AARP Rhode Island calls on Congress to act on lowering high drug costs

Published on March 14, 2022 in Rhode Island News Today

On the day before the Washington, DC-based AARP’s March 8th launch of its new ad campaign showing the impact of Congress’s failure to act on prescription drug prices, AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor, Volunteer State President Marcus Mitchell and Volunteer Lead Federal Liaison Dr. Phil Zarlengo joined Rhode Island US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse for a virtual news conference highlighting the need for Congress to act now to slash rising prescription drug costs. 

During the 26 minute and 45 second event, AARP Rhode Island, representing 132,000 members, delivered a petition signed by more than 16,114 Rhode Islanders, calling for Congress to act now and stop unfair drug prices. AARP has called for fair drug prices for years and supports legislation that passed the House in November, which would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, put a cap on out-of-pocket costs that older adults pay for their prescription drugs and impose penalties on drug companies that raise prices faster than the rate of inflation.

“Americans are fed up with paying three times what people in other countries pay for the same drugs. More than four million people across the country, including more than 16,000 here in the Ocean State, are joining AARP to demand lower prices for prescription drugs,” said Taylor in a statement announcing the petition being delivered to Reed and Whitehouse. “There will never be a better time to lower drug prices than the historic opportunity in front of Congress. Now is the time to get it done!” Taylor says.

Big Pharma makes billions from high drug costs

“Big Pharma is making billions while seniors and taxpayers are suffering,” says AARP State President Mitchell, noting that just last month Big Pharma raised the prices of 800 prescription medications.” People are sick and tired of paying three times for prescription drugs what people in other countries are paying for these drugs, “It’s outrageous and unacceptable,” Mitchell said.

According to Mitchell, “if consumer prices had risen as fast as drug prices during the last 15 years, gas would cost $12.20 a gallon and milk would cost $13 a gallon.” This gives perspective to this issue, he said.

“Big Pharma is trying again to scare lawmakers and members of AARP and everyone else with misleading claims to stop Medicare to negotiate prices, charged Zarlengo. “We, at least, know the truth. The truth is by allowing Medicare negotiation [of prices], that process will help seniors during these times of inflation by lowing their prices of drugs and putting more money in their pocket,” he said.

Zarlengo gave the two Rhode Island Senators a message from Rhode Island seniors: “Don’t let Pharma win this time, lets lower drug prices now.”

“We hear you loud and clear,” said Senator Reed, responding to the over 16,000 signees of AARP’s petition. “Congress must address this issue of drug pricing. The system continues to force families into untenable choices between their health and other basic needs. One of the simplest things to do is to allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. I have been urging administrations, both Republican and Democratic for more than a decade to do this,” he noted.

“The VA already does this,” said Senator Whitehouse told his fellow panelists and those tuning in to the March 7 news conference. “And there is a big discrepancy in what the Veterans Administration (VA) pays for drugs and what Medicare pays for drugs. We have a reconciliation bill still in the Senate; it’s something Democrats can pass with only 50 votes. The bad news is that we need all 50 members to agree on the reconciliation measure and that has proven difficult. I hope we can agree on a package that all 50 of us can sign off on… and finally, finally, finally give Americans the drug pricing relief that they need. AARP is incredibly important in this fight. All your members make a difference. Thank you for stepping up yet again,” he said.

AARP fights Big Pharma on television and with digital advertising

In AARP’s new ad campaign, Larry Zarzecki, a retired law enforcement officer with Parkinson’s Disease who was forced to sell his home in order to afford his medications, returns to the airways as a spokesperson for AARP, illustrating the impact of the high cost of prescription drugs on seniors.  The retiree first shared his story in an AARP ad three years ago, but Congress’ failure to act means he has had no relief from the high cost of his treatments. As he says in the new ad, “I shouldn’t have to decide between my home or my medicine because Congress refuses to act. I’m tired of waiting for Congress.”

AARP’s seven-figure ad buy includes television and digital advertising in the DC area, and television in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.

Responding to AARP’s new ad campaign, AARP Rhode Island’s Taylor said: “Larry Zarzecki was forced to sell his home in order to afford his medications.  He is but one example of Congress’ failure to act. No one should have to give up a home in order to pay for over-priced prescription medicines.  She called on Congress to put a stop to “spiraling price increases” by giving Medicare the authority to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices.

“If the Veterans Administration can do so – paying roughly half as much for brand name prescription drugs as does Medicare Part D – then why can’t Medicare?” says Taylor.  “For a decade, Big Pharma has spent more on stock buybacks and dividends than on research and development; it’s outrageous that drug makers are charging Americans three times what people in other countries pay for the same drugs and justifying it with lies and scare tactics that simply don’t hold up,” she  added.

AARP has called for lower drug prices for years and is urging the Senate to pass legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, put a cap on out-of-pocket costs that older adults pay for their prescription drugs and impose penalties on drug companies that raise prices faster than the rate of inflation.

“Americans are sick and tired of Congress’ broken promises to bring down the price of prescription drugs,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer announcing the launching of this ad campaign. “As Americans pay more and more for many consumer goods, Congress has an historic opportunity to lower drug prices and help seniors like Larry to afford their medications and other essentials,” she said.

It’s time to act NOW

According to AARP, without congressional action, pharmaceutical companies will continue to set high prices for prescription drugs and raise them without any warning or justification. The Washington, DC based advocacy group representing 38 million members recently released a report showing that 75 of the 100 brand name drugs with the highest total Medicare Part D spending have already increased their  list prices in the first month of 2022.

During the State of the Union, President Biden called for Congress to bring down the price of prescription drugs as a way to help consumers manage rising prices. The House of Representatives passed several prescription drug measures as part of the Build Back Better Act in November, but the Senate has yet to pass similar legislation.

It’s time for the Senate to put the welfare of the nation’s seniors first by passing legislation to put the brakes to spiraling prescription drug costs. This will be a hot campaign issue in the upcoming mid-term elections, just 230 days from now.

Watching over Nursing Homes once again – time for mandated Boosters

Published on December 20, 2021 in RINewsToday

Colder weather is keeping people more indoors now, and Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas gatherings are drawing people together in groups, small and large. Like other states across the country, Rhode Island is seeing a growing transmission of the COVID-19 Delta, and now Omicron variants. Some national sources say Rhode Island’s case rate is the highest.

According to WPRI’s COVID-19 tracking page, 73.7% of Rhode Island’s population, totaling 1,097,379 are fully vaccinated, 9.2 % are partially vaccinated, and 17 % have received no vaccination at all. “But some back-of-the-envelope math based on the state’s tally of daily doses shows nearly 251,000 people have received booster shots or third doses. And earlier this week, RI Gov. McKee publicly said the number is closer to 260,000 people,” says WPRI.

Taking a Snapshot of Vaccination Rates in Rhode Island’s Facilities

Just days ago, AARP Rhode Island called for increased boosters in the state’s nursing homes after releasing its new analysis of the latest data from AARP’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard.  The Dashboard revealed that only 54% of nursing home residents and 19% of staff in 79 Rhode Island nursing homes have received a COVID- 19 booster.

“With holiday gatherings on the horizon, these numbers are a cause for concern for state policy makers, as more than a year and a half into the pandemic, rates of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes are rising again nationally, along with increased community spread,” says AARP Rhode Island. While case rates declined slightly compared to the same time period last month, in AARP’s dashboard, looking week to week, the number of cases increased each week during the four weeks ending November 2, notes the state’s largest aging advocacy group serving more than 132,000 members aged 50 and older.

The Rhode Island-specific AARP Nursing Home Database says that resident cases grew from a rate of 0.64 per 100 residents in mid-October to 1.19 in mid-November. Staff cases decreased slightly from a rate of 0.96 to 0.82 during this same time period. Nursing home resident deaths from coronavirus rose slightly from a rate of 0.06 in mid-October to 0.11 in mid-November.

“COVID-19 continues to infiltrate America’s nursing homes with more than 1,500 new nursing home resident deaths nationally for the third consecutive month,” said AARP’s Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor. “Increasing vaccination rates—including boosters — among nursing home residents and staff is key to protecting our loved ones and getting the pandemic under control,” she says.

“AARP calls on nursing homes, state and federal authorities, and others to increase access to and receipt of COVID-19 boosters for both nursing home staff and residents,” Taylor added.

“As new variants emerge and vaccine immunity wanes, the low number of residents and staff who have received a booster creates an unacceptable level of risk since the disease spreads so easily in these environments,” says Tayler, urging Gov. Dan McKee “to prioritize the state’s most vulnerable population and take immediate action to addresses the relatively low percentage of nursing home residents and staff who have not received COVID-19 booster shots.”

According to AARP Rhode Island, while the percentage of residents and staff who have received boosters remain low, rates of those fully vaccinated—those who have received two COVID-19 shots—continue to slowly rise as of November 21. In Rhode Island, 99.10% of nursing home staff are fully vaccinated (the highest rate of any state in the nation) and 94.10% of nursing home residents.

The number of Rhode Island facilities reporting a shortage of nurses or aides rose sharply from 34.7% to 41.7% in the four weeks ending November 21, says the advocacy group. 

Rhode Island’s high vaccination rates can be tied to Rhode Island mandating all healthcare workers be vaccinated by Oct. 1, 2021, say John E. Gage, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association. When the 30 day-compliance period ended, those who were unvaccinated were banned from entering the state’s healthcare facilities, he says, noting that termination resulted from failure to follow a reasonable policy set forth by their employer in compliance with Health Department’s emergency order. 

Yet, in at least one large nursing home facility, RINewsToday has learned, staff who refused to be vaccinated were either moved to non-patient-facing positions, or already worked in those positions, and allowed to keep working. An administrator said they are still working on encouraging 100% vaccination. Residents also have the right to refuse vaccination, and masks are required for patients outside of their rooms.

Families visiting had been restricted to the lobby, and at one time received a test in the parking lot prior to being able to enter. Today they are still screened for temperature, and they must wear a mask and complete a health symptom questionnaire. After a federal regulation went into effect several weeks ago easing access for families to visit, the screening also eased up and now tests are not required.

Any patient who is positive for COVID is moved to a quarantine area until fully recovered, and regular testing for patients and staff continues.

Some nursing homes are allowing families to take their loved one’s home for a Christmas holiday and then return after being with outside family and friends.

Gage notes that Rhode Island is ranked at No. 11 of states at a booster rate among residents of 54.1% compared to a national average of 38.4%.  Staff are boosted at 19.1% (#16) compared to a national average of 15.0%.  “Remember, individuals are not eligible for a booster until six months after their second dose of the vaccine series.  This will preclude some residents and staff, he says, stressing more credit should be given to the state’s health care facilities having the highest vaccine rates among staff and the second highest vaccination rate among residents.

According to Gage, the data released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Nov. 28, 2021 showed 99.38% of all workers in Rhode Island facilities are vaccinated – the highest (#1) vaccination rate for nursing homes in the country. Residents in Rhode Island nursing homes are 95.02% vaccinated – the second highest rate in the country.

To Booster or Not Booster, that is the Question

“With vaccines mandated in healthcare facilities and proof of vaccination being required to enter public places under the new Executive Order, it seems this would be a reasonable requirement for visitors to nursing homes,” says Gage, noting that this is not allowed according to the most recent guidance issued by the Centers for Med Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

As to mandating booster shots for nursing facility staff, however, Gage warns, “staffing is at a crisis level already. We cannot afford to lose more staff with another mandate,” he says.

“The first rounds of vaccines were given most commonly by third-party sources such as CVS medical staff who came into the homes, similar as they do every year for flu shots”, said one nursing home administrator to RINewsToday – “For the boosters, we did them using our own staff, and ordering our supply from the RI Department of Health.”  Boosters were advised to be given 4-5 months from original vaccination completion – yet in the nursing homes most didn’t get them until 8 to 9 months – as late as the end of October.

However, Joseph Wendelken, Rhode Island’s Department of Health’s Public Information Officer, says that CVS and Walgreens are working to make COVID-19 vaccine booster doses available to all nursing facilities,. “If any facility is looking for additional support getting residents and workers vaccinated, we can provide that support,” he says.

Wendelken notes that there is a requirement for nursing home workers to complete a primary COVID-19 vaccine series, but there is no [federal or state] requirement for booster doses. “The data are becoming clearer and clearer that – especially with the Omicron variant – booster doses are absolutely critical,” says Wendelken.

“Residents [of nursing homes and assisted living facilities] were among the first to get vaccinated so that means their immunity has waned and boosters are needed to avert significant outbreaks and deaths,” says  Maureen Maigret, former director of the R.I. Department of Elderly Affairs and chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council. “It is critical that booster shots are offered to all nursing home and assisted living residents especially now that visitation has opened up and visitors do not have to show proof of vaccination,” she says.

As of December 15th, the RI Department of Health Department shows at least 114 new cases in nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the past seven days, says Maigret. “We must  remember that over 1,700 residents died as a result of COVID in these facilities and providing booster shots is our best defense against more fatalities for this vulnerable population.”  

Even though it is not a federal policy, a growing number of state officials across the country are calling for the definition for being fully vaccinated to now include the booster shot. With Rhode Island seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases and an increase in hospitalizations due to Delta and Omicron variants spreading throughout the state, many (including this writer) express it’s time for Governor Dan McKee to now mandate booster shots for nursing facility staff.  More important, it must become a priority for the Rhode Island Health Department to make sure that every consenting nursing facility resident receives a booster, too.

President Biden is set to address the country on Tuesday, at a time to be announced. There is speculation whether the term “fully vaccinated” will now include not just the two original vaccinations but the booster as well.

The AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard analyzes federally reported data in four-week periods going back to June 1, 2020. Using this data, the AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the dashboard to provide snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff, with the goal of identifying specific areas of concern at the national and state levels in a timely manner.

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available at  www.aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard. For more information on how coronavirus is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes. Medicare.gov’s Care Compare website now offers information about vaccination rates within nursing homes and how they compare to state and national averages.

RI Nursing Homes with new cases (more than 5) in the past 14 days:

Berkshire Place, Providence – 10 to 15

Jeanne Juga Residence, Pawtucket – 5 to 9

Oak Hill Health Center, Pawtucket – 20 to 24

Pawtucket Falls Healthcare, Pawtucket – 10 to 14

Summit Commons, Providence – 5 to 9

West View Nursing, West Warwick – 10 to 14

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available at  www.aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard. For more information on how coronavirus is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes. Medicare.gov’s Care Compare website now offers information about vaccination rates within nursing homes and how they compare to state and national averages.

Use ARPA Funds to Make Rhode Island “Age Friendly”

Published on the November 1, 2021 in RINewsToday

With the first public hearing cancelled because of Wednesday’s nor’easter on Oct. 26, Gov. Dan McKee and Lt. Gov Sabina Matos, along with Commerce Director Stefan Pryor and their staff, came to Warren’s Hope & Main to kick off the second public hearing to gather comments about the recently released “Rhode Island 2030: Charting a Course for the Future of the Ocean State.”  The 55-page “working” paper studied and analyzed options for spending the funds authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Over 50 people came to Warren to give their suggestions as to how the COVID-19 federal dollars should be spent. Problems to address included: lack of affordable housing, the growing homeless program, recovering from the pandemic and rebuilding the state’s economy, and creating an age-friendly state.  

During his testimony, West Warwick resident Vincent Marzullo advised McKee and Matos not to forget Rhode Island’s increasing aging population. According to Marzullo, for the first time in recorded history, there are more people over the age of 64 in the world than children under five. In Rhode Island, over 31 percent of residents are age 55 or older, and by 2030 one-quarter of our population will be over 65. 

While many of the Rhode Island’s 2030 report’s draft recommendations, as well as suggestions from the RI Foundation and AFL-CIO, are worthy, “what is obvious in the current draft is the lack of specific attention, focus and strategy needed to get to an age-friendly designation, said Marzullo, a well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and social justice Director in Rhode Island for the Corporation for National & Community Service.

“Don’t we now have an obligation to insure better healthcare, safety, housing, livability, caregiving, etc. for this aging population?” Marzullo asked.  

One way for Rhode Island to accomplish this is to join the AARP Age-Friendly Network of States and Communities, which defines eight interconnected domains that can help to identify and address barriers to the well-being and participation of older people. 

State Director Catherine Taylor says that AARP Rhode Island has been working toward making Rhode Island age-friendly for most of the past three years and in a letter back in mid-July urged the governor and state leaders to use ARPA to accelerate AARP’s effort.  

“We are on the cusp of an opportunity to improve livability dramatically,” adds Taylor. “AARP Rhode Island has urged Governor McKee and state leaders to designate a substantial portion of the $1.8 billion in federal ARPA funds to areas that contribute to further development of age-friendly cities and towns — prioritizing healthcare, housing, public transportation, and the long-term services and supports that are essential to older Rhode Islanders,” she says.

The defined domains of AARP Age-Friendly cities are: Outdoor Spaces and Buildings (people need public places to gather — indoors and out); Transportation (driving shouldn’t be the only way to get around); Housing; Social Participation; Respect and Social Inclusion; Work and Civic Engagement; Communication; and Information and Community and Health Services.

Eight other states have obtained “Age-Friendly” status in collaboration with AARP and The World Health Organization (WHO).  

“Well-designed, livable communities promote well-being, sustain economic growth, and make for happier, healthier residents — of all ages,” said Taylor. “That is why AARP has guided Newport, Cranston, Providence and, most recently, Westerly into membership in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. While we are in discussion with other towns and cities who have shown interest, it has been our goal for some time to see that the State of Rhode Island also joins,” she says.

“A key benefit of the Network is the abundance information and support that membership provides. State leaders would have access to global resources on age-friendly best practices, models of assessment and implementation, and the experiences of other states, cities and towns around the world,” notes Taylor.

“The Network helps participating communities become great places for people of all ages by adopting features such as safe, walkable streets; better housing and transportation options; access to key services; and opportunities for residents to participate in civic and community activities. We believe that Rhode Islanders of all ages prefer living in an age-friendly environment. Many, especially older people, are eager to be involved in the process,” adds Taylor.

Marzullo urged McKee to issue an Executive Order, charging the Lt. Governor to convene representatives from the aging community to design and develop an operational plan for Rhode Island to be designed as an “Age Friendly State.”  The groups should include AARP, Age Friendly RI (RIC), the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC), RI Office of Healthy Aging, United Way RI, RI Senior Center Directors Association, RI Elder Info, Senior Agenda Coalition/RI & the RI Commission on National & Community Service (RIDE). 

Creating a Well-Designed Livable Community for Seniors

Maureen Maigret, policy consultant and chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, notes that the Subcommittee has worked successfully to address “age friendly” domains for several years and that Rhode Island’s 2023 State Plan on Aging also calls for the state to be designated as ‘Age Friendly’ and to work with its partners to promote livable communities for all ages.

“While a formal state commitment through an Executive Order has not happened a number of state agencies such as Environmental Management have been working to embrace age-friendly principles in their work, says Maigret, noting our Rhode Island municipalities have made a commitment to make their communities age-friendly.

In a Sept. 23 Providence Journal op-ed, Maigret called for making Rhode Island age-friendly, recommending that the General Assembly invest in the state’s growing older population. “Knowing that 50-70% of older persons will need some type of long-term services as they age, our most important immediate challenge is to stabilize the paid workforce that helps with the supports needed to remain living at home and to ensure we provide quality congregate care,” says Maigret. 

“We must take immediate steps to secure competitive, living wages for our direct care workers who assist with these tasks and to provide more supportive services for our hundreds of unpaid caregivers who care for loved ones, adds Maigret.  “By looking ahead to 2030, it makes sense to direct a small portion of the federal ARPA funds to communities to both enhance the work of our local senior centers and local Villages and volunteer programs as well as to initiate other age-friendly effort,” she says. 

Maigret calls on Rhode Island’s 39 Cities and Towns to use some of the significant ARPA funds to complement any state funds coming their way for such activities. But for now, stabilizing the long-term care workforce is critical.

A Final Thought…

“The COVID pandemic demonstrated the vulnerability and inequities within both our communities of color and older adults.  In formulating policy and budget investments for the future, Rhode Island has a unique opportunity to promote a statewide “Age Friendly” environment and incorporate the principles of a “beloved community” – a prescription for a healthy society,” says Jim Vincent, President of NAACP’s Providence Branch.

Vincent calls on the Governor and Lt. Governor to give serious attention to not only rebooting our economy, but to strengthening our social fabric and public education to foster a more equitable and civil society. 

Make your voices heard. Now is the time for creative ideas and reactions to the McKee-Matos’ Rhode Island 2030 draft report, which is why they are holding public input sessions. Please take the time to be an advocate for seniors in Rhode Island – and for other causes and issues that are important to you.

Public input sessions will be held at 5 p.m. on the following dates:

Tuesday, Nov. 2 at the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick

Thursday, Nov. 4 at Innovate Newport (513 Broadway, Newport)

Tuesday, Nov. 9 at United Theatre (5 Canal Street, Westerly)

You can also submit your feedback, online, at www.RI2030.com

For a copy of the McKee-Matos working paper, go to https://ri2030.com/_files/public/RI%202030_final.pdf.

For details about AARP Livable Communities Network (age-friendly communities, to to https://www.aarp.org/livable-communities/network-age-friendly-communities/.