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.

Bill would (re)create a RI Department of Healthy Aging

Published on March 21, 2022 in RINewsToday

There are new efforts on Smith Hill to transform the state’s Office of Healthy Aging (OHA) into a department making it far more visible and effective as an advocate for the state’s growing senior population.  H. 7616, introduced by Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-District 75, Newport), would expand the office in the Department of Human Services (DHS) into a full-fledged state department, expand its director’s authority, and appoint local senior centers as hubs for service delivery, with authority to bill Medicaid for transportation services.

The RI Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA) was created by law in 1977 and remained a department until 2011, when the legislature changed it to a division within the Department of Human Services (DHS). In 2019, the department was re-named the Office of Healthy Aging (OHA), shifting narratives and perceptions associated with growing older. At press time, the Office of Healthy Aging remains a division under the Department of Human Services. 

“Rhode Island should invest much more than we do in services that enable people to age in place and safely remain in their communities. Those services are far more cost-efficient overall, and encourage an active, more fulfilling lifestyle for people as they age”, says Carson in a statement announcing the introduction of the bill on March 2, 2022. “Considering that a quarter of our population consists of seniors, and that ratio is growing as the Baby Boomers join them, now is the time,” she adds.

At press time, the bill has been sent to the House Finance Committee, and its cost has not yet been determined and there is no companion measure introduced yet in the Senate.

“Working cooperatively with the senior centers operating around the state, we could make it much easier for people to access the support they need as they age, and really make the quality of life much better for the entire older population of our state,” says Carson expressing the importance of the state’s senior centers.

H. 7616 would authorize the new Department of Healthy Aging to protect and enable seniors to stay healthy and independent by providing meals, health programs, transportation, benefits counseling and more. Under the bill, the department would provide professional development to agencies and programs that provide services to seniors in the state and become a clearing house to help those agencies and businesses assist senior centers, which would serve as hubs for the delivery of services from the state.

In particular, H 7616 directs the new department to manage and develop a multi-tiered transportation system that works with the Department of Human Services, the Department of Transportation, senior centers and with all existing modes of public transportation to develop transportation plans that suit the elderly population of each municipality. The director would be enabled to authorize senior centers to bill Medicaid for transportation they provide.

The legislation also seeks to have the new department develop and submit to the General Assembly a funding formula to meet the requirements the new law sets forth, including input from seniors and the caregivers and allocating funding to each municipality based on its senior population, with restrictions that the funding be used only for senior programs.

Carson explains that this bill is intended to start important dialogue among state lawmakers, state officials and aging organizations about appropriately providing for Rhode Island’s aging population.

 “Whether or not we pass this bill this year, we have to address the needs of our growing older population. Leaving those needs unmet has a much greater price tag than decent locally administered basic programs would. Our whole state would be better served by investments that keep seniors safe with support in their community,” Carson said.

OHA and Aging Advocates Give Their Two Cents

Nicole Arias, a spokeswoman for OHA, says “we look forward to any future discussions and collaborations with community members, partners, and legislators.” When asked if the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Aging, charged with advising the governor on aging policies and problems impacting older Rhode Islanders, Chair James Nyberg stated the commission also plans to review and discuss the bill at an upcoming meeting. 

“Our office looks forward to participating in dialogue that empowers and supports our aging residents and championing essential quality of life items such as healthy housing and reliable transportation. While our office is still unpacking H 7616, we appreciate Rep. Carson and the bill’s cosponsors for advocating on behalf of our senior residents,” says Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who over sees the state’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC). The group works to preserve senior’s quality of life in all settings and coordinates state policy concerning all sectors of long-term care for seniors.

Bernard J. Beaudreau, Executive Director of the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island, says his group strongly supports any and all efforts that increase the state’s programs and services to address the growing needs of our aging population, especially those with low and moderate incomes.  The state-wide coalition calls for the reinstatement of OHA to a full department, but not without the commensurate expansion of funding and services that are needed for this important state government function.   

“When the Department of Elderly Affairs was reorganized to be a division of the Department of Human Services, we were concerned that it signified a diminishing of the importance of senior needs in the state budget.  While from a management perspective, the division within the larger Department of Human Services could streamline the delivery of services, there would still be the need to increase staffing and programs to meet the growing needs,” says Beaudreau. This did not happen in the ensuing years.

“Restoring the OHA to a department status will strengthen its position at the budget table and elevate the importance of programs supporting older residents of our state. We hope that will make a difference,” says Beaudreau.

“The legislation proposed by Rep. Carson elevates the conversation about the importance of age-friendly policies that enable Rhode Islanders to choose how we live as we age,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor. “AARP Rhode Island looks forward to being part of this conversation and continuing to advocate fiercely at both the state and local levels for enhanced home and community-based supportive services, accessible and affordable housing and transportation options, and full inclusion of people of all ages and abilities in community life,” she said. 

According to Maureen Maigret, policy consultant and chair of the Aging in Community Sub-committee of Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, H 7616 is a very significant bill that will help to stimulate a long due discussion as to how the state should fund senior programs and services in light of the state’s growing age 65 and older population. This age group is projected to represent at least one in five of  the state’s residents by 2040.

Maigret recalls that the state’s Department of Elderly Affairs was created by law in 1977 and remained a cabinet level department until 2011 when the Rhode Island General Assembly changed it to a division within the Department of Human Services as part of the enacted budget bill.  Eight years later, lawmakers would change the agency’s name from the division of elderly affairss the OHA. The enacted law placed OHA in the Department of Human Services for administrative purposes and called for the OHA Director to be appointed by and to report to the Governor with advice and consent of the Senate.

When Maigret left her position of Director of Elderly Affairs (serving from 1991 to 1994), its budget for FY1995 was $13.9 million (state funds) and it had at least 60 full-time employees. The state’s  FY2022  budget for OHA stands at $12 million (state funds) with 31 authorized employees, she said.

Maigret warns that the existing OHA is under-resourced both in state funding and human resources. She calculates that Rode Island spends about fifty dollars per older person (age 65 and older) when taking into account state funding for senior services and its population age 65 and over.

“We could do so much more to support our older adults by addressing service gaps especially for those not poor enough to meet our strict Medicaid income eligibility rules which require older adults to have income less than $13,600 and assets less than $4,000 single and $6,000 for a couple,” Maigret says. Funding for local senior centers and programs in Rhode Island municipalities should be calculated by at least $10 per person aged 65. 

Maigret urges state lawmakers to support local transit assistance efforts, to increase funding for caregiver support programs, and to expand information services to provide assistance to seniors to assist them to find subsidized home maintenance and chore service programs.  Better funding should be allocated to support volunteer programs that provide companionship and other services to reduce social isolation,“ she says.

“I suggest reverting the OHA to a full department as called for in H 7616 only if there is a concomitant increase funding and resources, says Maigret, noting that one source of funding could be available from  the Perry/Sullivan law (that the Governor’s budget proposes to defer for FY2023.),  These state funds could be used to allow OHA to truly provide the needed supports and services to older adults to live full and healthy lives as intended in the department’s creation,” she says.

“Older adults suffered greatly during the COVID pandemic – 90% of the deaths were individuals 60 and over, claims Vin Marzullo, a well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and and national service administrator. “We must provide greater attention and care for this vulnerable population,” he says. 

“Since the proposed legislation to elevate the OHA to department status was initiated by the Rhode Island House, I would hope that former House legislator, Marie Cimini, would welcome and embrace this legislation to become a premiere agency for the Governor, quips the West Warwick resident. He notes that Cimini was recently nominated by Gov. Dan McKee for the position of Director of the state’s Office of Healthy Aging.  This nomination requires Senate confirmation.

The other cosponsors of the H 7616 include Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown), Rep. James N. McLaughlin (D-Dist. 57, Cumberland, Central Falls), Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), Rep. June S. Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Warren, Bristol), Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence) and Rep. Brandon Potter (D-Dist. 16, Cranston).

Hopefully the upper chamber will see the wisdom in considering a companion measure to  H. 7616.  Let the debate begin. 

For more details about OHA, go to https://oha.ri.gov/