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. 

Using Savings from Drug Pricing Reform to Expand Medicare

Published in RINewsToday on June 7, 2021

Ahead of President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28 and as the Democratic administration considers policies to slash rising drug costs, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 65-page report finding that the U.S. pays more than two to four times higher prices for a selected sample of 20 single source, brand name drugs than Australia, Canada and France. The latest GAO report, commissioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), found that Americans, suffering from blood clots, bronchitis, emphysema and Hepatitis C, were paying more for life-saving treatments than patients in these industrialized countries. 

“This important GAO study confirms what we all already know: the pharmaceutical industry is ripping off the American people,” said Sen. Sanders in a statement announcing the March 29th release of the GAO report, “Prescription Drugs: US Prices for Selected Brand Drugs Were Higher on Average Than Prices in Australia, Canada and France.”

“The time is long overdue for the United States to do what every major country on earth does: negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies to lower the outrageous price of prescription drugs. I would urge the president to put this proposal in the American Families Plan and use the savings to expand and improve Medicare for older Americans. We can no longer tolerate the American people paying, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” says the Vermont Senator who chairs the Senate’s Budget Committee.

U.S. Paying Outrageous Drug Prices

The GAO study found that in 2020, the U.S. paid 4.36 times more than France, 4.25 times more than Australia and 2.82 times more than Canada for the selected drugs, which represent a sample of the drugs with the highest Medicare Part D expenditures and use. The researchers noted that the publicly available data for the comparison countries were gross prices that did not reflect potential discounts. As a result, the actual differences between U.S. prices and those of the other countries were likely much larger than GAO estimates.

According to the GAO report, while France and Australia operate universal, publicly funded health systems that include prescription drug coverage, both Canada and the U.S. have a significant number of people who do not have prescription drug coverage. But even when comparing the full cash retail prices of selected drugs, the prices quoted to individuals without prescription drug coverage, GAO found that prices were two to eight times higher in the U.S. than the same drugs from pharmacies in Canada. 

For instance, GAO found that the cash price of Epclusa (28 tablets), which treats Hepatitis C, or an infection that attacks the liver, is $36,743 in the U.S. but $17,023.63 in Canada. The cash price of Harvoni (28 tablets), which also treats Hepatitis C, is $46,570.33 in the U.S. but $19,084.54 in Canada. In another example, GAO cited that the cash price of Incruse Ellipta Inhalation Powder (30 inhalations), which treats chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a group of lung diseases which block airflow and make it difficult to breath, is $411.33 in the U.S. but $53.31 in Canada.

Because France and Australia have universal health systems that cover prescription drugs, Australians would pay up to a $28.09 copay for a month supply of these medicines, while patients in France would pay anywhere from $0 to $34.03 for the drugs. The maximum copay that high income seniors with prescription drug coverage in Ontario, Canada would pay for the drugs is $4.67.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

On April 23, 48, organizations, led by Indivisible, Social Security Works and Public Citizen, called on Biden to include bold drug pricing reforms in American Families Plan to expand Medicare, and the result of a new polls supports this legislative action. 

Drug pricing reform will produce upward of $450 billion in savings over 10 years, note the organizations, urging Biden to use these savings to reinvest in Medicare. The call for adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare, lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 and creating an out-of-pocket cap for medical expenses.

Alongside the letter, the organizations released the findings of a new poll from Data for Progress, widespread public support across party lines for expanding and improving Medicare. The poll’s findings noted that 86% of Americans, including 82% of Republicans, support adding dental, hearing and vision benefits to Medicare. It also found that three-quarters of Democrats, a majority of independents, and nearly half of Republicans support lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 55. 

“Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices down saves money for the federal government, which is the largest buyer of prescription drugs in the world,” said Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works. “We must pump those savings back into Medicare to expand eligibility and add benefits that equalize Medicare with private insurance,” he says.

“Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50, capping out-of-pocket costs, and expanding benefits to include dental, hearing, and vision would improve access to care for millions of Americans. Far too many Americans have lost their insurance or put off needed care due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Eagan Kemp, Health Care Policy Advocate for Public Citizen. “The Biden Administration and Congress have a chance to deliver important progress at a crucial time,” he says.

Adds Mary Small, Legislative Director for Indivisible, “With the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic still being felt in our communities, now is a crucial moment to expand public health care coverage and deliver savings on prescription drug prices to the American people. Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 will be an essential step toward reducing the racial health inequities by increasing coverage to communities of color and low-income folks.”  She adds, “Allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and then reinvesting those savings back into the program to expand services further strengthens our path toward universal coverage for all.” 

Last Thoughts

Garnering applause, Biden put high drug costs on his Administration’s radar screen at his recent address before Congress. “Let’s give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices. It won’t just help people on Medicare. It will lower prescription drug costs for everyone,” said the 46th President of the United States. “We’ve talked about it long enough. Democrats and Republicans, let’s get it done this year,” he said.

But actions speak louder than words, say Washington Insiders.  They note that Biden’s American Families Plan, did not include any proposal to slash pharmaceutical costs or lower the Medicare eligibility age. Is it possible for Biden to lower the drug prices in the United States, making the prices more comparable to other industrialized countries and to even expand Medicare, in the face of fierce opposition from Republicans, moderate Senate Democrats and pharmaceutical companies?  

According to the latest KFF Health Tracking Poll released June 3, 2021, the findings indicate that “nearly nine in 10 (88%) favor allowing the federal government to negotiate for lower prices on medications, including three-fourths (77%) of Republicans, nine in 10 independents (89%) and 96% of Democrats.” However, support dwindles “when the public hears argument made by pharmaceutical companies that it could lead to less research and development for new drugs, or that access to newer prescriptions could be limited,” say the researchers.

Will political pressure sway a divided Congress before the upcoming midterm elections to hammer out a bipartisan solution to put the brakes to the nation’s skyrocketing drug costs and to provide more American’s affordable health care through an expanded Medicare program. Its wait and see.

Age Discrimination, Workplace Issues at House Hearing

Published in RINewsToday.com on March 22, 2021

Just days ago, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), chairperson of the House Committee on Education and Labor and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) introduced, H.R. 2062, the bipartisan “Protection Older Workers Against Discrimination Act” (POWADA), a bill that would strengthen federal anti-discrimination protections for older workers. The legislation was introduced March 18, 2021, the same day of a joint House Education and Labor Subcommittee hearing, held to address a variety of workplace issues.  POWADA has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor for consideration.

The reintroduction of POWADA is timely.  As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, older workers are attempting to keep their jobs, working more and longer than they ever have. When seniors lose their jobs, they are far more likely than younger workers to join the ranks of the long-term unemployed. And unfortunately, discrimination appears to be a significant factor in older workers’ long-term unemployment.

A 2018 survey conducted by the Washington, DC-based AARP found that 3 in 5 workers age 45 and older had seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. The 2018 survey also found that three-quarters of older workers blame age discrimination for their lack of confidence in being able to find a new job.

Congress Gears Up to Again Fight Age Discrimination

Reps. Scott and Davis were joined by seven Republicans and 14 Democrats, including Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee Chair Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chair Alma Adams (D-NC) to support H.R. 2062.

Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline has also requested to be a co-sponsor of this legislation.

POWADA was first introduced in Congress after an adverse 2009 Supreme Court decision, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, made it much more difficult for older workers to prove claims of illegal bias based on age. Under Gross, plaintiffs seeking to prove age discrimination in employment are required to demonstrate that age was the sole motivating factor for the employer’s adverse action.  The Supreme Court ruling upends decades of precedent that had allowed individuals to prove discrimination by showing that a discriminatory motive was one of the factors on which an employer’s adverse action was based.

Scott’s reintroduced POWADA returns the legal standard for age discrimination claims to the pre-2009 evidentiary threshold, aligning the burden of proof with the same standards for proving discrimination based on race and national origin.

“Everyone– regardless of their age – should be able to go to work every day knowing that they are protected from discrimination. Unfortunately, age discrimination in the workplace is depriving older workers of opportunities and exposing them to long-term unemployment and severe financial hardship, says chairperson Scott, noting that the reintroduced bipartisan bill would finally restore the legal rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which covers workers age 40 and over.

Republican Rep. Rodney Davis puts aside political differences and has stepped up to the plate with a handful of GOP lawmakers to co-sponsor Scott’s POWADA legislation. “Every American, including older Americans, deserves to work in a workplace or jobsite that is free from discrimination. That’s why I’m proud to team up with chairperson Bobby Scott and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in introducing the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act. Our bipartisan bill provides workplace protections for older workers by removing barriers they have to filing discrimination claims, ensuring their workplace rights can be enforced, says Davis, pledging to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to finally get the bill passed,” he says.    

Oregon Rep. Bonamici, who chairs the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services, notes that her state has a rapidly aging population, and age discrimination in the workplace remains disturbingly pervasive.  She joins Scott in cosponsoring POWADA.

“I’ve heard from Oregonians who were denied or lost a job because of their age, but the bar for proving discrimination is very high and the outcomes are uncertain. The bipartisan Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act makes it clear that unlawful discrimination in the workplace is unacceptable and holds employers accountable for discriminatory actions,” says Bonamici.

Adams, who chairs the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, joins Bonamici in cosponsoring POWADA.  The North Carolina Congresswoman states: “Labor law must protect the dignity of all workers and it must recognize that discrimination against older Americans is discrimination all the same,” says Adams, who chairs the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. The North Carolina Congresswoman notes that POWADA ensures that older workers will be fairly treated in the job market, returning the legal standard for proving discrimination back to its original intent. There is no place for disparate treatment based on age in the workforce.”

“Labor law must protect the dignity of all workers and it must recognize that discrimination against older Americans is discrimination all the same,” says Adams, who chairs the Subcommittee on Workforce. The North Carolina House Lawmaker says that POWADA ensures that older workers will be fairly treated in the job market, returning the legal standard for proving discrimination back to its original intent. There is no place for disparate treatment based on age in the workforce.

“The introduction of this bill is a crucial step to strengthening the law and restoring fairness for older workers who experience age discrimination,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive vice president and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer. “It sends a clear message that discrimination in the workplace – against older workers or others – is never acceptable.

“Age discrimination in the workplace, like any other kind of discrimination, is wrong.,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. That’s why AARP is fighting all forms of age discrimination in the hiring process and on the job, including an unfair court decision that makes age discrimination more difficult to prove than race- or sex-based discrimination. “Rhode Islanders are living and working longer and experienced workers bring expertise, maturity, and perspective,” Connell added. “Yet negative stereotypes and mistaken assumptions mean that older people are often treated unfairly in the workplace. We need bipartisan Congressional action to address this stubborn and persistent problem.”

Tackling Workforce Issues

Over two-hours, four witnesses testified at a joint Zoom hearing, “Fighting for Fairness: Examining Legislation to Confront Workplace Discrimination,” held before the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services and the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. The morning hearing addressed an array of workforce issues including race and longstanding gender inequities and barriers and pregnancy discrimination at the workplace. A spotlight was also put on the rampant increase of age discrimination that older workers are now facing in the job market and the need to pass POWADA to reverse the detrimental impact of a 2009 Supreme Court decision.

Lauren McCann, senior attorney at AARP Foundation, pointed out to the attending House lawmakers that age discrimination in the workplace remains “stubbornly persistent” and urged a House Education and Labor hearing to “re-level the playing field” by passing strong anti-bias legislation.

McCann told the committee that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems faced by older workers, who have left the labor force in the last year at twice the rate during the Great Recession.

McCann testified that passage of POWADA, sponsored by Scott, the Chair of the House Committee of Education and Labor, is crucial to reverse the 2009 Supreme Court decision in the Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. case. McCann said that the high court’s 2009 decision abruptly changed the standard — from the longstanding requirement under the ADEA that a worker prove that age is just one motivating factor in adverse treatment on the job — to a much higher and tougher to prove standard: that age is the standard motive.

“Older workers now always bear the burden of persuasion in ADEA cases,” McCann emphasized.

According to McCann, House hearing comes at a time when older workers have been battered by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Unemployment for workers age 55 and older more than doubled between Feb. 2020, just before the pandemic began, and last month, based on AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) analysis of federal data.

The number of age 55 and over unemployed has also doubled, up from one million in February 2020, to 2 million last month, according to PPI.

Turning to the Senate…

At press time, a senior Senate aide for Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging, says the Senator is posed to follow the House by throwing the Senate’s POWADA Senate companion measure into the legislative hopper Monday. 

The Pennsylvania Senator clearly understands why he again must push for the passage and enactment of POWADA.  “As more Americans are remaining in the workforce longer, we must recognize and address the challenges that aging workers face. We must make it clear to employers that age discrimination is unacceptable, and we must strengthen antidiscrimination protections that are being eroded,” says Sen. Casey. “POWADA would level the playing field for older workers and ensure they are able to fight back against age discrimination in the workplace.”