Advocates on aging issues review their priorities for Gov. McKee’s policy agenda

Published in RINewsToday on Nov. 14, 2022

Over 3 months ago, the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island (SACRI) invited the six Gubernatorial candidates to give the details of their aging policy positions to hundreds gathering at East Providence High School, and watching virtually. With the dust settling after the Nov. 8 midterm elections, aging advocates are asking the winner, Gov. Dan McKee, to place a high priority on enacting aging policies that he supported during SACRI’s 143-minute forum.

McKee goes on the record

McKee addressed the issue that Rhode Island nursing home and home care providers can’t provide sufficient and sustainable wages to attract and retain workers because of low state reimbursement. When questioned about how he would rebuild and sustain a viable workforce to provide services to seniors and persons with disabilities, the Governor stated he has addressed staffing issues at home health agencies and nursing homes by expanding the Wavemaker Fellowships to include healthcare workers and increasing reimbursement rates for home health agencies by $900,000 annually.

More seniors prefer to age in place at home in their community rather then enter nursing homes. McKee gave his thoughts about Medicaid rebalancing and expanding the program to keep seniors at home. He touted the $10 million invested this year to rebalance the long-term care continuum, announcing his plans to soon issue an Executive Order to direct state agencies to review existing policies through

At the forum, McKee stated he will also direct all state agencies to appoint a representative to a task force, also including municipalities and community-based nonprofits, that will create a Statewide Aging Plan to determine where federal monies and grants can be utilized to support older Rhode Islanders.

During the mid-1990s the Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA) had a staff of 65. Demoted to the Office of Healthy Aging within the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, Gov. McKee went on record that he will support legislation next year to make the state’s Office of Healthy Aging a full cabinet department. He pledged to provide an adequate budget and staffing to oversee its programs and services to Rhode Island’s growing senior population.   

Gov. McKee also supported a yearly cost-of-living increase to the state Supplemental Security Income payment in the 2024 proposed budget. He also supported the increasing of eligibility for the Medicaid Savings Programs for seniors and people with disabilities in the proposed 2024 budget by eliminating the asset test and increasing eligibility to at least 185% Federal Policy Level. 

With the state passing $250 million in funding for housing, Gov. McKee agreed to provide an adequate amount to support senior housing.  He stated: “we’re off and running”, noting that he recently announced an investment of $80 million to construct 825 units in 17 communities.  The Governor noted that his 2030 plan speaks specifically on the issue of senior housing.

Make aging policy a priority

“With the growing needs of seniors throughout the country and within our state it is time to return to a function of government which “had teeth” to enact change for elders who were at risk,” says Bob Robillard, LMHC, President of Rhode Island Senior Center Directors Association, representing 34 Senior Centers, noting that his aging group is pushing for the passage of bipartisan legislation next session that will elevate the Office of Healthy Aging to a full department – cabinet – status. 

According to Robillard, having a seat at the table as a cabinet position, the Director would directly advocate with the Governor’s Office to address unmet needs and seek creative solutions for our seniors. 

Robillard also urged the Governor to continue efforts to develop secure and affordable housing that meets the need for increased  homelessness of Rhode Island seniors. ”Their income level and having to make difficult choices to survive each month is seen in our interactions with seniors every day, and they are increasingly utilizing food banks, emergency services, and our centers, and funding these basic services needs to be a top priority,” he says.

While some federal funds have been used to address this issue, Robillard says there is a “global need for a full and comprehensive Aging Plan for Rhode Island including the voices of direct service providers like the Senior Centers, senior advocates, caregivers and, of course, seniors, themselves.” 

Finally, Robillard believes that there should be a strong focus on transportation for seniors to access their community. “Safe, respectful and person-centered transportation in our rural areas throughout our state needs to be a focus,” he says, noting that if you cannot access your community in these ways then you cannot participate in them either.

With Rhode Island experiencing a critical shortage of homecare workers, Maureen Maigret, chair of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s Aging in Community Subcommittee, calls on Gov. McKee to provide funding in the FY2024 budget to increase wages for CNAs working in home care. “The current budget includes $10 million to rebalance long term care. These funds should be used for wage increases for homecare direct care staff as an initial step to bring these invaluable workers fair wages,” says Maigret.

“It is also important to provide more resources to the Office of Healthy Aging and support for local senior services. Governor McKee started to increase funds for local aging services in the current budget and the Office of Healthy Aging has requested funding to provide each community ten dollars per person aged sixty-five and over next year,” adds Maigret, urging the Governor to include this in the budget he presents to the legislature for FY2024 as well as other funding requested by the Office including $.5million to support the state’s Aging and Disability Resource Center known as THE POINT. 

Gerontologist Deb Burton calls for the Governor to move forward to pass an Olmstead Plan to create opportunities for individuals to live in the least restrictive environments. “The Olmstead Plan would fit hand in glove with providing resources for individuals to age in the community, and not in institutions,” says Burton, who serves as Executive Director of RI Elder Info.  

Finally, Vincent Marzullo, well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and national service administrator, suggests that McKee direct the RI Commission for National/Community Service to identify AmeriCorps (national service) opportunities that would help build capacity and service delivery for our local senior centers and human services offices.  “Their needs have grown considerably during COVID,” says the West Warwick resident.

Editor’s Note: During the COVID weekly press conference time, Gov. Raimondo noted that changes need to be made in how people live in Rhode Island’s nursing homes, both from a communicable disease point of view, and from a humanity point of view. She announced a fund of $5 million to be put aside to support nursing homes transitioning their physical “plants” to be single room – single bathroom accommodations. Since Raimondo left office, there has been acknowledgement that this fund was set aside, but no action taken to address the mandate moving forward.

Fifth Time a Charm for Direct Care Worker Raises?

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 6, 2016

When the Rhode Island General Assembly wraps up its session many times the stars are not in political alignment for passage of a particular legislative proposal or budget amendment, even if many lawmakers considered these to be worthy of passage. Sen. Louis P. DiPalma understands this very well.

During the past four legislative sessions he has unsuccessfully pushed to increase pay for direct care workers serving persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities by boosting the state’s budget funding for these workers.
DiPalma, a Middletown resident who as a senator has represented Little Compton, Middletown and Tiverton for over 8 years, has come back for a fifth time, hopefully the last, to see his efforts succeed in providing a living wage to these providers, enhancing the quality of life of their lives.

A Call for a ’15 in 5’ Pay Increase

At a news conference held on Friday, Oct. 28, at Warwick-based West Bay Residential Services, DiPalma along with fellow Senators, announced their support for his proposal: ’15 in 5’ pay increase for workers serving persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Democratic senator envisions annual, incremental increases in compensation to reach $15 an hour in five years, and tying the pay rate to inflation thereafter.

A 2015 survey by the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island paints a picture of Rhode Island’s direct care workers. The majority of these individuals are women of households. Many receive state assistance from programs geared towards low-income workers, such as SNAP benefits, WIC, heating assistance, day care assistance, and housing aid. More than 40 percent of the workers hold more than one job to financially survive.

At the 53-minute press conference, DiPalma urged Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo to include his funding proposal in her 2017 budget submission. He also plans to submit legislation in the 2017 session to address the compensation system for these direct care workers, providing annual increases so that the pay rate of direct care workers reaches $15 in five years, and tying future wage increases beyond five years to inflation.

“The minimum wage has increased by 30 percent since 2012, but the rate paid to these essential direct care providers has remained stagnant,” charged DiPalma, at the press event. “The pay is now barely more than minimum wage, which is having a detrimental effect on staff retention, training costs, and, as a result, quality of care [for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities],” he says.

DiPalma noted that the need for this pay increase is obvious. “The facts and data show that our direct care workers love their jobs and want to stay in the field. They genuinely care about the population they serve. Yet, 62 percent of respondents to a recent survey indicated that low salary was a factor that may make them leave their jobs. We need to act to address this urgent situation,” he said.

According to DiPalma, the average annual staff turnover rate in the private provider network is approximately 33 percent. “This is three times as high as the approximately 11 percent staff turnover rate for comparable positions with the state-run providers through the Rhode Island Community Living and Supports (RICLAS) at the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, according to providers and RICLAS,” he says.

The average private-sector direct care worker makes $10.82 per hour, or about $22,500 a year, says DiPalma, noting that entry level provider positions at state RICLAS pay $17.15 per hour. When considering longevity, the average wage for all RICLAS direct care workers is approximately $42,278. RICLAS workers also receive state employee benefits.

Jumping on the Band Wagon

Two days before DiPalma’s press conference, Secretary of Health and Human Services Elizabeth Roberts penned her endorsement of his wage increase proposal. In her Oct. 26 correspondence, she strongly endorsed his efforts to implement multiyear wage increases to Rhode Island’s direct service providers. “These workers are critically important to realizing the goals set forth in our clients’ person-centered plans,” she adds, noting that these workers provide services necessary for ensuring that persons with disabilities are integrated in Rhode Island communities.

At the press conference, S came to give DiPalma his blessings. “Increasing wages to private direct care workers addresses an important part of the wage inequity problem, and helps improve outcomes for the individuals they serve. At the same time, we need to continue to review the methodology for compensating all those direct care workers who serve our children, homebound elderly, and individuals with disabilities through other types of provider agencies,” says Da Ponte.

Like other speakers at the press conference, Donna Martin, executive director of Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, called initial salaries for direct service workers “woefully inadequate” for the work they perform. “They are working nights and holidays leaving their families behind to support individuals under their care.,” says Martin. “These individuals serve as mentor, friend, confident and even some serve in the role of family to their clients,” she adds.

Adds speaker Anthony Antosh, Director of the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities: “The field of developmental disabilities has dramatically changed in the past two decades as have the responsibilities and expectations for direct support staff. The outcomes achieved by adults who have a developmental disability are directly connected to the quality and stability of direct support staff. Developing a career ladder built on quality training and fair wages will go a long way towards stabilizing the direct support workforce and improving quality of services.”

Marie Carroll, a direct service provider employed by ARC of Blackstone valley, a
Pawtucket-based agency employing over 200 employees, sat in the audience to support DiPalma in his efforts to increase funding for direct care workers. She sees Rhode Island’s lower wages pulling her colleagues into Massachusetts for higher incomes.
Carroll hopes to see the Rhode Island General Assembly in the upcoming session value the work she and 3,500 direct care workers provide. “People who care for the state’s disabled should not be paid poverty wages. You can’t expect people to work in an emotional and sometimes physically demanding job for $11 per hour,” she said, stressing that low wages keep these workers from taking adequate care of their own families.

Boosting Wage Payments in Next Year’s Budget

At press time, DiPalma’s wage increase proposal has received a seal of approval from President of the Senate M. Teresa Paiva Weed and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Da Ponte. Roberts, as Secretary of Health & Human Services, who oversees the state’s disability programs and services, gives her enthusiastic support for boosting funding of direct services workers in the upcoming 2018 budget. But, press secretary Larry Berman says that House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello is studying DiPalma’s proposal and has not yet taken a position on this issue.

Even with early political support of DiPalma’s ’15 in 5’ Pay Increase proposal, its ultimate passage lies with either Governor Raimondo boosting direct car worker wages in her FY 2018 budget proposal or in the state’s final budget crafted by the House with the sign off of the Senate. For DiPalma and those working with persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the Governor, House Speaker and President of the Senate must be on the same page to move DiPalma’s proposal forward. Hopefully, the “fifth time is the charm.”

Gubernatorial Candidates Go Negative to Get Votes

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 22, 2014

With less than three weeks before the September 9th Democratic primary, gubernatorial candidates are working overtime to get their political message out by mailed campaign literature and bombarding the airways with their 30 second commercials and at debates.

As primary day quickly approaches, political new comer Clay Pell is staying on message in his campaign literature and television ads, claiming he has a “real plan” to fix Rhode Island’s problems, even claiming that he will bring a “real plan” and a “fresh perspective” to the Governor’s Office if he is elected. On the other hand, Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo duke it out to take the lead. Taveras even takes pop shots at Pell as more voters begin to support him.

From the start, Businessman Ken Block and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung took off their gloves and began negatively blasting teach other in their campaign literature, TV ads and even at debates. Block was not a real Republican who had voted for Democratic President Barack Obama, he even supported his new ObamaCare program. On the other hand, Block went after Fung’s handling of Cranston’s ticketgate, calling him a political insider.

Yes, as my good friend long-time Pawtucket resident Jon Anderson says, “it’s the silly season of politics.” Like it or not, negative campaigns are here to stay and they do work, say political pundits

Poll Numbers Shifting

Just as summer began, Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates began to get negative and the numbers began to shift.

According to an exclusive WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll, released two days ago, of 503 likely Rhode Island Democratic primary voters, Raimondo takes the lead at 32%, Taveras drops to 27%. Pell is closing in at 26%, the poll shows, conducted by Joe Fleming, of Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, Rhode Island. One percent of the voters give Todd Giroux their support. Only 13% of the respondents remain undecided.

Last May, a previous WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll showed a politically-unknown Pell had support of 12% of those polled. Huge infusions of his personal wealth on TV ad purchase and campaign outreach has ratcheted up his visibility. At that time, Taveras was in the lead with 33%, Raimondo at 29%. With a larger campaign war chest than the Mayor, she was able to chip away at his lead by focusing the voters on his City’s economic woes and spike in crime.

As to the Republican primary race, the universe of Republican voters is so small there are no public polls, says Chairman Mark Smiley, Rhode Island Republican Party. He notes that the Fung and Block campaigns are doing their own internal polling.

Negative Campaigning Works…

Negative campaigning works, says Wendy Schiller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University. In his book, Defense of Negativity, Vanderbilt Professor John Greer found that “not only do negative ads work to undermine the opponent, they also convey information about candidates,” notes Schiller.

“Even when an ad is completely negative, it almost always contains some element of truth to it about the opponent’s record or positions, adds Schiller, a frequent guest of Rhode Island PBS’s “A Lively Experiment.”

Schiller gives her assessment of the Block-Fung race. “Because Ken Block was formerly a moderate, he has the most pressure to jump into his race with energy and aggression and undermine the perceived front runner Mayor Allan Fung,” she says, noting that he may have well been successful in doing that at a time when the police scandal in Cranston was unfolding and now more recently, with the filming of an expensive ad in Ohio instead of being created in Rhode Island

“Fung has fought back by criticizing Blocks proposal’s and his lack of elected experience, but his first negative ad on Blockheads was perceived to insult Block supporters more than Block himself, so they pulled it, notes Schiller.

As to the Taveras-Raimondo contest, Schiller believes the Mayor had to go negative against his opponent because she was criticizing him for higher taxes and the rising crime rate in Providence, noting that of these candidates went negative on Pell’s inexperience. It was a mistake because they did not want to give him status as a contender but it allowed him to shape his own reputation among voters with unchallenged TV ads, she says.

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Schiller says that negative TV ads can backfire. “I think overly negative – or too much distortion of a record – can backfire more in Rhode Island because we are such a small state that most folks can spot an exaggeration when they see it,” she observes.

“We are already seeing Taveras go more negative on both Raimondo and Pell so expect to continue [in the upcoming weeks before the primary], adds Schiller. She predicts that the General Treasurer will “likely stay positive in effort to pull a few more voters from the undecided camps into her vote column. She says that Pell has responded to Taveras negative ads in a limited way, and expects him to stay above the negative fray in hopes of pulling votes from the other two Democratic candidates.

Can a political candidate win an election by not going negative? It depends on where you are in your campaign, says Schiller. For instance, a while back Raimondo went negative on Taveras, but only continues to do so in debates, not so much on TV ads. Pell thinks a positive strategy is also a winning strategy while Taveras is now on the attack. “We will just have to wait and see on primary night who wins,” she says.

Watching the Political Tumble from the Side Lines

From inside the Beltway, Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, watches his former state’s gubernatorial races and gives this columnist his observations.

“The Ocean State’s GOP primary turned negative early in the campaign because it is only a two-person race. In this situation, once one candidate goes negative, the other person has to defend himself and go on the attack too,” says West, a former Brown University professor and a prominent Rhode Island political commentator, noting the complexity of negative advertising in three-person races. “If two candidates go negative, that sometimes benefits the third candidate who has stuck with a positive message,” he says.

West speculates as to Taveras’ use of negative TV ads. “Taveras has a problem on both flanks. Raimondo is more moderate while Pell is more progressive. So the Mayor went negative to prevent vote erosion on both sides of the political spectrum. His strategy hasn’t bought him much support and he has lost ground to Pell in the most recent poll, he says.

West agrees with Schiller that negative ads can backfire. “Negative ads can backfire if the candidate is seen as mean-spirited and overly negative. That can redound to the benefit of the candidate who has stayed positive,” he adds.

Look for more nasty TV ads in the upcoming weeks, says West. You often see more negativity as you get closer to election day. With the margin of victory very close among the Democratic candidates, that primary runs the risk of turning into a slugfest in its closing days,” he says.

Finally, West says that positive ads might push a political candidate to victory. “Candidates can win by staying positive in a three-way race. Lack of negativity becomes a distinguishing factor with the other two candidates, he notes.

Your Vote Counts

Historically, older voters from across the country have played a major role in electing political candidates because they consistently-voted in larger percentages than other age groups. The political fate of Rhode Island’s statewide and congressional elections and ballot initiatives may well rest on the shoulders of aging baby boomers and senior voters.

By now, the Ocean State’s political candidates have mailed campaign literature, debated, attended debates and gatherings, hoping to effectively deliver their political messages and ultimately influence their vote.

While negative ads may sway voters, take control of who you will vote for at the upcoming primary. Spend the next three weeks to read between the lines of campaign literature and negative ads, learning more about a candidate’s background and issues. You must separate political rhetoric and negative innuendoes from the substance of issues. Put time into determining who can best represent your interests.

If political candidates do not know the power of the educated voters, hopefully they will after the polls close at 8:00 p.m. on September 9th.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com