A Call for House Dems to Bring Back House Aging Committee

Published in RINewsToday on August 16, 2021

Just days ago, Congressman David Cicilline, along with fellow lawmakers, Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Doris Matsui (D-CA), who serve as co-chairs of the House Democratic Caucus Task Force  on Aging and Families, introduced H. Res. 583 to amend the rules of the House to establish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. This is the Rhode Island lawmaker’s fourth attempt, and it might well succeed with two co-chairs of the House Caucus Task Force on Aging and Families cosponsoring the resolution.

Getting Schakowsky and Matsui on board is “very significant,” says Cicilline.  He also has the support of the prestigious Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Council on Aging Organizations (LCAO), representing 69 national aging groups.

The original House Permanent Select Committee on Aging, which was active between 1974 and 1992, conducted investigations, hearings and issues reports to inform Congress on issues related to aging, putting a legislative spotlight on the challenges and issues facing the growing aging population in America. 

H. Res. 583 would reestablish the House Aging Committee without having legislative jurisdiction, this being no different than when the permanent committee previously existed. It would be authorized to conduct a continuing comprehensive study and review of aging issues, such as income maintenance, poverty, housing, health (including medical research), welfare, employment, education, recreation, and long-term care. These efforts impacted legislation taken up by standing committees. It has been referred to the House Rules Committee for consideration.

It’s relatively simple to create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee, says the Congressional Research Service. All it takes is a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other issues that need to be address.  Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

An Urgent Time Requires Passage of H. Res. 583  

“America’s seniors have spent a lifetime working hard and moving our country forward and they deserve the best in their retirement,” says Cicilline. “The pandemic has disproportionately impacted seniors and now with growing concerns about inflation, seniors on fixed incomes will bear the burden of the rising cost of prescription drugs, food, housing, and other essentials,” he says, noting there has never been a more urgent time for Congress to reauthorize the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging than right now. 

“The pandemic magnified gaps in U.S. policy that routinely forget about Older Americans and the need to nurture a culture that respects them. From the lack of a universal long-term care policy to barriers to vaccine access earlier in the pandemic, these are issues that need to be examined so that Congress can put forward strong solutions to support our aging population and the communities they live in,” says Schakowsky. 

“Older Americans today face many difficulties—including achieving retirement security and affording the rising costs in health care and prescription drugs—which have only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Matsui, stressing by creating a House Aging Committee Congress can continue to strengthen and support policies that are important to seniors throughout the country. 

Supporters Call on House Resolution’s Passage 

As the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO), the preeminent national organization representing and focused on the well-being of older adults, noted in its letter of support for reestablished the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging, “now is the opportune time to reestablish the HPSCoA. Every day, 12,000 Americans turn 60. By 2030, nearly 75 million people in the U.S.—or 20% of the country—will be age 65 or older. As America grows older, the need for support and services provided under programs like Social Security, SSI, Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act also increases.”

“We strongly support Cicilline’s legislation to re-establish the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. This committee did crucial work on behalf of American seniors between 1974 and 1992, including investigating nursing home abuse, promoting breast cancer screening for older women, improving elderly housing, and bringing attention to elder abuse, among other issues,” says Max Richtman, president and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, warning that “we should not wait another day to re-establish a committee dedicated to protecting America’s seniors.” 

“Cicilline is 100% right that it is time to re-establish this vital committee, with ten thousand Americans turning 65 every day, amid a pandemic that has taken a disproportionate toll on seniors.  Today, there are a new set of issues that demand the attention of a dedicated House committee — prescription drug pricing, long-term care, soaring medical costs and the future of Social Security and Medicare,” adds Richtman.

Bob Blancato who had the longest tenure of any staff on the Committee said: “First I commend Cicilline for introducing the legislation.  The timing was especially good as the release yesterday of the 2020 Census data shows a continued sharp increase in the number of older Americans in our nation.” 

“While I support this legislation it does face considerable odds to gain passage,” warns Blancato, noting that two things could change that.  “The resolution must have backing from House Leadership especially from Speaker Pelosi and it must become bipartisan as the original Committee was.  In the end it is about how do advocates make this into a political issue.  This is an opportunity for the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations to show if it has clout,” he says.

Adds, CEO Sandy Markwood, of National Association of Area Agencies on Aging: “We are a rapidly aging nation: one in five Americans will be age 65 or older within this decade. This historic demographic shift requires policymakers and the public to factor in aging and how we can age well at home and in the community into every policy conversation. For this, the House of Representatives should have a special aging committee as the Senate does: to spotlight not only older Americans, but also the impact of this massive shift on all generations, our communities and society at large. COVID-19 shone a bright spotlight on what we need to do to help older adults age well at home, but local aging leaders like n4a’s members need the House’s leadership to give aging policy the focused attention it deserves…and our demographics demand.”

According to Robert S. Weiner, a close friend and confident of House Aging Committee Chair Claude Pepper (D-Florida) who served as his committee Chief of Staff, the Special Committee was and can  again be the protector of seniors.  “Among its most significant actions — all bipartisan– were advocating and causing enactment of  the law, passed 359-2 in the House and 89-10 in the Senate, barring age based “mandatory retirement and protecting people over 40 from age discrimination,” he remembers.

“The courts are now fudging with that clear intent, and the House Aging Committee would be a visible and influential protector. Transparency by nursing homes and congregate housing settings– as mandated by laws pressed by Pepper decades ago but now ignored —  would be another benefit,” states Weiner. “In housing, health care, nutrition, crime victimization, transportation, accessibility, and social services –in the whole array of actions stopping ageism by local, state, and federal agencies and the courts, including the Supreme Court — the House Aging Committee would again be an invaluable champion for seniors,” he adds. 

“During the 117th Congress, passing H Res. 583 is also necessary to protect against under-the-radar political invasions of Social Security’s surplus — a fund paid by seniors in the program– and attempts to use the money to pay for other programs including tax cuts for the wealthy,” warns Weiner.

As a long-time Washington insider, Weiner says the best way to pass H Res 583 to reestablish the House Aging Committee is for the chief congressional advocate, Cicilline, to talk directly with the top three House leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD and Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and makes the case on the merits and bill’s support while asking for quick endorsement. “Looking back, “that’s how Pepper always did it – he’d pull people to a place on the floor and talk with them there, or on the phone. 

Weiner recalled how Pepper, the fierce aging advocate from Florida, called Rosalyn Carter to ask her husband, President Jimmy Carter for a meeting to discuss the mandatory retirement Carter who ultimately endorsed the bill.  It passed the House 359-2 and the Senate 89-10, being considered by Congress. Ultimately, “the full House Aging Committee (40 members) met with and there was a glorious White House signing ceremony,” he says.

A Call for House Leadership Support 

Cicilline goes into the 117th Congress with the support of long-time Congressional senior advocates, Schakowsky and Matsui and the backing of a prestigious coalition aging organizations to bring back the House Aging Committee.  It will happen this Congress if House Speaker Pelosi along with Majority Leader Hoyer and Whip Clyburn can bring the moderates and progressives of the Democratic House Caucus together to support H. Res. 583.  

Politically it’s the smart thing to do.  It’s a winning policy issue for America’s seniors and this group has traditionally been the highest turnout age group in elections.  But, more important, it’s the right thing to do especially at a time when seniors have been a disproportionately impacted by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.    

I say pass H. Res. 583. 

Seniors would benefit in President Biden’s $6 trillion budget

Published in RINewsToday on June 14, 2021

On May 28, with the release of a $6 trillion budget for fiscal year (FY) 2022, President Joe Biden outlined his values and vision as to how he proposes to revive the nation’s sputtering economic engine as it emerges from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 72-page budget document, “Budget of the United States,” (with more than a 1,400-page appendix) details his spending priorities that begin next Oct. 1. Biden’s generous budget depends on increasing taxes on America’s corporations (from 21 to 28 percent) and high earners, who received significant tax breaks from the President Trump/GOP tax cuts of 2017.

With the FY 2022 Budget pushing federal debt to the highest levels since World War 1I, Republican lawmakers quickly called the proposal “dead on arrival” in Congress.  However, Cecilia Rouse, chair of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors says the Biden Administration is willing to live with a budget deficit to invest in the economy now, especially with low interest rates to borrow; deficits can be reduced later. 

President Biden’s new spending under the just released proposed FY 2022 budget, recognizing his Administration’s priorities, reflects the major proposals already outlined under the administration’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan and $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. Provisions in these two proposals would overhaul the nation’s aging infrastructure and invest in education, childcare, paid family and medical leave, fight climate change. 

President Biden’s spending plan also recognizes priorities outlined in the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year as well as the Administration’s “skinny” discretionary budget request released in April. Most importantly, it reflects a commitment from the president to safeguard Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Loving It or Hating It Depends on Where You Sit

In remarks delivered Thursday in Cleveland, President Biden made the case for his budget request and what he describes as an investment in the country’s future. “Now is the time to build [on] the foundation that we’ve laid to make bold investments in our families and our communities and our nation,” he said. “We know from history that these kinds of investments raise both the floor and the ceiling over the economy for everybody.”

In the FY 2020 Budget proposal’s “Message from the President”, Biden says, “The Budget invests directly in the American People and will strengthen the nation’s economy and improve our long run fiscal health. It reforms our broken tax code to reward work instead of wealth while fully paying for the American Jobs and American Family Plans over a 15- year period. It will help us build a recovery that is broad-based, inclusive, sustained, and strong,”

Of course, response to Biden’s Spending plan depends on which side of the aisle you are sitting.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) released a statement strongly endorsing Biden’s fiscal blueprint. “Congressional Democrats look forward to working with the Biden-Harris Administration to enact this visionary budget, which will pave the path to opportunity and prosperity for our nation. The Biden Budget is a budget for the people,” she said.

On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strongly opposing Biden’s Budget proposal. “Americans are already hurting from far-left economics that ignores reality,” said McConnell, in a statement. “The Administration’s counterproductive ‘COVID relief bill’ has slowed rehiring. Families are facing painful inflation, just as experts warned the Democrats’ plans might cause. And the Administration wants to triple down on the same mistakes?” said the six-term Republican Kentucky Senator.

With the Democrats holding the slim majorities in the House and Senate and controlling the White House, Biden’s FY 2022 Budget proposal will have more weight than if the Republicans were in the majority, says Dan Adcock, Government Relations and Policy Director at the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM).

According to Adcock, Biden’s funding numbers will change as his FY 2022 budget proposal goes through the appropriation process in the upcoming months. With its release, Congress can now begin negotiating funding levels and spending bills. Competition for a finite amount of funding will ultimately result in funding level ultimately allotted to programs and agencies by each of the 12 appropriations under their jurisdiction. Funding for most programs important to older Americans is under the jurisdiction of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

“With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day – and the number of seniors projected to double by 2050 – it’s clear that President Biden understands the need to safeguard the older Americans he calls ‘pillars of every community – now and into the future.” Says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO.

Slashing Drug Costs to Pay for Expanding Medicare Coverage

Richtman says that Biden’s fiscal blueprint calls on Congress to allow Medicare to negotiate prices for certain high-cost, life-saving drugs that many seniors currently cannot afford and to require manufacturers to pay rebates when drug prices rise faster than inflation. These reforms could yield over half a trillion in federal savings over 10 years, which could help pay for coverage expansions and improvements, including access to dental, hearing, and vision coverage in Medicare,” he notes. Today, traditional Medicare does not cover routine care like dental checkups or hearing aids.

According to Richtman, President Biden’s budget also includes more than $400 billion in new spending over ten years to expand Home and Community-based Services (HCBS) for low-income seniors and people with disabilities who prefer to receive skilled care in the comfort of their homes and communities, even moreso after the devastation COVID wrought on nursing homes.  

In states that have not taken advantage of Affordable Care Act (ACA) opportunities to expand Medicaid, the budget proposes providing premium-free, Medicaid-like coverage through a federal public option, along with incentives for states to maintain their existing expansions. 

Biden’s FY 2022 budget also urges Congress to improve customer service for Social Security beneficiaries to prescription drug pricing reform to expanded HCBS, adds Richtman.  It also proposes a $1.3 billion (or 9.7%) funding increase for the Social Security Administration.  The increase seeks to improve customer service, including services at SSA’s field offices, state disability determination services, and teleservice centers.

 The Older Americans Act (OAA) provides funding for a wide range of home and community-based services, such as meals-on-wheels and other nutrition programs, in-home services, transportation, legal services, elder abuse prevention and caregivers’ support. These programs help seniors stay as independent as possible in their homes and communities. 

For details about Biden’s FY 2022 Budget proposal and OAA funding levels, made available from the Washington, DC-based National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, go to: https://www.n4a.org//Files/FY22%20PresBudget%20and%20historical%20Labor-HHS%20Appropriations%20Chart.pdf

 Stay Tuned 

The House continues its work on hammering out appropriation bills through subcommittees in June and in the full House in July.  The Senate’s work is expected to begin in mid-Summer and to continue well into September. If the appropriate bills are not passed and signed into law by Oct. 1, Congress will need to pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government into the first months of FY 2022.

Like most Budget proposals, especially in a partisan Congress, Biden’s spending plan will need to be rewritten to win support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. However, it will serve as a roadmap for a Democratic controlled Congress in crafting 12 appropriation spending bills. Partisan bickering during the appropriations process may well force passage of a continuing resolution before Oct. 1 to block a government shutdown. 

Voter reform must include accessibility for seniors and persons with disabilities

Published in RINewsToday on May 17, 2021

It’s over 540 days until the November 8, 2022 mid-term elections. The clock is ticking, say voter rights advocates, who are gearing up to push back at voting bills they see as restrictive being introduced at multiple state houses.  

As of March 24, 2021, GOP State legislators, responding to claims of voter fraud and election irregularities in last year’s Presidential election, have introduced 361 bills seen as restrictive by voter rights advocates in 47 states. “That’s 108 more than the 253 similar bills tallied as of February 19, 2021 — a 43 percent increase in little more than a month,” according to data compiled by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

“These measures have begun to be enacted. Five restrictive bills have already been signed into law. In addition, at least 55 restrictive bills in 24 states are moving through legislatures: 29 have passed at least one chamber, while another 26 have had some sort of committee action (e.g., a hearing, an amendment, or a committee vote),” says the nonpartisan law and policy institute, noting that in some cases “a single bill can have provisions with both restrictive and expansive effects”.

President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats are pushing back at GOP efforts they see as “suppressing voting” and introduced H.R. 1, For the People Act, which would be intended to “expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws, end partisan gerrymandering and create new ethics for federal lawmakers”.  The bill is considered to be the largest overhaul of U.S. voting in a generation, and is opposed by GOP lawmakers, who call it overreaching.

Fix Voter Access Issues for Seniors, and Persons with Disabilities

Although newspapers regularly cover both voter security and voter rights issues, voter access issues impacting seniors and persons with disabilities don’t receive adequate ink. 

Now, a national report’s findings reveal that some obstacles still exist for disabled voters at the polls. The recently released U.S. Election Commission (EAC)’s comprehensive 52-page national report, “Disability and Voting Accessibility in the 2020 Elections,” identified accessibility issues for voters with disabilities.  The study focused on polling place access, mail and absentee voting accessibility, election administration challenges, COVID-19 obstacles, and community involvement.

As the EAC plans for future elections, this data will be crucial in helping officials adopt new voting technologies and address the ever-growing accessibility needs of an aging demographic.

“In an election year with so many obstacles and unknowns, the improvement in accessibility for voters with disabilities is a testament to the hard work and dedication of election officials,” EAC Chairman Ben Hovland said, in a February 16, 2021 statement announcing the release of the report. “We are proud of election officials’ accomplishments during an especially difficult election season. This study provides the EAC with indispensable feedback as we continue our work with election officials and accessibility experts to ensure all Americans can vote privately and independently,” he said.

The EAC spearheaded the study under clearinghouse and research mandates outlined in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The goal of the study was to analyze the 2020 election experience for voters with disabilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on a similar 2012 study also conducted by the EAC in conjunction with Professors Schur and Kruse, of Rutgers University, the project launched immediately after the 2020 general election.

The 2020 study engaged 2,569 respondents including 1,782 voters with disabilities and 787 voters without disabilities. As in 2012, the oversampling of voters with disabilities was designed to produce a sample large enough for more accurate measurements and reliable breakdowns by demographic variables and type of disability.

Compared to 2012, overall results show election officials made great progress serving voters with disabilities and ensuring they could cast a private and independent ballot. Obstacles continue to exist, but improvements were evident.

According to the researchers, voting difficulties among people with disabilities declined markedly from 2012 to 2020. About one in nine voters with disabilities encountered difficulties voting in 2020. This is double the rate of people without disabilities, but a sizeable drop from 2012.

The study’s findings indicated that among people with disabilities who voted in person, 18 percent reported difficulties, compared to 10 percent of people without disabilities. The disability figure is down from 30 percent in 2012.

During a general election that experienced a shift to mail and absentee voting, 5 percent of voters with disabilities had difficulties using a mail ballot, compared to 2 percent of voters without disabilities. One in seven (14 percent) of voters with disabilities using a mail ballot needed assistance or encountered problems in voting, compared to only 3 percent of those without disabilities. 

The researchers found that five of six (83 percent) of voters with disabilities voted independently without any difficulty in 2020, compared to over nine of ten (92 percent) of voters without disabilities. Voting difficulties were most common among people with vision and cognitive impairments.

Close to 75 percent of voters with disabilities voted with a mail ballot or early in-person in 2020. This represents a significant increase from 2012 and is higher than the two-thirds of non-disabled voters who did so in 2020, say the researchers. No doubt the pandemic influenced the increase.

Finally, the researchers note that people with disabilities voted at a 7 percent lower rate than people without disabilities of the same age, pointing toward a continuing disability gap in voter turnout.

Senate Moves to Remove Barriers for Seniors and Disabled

Last month, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules & Administration, introduced the Accessible Voting Act, legislation to remove barriers to voting for seniors and people with disabilities.  This legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Notably, an all Democratic sponsorship at this time.

This legislative action was triggered by a Government Accountability Study that found that combined deficiencies in architectural and voting booth access resulted in only 17 percent of polling places being fully accessible in 2016. The Accessible Voting Act would make polling places and voting systems more accessible, expand options for casting a ballot in federal elections and establish an Office of Accessibility within the Election Assistance Commission, dedicated to overseeing and supporting state efforts to make voting more accessible.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. That right is jeopardized when seniors and people with disabilities are pushed to the margins by barriers that prevent or make it hard for them to cast their ballots,” said Senator Casey in a statement announcing the introduction of the bill. “The Accessible Voting Act would remove these barriers and support the ongoing efforts by state and local agencies to make voting a truly equitable and accessible process,” he said.

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is not possible for too many Americans. Inaccessible polling places and voting booths, limited access to transportation, insufficient options for casting ballots, and inaccessible voter information websites are all obstacles to voting for millions of Americans,” adds Klobuchar. “The Accessible Voting Act would help ensure that we remove barriers to voting for citizens with disabilities, the elderly, Native Americans, and those with limited English proficiency. Our democracy works best when all citizens can make their voices heard at the ballot box,” she said.

“Despite existing federal law protecting the rights of people with disabilities, far too often, these rights are overlooked and forgotten in our electoral process. The Accessible Voting Act seeks to bolster the protections for voters with disabilities, as established by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Help America Vote Act, and ensure equitable access to every American voter in our democracy for years to come,” said Curt Decker, executive director, National Disability Rights Network.

The Accessible Voting Act would create a national resource center on accessible voting to conduct cultural competency training for election officials and poll workers.  It would establish a new state grant program for the Office of Accessibility to provide dedicated funding to improve accessibility to voting. Finally, it would provide voting information and resources through accessible websites so voters know how to register to vote and cast a ballot.

As Congress grapples with legislation coming from both parties to tighten voter security on one hand, and ease voter restrictions on the other, it will be a significant failure to not also address the issues of accessibility for our population facing aging and disability obstacles.