Senior Agenda Coalition of RI zeros in on key aging legislation 

Published in RINewsToday on May 30, 2022

As the General Assembly winds down, the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island (SACRI) is tracking 16 House and Senate Bills along with FY 24 Budget Articles that have an impact on the state’s senior population. In a legislative alert, SACRI details a listing of 16 House and Senate bills and FY23 Budget Articles relating to care givers, mobile dental services, supplemental nutrition, housing, tax relief and home care worker wages. 

The state’s largest organization of aging groups is focusing and pushing for passage of the following four bills during the upcoming weeks.

SCARI puts on its radar screen S-2200/H-7489 to push for passage. The legislation (prime sponsors Senator Louis DiPalma (D-District 12) and Representative Julie Casimiro (D-District 31), establishes a process which would require Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), assisted by a 24-member advisory committee, to provide review and recommendations for rate setting, and ongoing review of medical and clinical service programs licensed by state departments, agencies and Medicaid.  

Meanwhile, DiPalma and Casimiro have also introduced S-2311/H-7180 to require a 24-member advisory committee to provide review/recommendations for rate setting/ongoing review of social service programs licensed by state departments/agencies and Medicaid. The House and Senate Finance Committees have recommended these measures be held for further study.

Ratcheting Up the Pay for Rhode Island’s Home Care Workers

In testimony on April 28th, SACRI’s Executive Director Bernard J. Beaudreau says, “Because payment levels for services have not been updated in years, especially in our current inflation ,levels, the low-pay level of direct care workers has created workforce shortages, impoverished workers and has put at risk our ability to provide proper care for our aging elder population.”

“Shamefully, an estimated 1 in 5 Rhode Island home care workers live in poverty and most have insufficient incomes to meet their basic needs,” says Beaudreau, calling for enactment of this bill to raise the wages of the lowest paid care workers as a top priority. 

S-2200 was referred to the Senate Finance Committee and companion measure, H 7489, was referred to the House Finance committees for review.  After hearings in their respective chambers, both bills are being held for further study. 

At press time, the Rhode Island General Assembly is hammering out its state budget for Fiscal Year 2023, taking effect July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023.  SACARI calls on the state to make it a budgetary priority to address Rhode Island’s home care crisis.

According to Maureen Maigret, Chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, who also serves SACRI as a volunteer policy adviser and Board Member, says that the Governor’s budget calls for suspending use of an estimated $38.6 million in state funds which, by law, should be used to enhance home and community-based services. This law, says Maigret, is referred to as the “Perry-Sullivan” law after its sponsors.

Maigret calls for these funds to be used to increase home care provider rates so they may be fair and competitive to home care workers and increase rates for independent providers.  Many of these workers are low-income, women, and women of color, she says.

Lowering the property taxes for Rhode Island’s low-income seniors

SACRI also calls for the Rhode Island General Assembly to provide property tax relief for low-income seniors and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) recipients. As housing costs rise and property taxes increase, more older Rhode Islanders with limited or fixed incomes and those on SSDI are becoming housing tax burdened, says the Providence-based the aging advocacy coalition. 

In SACRI’s legislative alert, Maigret calls for the passage of H-7127 and S-2192, with primary sponsors Representative Deborah Ruggiero (D-District 74) and Senator Cynthia Armour Coyne (D-32), charging that Rhode Island’s property tax relief law needs urgent updating.

Rhode Island’s Property Tax Review Law, sometimes referred to as the Circuit Breaker Law, needs serious updating. Initially the law was enacted to help provide property tax relief for persons aged 65 and over and to those on SSDI, says Maigret.  It is currently available to those with incomes up to $30,000 (set in 1999) and provides a credit or refund up to $415 against a person’s state taxes owed.  Both homeowners and renters are eligible to a apply. 

H-7127 and S-2192 would make hundreds of older Rhode Islanders eligible to participate by increasing the income cap from $30,000 to $ 50,000. Maigret notes that if these bills pass, a person with household incomes of $35,000 who is not eligible now could be eligible to get a refund of up to $850 next year. “These changes would provide direct relief against high property taxes and make Rhode Island more in line with our neighboring states of Connecticut and Massachusetts,” she says.

Finally, Executive Director Beaudreau testified on May 17th before the House Finance Committee, calling for the passage of H-7616, Reinstating the Department of Healthy Aging. “The time is long overdue for the state to re-invest in serving the needs of aging population,” he says, noting that “the state’s total population of 65 years and older has grown by 20% from 152,283 in 2010 to 182,486 today.”

Beaudreau testified that the “data clearly indicates that Rhode Island should be increasing plans, resources and services to meet the need of the state’s aging population, not cutting back.” The state’s budget has not kept up with the growth needed in the Office of Healthy Aging, charged with overseeing the state’s programs and services for older Rhode Islanders. “Additional funding is needed for increasing the Department’s staffing capacity and increasing financial support of Senior Centers serving thousands of older Rhode Islanders every say,” he adds.

But do not forget oral health of seniors, says SACRI.  According to the aging coalition, the importance of accessing quality oral health care in nursing homes is key to a nursing facility resident’s health, well-being and quality of life. Poor oral health care results in a higher incidence of, pneumonia cardiovascular disease diabetes, bone loss and cancer; all situations increasing the frequency of accessing medical care resulting in higher costs. 

Improving oral health care to Rhode Island’s seniors and special populations

SACRI calls for the passage of S-2588 and H-7756, bills that would provide for reimbursement for patient site encounter mobility dentistry visits to be increased to $180 per visit. The state’s reimbursement for mobile dentistry site visits began in 2008, only in nursing homes, but failed to provide funding for dental care in other settings. 

These bills would also expand the availability of this service to additional community-based group homes, assisted living facilities, adult day health and intellectual and developmental disability day programs. Passage of these bills will increase access to special populations who have difficulty in accessing basic dental services.

S-2588, referred to the Senate Finance Committee, was held for further study.  The House companion measure is scheduled to be heard on May 28th at a House Finance Committee hearing. 

Reimbursement for this service has not increased since it was initially funded over 14 years ago and does not cover the cost of delivering this critical service, says SACRI.

SACRI says “Make your voice heard!  Call House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (401 222-2466) and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio (401 222-6555) and your legislative delegation to urge supporting SACRI’s priority legislation. 

To see a listing of SACRI’s 2022 Priority Legislation, go to https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/049a7960-1c2a-4880-afdd-8d1e0e283acc/downloads/SACRI%20Bill%20Tracker%202022.pdf?ver=1653052514912.

For more details about SACRI, go to https://senioragendari.org/

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/

Time to resolve RI’s ongoing Nursing Home staffing crisis

Published in RINewsToday on April 18, 2021

The latest release of AARP’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard shows that both cases and deaths in nursing homes declined in the four weeks ending March 21. Although these rates are improving, chronic staffing problems in nursing homes—revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic—continue. In Rhode Island, 30% of nursing homes reported a shortage of nurses or aides, which is only fractionally better than the previous reporting period. 

AARP has come out swinging to fight for enhancing the quality of care in Rhode Island’s 104 nursing homes.

AARP Rhode Island, representing 131 members, calls for the General Assembly to ensure the quality of care for the state’s nursing home through minimum staffing standards, oversight, and access to in-person formal advocates, called long-term care Ombudsmen. The state’s the largest aging advocacy group has urged lawmakers to create a state task force on nursing home quality and safety and has pushed for rejecting immunity and holding facilities accountable when they fail to provide adequate care to residents.  It’s also crucial that Rhode Island ensures that increases in nursing homes’ reimbursement rates are spent on staff pay and to improve protections for residents, says AARP Rhode Island. 

Last December, AARP Rhode Island called on Governor Gina Raimondo to scrap Executive Order 20-21 and its subsequent reauthorizations to grant civil immunity related to COVID-19 for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. The aging advocacy group warned that these facilities should be held responsible for providing the level of quality care that is required of them for which they are being compensated.

Rhode Island Lawmakers Attack Nursing Home Staffing Crisis

During the legislative session, the state’s nursing home staffing crisis caught the eye of Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin is a policy issue that needs to be addressed. They knew that Rhode Island ranked 41st in the nation in the number of the average hours of care nursing home residents receive, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  The state also has the lowest average resident-care hours per day of any New England state.

On Feb. 2, the Rode Island Senate approved S 0002, “Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act” sponsored by Goodwin and nine Democratic cosponsors to address an ongoing crisis in staffing nursing homes that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The bill had passed unanimously in the Health and Human Services Committee, and ultimately, the full Senate gave its thumbs up to the legislative proposal by a vote of 34 to 4.  Only one Republican senator crossed the aisle and voted with the Democratic senators.

“There is a resident care crisis in our state. Staffing shortages and low wages lead to seniors and people with disabilities not receiving the care they desperately need. The pandemic, of course, has exponentially increased the demands of the job and exacerbated patients’ needs. We must confront this problem head-on before our nursing home system collapses,” said Sponsor Senator Goodwin (D-Dist. 1, Providence).

The legislation would establish a minimum standard of 4.1 hours of resident care per day, the federal recommendation for quality care long endorsed by health care experts including the American Nurses Association, the Coalition of Geriatric Nursing Organizations, and the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care. The bill, which the Senate also approved last year, has been backed by Raise the Bar on Resident Care, a coalition of advocates for patient care, and the Rhode Island’s Department of Health (RIDOH).

The bill would also secure funding to raise wages for caregivers to recruit and retain a stable and qualified workforce. Short staffing drives high turnover in nursing homes. Not only does high turnover create undue stress and burnout for remaining staff, but it also diverts valuable resources to recruit, orient, and train new employees and increases reliance on overtime and agency staff.  Low wages are a significant driver of the staffing crisis. The median wage for a CNA in Rhode Island is less than $15, and $1/hour lower than the median wage in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The legislation would also invest in needed training and skills enhancement for caregivers to provide care for patients with increasing acuity and complex health care needs.

At press time, the companion bill (2021-H-5012), sponsored by Reps. Scott A. Slater (D-Dist.10, Providence) and William W. O’Brien (D-Dist. 54) was considered by House Finance Committee and recommended for further study.

RIDOH’s Director Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH says the state agency “supports the thoughtfulness of the provisions included in the legislation and welcomes dialogue with its sponsors, advocates, and the nursing home facility industry regarding methods to sustain the necessary conditions associated with the intent of the bill.”

Alexander-Scott states that “RIDOH takes its charge seriously to keep nursing home residents and is supportive of efforts to update standards of care to better serve Rhode Islanders in nursing facilities, as well as increase resident and staff satisfaction within nursing facilities.”

Scott Fraser, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association (RIHCA), a nonprofit group representing 80 percent of Rhode Island’s nursing homes, says that “staffing shortages are directly traceable to the chronic lack of Medicaid funding from past governors. Period.” 

According to Fraser, state law requires Medicaid to be funded at a national inflation index, usually averaging around 3%. “Up until this year, previous governors have slashed this amount resulting in millions of dollars in losses to our homes.  Thankfully, Governor McKee is proposing to fully fund the Medicaid Inflation Index this year,” he says.

RIHCA opposes the mandatory minimum staffing the legislation now being considered by the Rhode Island General Assembly, says Fraser, warning that its passage would result in facilities closing throughout the state. “No other state has adopted such a high standard,” he says, noting that the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association estimates that this legislation would cost Rhode Island facilities at least $75 million to meet this standard and the need to hire more than 800 employees. 

Fraser calls for the “Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act” to be defeated, noting that the legislation does not contain any provisions for funding.  “Medically, there is no proof that mandating a certain number of hours of direct care results in any better health outcomes.  This is an unfunded legislative mandate. If homes are forced to close, not only would residents be forced to find a new place for their care, but hundreds of workers would also be forced out of work,” he says.

Goodwin does not believe that mandating minimum staffing requirements in nursing homes will force nursing homes to close. She noted that the legislation is aimed at ensuring nursing home residents receive adequate care and that Rhode Island is the only state in the northeast without such a standard.

“There is an un-level playing field in nursing home staffing in Rhode Island,” charges Goodwin, noting that many facilities staff 4.1 hours per day, or close to it, while others only provide two hours of care per day. “In either case, the overwhelming majority of well-staffed and poorly-staffed nursing homes remain highly profitable,” she says. 

According to Goodwin, the lack of staffing and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) is due to unreasonable workloads and low pay. “RIDOH’s CAN registry makes it clear that retention of these workers is a big issue. This is in part because they can make as much money – or more – in a minimum wage profession with much less stress,” she adds, stressing that “The Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act” directly addresses these staffing challenges.

One quick policy fix is to provide nursing home operators with adequate Medicaid reimbursement to pay for increased staffing.  Lawmakers must keep McKee’s proposed increase of nursing home rates pursuant to statute, requiring a market-based increase on Oct. 2021, in the state’s FY 2020 budget. The cost is estimated to be $9.6 million.

With the House panel recommending that Slater’s companion measure ((2021-H-5012) to be held for further study, Goodwin’s chances of seeing her legislation becoming law dwindles as the Rhode Island Assembly’s summer adjournment begins to loom ever closer. There’s probably no reason to insist that a bill be passed in order to have a study commission, so this could be appointed right away if there is serious intent to solve this problem.

Slater’s legislation may well be resurrected in the final days of the Rhode Island General Assembly, behind the closed doors when “horse-trading” takes place between House and Senate leadership.  If this doesn’t occur, either the House or Senate might consider creating a Task Force, bringing together nursing home operators, health care professionals and staff officials, to resolve the state’s nursing home staffing crisis.