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

New resources to protect Seniors before, during and after Natural Disasters

Published in RINewsToday on July 18, 2022

Just last year alone, the Washington, DC-based AARP noted that the nation experienced more than 1,300 tornadoes, 21 named storms (with winds of 39 mph or greater), nearly 59,000 wildfires that burned more than 7.13 million acres, along with numerous ice storms and other weather events that caused major damage and fatalities. With hurricane season now approaching, AARP teamed up with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), announcing the release of new resources specifically designed to help local and state officials and Emergency Management Agency (EMA) officials protect seniors in their communities.

“By 2034, adults ages 65 and over will outnumber those under 18 in the United States for the first time. This has profound implications during natural disasters and extreme weather events,” said Nancy LeaMond, Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer at AARP, in a statement announcing the released resources. “State and local leaders and emergency officials must be better equipped and prepared to ensure that older adults are kept safe and their needs are met when a disaster strikes,” warns LeaMond.

The 9-page, Guide to Expanding Mitigation: Making the Connection to Older Adults, released by FEMA, highlights how natural hazards uniquely affect seniors and provides specific remedies as to how local mitigation and emergency planners can include seniors in community efforts to lower their risks.

Throughout its 44 pages, the AARP Disaster Resilience Took Kit features strategies to help local, state and community leaders and aging advocates reduce the risk and impact of disasters on older persons. 

The guide and tool kit are the result of a multi-year collaboration between AARP and FEMA to identify and provide resources, spark ideas and encourage organizations to better engage older Americans in disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery operations. This long-term, strategic alliance aims to advance accessible, safe and livable communities for people of all ages, says AARP.

“Adults aged 65 and older are a growing demographic who are often disproportionately impacted by severe weather. These disparities can be compounded by other factors, such as low-income or chronic illness, producing inequitable results for this vulnerable population when it comes to disaster preparedness,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell in a statement. 

“Effective mitigation planning requires that we consider the needs of all populations, and FEMA’s partnership with AARP on these guides will help community planners ensure our older communities are more resilient in the face of hurricanes and other natural disaster,” she said.

According to AARP, a growing body of evidence compiled shows that seniors are disproportionately impacted by the types of weather-related emergencies and natural disasters that are becoming increasingly frequent and severe. Individuals who have chronic illnesses, functional limitations or disabilities are especially vulnerable, as evidenced by the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on seniors.  Not only are older people at a higher risk of death from infectious diseases and disasters, but the long-term effects on those who survive often undermine their physical and mental health, economic security and overall well-being.

Although many communities support older adults in preparation for disasters, expanded mitigation planning can help reduce the loss of life and property by minimizing the impact of disasters before they happen, says AARP, noting that mitigation actions and strategies that make cities, towns and neighborhoods safer for older adults can benefit all residents and increase community resilience overall.

Protecting Seniors from Natural Disasters in the Ocean State

“One standout recommendation from the AARP/FEMA report was the adoption of more resilient and efficient building and land use standards, including the consideration of hazards in siting senior living facilities,” says RI Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who oversees the Emergency Management Advisory Council that reviews information and programs regarding emergency management and makes recommendations to the Governor on these issues.

“One of my highest priorities is the creation of more affordable housing of every kind, and we have to walk the line of growing not only quickly, but thoughtfully. As we consider how to use this budget’s $250 million investment in housing, we want to ensure that new developments meet FEMA standards and will keep Rhode Islanders safe. We’re already working with local communities’ EMA departments to review their community disaster preparedness plans, as well as their applications for FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grants — funding to help implement exactly the strategies outlined in this report,” she says.

“One omission that stands out to me is resources for unhoused seniors. According to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness’s 2021 State of Homelessness report, over 500 Rhode Islanders aged 55 or older experienced homelessness over the course of a year. We need to strongly consider what kinds of hazard mitigation strategies could help this uniquely vulnerable population. Additionally, Rhode Island must especially focus on preparing sustainable mitigation and response systems that account for the effect of climate change on our coastal communities, which we know have large senior populations and will become increasingly vulnerable to flooding,” says Matos.

”FEMA has provided a very valuable tool with the Guide to Expanding Mitigation – Making the Connection to Older Adults guide. At the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency,  we work with our local emergency managers, non-profits (Rhode Island Community Food Bank, Red Cross of Rhode Island, United Way and more) and other state agencies including the Department of Health and the Office of Healthy Aging to ensure older Rhode Islanders have the resources they need when disaster strikes. These reports will help us in our efforts to continue to support individuals in this vulnerable group,” says Director Marc Pappas, of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency.

“Preparedness is a core function of public health. This is especially true when it comes to climate change and older adults. As these resources highlight, it is critical that the unique needs of older adults are considered when planning for weather-related emergencies and natural disasters. This is already a priority for us at the Rhode Island Department of Health when it comes to emergency preparedness, and it will continue to be a focus,” says Joseph Wendelken, Public Relation Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“Before, during and after a natural disaster, the safety and wellbeing of older Rhode Islanders must always be a top concern,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor

“Emergency planners and managers at the state and especially local levels, along with first responders and many others, play a critical role in reducing anxiety and any subsequent harm when disaster strikes. Whether it’s a hurricane, flooding, extreme heat or infectious disease, ongoing planning and the coordination of all available resources is necessary to minimize consequences,” says Taylor.

“The AARP/FEMA guide and toolkit can go a long way towards mitigating deaths and long-term impacts among Rhode Island’s most vulnerable citizens. We encourage all leaders involved in Rhode Island public safety and public health to take advantage of this new resource. There are many aspects of age-friendly, livable communities – resilience in the face of disaster is chief among them,” Taylor adds.

AARP Rhode Island Volunteer State President Marcus Mitchell has firsthand disaster management experience. “As a former Division Commander with the US Coast Guard Auxiliary and Community Emergency Response Team Instructor for Providence Emergency Management Agency, I am actively involved with emergency & disaster mitigation, response and recovery efforts that dramatically and profoundly impact our older population physically, emotionally and financially,” he said. 

“Not only are seniors often hit first and hardest but their families are deeply affected as well,” Mitchell added. “We hope to save lives throughout the community, mitigate damages and reduce injury by vigorously distributing the new guide and toolkit to our members and the community at large.”

West Warwick resident Vincent Marzullo gives a thumbs up to AARP/FEMA’s released resources, saying that their information will be extremely valuable to the State and local EMA officials charged with protecting the state’s aging and vulnerable population during natural disasters. “Several barriers prevent older adults from evacuating when needed. Many older adults cannot drive and do not have access to reliable, accessible public transportation, depend on home-based medical equipment, require specialized accessibility supports, or cannot bring pets when evacuating. Some older adults are caregivers to spouses or partners with one or more vulnerabilities that may also hinder their ability to take timely action and remain safe, says Marzullo, who served for 31 years as a federal civil rights & social justice director for the Corporation for National & Community Service and a Federal Disaster Cadre Coordinator for the National Service Agency.

“State and local EMA officials must regularly outreach to the older Rhode Islander on the Rhode Island Department of Health’s “Special Needs Emergency Registry” to check their status/needs, especially individuals who are isolated and immobile.  There are approximately 15,000 individuals with chronic illnesses that have opted-in to the registry in order to be checked in times of emergency/disasters.  These older adults are vulnerable and need periodic support,” says Marzullo.

Marzullo calls for on-going disaster resilience webinars to be available to better prepare State and local EMA officials and organizations to respond to sudden natural disasters.  Targeted organizations might include the Red Cross, AARP RI, Senior Agenda Coalition of RI, Senior Center Directors Association, AARP members, RIElder Info, 211/The Point, and the Emergency Management Advisory Council (EMAC).

Melissa Carden, RIEMA’s Chief Public Affairs Officer says while winter storms, hurricanes and flooding are most common in the Ocean State, expect climate change to have a profound effect on the weather, including more storms and greater precipitation. “This fuels other extreme weather events like flooding (coastal and inland – remember the flooding in RI in 2010). Although scientists are uncertain whether climate change will lead to an increase in the number of hurricanes, there is more confidence that warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea levels are expected to increase their intensity and impacts.”

 To view and download the Guide to Expanding Mitigation: Making the Connection to Older Adults, visit  https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/documents/fema_mitigation-guide_older-

adults.pdf

To download a PDF of the AARP Disaster Resilience Tool Kit, featuring strategies to help local, state and community leaders and advocates reduce the risk and impacts of disasters on older adults, go to  https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/livable-communities/tool-kits-resources/2022/AARP%20Disaster%20Resilience%20Tool%20Kit-singles-060122-.pdf

The following (free) Livable Publication booklets and guides, go to https://www.aarp.org/livable-communities/tool-kits-resources/livable-publications-order-form/https://www.homecareassistancerhodeisland.com/

Lawmakers can do more for Seniors next year

Published in RINewstoday on July 11, 2022

Just days before July 1, 2022, Gov. Dan McKee was joined for the signing of the $13.6 billion state budget (2022-H7123aa) for fiscal year 2023 by Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin L. Abney and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan W. Pearson.

Taking a Look at the Budget’s Dollars and Cents

Let us take a look as ho the state’s FY2023 budget, signed by McKee on June 27, 2022, impacts older Rhode Islanders.

The budget doubled the funding for the Livable Homes Modification Program, from $500,000 to $1 million, which reimburses half the total retrofit costs, up to $4,000, to support home modifications and accessibility enhancements to allow individuals to remain in community settings. The increase is intended to address an anticipated surge in applications.

For retirees, the Assembly raised from $15,000 to $20,000 the amount of annual pension income that is exempt from state taxation.

The FY 2023 Budget also allocated an additional  $200,000 to the Office of Healthy Aging’s budget for senior centers, bringing total funding to $1 million. That is a 25% increase.

The budget also makes significant investments in the quality of healthcare for seniors, providing rate increases to many kinds of providers of health care, nursing homes, home and community-based services for elderly (increase in starting pay to $15 hour), in addition to seeking a study by the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner on appropriate reimbursement rate levels into the future.  The budget also includes substantial increase to reimbursement rates for Meals on Wheel meals ($400,000), ensuring that the program is able to provide high-quality therapeutic and culturally appropriate meals to participants.

Lawmakers also added $4 million to increase the “circuit breaker” tax credit available to qualifying elderly and disabled residents, raising the maximum credit from about $400 to $600 beginning in tax year 2022 and indexing that amount to inflation. They also made credit available to more Rhode Islanders by increasing the income threshold for eligibility from $30,000 to $ 35,000.

Those with military pensions will no longer have to pay any income taxes on them, beginning in the 2023 tax year. The governor had proposed phasing out military pension taxation over five years, but legislators instead made them tax-free in their entirety in one year.

Lawmakers also kept the Governor’s plan to invest $168 million in upgrades to Eleanor Slater Hospital, including $108 million to construct a new long-term care acute care hospital at the Zambarano campus in Burrillville.

The plan accelerates the six-year phase-out of Rhode Island’s motor vehicle excise tax, eliminating what would have been the final year of the tax next year.  The amended budget provides replacement license plates for free.

The state budget included a year-long pilot program to provide free service on the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s business route, the “R” line that runs from Pawtucket to Cranston.

It also added $11.5 million general revenue funds to launch a retail Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) pilot program, beginning Jan. 1, 2023.  Eligible households would receive an incentive payment of 50-cents for every dollar spent on fruits and vegetables, subject to limits.  The state also requested a waiver from the Federal Nutrition Service to streamline the application process for elderly and disabled individuals seeking assistance from the SNAP program.

Lawmakers also allocated $10 million for rebalancing the state’s long-term care continuum, for funding home care agency workforce recruitment, retention and training.  Also, money in Rhode Island’s new budget includes $8.1 million to increase Medicaid Dental rates to increase access to dental services for older adults.

Finally, lawmakers kept in the $250 million total from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal funds in the approved budget to address state’s affordable housing crisis.

Taking a peek at new state laws

The Rhode Island General Assembly passed H-7942/S-2623 which increases access and utilization of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and provides age-friendly housing options for older adults, family caregivers, and people of all ages and abilities.

McKee also signed the Let RI Vote Act into law. This new law makes voting safer, easier, and more accessible for all Rhode Islanders. Some of the major provisions of the bill include no-excuse mail ballots and emergency voting; online mail ballot applications; permanent absentee list opt-in for nursing home residents; no witness or notary requirement to vote by mail;  multilingual voter information hotline, community ballot; and voter registration list maintenance.

A new law also seeks to develop broadband in Rhode Island by creating a Broadband Advisory Committee. It’s director will be responsible for connecting with federal agencies to access funds for broadband infrastructure deployment pursuant to federal grants, facilitating broadband service adoptions, expanding digital literacy for residents (especially seniors), experiencing economic hardship, and for future economic development.

Following the passage of S-2228, the definition of an elderly person in regard to exploitation has changed from someone 65-years-old to someone who is 60 years old, making the definition of an elderly person consistent with state law.

Finally, the proposed Perry Sullivan one-year exemption has been eliminated. This preserves $38.6 million for home and community-based services for 2023.

Gearing up for next year’s legislative session

“Despite the lack of passage of H-7616 sponsored by Rep. Lauren Carson to elevate the Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging to full Department status, I’m confident that it will be reintroduced early in 2023. I also anticipate broad community conversations to fine tune the design and identify the needed resources,” says Vin Marzullo, a well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and national service administrator.

“AARP Rhode Island worked hard on Smith Hill during the 2022 legislative session to achieve a number of important wins for the age 50 and over Rhode Islanders,” stated Catherine Taylor, AARP Rhode Island State Director. “We will find it easier to vote, have access to more housing options and assistance for accessibility modifications, see our direct care workforce better paid and better trained, and so much more. And, as always, AARP Rhode Island is committed to ensuring that those age 50 and our families know about these changes and how they will improve our lives,” she says.

 “Although there was some very good news for seniors coming out of the 2022 legislative session, overall, the results were modest when we think about the projected growth of our older population, that 42% of older Rhode Island households have income less than $ 40,000 and that our Office of Healthy Aging is under resourced. So much advocacy work remains,” warns Maureen Maigret, chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council and Policy Advisor for the Senior Agenda of Rhode Island, representing 21 organizations to mobilize people to enhance the quality of life of older Rhode Islanders.

However, Maigret sees a big win in the state budget language calling for rate review for state contracted providers as far too many services important for all ages have become so difficult to access due to poor payment rates to providers for many years. One example is that dental rates under Medicaid have not increased since the early 1990’s so older adults have had an extraordinarily hard time getting detail care, she says.

“Another big win that the Senior Agenda worked tirelessly for was removing the suspension of the $38.6 millions of “Perry-Sullivan” funds for FY 2023 that was in Gov. McKee’s proposal,” says Maigret.

However, Maigret expressed disappointment that the state’s budget only calls for minimum wage for home care direct care staff of $15 per hour. “Advocates tried to get this up to at least $17 to address the homecare workforce crisis that leaves some seniors waiting months for service,” she says.

According to Maigret, other items that will help older adults and persons with disabilities with rising housing costs are the expansion of the Property Tax Relief program sponsored by Rep. Ruggiero and Sen. Coyle.

“While we are appreciative overall for the gains that have been made for Rhode Island’s seniors in this legislative session, it is just a start toward what our state needs to do to meet the needs of our aging population,” says Bernie Beaudreau, Executive Director of Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island. “I am disappointed that the minimum wage of $15 per hour was set so low.  This wage level will not do much to attract workers and solve the severe workforce shortages that home care agencies are facing. We also have to be vigilant about the administration of this new law as we have already seen a draft regulation suggesting that $15 will be the “average wage,” not the “minimum wage” of home care workers.