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/

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.

Nursing facilities gear up for October vaccination deadline

Published in RI News Today on September 20, 2021

Over a month ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) issued a Health Alert Network (HAN) Health Advisory to public health practitioners and clinicians about the urgent need to increase COVID-19 vaccination coverage across the United States to prevent surges in new infections that could increase COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality, overwhelm health care capacity, and widen existing COVID-19-related health disparities.

According to the July 27 Health Advisory, there is growing medical evidence that the Delta variant is at least twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is reported that most cases of COVID-19 hospitalizations and death are in unvaccinated people; however, there are breakthrough infections in vaccinated people because of the surge of infections among the unvaccinated. This is a particular concern in nursing homes, where vaccinated residents are infected by unvaccinated staff.

The Biden Administration announced plans in August to require COVID-19 vaccinations for nursing home staff as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding. Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee, along with other states’ leadership, took similar steps to protect nursing home residents by requiring all healthcare staff to be vaccinated and the new federal mandate will ensure consistent and equitable standards throughout the country. At a COVID-19 update held at the state capitol in early August, McKee called for the new vaccine mandate (as a term of employment) to take effect.

COVID Cases Rise in Rhode Island Nursing  Homes

Coronavirus continues to increase in nursing homes, warns AARP Rhode Island in a statement issued on September 17. According to the latest data from AARP’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard, in the four weeks ending August 22, resident cases increasing from 0.05 to 0.34 per 100 residents and staff cases increasing from 0.11 to 0.88 per 100 residents since the mid-July report.

Nationally, cases are concentrated among the unvaccinated, and those residents were three times as likely to contract COVID-19 last month compared to residents who are fully vaccinated.

The last eight months have shown vaccines to be the most effective tool in preventing COVID-19 related deaths, says AARP Rhode Island’s statement. There were modest increases in vaccination rates during this four-week period, with 92% of Rhode Island Nursing Home residents and 76% of staff fully vaccinated as of August 22.

“This month’s dashboard underscores why all staff and residents in long-term care facilities must be vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director, Catherine Taylor. “For unvaccinated nursing home residents, their risk of an infection is back up to the levels we saw a year ago. Too many people in Rhode Island who lived and worked in nursing facilities have died from COVID-19, and no one wants to see that tragedy repeated,” said Taylor.

The AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard also found over a 300% increase in RI nursing homes reporting an urgent need for PPE in the period ending August 22, with almost 10% of facilities in Rhode Island reporting they did not have sufficient PPE.

Nursing Facilities Struggling to Maintain Adequate Staffing

While the Rhode Island Health Care Association supports Governor McKee’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations across the health care continuum, says John E. Gage, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, representing 64 of the 77 nursing facilities in the Ocean State, nursing homes are struggling to maintain their staffing levels to meet the state’s direct care requirements, but many are struggling to maintain that level, he says, noting that next month’s deadline requiring nursing facility staff will further strain the already “precarious staffing crisis in the state’s nursing facilities”.

Gage noted that the state’s Department of Health has surveyed facilities this week regarding the number of staff that will be unable to enter facilities in two weeks because they are unvaccinated. “It is reported that nursing facilities will lose 7% of their workforce – 706 staff of 10,137 in the workforce across all disciplines,” says Gage, noting that 495 out of the 706 are clinical staff members.

According to Gage, “Rhode Island nursing facilities are ranked the fourth best state for resident vaccinations and fifth best state for staff vaccination rates in the country. He notes, when taking a look at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data released last week, in Rhode Island 92.65% of residents are fully vaccinated compared to 84.1% nationwide. As to staff, 78.99% of Rhode Island’s nursing facility staff are fully vaccinated compared to 63.7% nationwide.

Gage says, “The vaccine mandate will further add to the challenge of staff retention and recruitment. We are facing the implementation of a minimum staffing mandate to take effect 1/1/22. There’s not adequate staff available to hire, and the legislature did not provide for adequate funding to achieve the upcoming mandate”. 

Finally, Gage notes that while visitation is currently open at Rhode Island nursing facilities there are many factors that make it difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19 from staff to residents. “Our staff are members of each and every community in Rhode Island  They interact with others outside of work who may or may not be vaccinated, and many have children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination. To further complicate matters, there are breakthrough cases among those who are fully vaccinated, especially now with the prevalence of the Delta variant,” says Gage.

“Rhode Island facilities will continue to take all steps necessary to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 infections,” says Gage, noting that vaccinations are the key to eradicating this pandemic, together with the proper use of personal protective equipment.  

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  www.AARP.org/nursinghomedashboard, and an AARP story about this month’s data is available here. For more information on how COVID is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes.