Rhode Island General Assembly Tackles Senior Issues

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 19, 2013

At the end of June, Rhode Island lawmakers passed the state’s $8.2-billion FY 2014 state budget bill, sending it to Governor Lincoln D. Chafee’s desk for his signature. Even with $ 30 million ultimately slashed from the state’s fiscal blueprint because of lower-than-anticipated revenues, cash strapped taxpayers were happy to learn that they will not see any state tax or fee increases.

            Political correspondents in print, electronic media and in web site blogs zeroed in on specific items in the state’s enacted budget plan, those that they judged as weighty and newsworthy to be detailed to their audience.  Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, the FY 2014 state budget brought back to life the state’s historic tax credit (through the efforts of Executive Director Scott Wolf, of Grow Smart and a broad based coalition of over 100 groups), also putting dollars into workforce development, even helping the Ocean State’s burgeoning artist community by enacting a state-wide sales tax exemption on specific types of art purchased.  With the budget now signed into law, Rhode Island liquor retailers are able to compete against competitors in nearby Massachusetts because of a new 16-month trial period for tax-free wine and liquor sales.  

            One of the more controversial items in the FY 2014 state budget that fueled heated discussions on WPRO and WHJJ radio talk shows was putting funds in the state budget to pay the first installment payment of $2.5 million on the bonds issued to the now bankrupt 38 Studios. 


Funding Programs and Services for Seniors

            Although not widely reported in many media outlets, Rhode Island lawmakers did not turn their back on aging baby boomers or seniors.   

            The FY 2014 budget provides $1.0 million in Community Service Grants to organizations serving the elderly, including $200,000 for meals on wheels, $25,000 for Home and Hospice Care and level funding for Senior Centers across the state.

            It also consolidates funding for care for the elderly, consistent with the Integrated Care Initiative.  This initiative will coordinate care of the elderly, many of whom are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid and who navigate disjointed payment and delivery systems.  With the state’s enacted budget, there will be a single funding and delivery system that integrates long term, acute and primary care to dually-eligible individuals.

            Also, the state’s budget plan maintains the Rhode Island Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Elderly program (RIPAE), coordinating with benefits provided through the Affordable Care Act and ensuring no gaps in coverage for low income seniors.

            It also directs funding for programs and personnel within the state’s Office of Health and Human Services to combat waste, fraud and abuse, including the new Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, to ensure Medicaid dollars return as much value for participants as possible.

            The enacted budget also establishes $80,000 for the Emergency and Public Communications Access Fund to improve emergency communication and to support emergency responder training for the deaf and hard of hearing population in the State.

TDI Expansion Becomes Law

            Meanwhile, on July 3rd, Rhode Island lawmakers approved legislation (S 231 B, 5889A), sponsored by Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-District 3, Providence) and Rep. Elaine Coderre, (D-District 60, Pawtucket) to expand temporary disability insurance to employees who must take time out of work to care for a family member or bond with a new child in their home (see my May 17 issue of the Pawtucket Times, May 19 issue of Woonsocket Call).

            Women’s Fund of Rhode Island CEO Marcia Conė and the WE Care for RI coalition, consisting of over 40 groups, brought in national politico operative, Steve Gerencser, who consulted and developed the game plan and messaging needed to get the TDI legislation passed and onto the Governor’s desk for signature.  Rhode Island becomes the third state in the nation to pass a paid family leave law.

            Signed by Democratic Governor Chafee, the new law will increase the state’s TDI program to cover up to four weeks of wage replacement for workers who take time off to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, domestic partner, parent, parent-in-law or grandparent or to bond with a new child, whether through birth, adoption or foster care. Temporary caregiver benefits would be limited to those who are the caregiver of their sick or injured family member, and the program would require documentation from a licensed health care provider.

            “The most important reason for this legislation is to provide support to help families in times of need, but it has many good ripple effects for Rhode Islanders,” noted Coderre. This includes saving on avoidable medical costs for people who will be able to stay home with a family member instead of needing to admit their family member to an expensive medical facility. It can mean that someone keeps their job.

            Adds Senator Goldin, unpaid leave isn’t always an option, and it’s a very difficult option for most families. “Paid caregiver leave is a cost-effective way to keep people from losing their jobs, jeopardizing their financial security or risking their family’s well-being when a family member needs care,” she said.

            The expansion would be funded through employee contributions, just as the rest of the TDI program is currently funded. In order to support the expanded benefits, employees would contribute another 0.075 percent of their income to TDI. For a worker earning about $40,000 a year, this would mean he or she would pay an additional 64 cents a week for the expanded benefit.

Also Becoming Law…

            Governor Chafee has also signed the Family Caregivers Support Act of 2013 passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly.    

            Aiming to improve the quality of life for the elderly and the disabled in the comfort of their own homes, an approved  legislative proposal requires the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to develop evidence-based caregiver assessments and referral tools for family caregivers providing long-term care services.

            Sponsored by Rep. Eileen S. Naughton (D-Dist. 21, Warwick) and Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-Dist.1, Providence), the legislation calls for an assessment that would identify specific problems caregivers or recipients might have, carefully evaluate how those situations should be handled and come up with effective solutions.

            The legislation defines “family caregiver” as “any relative, partner, friend or neighbor who has a significant relationship with, and who provides a broad range of assistance for, an older adult” or an adult or child “with chronic or disabling conditions.” Rep. Naughton said people should be aware that there are support systems and an abundance of resources available for home care before deciding to put an elderly person in a nursing home or an expensive facility.

            Senator Goodwin added that without the proper support, the current system can place an unnecessary burden on both facilities and caregivers.

            “We want fewer individuals going into nursing homes and similar facilities if we can help it,” says Rep. Naughton. “It’s upsetting for an elderly or disabled individual to have to trade the comfort of his or her home for an unfamiliar place. Family caregivers not only know the medical needs of these individuals, but are often aware of their emotional needs, too,” she said.

            The comprehensive assessment required as part of Medicaid long-term service reform is meant to provide assistance with activities of daily living needs and would serve as a basis for development and provision of an appropriate plan for caregiver information, referral and support services. Information about available respite programs, caregiver training, education programs, support groups and community support services is required to be included as part of the plan for each family caregiver.

Addressing Long Term Care Needs

            Other approved legislative proposals, supported by the state’s nursing facility industry, were also signed by Governor Chafee.  

            Lawmakers passed and the Governor signed legislation to permit pharmacies that sell medications to nursing homes to buy them back, with a “restocking” fee.  Under the new law, medications that are individually packaged, unopened, and meet other safety requirements as determined by a pharmacist can be used rather than being discarded.

            Also signed into law were measures that promote “aging in place” and direct the state’s Department of Health to review regulations to permit this.

            Finally, the Governor signed the Palliative Care and Quality of Life Act, which establishes an advisory council and program within the Department of Health. Also, beginning in 2015, every health care facility must establish a system for identifying patients or residents who would benefit from palliative care and provide information and assistance to access such care.

             Virginia Burke, CEO and President of the Rhode Island Health Care Association (RIHCA), observed that this year’s legislative session had mixed results for nursing home residents.  Most of the bills that the group supported did pass, which “should lead to enhanced care for our residents,” she says. 

            According to Burke, “Unfortunately, providers were anticipating an adjustment to their rates this fall to address price increases in things like insurance, food, and utilities and that was taken away due to the budget deficit.  We’re very lucky that Rhode Island providers are known throughout the nation for their delivery of quality care, but quality begins to suffer when providers don’t have adequate resources to do the job.”

            This year difficult budgetary choices were made to balance the state’s budget.  Although aging advocates did not get everything they pushed for, Governor Chafee and the Rhode Island General Assembly did fund programs and services that are sorely needed by the state’s growing senior population.  I urge lawmakers to continue these efforts in the next legislative session.  

            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


Sen. Nesselbush’s Big Legislative Adventure

Published in the Pawtucket Times, April 26, 2013 

            As a young student at BrownUniversity in the early 80s, Donna Nesselbush discovered she was a lesbian.  However, it never occurred to this College coed that 30 years later, she would be a Rhode Island Senator fighting “tooth and nail” for marriage equality, and issue she calls “the greatest civil rights issue of our time.”  Nesselbush has advocated for marriage equality alongside many local businesses and some of the state’s top political officials, in addition to Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, as well as some Catholics, too, hoping to change Rhode Island’s marriage law to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.  

             Throughout the legislative session Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, issued statements calling on Rhode Island lawmakers to stand firm against changing the traditional definition of the word, “marriage.”  Before the Senate Judiciary vote, he urged them to “stand strong in resisting this immoral and unnecessary proposition” and to “defend marriage and family as traditionally defined.”   Throughout the legislative debate the National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island, would also stand by the side of the Catholic Church calling for the rejection of the same-sex marriage legislative proposals being considered by the Rhode Island General Assembly.  

 A Long-time Waiting

              For almost 20 years, state lawmakers had grappled with the religiously charged issue of same-sex marriage.  Nesselbush attended many of the legislative hearings to testify in support of allowing same-sex marriage, and other times just to watch, only to see bills “held for further study.”  As a Senator, Nesselbush now clearly understands that legislative code phrase to mean the bill is being “put out to legislative pasture,” or killed, she says.

             During last year’s legislative session, Nesselbush watched as the House, eyed the conservatively-leaning Senate. House pragmatists pushed Speaker Gordon Fox to endorse civil union legislation rather than push for full-marriage equality. Much to the dismay of Fox, the first openly gay Speaker of the House, his members exhorted “Why ask House members to make a difficult vote if the Senate was all but certain to take no action?”

              “The House chamber came to a very pragmatic, political and painful conclusion that passing the civil union bill was better than nothing,” said the Pawtucket senator.

             In 2010, being a new Senator, Nesselbush learned the legislative procedural ropes, and more importantly the fine art of vote counting in order to walk a political tight rope.  She scrambled to count votes to ensure that the civil unions legislation would pass in order to extend much needed rights to gay people, but she wanted to “take the high road,” voting against this less than desirable vehicle, “and standing for the proposition that separate is never equal; gay and lesbian couples deserve full marriage equality,” said Nesselbush.

 Taking the Torch

             Although the marriage equity bill was ultimately shot down in 2010, in 2013 Nesselbush was asked to carry the torch from former Senator Rhoda Perry to champion Senate passage of a marriage equality bill.  For over 15 years the former Providence Senator, advocating many liberal causes, had pushed for passage without success. Senator Sue Sosnowski of South Kingston, a long time civil rights advocate, the second co-sponsor on the marriage equality legislation, stepped aside and asked Nesselbush, the only openly gay Senator, to take the lead.  Senate Majority Whip, Maryellen Goodwin, of Providence, helped massage the customary seniority system to give Nesselbush the thumbs up to become the lead sponsor. “I’m forever grateful to Senators Goodwin and Sosnowski for entrusting me with this important civil rights legislation.

 Legislative History in the Making   

             Last Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 7-4 vote passed Nesselbush’s same sex marriage bill along with the House companion measure (H 5015B).  The legislative proposal, which would take effect Aug.1, removes gender-specific language from the section of the general laws that governs eligibility for marriage.  It inserts language that allows any person to marry any other person.


            Furthermore, it contains a provision that allows couples who have entered into civil unions in Rhode Island since they were established in July 2011, to convert those unions into marriages by applying to the clerk in the municipality where it was recorded to have it recorded as a marriage, without having to apply for anything else or pay a fee.  If they would prefer, they would be eligible to apply for a marriage license and have the marriage solemnized.

             Bowing to the powerful Catholic lobby, the bill contains language reiterating the constitutionally guaranteed freedom for religious institutions to set their own guidelines for marriage eligibility within their faith, and stipulates that under no circumstances will clergy or others authorized to perform marriages be obligated by law to officiate at any particular civil marriage or religious rite of marriage.

             One day after the vote of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the full Senate passed the marriage equality bills on Wednesday, April 24, 2013.  Both bills, because they were amended by the Senate, still have to clear an additional House vote before they can be sent to the governor. The full House vote is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, May 2, following a likely Judiciary Committee vote on Tuesday. 

             When Governor Lincoln D. Chafee signs the same-sex marriage bills into law, Rhode Island joins its New England neighbors and becomes the 10th state in the nation to enact marriage equality.  Nesselbush says, “I have never been prouder to be a Senator, and I have never been prouder of the full Senate Chamber.”

             The intensely public debate on the marriage equity issue has put real faces to this religiously-charged issue, notes Nesselbush. Now, it seems that “everyone knows someone who is gay, and the conversation now almost always begins or ends with, “yes, I know, so and so, who is gay and has a great partner.” 


Personal Journey

             Looking back, Nesselbush remembers her devote Catholic parents giving her a strong religious upbringing, as well as this religious tradition being reinforced at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the school she attended for eight years.

             But her strong religious faith would be tested during her undergraduate years at Brown when she came out and accepted that she was gay.  “To thine own self be true; you cannot change innately who you are.”

             “My sexuality was the single biggest reason I did not return to my family in Buffalo, New York after graduating from BrownUniversity,” says Nesselbush.  Like many others, Nesselbush would choose not to share this realization upon first meeting people, but only when a friendship “reached a depth” of  honesty and respect.

                   Accepting her sexual orientation but afraid back then of her family’s reaction, Nesselbush decided not to return to her very Catholic family in New YorkState.  She quietly left her the Catholic Church of her childhood because of its position on the gay issue.  “I love my church too much to cause it or my family any shame or pain,” she said.

             While not regularly attending Catholic Church services, her religious upbringing and Catholic education “set the foundation of my life and the standard for service to others,” admits Nesselbush, noting that “Catholicism simply imbues my bones and runs in my blood.” I am still a very religious person who believes strongly in the love of God and the power of prayer; Christ is still central to my life.”

             According to Nesselbush, her parents and 3 siblings, her extended family and classmates, friends, and “even my Portuguese friends who immigrated to the OceanState from the old country,” have all found  ways to love and accept her, even though the “gay” concept was initially very foreign to them. “Today, says Nesselbush, it’s not even an issue.”

 Finding the One…

              Nesselbush also serves as the Chief Judge of the City of Pawtucket and is a partner at the law firm of Marasco & Nesselbush.  Her life partner, Kelly Carse, 53, is a coach at CrossFit Providence. They have been a couple since 2011 when various mutual friends  became matchmakers knowing that Nesselbush and Carse were single.. With their first meeting, the attraction was both mutual and instantaneous,” quipped the Pawtucket Senator.  “She was cute, funny, philanthropic, high minded, and well travelled. I loved that she had served in the Peace Corps, and she corrected my African geography on the first date!,” noted Nesselbush.

             Nesselbush has always viewed Smith Hill’s denial of same sex marriage as discrimination, enforced by legal statute  As a Municipal Court judge, she always found it oddly ironic that she was somehow qualified to officiate wedding ceremonies (which she loves to do) but she was somehow not herself qualified to marry. “Yesterday, all that changed.”

             “The love between two people is often palpable and never stronger than the moment the two are committing their lives to one another [through marriage].  With the passage of the Senate’s same-sex marriage legislation, both Nesselbush and Carse will now be able to experience this, too, like many heterosexual couples. 

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

Art Can Jump Start the State’s Sagging Economy

Published in the Pawtucket Times, February 22, 2013

Rhode Island may be known as the nation’s littlest State. But if Governor Lincoln D. Chafee, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, and House Speaker Gordon D. Fox have their way, the Ocean State may be called the “State of the Arts.”

Even with the occurrence of a massive blizzard just two days before the February 11th Art Charrette, 110 art supporters (including 10 Senators), from government, the business community, academia and the nonprofit sector, did not let huge snow piles in some spots up to two feet high keep them off the streets. They traveled to Fidelity Investments headquarters in Smithfield to tell top State elected officials how art and creativity can rev up Rhode Island’s sputtering economic engine.

Fidelity Investment’s 500-acre campus off Route 7 features three buildings, including a 577,000-square-foot office building. It was the perfect place to talk seriously about art. Carol Warner, who has served as Fidelity’s Art Curator for more than 30 years, says her company has purchased over 1,200 pieces of art from 433 Rhode Island artists. The collection is showcased throughout the campus and is installed on the surrounding grounds. Warner enthused that the art “both enhances the work space and invigorates its employees,” in her comments to the gathered legislative and arts and cultural leadership attendees.

During her opening remarks Warner noted that Fidelity Investments supports local artists in Rhode Island and wherever they have a presence at nine regional campuses and 180 investment centers throughout the nation.

The Political Stars Align for Arts

Chafee, whose demonstration program put murals on four visible highway retaining walls and abutments along Interstate 95, noted that staggering statistics “underscore the plain fact that the arts are clearly one of Rhode Island’s premier [economic] assets.” He cited a New England Foundation for the Arts study, published last fall that found that 2009 direct and indirect spending by the non-profit arts sector totaled $673 million and supported nearly 8,000 jobs.

According to the Governor, just last year, a Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts study found over 12,000 Rhode Island jobs were created in both the State’s private and nonprofit art sectors. The economic impact in Providence alone was greater than that of Delaware, Hawaii, South Dakota and New Hampshire…states with larger populations, he said.

“The arts and culture are also deeply intertwined with our state’s appeal as a tourism destination. They make Rhode Island a place where people want to spend time and – quite frankly – spend money,” added Chafee, whose proposed 2014 budget provides additional funding for the State’s Tourism Division.

“Rhode Island’s creative sector encompasses over 3,248 arts-related businesses and jobs that employ more than 13,000 individuals,” stated Paiva Weed, who spear headed the efforts to organize this idea gathering session. “Despite the lingering effects of the recession on most sectors of the economy, the creative sector in Rhode Island added 770 jobs and enjoyed a 16 percent growth between 2011 and 2012.”

Fox acknowledged the fact that Rhode Island needs to play to its strength in the arts, an observation that he garnered from a speaker at a recently held economic development workshop at Rhode Island College.

Don’t expect the final report generated from the Art Charrette to sit on a State bureaucrat’s dusty shelf. Fox, whose chamber initially hammers out the State’s budget, asserted that he will work closely with the Senate and Governor to review the final suggestions to ensure that arts are a key component of Rhode Island’s state’s economic turnaround.

For Executive Director Randy Rosenbaum, who has led the State’s Council for the Arts for 18 years, the gathering was a “pinch me” moment. For years his mantra has been “the arts are important for the economic vitality of Rhode Island.” With Chafee’s opening affirmation that Paiva Weed and Fox are “unified” in their belief that the arts are key to economic growth in Rhode Island, the State’s Arts Czar saw all the planets in alignment for bringing his “arts and economic vitality” mantra closer to a political reality.

RISD President John Maeda came bringing his greetings, too. Maeda, a designer, computer scientist, academic and author, took the opportunity to announce the February 14th, launching of STEM to STEAM, a new RISD-led initiative to add Art and Design to the national agenda of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Co-chaired by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL), the bipartisan caucus focuses on furthering the incorporation of art and design into STEM education for American students. The new Congressional Caucus also includes Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Jim Langevin (D-RI).

Neil Steinberg, President of Rhode Island Foundation, views arts as a “twofer” with the jobs that the sector creates and the quality of life for the people who come here and for those who stay. He notes that his group, one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation and the only community foundation serving the Ocean State, is committed to building the arts sector,

Break Out Session Generates Ideas

With the larger group split into three discussion groups, more than 85 suggestions were compiled by the Art Charrette organizers.

One suggestion was to create a branding campaign to establish an art identity for Rhode Island. It was recommended that state policy makers make the most of the State’s small size and high density of artists and art groups. Visual branding of arts districts along with art trails with eating establishments would promote incredible art work and great restaurants.

It was noted that the State is already known as a design State. Given the presence of RISD and other education institutions, Rhode Island is in a position to become a leader in the nation’s design community. The State might easily become a workshop for the arts and industry.

Strategically use the State’s marketing budget for arts branding and to promote the tax free purchase of one-of-a-kind art in the certified Arts Districts throughout the Ocean State.

It was suggested that all municipalities incorporate the arts in their Economic Development Comprehensive Plan. All Cities and Towns should have an arts advocate who specifically serves as the person responsible for economic development activities.

Use the State’s taxing and bonding authority to advance the arts in Rhode Island. Rhode Island has nine legislatively created arts districts. Expand this tax policy to every city and town.

Also, better data must be collected. One recommendation called for the compiling of the true economic impact that includes not just data from restaurants, but from hotels, parking, art and entertainment activities, too.

Next Steps…

For this columnist: For more than 14 years I have seen the arts revitalize Pawtucket’s stagnant economy, bringing new life to its mills and tax dollars into the City’s coffers. Yes, redeveloped mills increase property values that bring in more property tax dollars to run a cash strapped city.

It is clear from last week’s Arts Charrette, the state’s political leadership now see the arts as a key sector in bringing dollars to the State’s coffers by attracting more tourists and convention business. Leadership must now sift through the dozens of suggestions and craft a comprehensive arts policy to be funded in Rhode Island’s 2014 Budget. If lawmakers walk their talk, Rhode Island truly will become the nation’s Art State, where artists make a living with their creative talents and Rhode Island becomes the newly emerging renaissance State.

For a detailing of Art Charrette suggestions, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMx45FXkVEs&list=UUMCPC8hUqIQQeq107tm5VAQ

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He promotes the arts by serving as Pawtucket’s Economic & Cultural Affairs Officer.