Will House Leadership’s Budget Proposal Create an “Age-Friendly” State?
Published in RINewsToday on February 6, 2023
Over two weeks ago, Gov. Dan McKee unveiled his $13.8 billion proposed FY 24 Budget. To members of the aging community, the reaction is that this budget shortchanges seniors. In an e-blast sent to 1,800 seniors and aging advocates, the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island (SACRI) described the proposed budget as unfriendly to seniors.
“Governor McKee’s proposed FY2024 budget that would take effect on July 1, 2023, ignores the needs of Rhode Island’s rapidly-growing older population,” noted SACRI, which represents 21 organizations with allied concerns. The budget document will reflect what lawmaker’s value and “as it stands, this budget fails to value us,” states the email.
Calls for creating an “Age Friendly” budget
The SACRI legislative alert highlights how McKee’s FY 24 budget proposal is “senior lite,” noting that it provides minimal increases in funding for senior centers and Meals on Wheels. More concerning, “it does nothing to address the larger investments needed to enable a growing number of seniors to age in the community.”
SACRI says the budget proposal has ignored requests from advocates and the community, even some requests that came from the RI Office of Healthy Aging (RIOHA). Specifically, the Governor’s budget did not include funding for additional RIOHA staff, in particular for its Adult Protective Services that received over 6,000 calls last year.
“For fourteen years we’ve urged the state to invest in improving The Point, but our requests have fallen on deaf ears. At community meetings with seniors and their caregivers of all income levels, we found their most frequent and compelling complaints were about their great difficulties in finding reliable information about available support and service options,” says SACRI, noting that very few seniors, or their adult children caregivers, even know that The Point exists. “But they are very well aware that without reliable and timely information about home and community-based care, their least-desirable and most expensive choice – nursing home care – often becomes the default,” says the legislative alert email,” he stated.
According to SACRI, the FY 2024 budget didn’t include increased Medicaid reimbursements to homecare and nursing home providers to raise their direct care workers’ wages and reduce workforce turnover. Nor did it include financial aid to help low and moderate-income seniors pay their Medicare Part B premiums and co-pays, as many other states have done.
SACRI is calling on House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D-Warwick) and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-Providence, North Providence) to support an “Age Friendly Budget.” Why not improve funding for aging programs and services that ultimately benefit everyone in their later years?
More older Rhode Islanders are going to need to access programs and services to allow them to age in place at home. “Seniors strongly desire to “age in the community,” but the services that allow them to do that are often hard to find or simply unavailable. SACRI’s budgetary wish list includes increasing the minimum salaries of senior home care and nursing home care workers to $20 per hour, that’s a 50% federal match.
SACRI also calls for allocating $500,000 in first-time state funding for major improvements to The Point to provide information and referral services for seniors and their caregivers. This increased funding never made it into the FY 2024 budget proposal outlined in Gov. McKee’s Jan. 17th State of the State Address.
“With Rhode Island’s aging population skyrocketing, why not add five staff persons requested by the RIOHA, two of whom will work in its Adult Protective Services Program,” says SACRI.
Finally, SACRI says the House budget should also include a provision to raise the income level for seniors to qualify for the Medicare Premium Savings Plan to save seniors close to $2,000 per year. Older Rhode Islanders are becoming poorer with higher numbers falling below the 2023 federal poverty level of $14,580 for a single person and with 28% of older households trying to live on less than $28,000 per year.”
The Aging Network speaks…from the front lines
Maureen Maigret, Chairperson of the Aging in Community Subcommittee for the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC), says that the “Age-Friendly Budget” proposed by SACRI is right on target with the needs of Rhode Island’s older population.
“More than ever, we need to address and adequately fund the services and supports that keep older persons living at home as long as possible. It is especially important for those aged 75 and over as one-half may need supports to remain living at home at the same time that their incomes start to decrease while their healthcare costs increase,” she says.
“The ‘Age-Friendly’ Budget Plan also aligns nicely with the strategic objectives and actions of the Strategic Plan of the LTCCC
:s Aging in Community Subcommittee yet to be accomplished,” says Maigret, noting that lawmakers should view funds requested as wise investments that will help older adults remain living at home – where most wish to be – and prevent the use of much higher costs for nursing home care.
“Apparently, the Governor and his staff haven’t fully understood nor been sensitive to the struggles that the aging community has faced since the pandemic – more than 90% of the deaths in RI were individuals over 60, and 52% of the overall deaths were congregate care residents. Many are still frightened, isolated, hungry, and need community homecare or a caregiver,” says Vin Marzullo, who served 31 years as a career federal civil rights & social justice administrator at the National Service Agency.
Marzullo adds, “The Governor’s budget doesn’t provide any vision for an Age Friendly RI – which was to begin in FY2023 according to a 2019 RI OHA Strategic Plan,” adds Marzullo. “We have no coordinated path/strategy to build greater local capacity & support services for our growing aging population.”
“The McKee administration has yet to develop a Comprehensive Master Plan for Aging in RI despite a series of community conversations (Rhode Island 2030) during the Fall of 2021 and commitments made to the elderly during the 2022 Gubernatorial campaign,” charges Marzullo.
Other aging advocates had their views of McKee’s budget proposal
While they are appreciative that the Governor’s budget proposal fully funds the statutory nursing home inflation index of 5.4% plus a 1.5% labor add-on effective October 1, 2023, John Gage, President and CEO of Rhode Island Health Care Association (RIHCA) warns about a major issue facing Rhode Island nursing facilities. “The minimum staffing mandate that was passed in 2021 is largely an unfunded mandate and is impossible to comply with given the 20% reduction in the Rhode Island nursing facility workforce just since the start of the pandemic,” he says.
“RIHCA will work together with the Governor, the House Speaker, and the Senate President for short-term relief from the staggering penalty provisions of the minimum staffing mandate statute – fines estimated at $55-60 million in the first year of full implementation and nearly two-thirds of facilities being prevented from admitting residents after three quarters of their inability to comply by automatic admissions freezes,” he says. There are simply not enough workers to employ to meet the mandate, and fines of this magnitude would devastate the industry and lead to further facility closures,” he adds.
“The Rhode Island Senior Center Director’s Association (RISCDA) is focused on gaining funding requested by RIOHA Director Cimini for increased staffing, fully funding the Point, and supporting senior centers more fully with a funding formula that gets us to the rate of $10/person for non-institutionalized individuals 65 and over residing in each municipality,” says Robert Robillard, RISCDA’s president. “Shoring up services with funding will benefit not just our elders, but their families and caregiver’s alike,” he noted.
According to Robillard, the Governor’s presented budget includes a $200,000 increase for senior centers across our state. This is split between 39 communities based on the number of seniors living in each of the municipalities. “As we are pleased to see this movement to support senior centers more fully, [even with the additional funding] there are gaps within the system of care for our elders here in Rhode Island,” he says.
James Burke Connell, Executive Director, Age-Friendly Rhode Island, agrees with Robillard’s assessment of the key role senior centers play in Rhode Island’s long-term care continuum and the need for increased funding. “No, there isn’t sufficient funding toward the goal of making Rhode Island a great state in which to age, and I’m particularly concerned that the RIOHA will be under resourced to meet the needs of senior centers and older adult Rhode Islanders in general. Senior centers are the hubs of services and programs in every community, and they need greater support from our state, principally through significant increases in RIOHA’s capacity to support our aging population,” he says.
The McKee administration responds…
In responding to SACRI’s charges that McKee’s proposed budget was not “Age Friendly,” Derek Gomes, spokesperson for the state’s Pandemic Recovery Office says, “a single budget cannot address everything that the Administration is committed to accomplishing.” He noted that the Administration will work every year to make meaningful progress toward improving the quality of life for older Rhode Islanders and all the goals in RI 2030.
According to Gomes, the Governor’s proposed budget invests in older Rhode Islanders by including an additional $200,000 for senior centers, an additional $100,000 for Meals on Wheels, and $250,000 to digitalize an essential record of service that military veterans use to receive their benefits. The 2022 November Caseload Estimating Conference increased funding for long-term care by approximately $40 million in all, across Fiscal Year 2023 and Fiscal Year 2024, including a 6.9% rate increase for nursing facilities.
The battle of Rhode Island’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget moves to the House Finance Committee and ultimately for a vote on the House and Senate floor. It’s crucial that House Leadership begin the process of increasing funding for aging programs and services to move Rhode Island closer to becoming an “Age Friendly” state. Every taxpayer will ultimately benefit, because each one will ultimately have to access programs and services to allow them to age in place at home in their community.
SACRI is planning a Legislative Leadership Forum scheduled for March 22, 2023, at Warwick’s Crowne Plaza. Save the Date. Stay tuned for details. https://senioragendari.org/