Whitehouse Pushes for COVID-19 Senate Proposal to Protect Residents, Employees

Published in the Pawtucket Times on March 1, 2021

As the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic approaches, U.S Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) joins Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) in introducing a legislative proposal to save lives of nursing home residents and employees and assist with vaccinations.   At press time, over 1.3 million nursing residents and workers in long-term care facilities have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 170,000 have died so far, accounting for approximately 35 percent of COVID-19 deaths nationwide.

Taking a Close Look at S.333

Last week, S.333, “The COVID-19 Nursing Home Protection Act,” was thrown into the legislative hopper.  Initially introduced last Congress, the latest version, now being considered by the Senate Finance Committee, would provide funding to give nursing homes the needed resources to keep residents and workers safe; funding would go towards providing vital infection control assistance and organizing local health and emergency workers – known as “strike” or “surge” teams – to manage COVID-19 outbreaks and care for residents.  At this time no House companion measure has been introduced.

S. 333, introduced on Feb. 22, would provide $210 million for the Secretary of HHS to contract with quality improvement organizations to provide essential infection control assistance to nursing homes. 

Moreover, the legislative proposal would also send $750 million in funding to states to implement “strike” or “surge” teams. States are using “strike” or “surge” teams to ensure a sufficient number of aides, nurses and other providers are available to care for residents. Such teams also help manage COVID-19 outbreaks within a facility, particularly as vaccinations proceed in these settings. Since August, approximately 20 percent of nursing homes have reported each week that they do not have a sufficient workforce to care for residents.”

The impact of the pandemic has been devastating to minority communities, where reports have indicated that facilities serving significant numbers of Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely to have COVID-19 infections. S. 333 would require the HHS Secretary to collect and make public demographic data on COVID-19 cases and deaths, including information on age, race, ethnicity, and preferred language. 

Whitehouse supports President Joe Biden’s call for the implementation of strike teams in his American Rescue Plan to help address these persistent shortages as well as the collection and dissemination of data on suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths by race, ethnicity and preferred language.

Controlling COVID-19 Outbreaks in the Nation’s Nursing Homes

“Nursing home residents and staff have been through a traumatic year,” said Whitehouse who sites on the Senate Finance Committee.  “We need to prioritize vaccinating and caring for the Americans who live and work in these settings.  That means providing additional staff as needed to control outbreaks and making sure every resident and care worker who wants a vaccine can get one.,” said the Rhode Island’s junior Senator who has served since Jan. 4, 2007.

“As more than 170,000 residents and workers in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19, it is critical that Congress pass the COVID-19 Nursing Home Protection Act,” says Sen. Bob Casey, Chair of the U.S. Special Committee on Aging.

“This bill would address persistent staffing shortages in nursing homes by utilizing strike teams, promote infection control protocols and require that demographic data is collected on COVID-19 cases and deaths,” notes Casey.

Adds Casey, “The challenge this terrible virus poses are unprecedented and requires an immediate and extraordinary response. That is why my colleagues and I are advancing strategies to give states what they need – funding for ‘strike’ teams to help address staffing shortages in nursing homes and assist with vaccinations in these settings. We have an obligation to protect our most at-risk citizens.”

 “We applaud the efforts of Senator Whitehouse and his colleagues to provide funding for the protection of nursing home residents and staff,” said Scott Fraser, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, an affiliate of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association.  “We are especially pleased with the creation of strike teams to address the critical issue of staffing shortages during times of crisis.  This is a suggestion that RIHCA brought to Senator Whitehouse’s attention this past Spring when our homes were in critical need of additional staff due to the pandemic.  We thank him for listening and taking action,” he says.

At press time, 12 Democratic Senators join Sens. Whitehouse, Casey, Warnock, Blumenthal, and Booker, becoming cosponsors to this legislation.  They are: Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jack Reed (D-RI), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI). 

A Call for Bipartisan Support

With the Senate now under Democratic control, there is a good chance that S. 333 will be considered by the Senate Finance Committee and if passed sent to the floor for consideration.   During the 116th Congressional session, the former Senate GOP Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who often called himself the “Grim Reaper,” sent Democratic legislation to a legislative graveyard, refusing to act on Democratic legislation, even proposals with bipartisan support.

It’s time for Senate Republicans to support a Democratic proposal that protects the health and safety and the wellbeing of nursing home residents and workers in the nation’s 15,600 nursing homes. 

Partisan politics shouldn’t play a role in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to not urge his caucus to support this worthy legislative proposal.  S. 333 truly deserves bipartisan support and enactment, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Cicilline Pushes for House Aging Committee

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 4, 2021

Yesterday, the 116th Congress came to an end, with the new Congressional session convening that day with the swearing in of lawmakers elected on Nov. 3, 2020.   Some political observers say that legislative gridlock during this Congress made it the least productive in the last fifty years.  GovTrack.us, reported that of 16,587 bills thrown into the legislative hopper, 252 became enacted laws, and 712 resolutions were passed.

During a Fox interview last February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) candidly admitted he prevented the consideration of hundreds of bills passed by the House that were sent over to the Senate for consideration.   McConnell’s “Legislative Graveyard” created by his controlling the legislative agenda by blocking debate, markup and refusing to allow a vote on House proposed legislation, was widely reported by the media and documented in a 33-page report, “2020 Democracy Score Card,” released last September by Common Cause, a watch dog advocacy group.

The results of tomorrow’s Georgia Senate runoff will determine if the GOP can maintain legislative control of the Senate. If Senate Democratic candidates win their seats, the Senate Democratic caucus will have the majority with 50 Senate seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris having a tie breaking vote. But if McConnell, called “the Grim Reaper” by his critics, continues to maintains political control of the upper chamber, Democratic legislative proposals introduced to improve the quality of life of America’s seniors and to help those struggling to financially make ends meet, would be rejected.  

Legislative Proposals to be Reconsidered by New Congress

During the116th Congress, Washington, DC-based aging advocacy groups, including the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) , AARP, Social Security Works, Leadership Council on Aging, and National Council on Aging, pushed for passage of legislative proposals to enhance the quality of life of America’s seniors and to strengthen and expand Social Security and Medicare, to keep these programs fiscally sound.  As the new Congress begins, lawmakers might consider bringing back legislative proposals that were not enacted in the previous Congressional session because of a Republican-controlled Senate.  Here are a few legislative proposals that have some merit and I hope to see reintroduced this year:

Congressman John Larson (D-Conn.) called on Congress to finally address the Social Security “Notch” issue. By ignoring this issue, workers born in 1960 and 1961, would likely see lower Social Security retirement benefits in the future, charged NCPSSM.  Last session, Larson, who chairs the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, introduced the “Social Security COVID Correction and Equity Act,” to increase benefits for those born in 1960 and 1961 without impacting the benefits for any other beneficiary. 

Larson also introduced the “Social Security 2100 Act” to strengthen and expand Social Security.  The landmark legislation would keep the program financially healthy for more than 75 years, while boosting benefits for all retirees. Congress must work during the 117th session to protect and expand the nation’s Social Security program.

The late Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Chair of the House Oversight Committee, introduced the “Lower Drug Costs Now Act” which the House passed last session, would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription prices with Big Pharma, which would save the government and seniors nearly $350 billion in drug costs. The bill would also expand traditional Medicare by adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits. 

Additionally, a bipartisan crafted bill, the “Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act,” introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), was not allowed to be considered on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader McConnell.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, this legislation would save taxpayers $95 billion, reduce out-of-pocket spending by $72 billion and finally reduce premiums by $1 billion.

Almost three months ago, the Social Security Administration announced that approximately 70 million Americans would see a meager 1.3 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) increase to Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income.  With retirees experiencing financial difficulties during the pandemic, a $20 increase in their monthly check might not help them to pay for spiraling health care and drug costs, along with the expenses of purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to keep them safe. 

Following the announcing of the 2021 COLA, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation Committee, introduced the “Emergency Social Security COLA for 2021 Act” to provide Social Security beneficiaries with a 3 percent increase (or a $250 per month flat increase) which would reduce the impact of the small 2021 COLA increase. 

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act,” to provide needed resources to facilities to protect frail residents and staff. Residents in these facilities are among the most vulnerable because of their age and underlying medical conditions.  Days after the introduction of the Senate bill, Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), signed on as a cosponsor of the House version.  

This legislative proposal would help states implement strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings, including through the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and to support nursing home workers with premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits.

New Push to Reestablish House Aging Committee

“After a lifetime of hard work, seniors should be able to enjoy their retirement years with dignity and peace of mind,” says Rhode Island’s Cicilline. “It’s the best way to secure the future of Medicare and Social Security, bring down the cost of prescription drugs, and find solutions for housing, transportation and long-term care issues that are especially important to Rhode Island seniors,” he says.

A long-time advocate for seniors, Cicilline announces in this weekly commentary his intentions of reintroducing a House resolution in the 117th Congress to reestablish the House Aging Committee

During the previous three Congressional sessions, Cicilline, representing the state’s first legislative district, introduced a House Resolution (just 245 words) to reestablish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. Two of the times a Republican-controlled House blocked consideration of the House Resolution. 

According to Cicilline, the House can easily create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by just approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other aspects.  Funding would be up to the Appropriations Committee. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

The previous House Aging Committee was active from 1974 to 1993 (until it was disbanded because of budgetary issues) put the spot light on an array of senior issues including elder abuse, helped increase home care benefits for older adults and helped establish research and care centers for Alzheimer’s disease.  

Cicilline noted that a House Aging Committee would perform comprehensive studies on aging policy issues, funding priorities, and trends.  Like its predecessor, its efforts would not be limited by narrow jurisdictional boundaries of the standing committee but broadly at targeted aging policy issues, he notes.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get the job done,” says Cicilline.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Updated on Jan. 4, 2021

Older Georgian Voters Key to Winning Senate Runoff Election

Published in the Pawtucket Times on December 21, 2020

Weiss Both Democrats and Republicans know that the proverbial clock is ticking.  It’s 15 days before the Georgia’s Senate runoff election scheduled for Jan. 15.   At press time, 1,336,136 registered Georgia voters have gone to the polls, says the U.S. Election Project.   The percent turnout of registered voters is 17.5 percent.    

Although Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden beat President Trump to take the White House and the House Democrats maintain a very slim majority in their chamber, GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can still block Democratic legislative proposals by controlling the upper chamber’s agenda.  He must keep two GOP Senate seats up for grabs in next month’s U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia.  A Democratic win will give the party a majority 50 Senate seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie.  In order to pick up the two GOP Senate seats, held by incumbent Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Democrats must successfully mobilize voters and adequately fund the campaigns of the Democrat candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnoc. 

Capturing Georgia’s Senior Vote 

A new poll, released on Dec. 11 by AARP Georgia, predicts that age 50 and over voters may well bring the two Democratic Senate candidates to Capitol Hill.  Social Security, Medicare and Nursing home protections are key issues for these older voters, says the pollsters.

 The survey of 1,250 2020 Georgia voters, including 857 age 50-plus voters and an oversample of 358 Black voters age 50-plus, was conducted on behalf of AARP by the bipartisan team of Fabrizio Ward and Hart Research Associates between Nov. 30 and Dec. 4, 2020.  The telephone/cell phone poll results were published in a 11-page report, “50+ Voters and the Georgia State Runoff Elections.”   

According to AARP Georgia’s bipartisan poll, both U.S. Senate races are statistically tied, with Democrat Jon Ossoff (48 precent) narrowly leading Republican incumbent David Perdue (46 percent) and Democrat Raphael Warnock (47 percent) edging out Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler (46 percent). But among voters age 50 and over, the poll shows both the Republican candidates lead their Democratic challenger by identical margins, 53 percent for Perdue and Loeffler versus 42 percent for Ossoff and Warnock. Just percent of the voters are undecided.

Further, the poll found majorities of Republicans and Democrats age 50 and over are more likely to vote for a candidate advocating for policies that protect older Americans, like using Medicare’s buying power to help lower drug prices. “These results show that both races are a dead heat and time is running out for candidates to address the concerns of 50-plus voters,” said AARP Georgia State Director Debra Tyler-Horton in a statement announcing the release of the poll’s results. “To win, candidates must discuss the issues that matter to 50-plus Georgians now – like preventing cuts to Social Security and Medicare, lowering drug prices and protecting seniors in nursing homes,” she says.  

Georgia’s Republican and Democratic 50-plus voters told the pollsters that they are much more or somewhat more likely to support a Senate candidate who advocates to protect Medicare (Republicans 83 percent, Democrats 96 percent) and to allow the national health insurance program to negotiate with drug companies (Republicans 93 percent, Democrats 94 percent).  The survey’s respondents also wanted Congress to protect Social Security (Republicans 90 percent. Democrats 93 percent). 

Additionally, the older survey respondents call for more protections for nursing home residents during COVID-19 (Republicans 79 percent, Democrats 95 percent).  They want Congress for providing tax credits for family caregivers to help offset costs (Republicans 69 percent, Democrats 90 percent), and support the strengthening of federal age discrimination laws (Republicans 53 percent, Democrats 81 precent). 

As to today’s COVID-19, pandemic, the AARP Georgia survey findings indicate that older Georgian’s willingness to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has increased a substantial 14 points—from 41 percent to 55 percent—since September, when over half said they would not agree to be vaccinated.  And two in five 50-plus voters told pollsters that nursing home safety is “extremely important” to them in 2020.  It’s especially important to Black voters (53 percent), people who know someone who died from COVID-19 (51 percent), and to those who worry a lot about getting COVID-19 (48 percent). 

NCPSSM to Encourage Turnout of Older Georgia Voters

Recognizing the importance of mobilizing Georgia’s older voters, the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) announced the launching of a voter outreach campaign in the Peach State to encourage turnout and promote Democratic Senate candidates Warnock and Ossof as advocates for the state’s seniors. The campaign includes radio ads in the Atlanta market, postcard mailings to thousands of National Committee members and supporters throughout the state, and social media outreach to the Georgia’s voters.The National Committee has made a five-figure advertising buy on three Atlanta radio stations beginning December 15th through the runoff election on January 5th. 

“Only two candidates are ready to put Georgia seniors’ health and economic well-being first, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock,” the radio ad tells voters.  Postcards are being mailed to more than 7,000 National Committee members in Georgia, bearing the message, “Your best future starts with your vote for John Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.”

“We need the leadership, vision and determination of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to fight for seniors in the U.S. Senate. They will work to protect Social Security and Medicare from harmful proposals to cut the benefits Georgians have earned.  They will be voices to strengthen the critical lifelines of Social Security and Medicare during the COVID pandemic, when older Georgians are counting on their earned benefits more than ever,” said Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s president and CEO.  “Georgia has 1.3 million Social Security beneficiaries and 1.8 million Medicare enrollees.  The average Social Security benefit in Georgia is $1,500 per month.  Those benefits provide $45.3 billion in annual economic stimulus to communities across the state, he notes.

While Warnock and Ossoff earned the National Committee’s endorsement by making it clear that they will standup to protect and strengthen Social Security, the incumbent GOP Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler have paid lip service to protecting Social Security, says Richtman.  As U.S. Senators, they have supported GOP positions of cutting the benefits of future beneficiaries and deferring Social Security’s payroll tax last August that will force workers to repay those funds back in early 2021, he says.

Controlling the Senate’s Legislative Agenda

“Wins by Warnock and Ossoff would not only be a victory for Georgians. It would give President-elect Biden and his party the power in the U.S. Senate to actually get things done for seniors after four years of obstruction, says Richtman.

For a copy of AARP Georgia’s poll findings, go to:
https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/research/surveys_statistics/politics/2020/2020-election-battleground-states-senate-georgia-runoff-election.doi.10.26419-2Fres.00401.029.pdf