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.

House Committee Moves to Rein in Skyrocketing Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 1, 2019

On Nov. 18, House Antitrust Subcommittee Chair David N. Cicilline (D-RI) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-RI) introduced The Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Through Promoting Competition Act of 2019 (H.R. 5133) to put the brakes on skyrocketing prescription drug costs. The bill attacked increasing costs by prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from engaging in anticompetitive “product hopping.”

Two days later, the Committee unanimously passed the bipartisan bill to drive down the rising costs of prescription drugs. Now H.R. 5133 goes to the House floor for a vote.

“Big pharmaceutical companies have done everything they can to increase their profits regardless of who it affects. Their CEOs make millions in bonuses ever year while hardworking folks are forced to ration their medicine just so they can put food on the table for their kids,” said Cicilline, in a released statement announcing the introduction of the bill.

Since becoming Chair of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, Cicilline has sought to take on the anticompetitive behavior in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors. “This is wrong, and it needs to stop. This bill, along with the suite of legislation to lower health care costs the House has passed already this year, will put an end to anticompetitive behavior that is driving prices up while pushing the middle class further and further down,” says Cicilline in pushing for the bill’s passage.

“This bill builds on the Committee’s strong record of bipartisan legislation to confront one of the leading drivers of high prescription drug costs—efforts by drug companies to keep generic drugs off the market so that they can preserve their monopoly profits,” adds Chairman Nadler when H.R. 5133 was thrown into the legislative hopper. “The outrageous behavior of product hopping puts profits before patients and thwarts the competition that is essential to lowering prescription drug prices,” he charges. Nadler says that H.R. 5133 would “encourage drug companies to focus on delivering meaningful innovation for sick patients rather than delivering profits to their bottom line.”

Fixing the Problem

According to Cicilline and Nadler, pharmaceutical companies use a wide array of tactics when their patent on a drug is near expiration to switch patients to another version of the drug that they have the exclusive right to sell. Called “product hopping,” this anticompetitive practice extends the manufacturer’s ability to charge monopoly prices by blocking the patient’s ability to switch to a cheaper, generic alternative. Product hopping benefits the manufacturer’s bottom line at the expense of patients who are stuck paying higher prices often for many years at a time, they say.

The two Congressmen say that there is another roadblock to lowering prescription drug costs. Although antitrust agencies have made an effort to curb product hopping, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) still faces a number of hurdles under existing law when trying to hold companies accountable for this anticompetitive conduct. The Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Through Promoting Competition Act of 2019 strengthens the FTC’s ability to bring and win cases against pharmaceutical companies that engage in all forms of product hopping.

A similar version of H.R. 5133 was considered in the Senate and it would save taxpayers an estimated $500 million according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

A week earlier, before H.R. 5133 was passed by the and Judiciary Committee, a new report was released by AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI), giving data to Congress to enact legislation to lowering prescription drug costs. The report findings indicate that brand-name drug prices rose more than twice as fast as inflation in 2018.

According to the AARP PPI report, retail prices for 267 brand-name drugs commonly used by older adults surged by an average of 5.8 percent in 2018, more than twice the general inflation rate of 2.4 percent. The annual average cost of therapy for one brand-name drug ballooned to more than $7,200 in 2018, up from nearly $1,900 in 2006.

“There seems to be no end to these relentless brand-name drug price increases,” said Debra Whitman, Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer at AARP, in a Nov. 13 statement announcing the release of the report. “To put this into perspective: If gasoline prices had grown at the same rate as these widely-used brand-name drugs over the past 12 years, gas would cost $8.34 per gallon at the pump today. Imagine how outraged Americans would be if they were forced to pay those kinds of prices,” says Whitman.

Brand-name drug price increases have consistently and substantially exceeded the general inflation rate of other consumer goods for over a decade, notes the AARP PPI data.

If brand-name drug retail price changes had been limited to the general inflation rate between 2006 and 2018, the average annual cost of therapy for one brand-name drug would be a whopping $5,000 lower today ($2,178 vs. $7,202). The report’s findings note that the average senior takes 4 to 5 medications each month, and the current cost of therapy translates into an annual cost of more than $32,000, almost 25 percent higher than the median annual income of $26,200 for a Medicare beneficiary.

“While some people will undoubtedly see a slower rate of price increases as a sign of improvement, the reality is that there is absolutely nothing to stop drug companies from reverting back to double-digit percentage price increases every year,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, and co-author of the report. “Americans will remain at the mercy of drug manufacturers’ pricing behavior until Congress takes major legislative action,” adds Purvis.

With over 340 days before the upcoming 2020 Presidential and Congressional elections, Senate Democrats say that more than 250 House-passed bills are “buried in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky) legislative graveyard.” The Senate’s top Republican}, referred to as the “Grim Reaper,” has blocked consideration on these bills (including prescription drug pricing bills) effectively killing them. As the election day gets closer this number is expected to increase.

President Trump and Republican lawmakers are loudly chanting that the Democrats are “getting nothing done in Congress.” This is just fake “political” news. Major reforms that would prop up Social Security, Medicare, and lower Prescription Drug prices get the legislative kibosh in the GOP-controlled Senate. It is now time to put these bills to an up or down vote in the upper chamber. The voters will send a message to Congress next November if they agree with the results. It’s time for McConnell to put down his reaper

For details, of AARP report, go to http://www.aarp.org/rxpricewatch.

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

Government Shutdown Hurts Seniors, Too

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 21, 2019

At press time, the federal government has been partially shut down for over 29 days because of Democrats and Republicans being at odds over President Trump’s ask for $5.7 billion to be included in continuing spending resolutions for the Oct. 1 start of the new federal fiscal year. Trump calls for billions of dollars to build a border wall along the 234 miles of the nation’s southern border.

The partial shutdown began on Dec. 22 because Congress had not passed legislation, signed by the President, to fund nine federal departments, so these departments do not have funding to operate. The department’s include Agriculture (USDA), Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Interior, State, Transportation and Treasury.

During the partial government shutdown, Trump has so refused to retreat from his request for funding to build a wall. With strong Democratic opposition the political standoff has made this partial shutdown the longest one of its kind in the nation’s history. There have been 21 shutdowns since 1976.

Local media has widely reported that this shutdown has left 800,000 federal workers furloughed without pay, as well as those working in several federal agencies. But half of these employees are still working, being recalled but without being pay. But Trump has signed legislation this week to pay these employees retroactively once a funding bill is enacted.

What About Aging Programs and Services?

According to AARP’s Senior Writer Dena Bunis in a Jan. 18th web article, “Essential Services Stay in Place Despite Massive Federal Employee Furloughs,” the government shutdown does not impact major domestic programs, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security but other programs and services for seniors are affected.
Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will continue operating and not be disrupted by the shutdown because these programs are funded by an advance appropriations and Social Security [ an earned benefit] is separately funded, says Bunis.

Bunis adds, even with the shutdown aging veterans will still have access to VA hospitals, medical centers and clinics because the Department of Veterans Affairs is funded.

Retirees will find many of the nation’s 400 national parks open but having limited services. Park rangers are furloughed and volunteers are stepping up to help where needed, says Bunis, noting that with employees not reporting for work, bathrooms and other facilities remain unattended with trash piling up and vandalism reports are increasing.

Although flights are not affected and air traffic controllers remain working, Transportation Security Administration’s airport security screeners are calling in sick in large numbers, increasing waiting times, notes Bunis. She says that Federal Aviation Administration has brought back thousands of safety inspectors and engineers to keep the planes in the air flying safely.

Seniors receiving SNAP (formerly called food stamps) from the USDA can expect getting their February benefits, says Bunis, but Meals on Wheels and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program food-box deliveries will be available through March.

Bunis notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has brought back nearly 150 furloughed employees without pay “to resume safety inspections on certain drugs, medical devices and high-risk foods, such as cheese, fruits and vegetables, and infant formula.”

The current government shutdown has closed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Those workers age 40 and over who file age discrimination claims may experience difficulties in applying and getting these claims processed, says Bunis.

USDA loans for low- and moderate-income Americans who live in rural areas have stopped because of the shutdown, says Bunis. “The Federal Housing Administration is not issuing the needed paperwork for reverse mortgages to get approved. More than 1,000 contracts between HUD and landlords who provide rental assistance to low-income tenants have expired, and hundreds more will expire in February,” she notes.

Meanwhile, USDA has recalled 2,500 Farm Service Agency employees to temporarily assist agricultural producers with existing farm loan payments to ensure they get the tax documents necessary to file their returns, says Bunis.

It’s tax season…Bunis says that although the Internal Revenue Service is affected by the shutdown because it is part of the Treasury Department, over 46,000 furloughed employees have been called back to work to process income-tax returns and refunds. Filing season officially begins on Jan. 28.

Casey Calls on Trump to Reopen Government

Last week, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, urged Trump to end the partial shutdown charging that the federal government’s closing jeopardizes the transportation, housing, and nutrition needs of older Americans and people with disabilities.

“I am particularly concerned about the adverse impact of the shutdown on seniors, people with disabilities and their families,” stated in Jan 15 correspondence to the President. Food assistance programs administered through the UDSA, rental assistance payments from HUD, transportation services through the Department of Transportation (DOT), and frauds and scams investigations and enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are all negatively impacted during the shutdown, said Casey.

“Elected and appointed officials in Washington have a sacred responsibility of ensuring seniors can age with dignity and people with disabilities can live independently. I request you direct the USDA, HUD, DOT, FTC and FCC to provide additional information to Congress on the steps they will take to mitigate the harmful impact this shutdown will have on seniors and people with disabilities. And, I urge you to reopen the government so that the health and financial security of our aging loved ones are no longer put in jeopardy,” Casey adds.

For a copy of Casey’s correspondence, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/press-releases/casey-to-trump-the-shutdown-hurts-seniors_.