AARP Town Hall Gives Its Best to Educate Seniors on COVID-19

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 5, 2020

With more than 278 Americans now infected with the Coronavirus virus (COVID-19) and at least 7,159 people dying from the deadly virus, according to an April 3 blog article the New York Times, “about 311 million people in at least 41 states, three counties, eight cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home.” The Washington, DC-based AARP continues to intensify its efforts to educate seniors about COVID-19 by hosting weekly Coronavirus Information Tele-Town Hall events.

At AARP’s second Coronavirus Information Tele-Town Hall event, held Thursday, March 19, during the 90 minute live event, federal health experts gathered to answer questions about the latest changes to address the health impacts of COVID-19, family caregiving needs, and to give tips on how seniors can stay safe from scams and frauds. AARP’s Vice President Bill Walsh served a host and the panel of experts featured Dr. Jay Butler, M.D., the deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), Lance Robertson, the assistant secretary for aging and administrator of the Administration for Community Living (ACL) and Daniel Kaufman, the deputy director for the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. AARP’s Jean Setzfand. AARP’s senior vice president served as moderator.

CDC’s Butler called for the public to stay informed and take the coronavirus virus seriously. “As we’ve learned more about COVID-19, it’s very clear that most people who become infected do recover and do very well. But unfortunately, some get very sick. And some even die. And the risk of more severe illness is greatest for those who are older and for persons with underlying health conditions, especially chronic heart, lung or kidney disease, and those with diabetes,” he says.

Juggling Costs and Benefits While Promoting Social Distancing

According to Butler, grocery stores are juggling costs and benefits with promoting social distancing by designating special hours for seniors to shop if they don’t have someone who can make “that run to the grocery store or have delivery services available.”

“We’re at the end of flu season so if you develop symptoms (cough, muscle aches, headache, and temperature) it doesn’t mean that you have COVID-19, says Butler. For those concern, it is important to talk with your health care provider who will determine whether or not you should be evaluated and whether or not a test may be necessary, he adds, noting that COVID-19 testing is now covered by Medicare Part B when it’s ordered by a health care provider.

“Of course, if you suddenly become very ill—and that would be things like shortness of breath, chest pain, difficulty in getting your breath at all or noticing that your face or your lips are turning blue—that’s when you call 911, and get in as quickly as possible,” says Butler.

Butler notes that the primary transmission of the COVID-19 virus (as well as the six other coronaviruses that were previously known to cause disease in humans), is respiratory droplets.

By coughing or sneezing you produce droplets that contain the virus that can spread as far as five or six feet away from you, he says stressing that this is why social-distancing can protect you from catching the virus.

Many express concerns that COVID-19 can be picked up by handling letters and packages. But, says that the likelihood of transmission of is extremely low. So, consider sending a package a loved one in an assisted living facility or nursing home because it can be meaningful, says Butler.

For those over age 75 to age 80, Butler recommends that these individuals practice social distancing by connecting with their children or grandchildren by phone video chat to being exposed to COVID-19.

Butler gave simple tips for residents of senior living complexes to protect themselves from COVID-19. When you come back into your apartment after taking out trash to the chute or dumpster, “wash your hands,” he says. “And that means about 20 seconds with soap and water.

It seems like a long time but it’s the same amount of time it usually takes getting through the alphabet or to sing Happy Birthday twice,” adds Butler. Or just use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol as an alternative to hand washing.

ACL Administrator Robertson provided tips to unpaid caregivers who cannot visit their loved ones in nursing homes due to the necessary visiting restrictions. He says, get the facility’s up-to-date contact information along with details as to ways as how to make virtual visits, video chats and regular phone calls. He says, don’t forget to send cards and notes, not only to your loved one, but to other residents even to staff to say thank you.

Communicating with Your Loved Ones

Enhance your verbal communication by asking the facility staff to schedule the time for your call. “If your mom is most alert in the morning, pick a morning time, think about what music they might like and play that in the background or sing along or sing directly to your loved one,” recommends Robertson.

Robertson notes, “If you find the conversation struggling a bit, maybe play a game of trivia, reminisce, work on a crossword puzzle together, sing songs, read poetry or other materials.

Watch a TV show at the same time and just discuss. Again, throw in some creativity and you can help prevent both boredom and isolation.”

For those more technically savvy, face-to-face interaction through FaceTime, Messenger, Facebook, Zoom, can enhance your contact, says, Robertson.

Adds Robertson, make sure you ask the facility staff to keep the scheduled time of the care conference, holding it over the phone. “We know they’re busy, but it’s imperative that you remain linked as a caregiver,” he says.

For those caregivers seeking resources to take care of their loved one at home, call ACL’s Eldercare Locator, recommends Robertson. It’s toll-free 1-800-677-1116.

During this COVID-19 emergency FTC’s Daniel Kaufman warned that you will see “unscrupulous marketers” trying to take advantage of senior’s fears by selling them bogus treatments. In early March, he told the listeners that the FTC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent out warning letters to seven companies that were claiming products (such as cheese, essential oils and colloidal silver) could treat or prevent the coronavirus. He quipped, these companies are not making these claims anymore and urged seniors to report any scams they come across by going to ftc.gov/complaint.

Kaufman says that seniors can also go to ftc.gov/coronavirus or just go to ftc.gov to see a very prominent link for coronavirus scams. If you want to receive consumer alerts directly from the FTC, you can go to ftc.gov/subscribe.

Skyrocketing of COVID-19 Related Scams

According to Kaufman, FTC is seeing an increase in scams, from phishing emails, charity and stock scams, to robocalls selling cleaning supplies and masks.

“We are seeing a lot of bogus emails that are going out to consumers, that use headers about coronavirus to get people to open them. You know, these are fake emails that are purporting to come from legitimate and important organizations like the World Health Organization or the CDC,” says Kaufman. “Don’t click on links when you get those emails. Don’t open those emails. They will download viruses or be harmful to software onto your computer, or they will try to get your private information or credit card information,” he adds.

Watch out for charity scams, too, warns Kaufman. “You know, this is a difficult time and we all want to help. But we want to make sure we’re helping charities and not scammers who are pretending to be charities, he says, suggesting that you do your homework to protect your pocketbooks.

With COVID-19 spreading across the nation you are now seeing more robocalls touting products and services to protect you from being exposed to virus. “Just hang up. Keep in mind that anyone who’s robocalling you, if they’re trying to sell you a product, they’re already doing something that’s unlawful,” he says.

Kaufman also recommends that seniors use a credit card when purchasing products, whether it’s cleaning supplies or masks, on websites. “It’s pretty easy to set up a website that’s purporting to provide, to sell these kinds of products. And they’re taking consumers’ payment information but not delivering, he notes.

Finally, Kaufman urges seniors to watch out for watch out for fraudsters who are touting that a certain company’s stock that is certainly going to explode because they have products that can treat coronavirus. Don’t fall for this stock scam and buy this stock.

For the latest coronavirus news and advice, go to http://www.AARP.org/coronavirus.

To see transcript, go to http://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2020/tele-town-hall-coronavirus-03-19.html.

Trump Spending Priorities Would Fray Social Safety Net Programs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 16, 2019

Last Monday, President Donald Trump released his proposed FY 2020 budget request to Congress. Lawmakers, who rejected many of these budgetary spending requests in the president’s previous two submitted budgets proposals, consider his latest to be “dead-on-arrival.”

But, Trump’s $4.7 trillion fiscal blueprint, outlined in the 150-page “Budget for a Better America,” gives us a clear picture of his spending priorities and policies he seeks to implement through executive orders and regulator changes.

Trump’s FY 2020 spending plan proposes funding increases for combating the opioid epidemic, improving veteran’s health care, fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure ($200 billion increase), even giving the Pentagon a 5 percent increase in spending exceeding what the military asked for. White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump successfully pushed for the FY 2020 budget to include $750 million to establish a paid parental leave program and a $1 billion one-time fund to provide childcare to under served populations.

Trump’s budget proposal makes a commitment of $291 million to eliminate the spread of HIV within a decade, it slashes the National Institutes of Health’s funding by 12 percent, and the budget for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention by about 10 percent.

Trump does not back away from his controversial stance of building a wall, putting in an additional $8.6 trillion for the construction of a U.S. Mexico border barrier. Congress had earlier opposed his demand for $5.7 billion for the construction project.

Trump Budget Proposal Puts Senior’s Earned Benefits at Risk

In 2016, Presidential candidate Trump had pledged not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, but he does in his submitted FY 2020 budget proposal.

Trump calls for a 5 percent cut in non-defense federal agencies, including a whopping $ 1.5 trillion in Medicaid over 10 years. The budget plan instead allocates $1.2 trillion to create “market-based health care grants,” (a.k.a block grants) for states that would start in 2021. This gives states the power to set their own rules for this program.

Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would be eliminated by Trump’s FY 2020 budget proposal by ending ACA’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions and causing millions of people to join the ranks of the uninsured. About 15 million more Americans have joined Medicaid since the ACA expansion was enacted.

Trump’s budget proposal also cuts Medicare by $845 billion over the next decade by cutting payments to hospitals and physicians, rooting out fraud and abuse, and by lowering prescription drug costs.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Disability Insurance program takes a huge budgetary cut of $25 billion and the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget is slashed by 1 percent, at a time when the agency is working hard to ratchet up its customer service provide to SSA beneficiaries.

Trump’s budget proposal would cut $220 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly referred to as the food stamp program. The program currently serves 39 million people. Under this budget, beneficiaries would be required to be employed for 20 hours a week to be eligible for assistance and replacing the EBT-debit card used to purchase groceries with the delivery of a “Harvest Box” filled with non-perishable foods like cereal and pasta, canned goods and surplus dairy products.

Housing and Urban Development’s 202 housing program for seniors and people with disabilities takes a $36 million hit, says long-time aging advocate Bill Benson, principal of Washington, D.C.-based Health Benefits ABC, in the March 15th issue of Aging Policy and Public Health News.

According to Benson, several Older Americans Act programs including the Family Caregiver Support program would be cut in Trump’s budget proposal. The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program would be cut by $1 million. Elder Justice Programs would also be cut under the President’s budget including a $2 million cut to the Elder Justice Initiative at Administration for Community Living.

” Cruelest of all [budgetary cuts] is the proposed out-right elimination of the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) which is the only source of sustained federal funding to states for Adult Protective Services (APS),” says Benson. Some 37 states use SSBGs to support their APS programs. SSBG is also used by states for a number of other services benefiting older adults including home-delivered meals and case management.

Shortchanging Seniors

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) warns that Trump’s budget proposal shortchanges seniors. “In combination with 2017’s tax cuts for the wealthy and the administration’s failure to allow Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma, the Trump budget shows that his administration is not plugged into the realities of being elderly in America,” he says.

Richtman says that Trump’s budget plan also proposes to eliminate federal grants that help pay for programs under the Older Americans Act, such as Meals on Wheels and home heating assistance for the elderly poor.”

According to Richtman, the 116th Congress gives seniors hope with introduced legislation that would boost Social Security benefits and expand Medicare coverage to include dental, hearing and vision services, changes that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. He calls on Congress to “quickly reject this callous budget proposal — and take decisive action to enhance the well-being of older Americans.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sees Trump’s newly released budget proposal as very troubling, too. “It sharply cuts funding in the part of the budget that invests in future economic growth through education and training, scientific research, infrastructure, and the like,” he says.

“It reverses progress in making affordable health care available to people who don’t have employer coverage or can’t afford private coverage. It cuts basic assistance substantially for families, children, and elderly and disabled people who are in need and struggle to get by. And, it doubles down on policies that take away health care, food, and housing when adults aren’t able to meet a work requirement,” says Greenstein.
“Despite bemoaning deficits, it calls for making the costly 2017 tax cuts — which largely benefit those who already have high incomes and wealth — permanent,” he adds.

Richtman believes that Trump’s 2020 spending proposal serves as a warning of what the administration would do if it were not for the firewall known as the Democratic-led House of Representatives. “These draconian ideas – though rejected by voters in the 2018 mid-terms – remain in the conservative political bloodstream, requiring continued advocacy on the part of seniors and their champions in Congress,” he says.

The release of Trump’s FY 2020 budget program begins the Democratic party’s efforts to retake the White House and Senate in the 2020 presidential election, just over 598 days away. By making major cuts in Social Security and Medicare and turning Medicaid into a state block grant program, Trump is giving Democratic challengers in the 2020 presidential election fodder to create politically-charged themes for ads to turn senior voters against him for seeking cuts in these popular domestic programs.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, healthcare, and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.