe to do so, as travel tops the list for where people plan to spend their extra dollars.

Compared to last year’s Financial Resolution Study, however, the latest study suggests stress levels—those things keeping people up at night—have significantly decreased. When stress is present, it involves finding money to save after paying monthly bills, the ability to simply pay bills and saving for retirement, say the researchers. Part of this stress reduction may be attributed to acceptance, as 84% of Americans say after living through the pandemic, they’ve learned to let go of worrying about that which can’t be controlled.

With New Year’s Day just five days away, if you have not done it, it’s time for you to write your resolutions for 2022.  Have a great year…

Watching over Nursing Homes once again – time for mandated Boosters

Published on December 20, 2021 in RINewsToday

Colder weather is keeping people more indoors now, and Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas gatherings are drawing people together in groups, small and large. Like other states across the country, Rhode Island is seeing a growing transmission of the COVID-19 Delta, and now Omicron variants. Some national sources say Rhode Island’s case rate is the highest.

According to WPRI’s COVID-19 tracking page, 73.7% of Rhode Island’s population, totaling 1,097,379 are fully vaccinated, 9.2 % are partially vaccinated, and 17 % have received no vaccination at all. “But some back-of-the-envelope math based on the state’s tally of daily doses shows nearly 251,000 people have received booster shots or third doses. And earlier this week, RI Gov. McKee publicly said the number is closer to 260,000 people,” says WPRI.

Taking a Snapshot of Vaccination Rates in Rhode Island’s Facilities

Just days ago, AARP Rhode Island called for increased boosters in the state’s nursing homes after releasing its new analysis of the latest data from AARP’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard.  The Dashboard revealed that only 54% of nursing home residents and 19% of staff in 79 Rhode Island nursing homes have received a COVID- 19 booster.

“With holiday gatherings on the horizon, these numbers are a cause for concern for state policy makers, as more than a year and a half into the pandemic, rates of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes are rising again nationally, along with increased community spread,” says AARP Rhode Island. While case rates declined slightly compared to the same time period last month, in AARP’s dashboard, looking week to week, the number of cases increased each week during the four weeks ending November 2, notes the state’s largest aging advocacy group serving more than 132,000 members aged 50 and older.

The Rhode Island-specific AARP Nursing Home Database says that resident cases grew from a rate of 0.64 per 100 residents in mid-October to 1.19 in mid-November. Staff cases decreased slightly from a rate of 0.96 to 0.82 during this same time period. Nursing home resident deaths from coronavirus rose slightly from a rate of 0.06 in mid-October to 0.11 in mid-November.

“COVID-19 continues to infiltrate America’s nursing homes with more than 1,500 new nursing home resident deaths nationally for the third consecutive month,” said AARP’s Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor. “Increasing vaccination rates—including boosters — among nursing home residents and staff is key to protecting our loved ones and getting the pandemic under control,” she says.

“AARP calls on nursing homes, state and federal authorities, and others to increase access to and receipt of COVID-19 boosters for both nursing home staff and residents,” Taylor added.

“As new variants emerge and vaccine immunity wanes, the low number of residents and staff who have received a booster creates an unacceptable level of risk since the disease spreads so easily in these environments,” says Tayler, urging Gov. Dan McKee “to prioritize the state’s most vulnerable population and take immediate action to addresses the relatively low percentage of nursing home residents and staff who have not received COVID-19 booster shots.”

According to AARP Rhode Island, while the percentage of residents and staff who have received boosters remain low, rates of those fully vaccinated—those who have received two COVID-19 shots—continue to slowly rise as of November 21. In Rhode Island, 99.10% of nursing home staff are fully vaccinated (the highest rate of any state in the nation) and 94.10% of nursing home residents.

The number of Rhode Island facilities reporting a shortage of nurses or aides rose sharply from 34.7% to 41.7% in the four weeks ending November 21, says the advocacy group. 

Rhode Island’s high vaccination rates can be tied to Rhode Island mandating all healthcare workers be vaccinated by Oct. 1, 2021, say John E. Gage, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association. When the 30 day-compliance period ended, those who were unvaccinated were banned from entering the state’s healthcare facilities, he says, noting that termination resulted from failure to follow a reasonable policy set forth by their employer in compliance with Health Department’s emergency order. 

Yet, in at least one large nursing home facility, RINewsToday has learned, staff who refused to be vaccinated were either moved to non-patient-facing positions, or already worked in those positions, and allowed to keep working. An administrator said they are still working on encouraging 100% vaccination. Residents also have the right to refuse vaccination, and masks are required for patients outside of their rooms.

Families visiting had been restricted to the lobby, and at one time received a test in the parking lot prior to being able to enter. Today they are still screened for temperature, and they must wear a mask and complete a health symptom questionnaire. After a federal regulation went into effect several weeks ago easing access for families to visit, the screening also eased up and now tests are not required.

Any patient who is positive for COVID is moved to a quarantine area until fully recovered, and regular testing for patients and staff continues.

Some nursing homes are allowing families to take their loved one’s home for a Christmas holiday and then return after being with outside family and friends.

Gage notes that Rhode Island is ranked at No. 11 of states at a booster rate among residents of 54.1% compared to a national average of 38.4%.  Staff are boosted at 19.1% (#16) compared to a national average of 15.0%.  “Remember, individuals are not eligible for a booster until six months after their second dose of the vaccine series.  This will preclude some residents and staff, he says, stressing more credit should be given to the state’s health care facilities having the highest vaccine rates among staff and the second highest vaccination rate among residents.

According to Gage, the data released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Nov. 28, 2021 showed 99.38% of all workers in Rhode Island facilities are vaccinated – the highest (#1) vaccination rate for nursing homes in the country. Residents in Rhode Island nursing homes are 95.02% vaccinated – the second highest rate in the country.

To Booster or Not Booster, that is the Question

“With vaccines mandated in healthcare facilities and proof of vaccination being required to enter public places under the new Executive Order, it seems this would be a reasonable requirement for visitors to nursing homes,” says Gage, noting that this is not allowed according to the most recent guidance issued by the Centers for Med Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

As to mandating booster shots for nursing facility staff, however, Gage warns, “staffing is at a crisis level already. We cannot afford to lose more staff with another mandate,” he says.

“The first rounds of vaccines were given most commonly by third-party sources such as CVS medical staff who came into the homes, similar as they do every year for flu shots”, said one nursing home administrator to RINewsToday – “For the boosters, we did them using our own staff, and ordering our supply from the RI Department of Health.”  Boosters were advised to be given 4-5 months from original vaccination completion – yet in the nursing homes most didn’t get them until 8 to 9 months – as late as the end of October.

However, Joseph Wendelken, Rhode Island’s Department of Health’s Public Information Officer, says that CVS and Walgreens are working to make COVID-19 vaccine booster doses available to all nursing facilities,. “If any facility is looking for additional support getting residents and workers vaccinated, we can provide that support,” he says.

Wendelken notes that there is a requirement for nursing home workers to complete a primary COVID-19 vaccine series, but there is no [federal or state] requirement for booster doses. “The data are becoming clearer and clearer that – especially with the Omicron variant – booster doses are absolutely critical,” says Wendelken.

“Residents [of nursing homes and assisted living facilities] were among the first to get vaccinated so that means their immunity has waned and boosters are needed to avert significant outbreaks and deaths,” says  Maureen Maigret, former director of the R.I. Department of Elderly Affairs and chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council. “It is critical that booster shots are offered to all nursing home and assisted living residents especially now that visitation has opened up and visitors do not have to show proof of vaccination,” she says.

As of December 15th, the RI Department of Health Department shows at least 114 new cases in nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the past seven days, says Maigret. “We must  remember that over 1,700 residents died as a result of COVID in these facilities and providing booster shots is our best defense against more fatalities for this vulnerable population.”  

Even though it is not a federal policy, a growing number of state officials across the country are calling for the definition for being fully vaccinated to now include the booster shot. With Rhode Island seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases and an increase in hospitalizations due to Delta and Omicron variants spreading throughout the state, many (including this writer) express it’s time for Governor Dan McKee to now mandate booster shots for nursing facility staff.  More important, it must become a priority for the Rhode Island Health Department to make sure that every consenting nursing facility resident receives a booster, too.

President Biden is set to address the country on Tuesday, at a time to be announced. There is speculation whether the term “fully vaccinated” will now include not just the two original vaccinations but the booster as well.

The AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard analyzes federally reported data in four-week periods going back to June 1, 2020. Using this data, the AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the dashboard to provide snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff, with the goal of identifying specific areas of concern at the national and state levels in a timely manner.

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available at  www.aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard. For more information on how coronavirus is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes. Medicare.gov’s Care Compare website now offers information about vaccination rates within nursing homes and how they compare to state and national averages.

RI Nursing Homes with new cases (more than 5) in the past 14 days:

Berkshire Place, Providence – 10 to 15

Jeanne Juga Residence, Pawtucket – 5 to 9

Oak Hill Health Center, Pawtucket – 20 to 24

Pawtucket Falls Healthcare, Pawtucket – 10 to 14

Summit Commons, Providence – 5 to 9

West View Nursing, West Warwick – 10 to 14

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available at  www.aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard. For more information on how coronavirus is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes. Medicare.gov’s Care Compare website now offers information about vaccination rates within nursing homes and how they compare to state and national averages.

Social Security learns from remote experience, plans field office openings

Published on December 13, 2021 in RINewsToday

On March 17, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread throughout the nation, the Social Security Administration  (SSA) issued a press release announcing that its offices would only offer phone service and online services.

However, in-person appointments at SSA were scheduled for critical issues, specifically for those who were without food, medicine, shelter, or those needing to apply for benefits or to reinstate them. This decision allowed SSA to provide critical services while protecting its employees and older beneficiaries, many with underlying medial conditions. 

Congress Expresses Concern Over Closing of SSA Field Offices  

Almost four months later, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT) and Republican Leader Tom Reed (R-NY) sent two letters to the SSA Inspector General Gail S. Ennis asking for a review of SSA’s telephone service during the COVID-19 pandemic and SSA’s process for obtaining medical evidence for disability claims.

The correspondence to SSA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) noted that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, beneficiaries are relying on their Social Security now more than ever. Except in dire need, beneficiaries are unable to access in-person services and are relying instead on telephone services.

Members of Congress warned that beneficiaries, especially those from vulnerable populations who lack internet connection especially in rural areas or don’t have a reliable phone number or mailing addresses, are struggling to gain access SSA while field offices are closed.

“As highlighted in the OIG’s recent report, even before the current crisis the pubic relied heavily in SSA’s telephone services, but often could not access timely information or assistance. In fiscal year 2019, SSA’s national 1-800 number and field  offices received over 143 million calls – but handled fewer than to 3 of these calls. Callers who did not get a busy signal or give up while on hold waited to speak with an SSA employee for an average of 20 minutes on the 1-800 number and three minutes at field offices.

In addition, SSA requests millions of medical records each year from health care facilities and health professionals across the country to obtain evidence of an individual’s medical condition. The medical records request is an important part of the disability process, but the most recent report on this topic from the OIG is from 2001 and does not reflect changes to the process over the past nearly 20 years.

“Social Security benefits are earned by hard-working Americans, and we must do everything we can to ensure people are receiving the quality customer service they deserve.  These reports will provide important information to make sure Americans are receiving the service they expect and deserve from SSA,” said Larson and Reed.

SSA Responds to the Closing of Field Offices 

Almost two weeks ago, Ennis released a 58-page Congressional Response report, “The Social Security Telephone Service Performance,” detailing the impact on the closing of about 1,300 field offices.

The OIG found that in FY 2020, SSA received over 150 million calls, more than any other federal agency surveyed, and handled over half of those calls. Calls to field offices increased dramatically, from an average of 4.6 million calls per month leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic to an average of 7.5 million calls per month from April to Sept. 2020.

According to the OIG’s report, SSA’s telephone services shifted to more calls to field offices in FY 2020 when the agency closed its offices and provided the public with more field office telephone numbers. The increase in field office calls resulted in increased busy messages and wait-times toward the end of FY 2020. During the pandemic, SSA adjusted national 800 number operations to reduce wait times and the number of callers who received a busy message. National 800 number performance began to decline toward the end of the fiscal year, though it was still better then pre-pandemic performance.

When comparing SSA to 13 customer service call centers from 10 other federal agencies, SSA had a higher call volume in FY 2020 with similar or better performance.

To reduce wait times, improve caller experience, and ensure more calls are handled SSA hired additional 800-number staff, modified automated service options, and plans to implement a new telephone system.

“This [IOG] report highlights that SSA’s telephone services are vital to the American public. While I applaud the hard work of SSA employees, especially during the pandemic, the report also highlights actions that SSA is taking to reduce telephone wait times, handle more calls and improve caller experience, said Larson, noting that SSA will need more funding to do so and that is why he is supporting House Appropriations and Chair DeLauro’s proposal to give SSA an additional $1.1 billion in FY 2022.

Adds Reed, “This report provides clear evidence that with determined agency leadership and the hard work of dedicated staff, the SSA was able to respond to the largest management crisis in its history. With the almost 65 percent increase in phone calls during the pandemic the report also demonstrates the public’s clear and continued demand for access to the SSA’s vital services.” 

Opening the Doors

According to newly released 19-page SSA reentry plan, after more than 18 months working from home, senior SSA leadership are beginning to return to their offices, in early December. Employees are scheduled to return to their desks by Jan. 3. Along with in-person appointments, the agency will now also embrace telework. 

The agency will lift its current “work from home by quarantine” policy starting Jan. 2, at which point related collective bargaining agreements and pandemic policies will end as well. Reentry dates could change with the spread of the delta and omicron variant.

“We will use the evaluation period to develop, assess, and, if necessary, adjust any personnel or operational policies to provide public service and accomplish our mission as well as or better than, before the pandemic,” the SSA reentry plan reads. “Each [deputy commissioner] will evaluate their operations to identify ways to improve service, hire and retain the best employees and to operate efficiently including the consideration of potential space savings resulting from increased telework and information technology improvements.”

Over the next six months, the agency will review metrics on customer satisfaction, employee experience, service availability, workload, and environmental considerations.

“Throughout the pandemic, Social Security has helped many people through in-person appointments for certain situations in local offices nationwide and through options like online, telephone and video service,” Nicole Tiggemann, an SSA spokeswoman, said in an email to AARP, reported by Writer John Waggoner in his Nov. 11 blog posting, “Social Security Takes Steps to Reopen Field Offices.

“We know that those options do not work for everyone, says Tiggemann. “In order to improve service, especially for people who have had difficulty reaching us during the pandemic, Social Security will begin implementing the reentry process agencywide as soon as possible, including taking steps to increase in-person accessibility,” she said.

AARP applauds a return to normalcy at SSA. “Obviously, from our point of view, we’d like to see those offices open and staffed as soon as possible,” says Joel Eskovitz, director of Social Security and Savings at the AARP Public Policy Institute,” in Waggoner’s blog posting.