Lawmakers can do more for Seniors next year

Published in RINewstoday on July 11, 2022

Just days before July 1, 2022, Gov. Dan McKee was joined for the signing of the $13.6 billion state budget (2022-H7123aa) for fiscal year 2023 by Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin L. Abney and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan W. Pearson.

Taking a Look at the Budget’s Dollars and Cents

Let us take a look as ho the state’s FY2023 budget, signed by McKee on June 27, 2022, impacts older Rhode Islanders.

The budget doubled the funding for the Livable Homes Modification Program, from $500,000 to $1 million, which reimburses half the total retrofit costs, up to $4,000, to support home modifications and accessibility enhancements to allow individuals to remain in community settings. The increase is intended to address an anticipated surge in applications.

For retirees, the Assembly raised from $15,000 to $20,000 the amount of annual pension income that is exempt from state taxation.

The FY 2023 Budget also allocated an additional  $200,000 to the Office of Healthy Aging’s budget for senior centers, bringing total funding to $1 million. That is a 25% increase.

The budget also makes significant investments in the quality of healthcare for seniors, providing rate increases to many kinds of providers of health care, nursing homes, home and community-based services for elderly (increase in starting pay to $15 hour), in addition to seeking a study by the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner on appropriate reimbursement rate levels into the future.  The budget also includes substantial increase to reimbursement rates for Meals on Wheel meals ($400,000), ensuring that the program is able to provide high-quality therapeutic and culturally appropriate meals to participants.

Lawmakers also added $4 million to increase the “circuit breaker” tax credit available to qualifying elderly and disabled residents, raising the maximum credit from about $400 to $600 beginning in tax year 2022 and indexing that amount to inflation. They also made credit available to more Rhode Islanders by increasing the income threshold for eligibility from $30,000 to $ 35,000.

Those with military pensions will no longer have to pay any income taxes on them, beginning in the 2023 tax year. The governor had proposed phasing out military pension taxation over five years, but legislators instead made them tax-free in their entirety in one year.

Lawmakers also kept the Governor’s plan to invest $168 million in upgrades to Eleanor Slater Hospital, including $108 million to construct a new long-term care acute care hospital at the Zambarano campus in Burrillville.

The plan accelerates the six-year phase-out of Rhode Island’s motor vehicle excise tax, eliminating what would have been the final year of the tax next year.  The amended budget provides replacement license plates for free.

The state budget included a year-long pilot program to provide free service on the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s business route, the “R” line that runs from Pawtucket to Cranston.

It also added $11.5 million general revenue funds to launch a retail Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) pilot program, beginning Jan. 1, 2023.  Eligible households would receive an incentive payment of 50-cents for every dollar spent on fruits and vegetables, subject to limits.  The state also requested a waiver from the Federal Nutrition Service to streamline the application process for elderly and disabled individuals seeking assistance from the SNAP program.

Lawmakers also allocated $10 million for rebalancing the state’s long-term care continuum, for funding home care agency workforce recruitment, retention and training.  Also, money in Rhode Island’s new budget includes $8.1 million to increase Medicaid Dental rates to increase access to dental services for older adults.

Finally, lawmakers kept in the $250 million total from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal funds in the approved budget to address state’s affordable housing crisis.

Taking a peek at new state laws

The Rhode Island General Assembly passed H-7942/S-2623 which increases access and utilization of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and provides age-friendly housing options for older adults, family caregivers, and people of all ages and abilities.

McKee also signed the Let RI Vote Act into law. This new law makes voting safer, easier, and more accessible for all Rhode Islanders. Some of the major provisions of the bill include no-excuse mail ballots and emergency voting; online mail ballot applications; permanent absentee list opt-in for nursing home residents; no witness or notary requirement to vote by mail;  multilingual voter information hotline, community ballot; and voter registration list maintenance.

A new law also seeks to develop broadband in Rhode Island by creating a Broadband Advisory Committee. It’s director will be responsible for connecting with federal agencies to access funds for broadband infrastructure deployment pursuant to federal grants, facilitating broadband service adoptions, expanding digital literacy for residents (especially seniors), experiencing economic hardship, and for future economic development.

Following the passage of S-2228, the definition of an elderly person in regard to exploitation has changed from someone 65-years-old to someone who is 60 years old, making the definition of an elderly person consistent with state law.

Finally, the proposed Perry Sullivan one-year exemption has been eliminated. This preserves $38.6 million for home and community-based services for 2023.

Gearing up for next year’s legislative session

“Despite the lack of passage of H-7616 sponsored by Rep. Lauren Carson to elevate the Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging to full Department status, I’m confident that it will be reintroduced early in 2023. I also anticipate broad community conversations to fine tune the design and identify the needed resources,” says Vin Marzullo, a well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and national service administrator.

“AARP Rhode Island worked hard on Smith Hill during the 2022 legislative session to achieve a number of important wins for the age 50 and over Rhode Islanders,” stated Catherine Taylor, AARP Rhode Island State Director. “We will find it easier to vote, have access to more housing options and assistance for accessibility modifications, see our direct care workforce better paid and better trained, and so much more. And, as always, AARP Rhode Island is committed to ensuring that those age 50 and our families know about these changes and how they will improve our lives,” she says.

 “Although there was some very good news for seniors coming out of the 2022 legislative session, overall, the results were modest when we think about the projected growth of our older population, that 42% of older Rhode Island households have income less than $ 40,000 and that our Office of Healthy Aging is under resourced. So much advocacy work remains,” warns Maureen Maigret, chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council and Policy Advisor for the Senior Agenda of Rhode Island, representing 21 organizations to mobilize people to enhance the quality of life of older Rhode Islanders.

However, Maigret sees a big win in the state budget language calling for rate review for state contracted providers as far too many services important for all ages have become so difficult to access due to poor payment rates to providers for many years. One example is that dental rates under Medicaid have not increased since the early 1990’s so older adults have had an extraordinarily hard time getting detail care, she says.

“Another big win that the Senior Agenda worked tirelessly for was removing the suspension of the $38.6 millions of “Perry-Sullivan” funds for FY 2023 that was in Gov. McKee’s proposal,” says Maigret.

However, Maigret expressed disappointment that the state’s budget only calls for minimum wage for home care direct care staff of $15 per hour. “Advocates tried to get this up to at least $17 to address the homecare workforce crisis that leaves some seniors waiting months for service,” she says.

According to Maigret, other items that will help older adults and persons with disabilities with rising housing costs are the expansion of the Property Tax Relief program sponsored by Rep. Ruggiero and Sen. Coyle.

“While we are appreciative overall for the gains that have been made for Rhode Island’s seniors in this legislative session, it is just a start toward what our state needs to do to meet the needs of our aging population,” says Bernie Beaudreau, Executive Director of Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island. “I am disappointed that the minimum wage of $15 per hour was set so low.  This wage level will not do much to attract workers and solve the severe workforce shortages that home care agencies are facing. We also have to be vigilant about the administration of this new law as we have already seen a draft regulation suggesting that $15 will be the “average wage,” not the “minimum wage” of home care workers.

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