Time to be educated on senior issues with primary just weeks away

Published in RINewsToday on August 22, 2022

On Aug. 17, just twenty-eight days before Rhode Island’s Sept. 13th Primary Election, at the Warwick-based Pilgrim Senior Center, Gov. Dan McKee joined Lt. Governor Sabina Matos, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, other elected leaders and advocates to highlight recently passed legislative and budget initiatives that supported  Rhode Island’s senior population. The Governor ceremonially signed legislation passed this legislative session. 

Among those investments is $4 million in the FY 23 state budget to increase the Circuit Breaker Tax Credit available to qualifying seniors and adults with disabilities, raising the maximum credit received to $600 and increasing the income threshold for eligibility to $ 35,000.  This property tax credit program provides relief to eligible seniors and adults with disabilities who own or rent their homes. The budget also increases the amount of pension income that is exempt from state taxation for all retirees from the first $15,000 to the first $20,000.

Whether it’s tax relief, housing, food security, or utilities, our Administration is looking at these issues through the lens of ensuring our seniors are able to not just live in the Ocean State, but that they are also able to thrive here,” stated the McKee at the event, a continuation of his #RIMomentum Tour. “I am proud to deliver a budget and sign several pieces of legislation that support and protect our seniors, and I thank the sponsors and advocates who helped see them across the finish line,” he said.

“Both as chair of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council, and as a granddaughter whose family cares for a senior, I am dedicated to ensuring that every Rhode Islander has the support they need to live full, rich, and long lives. The budget we have passed this year, along with the bills signed today, will significantly improve on our seniors’ quality of life,” said Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos. “We are going to continue working to provide high-quality services to our neighbors of every age.”

With his ceremonially pen, the Governor also signed these pieces of legislation:

H7133B (Reps, Joseph M. McNamara) and S2207A (Sen. Joshua Miller): This legislation authorizes the creation and implementation of a pharmaceutical redistribution program by the Department of Health and the Board of Pharmacy to begin on Jan. 1, 2023.

H7246 (Representative Jason Knight) and S2228 (Senator Cynthia A. Coyne): This legislation lowers the age at which a victim can be considered an elder under the state’s elder financial exploitation laws.

H 7068 (Representative Kathleen A. Fogarty) and S2317   (Senator V. Susan Sosnowski): This legislation makes it easier for senior citizens to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Aging Advocates Gear Up for Next Legislative Session

McKee’s ceremonial signing of legislation was a visible sign to aging advocates that state officials are recognizing that these are wise investments that foster healthy lives and economic security for our growing older population, says Maureen Maigret, Chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council and serves on the Board of Directors for the Senior Agenda Coalition and the Village Common of RI. “The budget builds on Subcommittee promoted legislation sponsored by Rep. Deb Ruggiero and Sen. Cynthis Coyne to expand the Property Tax Relief law and last year’s addition of close to $1Million in Governor McKee’s budget to increase income eligibility for the Office of Healthy Aging ‘At Home Cost Share’ program and to include persons under age 65 with Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” she said. 

According to Maigret, several items from the Sub-committee’s Strategic Plan that did not make it this year are the expansion of the Medicare Savings Program to help lower-income adults pay for Medicare Part B’s hefty premiums and extending the state Paid Family Leave law beyond six weeks which will help families needing to take time out of work to care for both older relatives and children needing medical/nursing care. “These are just some of the items we will be advocating for in 2023,” she said.

Maigret notes that September’s Primary Election is less than a month away. “New laws make it easier to vote.  You can apply online for a mail ballot for the Primary which must be sent in by August 23rd, she says. 

Becoming an Educated Voter on Senior Issues

According to Ballotpedia, the website encyclopedia of American politics, all 435 voting seats in the House of Representatives and 34 Senate Seats will be up for grabs on the midterm elections scheduled for Nov. 8, 2022 . The seats of five of the six non-voting members of the House are also up for election as well. 

Ballotpedia notes, state elective offices up for election in 2022 include 36 gubernatorial seats, 30 lieutenant gubernatorial seats, 30 attorney general seats, and 27 secretary of state seats. Including down-ballot races, there are 309 state executive offices up for election across 44 states in 2022, says Ballotpedia.

Also, 88 of the country’s 99 state legislative chambers will also hold regularly scheduled elections, representing 6,278 of the nation’s 7,283 legislative seats, adds Ballotpedia.

The Washington, DC-based AARP gears up its efforts, through its “Our Voices Decide” campaign, to ensure that America’s seniors can continue to maximize their influence on this year’s midterm elections (at both the state and national levels) like they have for previous elections. 

According to AARP Rhode Island, AARP in every state has a voter engagement page that provides information on when, how and where to vote and, in many states, recent changes in voting laws. Ours is at www.aarp.org/RIVotes. This webpage is updated frequently. 

Many states also post video voter guides, in which candidates are asked questions. In Rhode Island – and in every state — candidates were strictly limited to 60 seconds or less to respond. Texts of the questions and answers on video are posted online. The candidate responses appear in alphabetical order, just as they would appear on the ballot, says AARP Rhode Island.

AARP has provided voting information for many years. AARP Rhode Island featured videos of candidates for Governor in 2020. We chose to feature candidates in three contested 2022 Primary races – Governor, 2nd Congressional District and Providence Mayor, says AARP Rhode Island.

“Voting gives you the power to decide what our future looks like,” AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine said. “But you have to be in the know to vote. AARP Rhode Island sees the importance of collecting the most up-to-date election information, including key dates and deadlines, to make sure that the voices of voters 50+ are heard. We are doing everything we can to make sure older Rhode Islanders are prepared to vote and know the safe and secure voting options included in the new, AARP Rhode Island-backed Let RI Vote Act. Our Video Voter Guide takes this a step further and with an important focus, giving older voters clear, concise answers on issues that impact their lives. Debates and candidate forums seldom focus on these questions and that is why AARP steps in to give voters a non-partisan, trusted resource to better understand where candidates stand before they cast their votes,” she says.

“In Rhode Island and across the country, the data clearly shows that 50+ voters will be the deciders in the 2022 elections,” said Taylor. “We are working with dozens of advocacy volunteers who are fighting for voters 50+ to make their voices heard on the issues that matter – especially in Rhode Island where we are in the midst of a housing crisis, nursing homes are in jeopardy, the cost of long-term care is skyrocketing and where people want leaders who are committed to making local communities more livable,” she adds.

“At the federal level, older voters want to know candidates’ positions on protecting and strengthening the Social Security benefits Americans have paid into and earned through years of hard work, protecting and improving Medicare benefits, lowering prescription drug prices, and supporting family caregivers who risk their careers and financial futures to care for parents, spouses, and other loved ones,” Taylor said.

Other Resources…

On August 3 the Senior Agenda Coalition of RI co-hosted a Governor’s Candidates Forum hosted by 17 organizations (www.senioragendari.org/coalition). To learn how the candidates from both parties responded to seven questions about aging policy and issues. Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=okQ5FguKMao

Ahead of Midterms, Trump Unveils His Proposal to Slash Prescription Drug Costs

Published in Woonsocket Call on October 28, 2018

With mid-term elections looming, President Trump moves to block Democrats tying the high cost of prescription drugs to an unresponsive Republican-controlled Congress and to GOP efforts to undo health care protections for people with preexisting medical conditions, one of the most popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act, referred to as Obamacare.

According to recent Roll Call poll, health care is a top issue for Democratic and Independent voters in key battle ground states while the GOP tout’s immigration and the economy and jobs as its priority.

Last Thursday, afternoon, at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with Secretary Alex Aza, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and CMS Administrator Seem Verman standing by President Trump, he announced major changes as to how Medicare pays for prescription drug to bring down costs by making prescribed medications more affordable to seniors, making pricing of U.S. drugs fairer relative to costs paid by other countries.

Bringing Down Medicare’s Skyrocketing Drug Costs

“We’re taking aim at the global freeloading that forces American consumers to subsidize lower prices in foreign countries through higher prices in our country,” said Trump at the Oct. 25 press conference in his 14-minute speech. He noted that the costs for the same pharmaceutical drug in some countries are 20 percent less than those purchased in the United States even though it was made by the same manufacturing company.

“At long last, the drug companies and foreign countries will be held accountable for how they rigged the system against American consumers,” says Trump.

Trump rattled off specific examples of how Medicare pays higher prices for the same pharmaceutical drugs that are cheaper in other developed countries. For instance, one eye medication that prevents blindness would annually cost about $187 million rather than $1 billion dollars if Medicare paid the same prices other countries pay, he said.

Another example, a highly used and very effective cancer drug is nearly seven times as expensive for Medicare as it is for other countries, said Trump, noting that “this happens because the government pays whatever price the drug companies set without any negotiation whatsoever.”

Under Trump’s unveiled proposal, a new Medicare model, the International Pricing Index (IPI), is created to bring down Medicare drug costs to ensure seniors get a “more fair deal on the discounts drug companies voluntarily give to other countries.”

Currently, Medicare sets payments for physician-administered drugs at the average sales price in the U.S. market—plus a price-based add-on fee. Trump’s proposal would allow Medicare to set the payment of these drugs at a Target Price, based on the discounts drug companies give other countries. With the model fully implemented, it is estimated that total payment for these drugs would drop by 30 percent.

Under the IPI model, described in an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Medicare’s payments for select physician-administered drugs would shift to a level more closely aligned with prices in other countries. Overall savings for American taxpayers and patients is projected to total $17.2 billion, with out-of-pocket savings potentially totaling $3.4 billion over five years.

Medicare beneficiaries not covered by the IPI model could also see their drug costs lowered, because the average price used to calculate traditional Medicare reimbursement will drop.

Trump’s drug pricing proposal still needs to be refined and put though a federal rule-making process and its impact may not be seen for years.

Is Trump’s Efforts to Lower Drug Costs Just Election Year Posturing?

“It’s hard to take the Trump administration and Republicans seriously about reducing health care costs for seniors two weeks before the election when they have repeatedly advocated for and implemented policies that strip away protections for people with pre-existing conditions and lead to increased health care costs for millions of Americans,” says U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck E. Schumer in a statement.

“Once again, the President’s plan doesn’t go far enough to bring down the costs of prescription drugs. Democrats have proposed letting the HHS Secretary negotiate the prices of all drugs covered under Medicare, as well as new tools to ensure transparency and accountability when companies try to raise their prices. Without these critical steps, the President’s plan is just more words with little substance,” says Rhode Island Congressman David N. Cicilline.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) president and CEO Stephen J. Ubl, opposes Trump’s proposal to lower Medicare’s drug costs, warning that it would “jeopardize access to medicines for seniors and patients with disabilities living with devastating conditions such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.” Trump’s proposal severely alters the Medicare Part B program by reducing physician reimbursement and inserting middlemen between patients and their physicians,” charges Ubl.

Adds, Frederick Isasi, executive director of Families USA, in his statement: “The data is clear. The way we currently pay providers and pharmaceutical companies for drugs administered in doctors’ offices and hospitals creates perverse financial incentives for providers to select extraordinarily expensive drugs that may not be best for their patients. “

“Medicare Part B is the perfect example of misaligned incentives, and the proposed rule, if implemented, could pilot significant new ways to pay for drugs that align incentives so that patients get the highest value care, they have the best outcomes possible, and costs come down, says Isasi.

Like many, Isasi hopes that Trump’s proposal of using the power of the federal government to reduce Medicare drug costs is “not just election year posturing” but truly reflects a policy shift to using federal negotiating power to get unstainable prescription drug prices under control.

Next year, after the dust settles after the mid-term elections, Congress must work together to hammer out a comprehensive legislative strategy to lower pharmaceutical drug costs and to provide health care to all Americans. Listen to the polls.

New Report Charges that States Disfranchise Older Voters

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 11, 2017

Since 1948, Wisconsin resident Christine Krucki had voted in every presidential election, but effectively lost her right to vote when her state enacted a voter ID law in 2011. An old Illinois photo ID and proof of her residence in Wisconsin was just not good enough to allow her to cast a vote.

Krucki did not have a birth certificate and was forced to purchase one for $20. However, her last name on the document did not match her current last name, changed when she married. She then paid $15 dollars for a copy of her marriage certificate , but that document listed her list name differently than her birth name, as she was adopted a different name after moving in with her stepsister when she was in her early 20s. Changing her name on the Illinois marriage certificate to match her birth certificate to solve the problem would cost between $ 150 and
$ 300.

The obstacles Krucki faced when attempting to exercise her right to vote are encountered by millions of older Americans when they attempt to vote. With the 2018 mid-term elections less than a year away, two U.S. Senators release a report detailing Krucki’s problem at the polls, and notes how suppressive state laws and inaccessible voting locations disenfranchise older voters.

Pushing Older Voters Away from the Polls

Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ranking Member of the Committee on Rules and Administration’s 15 page report, “Barriers to Voting for Older Americans: How States are Making it Harder for Seniors to Vote,” finds that strict voter identification (ID) laws, closure of voting locations, inaccessible polling places and limits on early voting and absentee ballots are preventing seniors and people with disabilities from casting votes.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. But, that right is under threat for millions of older Americans and individuals with disabilities across the nation,” stated Sen. Bob Casey in a statement announcing the report’s release. “This report brings awareness to the unique challenges that seniors face in exercising their constitutional right. We must work to ensure that all Americans have equal access to the voting booth.”

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is becoming harder and harder for many Americans, especially our seniors,” add Sen. Klobuchar, noting that long lines, inaccessible polling places, and strict voter ID laws have become barriers to voting for older Americans. “This important report shines a light on the hardships these voters face and proposes common sense solutions to make voting easier for everyone. We need to do more to restore Americans’ confidence in our political system. Our first step should be making it easier for their voices to be heard on Election Day,” he says.

The report, released on Nov. 2, also includes new information from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that only 17 percent of the polling places it examined during the 2016 election were fully accessible. Most polling places GAO examined had one or more impediments from parking to the voting area and had accessible voting stations that could impede private and independent voting.

According to the report, suppressive voting laws and issues of accessibility affect tens of millions of older Americans and people with disabilities. In the 2016 election, 30 percent of the voters were between the ages of 50 and 64-years-old and 13 percent were 65 and older. Sixteen million (11.5 percent) of the 139 million votes were cast by people with disabilities. As the baby boomer population continues to age, these restrictions and barriers are likely to adversely impact more Americans.

In order to protect the voting rights of older voters and persons with disabilities, the report calls on Congress to ensure the full authorization and empowerment of all federal voting laws, which will make polling places accessible to older voters. Access to polls can also be increased by allowing opportunities for accessible early voting and absentee voting. Finally, it calls on limiting restrictions on voting and ensure that election laws fully consider the needs and abilities of older Americans.

Reflections from Rhode Island

“The depth of this issue varies from state to state,” says AARP State Director Kathleen Connell, who herself is a former Rhode Island Secretary of State. “I believe that older Rhode Islanders are well protected here, but we must be vigilant. Older Rhode Islanders are traditionally the most engaged voting group. Their voices are important and should not be silenced in any way.”

“I would add, however, that deliberate voter suppression is a threat to voters of all ages and the implications are as serious as they are obvious.

“When Voter ID legislation was passed in Rhode Island, we worked with then Secretary of State Ralph Mollis to set up photo booths to create ID cards for voters who did not have proper photo IDs. It was well received, but transportation was identified as a barrier to reaching some potential voters. Fortunately there were other remedies in place and, I have to say, no one contacted us saying they were prohibited from voting.”

Adds, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, this report presents a troubling situation across our country. The right to vote is sacred. I have spent the past three years modernizing our elections so that we can engage and empower all Rhode Islanders. Civic participation at all age levels is critical to our success as a state. I will continue to work to remove barriers so that eligible Rhode Islanders can have easier access to the ballot.”

Joe Graziano, Gorbea’s Communication Coordinator, notes that the GAO findings cited in this “Barriers to Voting” report is based on Council on State Governments research that his Department did not have a chance to review. “While it is not called “early voting”, Rhode Island does have an emergency mail ballot period that allows Rhode Islanders to cast their ballot ahead of Election Day without an excuse, says Graziano, noting that older voters have been able to use this system, in fact, 45 percent of the emergency mail ballots cast last year were by Rhode Islanders 65 and older.

Graziano admits that the GAO report shines a light on some of the barriers to voting across the nation. “Secretary Gorbea agrees that access to voting is critical and has successfully strived to improve it in the last three years including the introduction of online voter registration, automatic voter registration and the implementation of new, easier to use elections technologies (voting machines and ePoll books). Additionally, she has redesigned the ballot and the voter information guide to make them easier to read and understand. She also introduced legislation to update and expand opportunities for early, in-person voting,” he says.

“As a way to mitigate the negative impact of the photo ID requirement for voting, the Rhode Island Department of State has made sure that free photo Voter IDs are available to people in the communities where they live,” says Graziano, noting that last year alone, the Secretary of State staff held 51 events at senior centers and retirement facilities to ensure that eligible, older voters had proper voter identification, were introduced to new voting technologies and had any of their elections related questions answered by our Elections Division staff.

Looking to the upcoming General Assembly Session, Graziano says that Secretary Gorbea will once again introduce legislation for early in-person voting. “The legislation would eliminate the need for emergency mail ballots by allowing voters to cast their ballot at their local city or town hall, up to 20 days prior to an election, including the Saturday and Sunday prior to Election Day,” he says.

For more details about the Senate voting obstacle report, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Voting%20Rights%20Report.pdf.