Report on Falls, Injuries Released

PUblished in Woonsocket Call on October 20, 2019

Last Wednesday morning in Dirksen Senate Office Building 562, the U.S. Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to put a spotlight on the economic consequences on falls and to explore ways to prevent and reduce falls and related injuries. At the one hour and 55-minute hearing, titled “Falls Prevention: National, State, and Local Level Solutions to Better Support Seniors,” its annual report, Falls Prevention: Solutions to Better Support Seniors, was released.

According to the Senate Aging Committee, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults that incur $50 billion annually in total medical costs. That number is expected to double to $100 billion by 2030, and the majority of these costs are borne by Medicare and Medicaid.

“Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for older Americans, often leading to a downward spiral with serious consequences. In addition to the physical and emotional trauma of falls, the financial toll is staggering,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate Aging Committee. “Now is the time, and now is our opportunity, to take action to prevent falls. Our bipartisan report includes key recommendations to take steps to reduce the risk of falls,” the Maine Senator noted in an Oct. 16 statement.

Pushing for Positive Change in Releasing Fall Report

“We must dispel our loved ones of the stigma associated with falling so that they can get the help they need to age in place – where they want to be – in their homes and communities,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.). “I am hopeful that our work over the past year will propel the research community to do more, get more dollars invested into supporting home modifications and encourage more older adults to be active,” said the Special Committee’s Ranking Member.

At the hearing, the Committee unveiled a comprehensive report that provides evidence-based recommendations on ways to reduce the risk of falling. The Committee received input from multiple federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Food and Drug Administration. In addition, approximately 200 respondents representing falls prevention advocates, hospitals, community organizations, home health agencies, and others shared their expertise on this issue.

The 34-page Aging Committee’s report made recommendations as how to raise awareness about falls-related risks, prevention and recovery at the national, state and local levels. It suggested ways of improving screening and referrals for those at risk of falling so that individuals receive the preventive care necessary to avoid a fall or recover after one. It noted ways of targeting modifiable risk factors, including increasing the availability of resources for home safety evaluations and modifications, so that older adults can remain in their homes and communities. Finally, it called for reducing polypharmacy so that health care providers and patients are aware of any potential side effects that could contribute to a fall.

Increasing Medicare Funding for Bone Density Testing

In an opening statement, Collins noted that falls are often times attributed to uneven sidewalks or icy stairs, medications, medical reasons or muscle strength. But one key cause of falling is osteoporosis, which can be especially dangerous for people who are completely unaware that they suffer from low bone density, she says.

According to Collins, although Medicare covers bone density testing, reimbursement rates have been slashed by 70 percent since 2006, resulting in 2.3 million fewer women being tested. “As a result, it is estimated that more than 40,000 additional hip fractures occur each year, which results in nearly 10,000 additional deaths,” she said, noting legislation, Increasing Access to Osteoporosis Testing Beneficiaries Act that she has introduced with Sen. Ben Cardin,” to reverse these harmful reimbursement cuts.

Casey stated, “I am particularly interested in sharing this report with the relevant agencies and learning how the recommendations will be implemented. Not just put in a report. Implemented,” adds Casey.

Peggy Haynes, MPA, Senior Director, of Portland-based Healthy Aging, MaineHealth that offers A Matter of Balance, an evidence-based falls prevention program, came to the Senate hearing to share details about its impact. “The health care community has a critical role to play in fall prevention – beginning with screening for falls, assessing fall risk factors, reviewing medications and referring to both medical and community-based fall prevention interventions. Our health system is focused on preventing falls in every care setting,” says Haynes.

“The need for a range of community-based options led MaineHealth to be a founding member of the Evidence Based Leadership Collaborative, promoting the increased delivery of multiple evidence-based programs that improve the health and well-being of diverse populations,” adds Haynes.

Haynes noted that older participants attend eight two-hour sessions to help them reduce their fear of falling, assisting them to set realistic goals for increasing their activity and changing their home environment to reduce fall risk factors. A Matter of Balance is offered in 46 states reaching nearly 100,000 seniors.

Virginia Demby, an 84-year-old visually-impaired retired nurse who is an advocate for Community and Older Adults, in Chester, Pennsylvania, came to the Senate hearing to support the importance of fall prevention programs. Despite living with low vision, Demby remains physically active by participating in exercises classes for older adults at the Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Chester. She is an advocate for older adults and now helps the local senior center wellness manager recruit more seniors to take falls prevention classes and find new places to offer the classes.

Kathleen A. Cameron, MPH, Senior Director, Center for Healthy Aging, of the Arlington, Virginia-based National Council on Aging, discussed the work of the National Falls Prevention Resource Center, which helps to support evidence-based falls prevention programs across the nation and highlighted policy solutions to reduce falls risk.

Finally, Elizabeth Thompson, chief executive officer, Arlington, Virginia-based National Osteoporosis Foundation, testified that bone loss and osteoporosis are fundamental underlying contributors to the worst consequences of falls among older Americans: broken and fractured bones. Osteoporotic fractures are responsible for more hospitalizations than heart attacks, strokes and breast cancer combined, she noted.

For details of the Senate Aging Committee report, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/SCA_Falls_Report_2019.pdf.

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Attacking Rising Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 7, 2019

The Washington, DC-based AARP timed the release of its latest Rx Price Watch report as the House Energy Commerce Committee marked up and passed a dozen bills just days ago, six that would lower prescription drug costs. The legislative proposals now go to the House floor for consideration.

AARP’s new report, a continuation of a series that has been tracking price changes for widely used prescription drugs since 2004, was circulated to House Committee members before their markup and vote and its findings sent a message to the lawmakers that they hear from their older constituents, that is the costs of pharmaceutical drugs is skyrocketing, making it difficult to fill needed prescriptions.

Poll after poll findings reflect the concerns of seniors about their ability to pay for prescribed medications. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last month, 79 percent of survey respondents view drug prices to be “unreasonable,” while just 17 percent found the costs to be “reasonable.” Twenty-four percent of these respondents found it difficult to pay the costs of their prescription drugs.

Generic Drugs Can Save Dollars

According to the new AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) report, by Leigh Purvis and Dr. Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, the average annual cost of therapy for one widely used brand-name prescription drug in 2017 was over 18 times higher than the cost of therapy for one generic drug. The cost for a generic medication used on a chronic basis averaged $365 per year. In contrast, the average annual cost for a brand-name prescription drug was $6,798. But, four years earlier the price differential between these same market baskets was substantially smaller ($4,308 verses $751 respectively).

“Generics account for nearly nine out of every 10 prescriptions filled in the U.S. but represent less than a quarter of the country’s drug spending,” said Debra Whitman, Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer at AARP, in a statement released with the PPI’s 28 page report “These results highlight the importance of eliminating anticompetitive behavior by brand-name drug companies so that we get more lower-priced generic drugs on the market,” says Whitman.

AARP’s PPI report, entitled “Trends in Retail Prices of Generic Prescription Drugs Widely Used by Older Americans,” found that retail prices for 390 generic prescription drugs commonly used by older adults, including Medicare beneficiaries, decreased by an average of 9.3 percent in 2017, compared to the general inflation rate of 2.1 percent. The decline follows two consecutive years of substantial generic drug price decreases; the previous two consecutive years saw increases in generic drug prices. All but three of the 390 generic prescription drugs analyzed in AARP’s report had a retail price change in 2017. While prices for 297 (76 percent) drug products decreased, 90 (23 percent) products had price increases.
Six commonly used generic drug products had retail price increases of greater than 70 percent, including a nearly 200 percent increase for sertraline HCL, an antidepressant, finds the AARP.

AARP’s PPI report found that with older adults taking an average of 4.5 prescription drugs every month, those using generic prescription drugs were likely to have an average annual retail cost of $1,642 in 2017.

“The gap between average annual brand-name and generic drug prices has increased dramatically—brand name drug prices were six times higher than generic drug prices in 2013 but more than 18 times higher in 2017,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Policy Institute, and co-author of the report. “As long as brand name drug prices continue to skyrocket, the value of prohibiting brand name drug company practices that slow or prevent competition from generic and biosimilar drugs cannot be overstated.”

AARP Pushes for Passage of Bills to Lower Drug Costs

Before the Committee on Energy and Commerce vote on April 3, in correspondence AARP urged Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-Ore) to enact two bills (along with four other proposals) being considered at the morning markup session. These legislative proposals would lower prescription drug costs and had previously been approved by the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee.

In the correspondence, AARP’s Nancy A. LeaMond, Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, pushed for passage of H.R., 1499. the “Protecting Consumer Access to Generic Drugs Act of 2019.” introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). This proposal would make it illegal for brand-name and generic drug manufacturers to enter into agreements in which the brand-name drug manufacturer pays the generic manufacturer to keep a generic equivalent off the market. The bill was passed by voice vote.

LeaMond also supported H.R., 965, the “Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples (CREATES) Act of 2019,” introduced by Reps. David Cicilline (D-RI), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Doug Collins (R-GA), Peter Welch (D-VT), and David McKinley (R-WV). The proposal would establish a process by which generic manufacturers could obtain sufficient quantities of brand drug samples for testing thereby deterring gaming of safety protocols that brand manufacturers use to delay or impede generic entry. The bill passed by a bipartisan vote of 51-0.

At the markup, Pallone and Walden were able to work out philosophical differences on H.R. 1499 and H.R. 965. The two lawmakers also hammered out a compromise on H.R. 1503, the “Organize Book Transparency Act of 2019,” that would ensure that the Orange book, which identifies drug products approved on the basis of safety and effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration, is accurate and up-to-date.

Washington Insiders say that Democratic control of the House will ensure the passage of these legislative proposals on the House floor and the bipartisan vote on the CREATES Act in the lower chamber creates an opportunity for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to successfully push his CREATES Act companion measure in the Senate.

Grassley says the broad, bipartisan action by the House Energy and Commerce Committee to advance the CREATES Act is a major win for consumers. “I look forward to advancing this bill because it will cut down on abuses in the system that keep prices high for patients. I’m also pleased that the committee advanced a bill to address pay-for-delay schemes. Although that bill is not identical to the bill I’ve sponsored in the Senate, the bill’s movement shows that the committee is serious about addressing the pay-for-delay problem,” says the Senator.

As They See It…

AARP’s LeaMond, says “Brand-name drug companies want to stifle generic competition to protect their monopolies and profits. AARP believes that eliminating these deliberate anticompetitive behaviors will result in a more robust generic drug market and greater savings for both patients and taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that legislation such as the CREATES Act could save taxpayers more than $3 billion over a decade, and the Federal Trade Commission estimated pay-for-delay deals cost consumers and taxpayers $3.5 billion a year.

“We have long supported the CREATES Act and banning pay-for-delay agreements, and are heartened that Congress is acting to improve access to generic drugs. These bills will promote competition driving down costs for seniors,” says Lisa Swirsky, Senior Policy Analyst, at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“Congressman Cicilline has been a leader in our caucus for putting prescription drug prices at the front of our agenda. Moving generics to market faster is an important step to lower prescription drug costs for every American,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “House Democrats have made it a top priority to lower Americans’ health costs by reducing the price of prescription drugs, and these bipartisan bills show we mean to deliver,” she says.

Midterm Elections are Here: Your Vote Sends a Message to Congress

Published in the Woonsocket Call on November 11, 2018

The mid-term elections are here and Americans have an opportunity, if they choose to vote, to send a strong message to Capitol Hill about what policy issues are important to them. All 435 Congressional seats are on the ballot including 35-Senate seats. The outcome of these political races will ultimately impact older Americans. Will Congressional lawmakers work to ensure the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, or protect those with pre-existing conditions? Or will they put political differences aside to craft legislation that will put the brakes to spiraling prescription drug costs.

Last month, AARP released, a 52-page report, “2018 Mid-Term Election Voter Issue Survey,” that found that the majority of those surveyed say the following issues will help them make their voting decisions in days: lowering health care costs (79 percent), strengthening and reforming Social Security (75 percent) and Medicare, (70 percent) and putting the brakes to skyrocketing prescription drug costs (74 percent).

AARP’s survey data were collected by Alan Newman Research (ANR) between July 7 and July 18, 2018. ANR conducted a total of 802 telephone interviews of registered likely voters age 50 and older. All data were weighted by education, race/ethnicity, age, gender, and census division according to Current Population Survey statistics provided by AARP.

What Issues Are Important to Older Voters?

Let’s take a closer look at AARP’s July telephone survey findings…

The top issue for the Democratic survey respondents was health care costs, Social Security, drug costs and Medicare while Republicans identified national security as their issue.

People become eligible for health insurance through Medicare when they turn age 65. Democrats responding to the AARP survey (77 percent) were more likely to support giving those age 50 to 64, the option to buy health insurance through Medicare than the responding Republicans (57 percent).

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and other lawmakers have proposed a national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single
government plan (called Medicare-for-All). The researchers noted that Democratic respondents gave the thumbs up (75 percent) to supporting this legislative policy while only 34 percent of the Republican respondents supported the health care policy.

The AARP survey also found that 66 percent of the respondents supported allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug costs to increase the solvency of the program.

Last year, Congress passed legislation that required pharmaceutical companies to contribute more to contribute more to close the Medicare Part D coverage gap to reduce the high out-of-pocket cost of drug costs. The pharmaceutical lobby is working to reverse this requirement. The AARP survey found that 78 percent of the age 50 and over respondents support the existing requirement to contribute more to close the Medicare Part D coverage gap.

Federal law prohibits insurance companies from charging those with pre-existing conditions more for health coverage. While some want to repeal this law because they believe the person should pay more, others say that paying a higher premium is unfair. The AARP survey found that 84 percent of the women and Democrats surveyed were more likely to say that the higher costs of health care is unfair for those with preexisting conditions.

Current federal law allows insurance companies to charge up to three times more for health insurance for those over age 50. Some Congressional lawmakers propose increasing this charge up to five times more for health insurance. Eighty three percent of the older survey respondents oppose this, calling any changes unfair.

Over half of the age 50 older survey respondents have caregiving experiences. Two in five of these respondents believe they will become caregivers. The survey found that 75 percent of the respondent’s support employer requirements for family caregiving. The requirements include: ensuring that employees can not be fired for taking time off for caregiving; allowing the use of existing sick leave for caregiving activities; allowing a limited amount of unpaid and paid leave for use by caregivers.

Eighty seven percent of the AARP survey respondents believe Congress should pass laws to protect caregivers from being fired for taking time off to care for a loved one. Most of these respondents (88 percent) also believe that stronger laws are needed to protect older workers from age discrimination.

Currently, there is discussion on Capitol Hill about the need for a rule that requires professional financial advisors, when giving advice to their older clients about their retirement savings accounts, to give advice that is in the best interest of these individuals. The AARP survey found that 69 percent of the survey respondents agree to this rule.

Phone App Informs Older Voters on Aging Issues

The Washington, DC-based AARP today launches “Raise Your Voice,” the nation’s first comprehensive advocacy and voting app for smart speakers (works on Amazon Alexa and Google Home) . The voice-enabled experience is designed to help older voters to use smart speakers to become educated on a wide range of aging issues — including Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs, Medicaid and caregiving.

“This groundbreaking skill empowers voters at a time when people are looking for trustworthy, accessible sources of information,” said John Hishta, AARP Senior Vice President of Campaigns, in a statement announcing the Oct. 11 release of the phone app.

To invoke the app, the user simply says their smart speaker’s wake command, followed by “Open Raise Your Voice.” With days before the upcoming midterm elections, the user can direct “Raise Your Voice” to look up polling information and send it directly to the user’s cell phone. Similarly, the user can command the app to provide information on AARP issues.

“Traditional voter education is laudable and important work, but it’s a leap forward to develop technology that better supports voters as they seek out the location of their polling place, information on key issues, and the ability to contact their elected officials,” said Sami Hassanyeh, AARP Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy and Membership. “

The app is available at http://www.aarp.org/raiseyourvoice.

Send a Message to Congress

Robert Roach, Jr., President of the Washington, DC-based Alliance for Retired Americans, calls on older voters to “Know your rights before heading to the polls.” Your state’s Secretary of State’s website can provide details about voter identification requirements and other laws. If you are encountering problems with voting or suspect voter rights at your polling site, seek out an elected official to discuss, suggests Roach. Also, call the voting rights hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683).

“Bring a snack, a book and even a chair if you think there may be a line. Don’t go home until your vote has been counted,” says Roach. “An unfortunate election result could lead to health insurers charging people aged 50-64 five times more than younger consumers for the same coverage. A good result could lead to an expansion of your earned Social Security benefits,” he says.

Senate Aging Panel Calls for Improved Emergency Preparation and Response

Published in the Woonsocket call on October 8, 2017

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — George Santayana, a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, after the death of at least nine nursing facility residents due to heat-related illness due to sweltering heat at a Hollywood, Florida-based facility that had lost power to run its air conditioner, the Senate Special Committee on Aging put the spotlight on the challenges facing seniors during natural disasters at a hearing on Sept. 20, 2017.

News coverage of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey provided heartbreaking reminders that seniors and persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during a natural disaster. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, an assisted care facility for dementia patients lost electrical power for three days, causing 20 seniors to suffer from high indoor temperatures. Meanwhile, in Dickinson, Texas, a widely-shared photo showed elderly residents of an assisted-living center awaiting rescue as flood waters rose waist deep inside the facility.

Heeding the Lessons from Past Disasters

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast 12 years ago, more than half of those who died were seniors, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health. Since that devastating storm, disaster response officials have placed much emphasis at the national, state, and local level to better protect older Americans during an emergency.

“As we have learned from Hurricanes Irma and Harvey as well as past catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, some of our neighbors – especially seniors – face many obstacles during a crisis, and we must focus on the attention older adults may need,” said Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee in a statement announcing the Senate panel hearing held in 562 Dirksen Senate Office Building.

In her testimony, Dr. Karen B. DeSalvo the former health commissioner for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, noted that medical records for most patients at the time of Katrina were kept only on paper and were destroyed, “turning to useless bricks,” or lost because of the disaster. For clinicians, treating patients who lost their medicines became a major challenge, she said.

Creating Registries to Protect the Vulnerable

Since Katrina, the New Orleans Health Department has been “working aggressively, to create a medical special needs digitized registry to maintain a list of high-risk individuals, those most in need of medical assistance for evacuation during preparations or in response operations, says Dr. DeSalvo

Dr. DeSalvo called for “leveraging data and technology” as a way of creating more efficient and effective strategies of identifying the most vulnerable in a community. All communities could create such registries by using state Medicaid data to locate where residents who are electricity-dependent live. The electronic system, called emPOWER, is available for use nationally, and she recommended Congress fund training exercises to respond to disasters. response.

A witness, Jay Delaney, fire chief and management coordinator for the City of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, suggests that Congress continue to fully fund the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Investing in surveillance tools can enhance decision making by making crucial weather data available before, during, and after a disaster.

For nursing homes and assisted living facilities, it is “critical” they have detailed shelter-in-place emergency plans, says Delaney, but for those who stubbornly choose to not leave their homes during a disaster, preparedness for those is a “tough nut to crack.”

“When you have to evacuate 15,000 people in 10 hours, you don’t have time to say, ‘Mam or sir, here’s why you have to go,’” Delaney said.

In his testimony, Paul Timmons Jr., CEO and president of Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, proposed the establishment of a National Center for Excellence inclusive Disability and Aging Emergency Management to improve emergency management responses to disasters to reduce injuries and save lives. “The initial focus of the center should include community engagement, leadership, training and exercise development, evacuation, sheltering, housing and universal accessibility,” he said, suggesting a five-year, $1 billion budget.

Finally, Witness Kathryn Hyer, a professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, provided eight tips for the Senate Aging panel to protect seniors during disasters. She called for emergency plan for nursing homes and assisted living; required generators to support generators in the event of a power failure, more research on what types of patients will benefit from evacuation or sheltering in place; construction of facilities in places that minimize flooding risk; identification of and prioritization for nursing homes and assisted living communities by state and local management organizations for restoration of services; litigation protection for facilities that abide by regulations and provide care during disaster scenarios; and continued commitment to geriatric education programs.

Prioritizing Senior’s Needs in Disasters

On Sept. 26, one week after the Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing on disaster preparedness and seniors, Senators Collins and Casey called for a swift federal response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In correspondence to three federal agencies, they urged the Administration to take all available steps to act swiftly and prioritize seniors in the response to Hurricane Maria The senators also urged the federal agencies to prioritize not only patients in acute health care facilities, but individuals in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as seniors living at home.

“We urge the Administration to heed the lessons of the recent hurricane response efforts in Florida and Texas and take all available steps to prioritize seniors in the response to this devastating storm,” the senators wrote. “Seniors must be quickly identified and resources deployed to ensure that no older American is left in unbearable heat without air conditioning or without water and food as response efforts continue… During this recovery period, it is even more important to multiply our efforts and deploy sufficient resources to support and rescue seniors.

It has been reported that the intensity of North Atlantic hurricanes and the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are increasing. With a high concentration of people and properties in coastal areas were hurricanes strike, it become crucial to learn emergency management lessons gleaned from past hurricanes and disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Irma. The Senate Select Committee on Aging is on the right track in seeking ways to put disaster emergency preparedness on the nation’s policy agenda. Now, it’s time for Congressional standing committees to adequate fund FEMA and the National Weather Service and strengthen emergency preparedness laws.

Survival Story: Former Business Owner Overcomes Devastating Setbacks 

Published in Senior Digest, April 2016

If you are in pursuit of the American Dream, you probably weren’t given a roadmap that would guarantee a successful journey. Ask the average man or woman on the street today what immediate thoughts come to mind about owning your own business, and you’ll probably hear ‘being your own boss’, and ‘working your own hours’ that top the list of perceptions. But when opening your own business becomes the alternative to unemployment in your later years, as Donald, Russell, Jr. found out, it may not be what you expected or even planned. Like millions of middle-aged workers in the early 1990s, a severe economic downturn forced this Central Falls resident to make choices that ultimately would financially hit his pocketbook as he approached retirement.

Donald Russell had worked his way up from stock boy to manager at F.W. Woolworth Co., one of the areas original five-and-dime stores. During his 33 year career with this large big-box retail company, what was at the time the fourth largest retailer in the world operating over 5,000 stores, he eventually managed seven of the retail company’s stores, one located in Providence (at Westminster and Dorrance Streets), and the others in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York.

But everything changed in the late 1990’s, and this 117 year old company struggled to compete with the growing big discount stores. F.W. Woolworth filed for bankruptcy protection, and Russell, facing unemployment, had to quickly make major career decisions. He knew that, “at age 52, big box competitors don’t want you,” or if he was offered a position, the salary would be much lower than what he was used to. “I could not take less because I had to pay for my daughter’s college education,” he added.

Russell credits “courses he took at Boston College” for teaching him valuable lessons on how to open a small business, and with knowledge in hand, he was ready to take that leap of faith and open his own business. . Russell decided to cash out his $80,000 pension (less penalties) and combined with a loan from U.S. Small Business Administration, he would have enough capital to open a small retail business.

Getting into the Pet Business

Russell spent time researching a market niche, searching for one that would not put him in direct competition with the chain store. He discovered that the pet business was not really sought after by “big box retailers” and at that time “there were only 30,000 pet stores throughout the country. Today the number has decreased to 6,000.” Now . Russell found his niche, and in 1997 opened his business “Dr. Doolittle’s Pets & More”, a small pet store in an East Providence shopping plaza. Though situated between two large Petco stores – one in Rumford, RI and the other in North Attleboro, MA., Russell did not view the large chain stores as competition, for he knew his prices were better. In 1997 when Russell opened his store, small business accounted for about 85 percent of the nation’s economy, he states, noting that today this percentage has dropped to 70 percent.

Business was strong when Dr. Doolittle’s first opened and for over 13 years, Russell employed seven full and part time employees. However, by 2004 “the economy began to take a dive” and juggling the monthly rent, utilities and employee salaries became difficult when his cash flow slowed. Russell began to loose money.
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By 2006 his revenue had dropped 30 percent from the previous year, and neighboring big stores located in the plaza, like Ocean State Job Lot, began to close. In an effort to trim expenses, Russell was able to renegotiate his rent to a lower amount, however “losing the Stop & Shop Supermarket in the next plaza, which was a main draw to the area, “was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

Taking from Peter to Pay Paul

Like thousands of small business owners in the Ocean State, Russell had to juggle each month to meet his expenses, which included his RI sales tax. Choosing to pay his monthly sales tax or paying his employees salary was not an easy choice to make, but he could not pay both. “I chose to pay my employees” first, with the plan to make up my [delinquent] sales tax later” he stated, noting however, that the “economy put the brakes to that”. “I could not even borrow a dime even with an excellent credit rating of 750,” added Russell. The poor economy had forced banks to cut off credit to small businesses – period.

In 2009, the Rhode Island Department of Taxation came knocking on his door, and the now 65-year-old pet store owner was forced to close his business because he was in arrears on his payment of sales taxes. While his business was his sole-source of income, the forced closing of the business put him in a ‘catch 22’ situation – blocking any attempt to rescue his business and pay off the remaining sales tax owed, which had now grown to thousands of dollars. Rather than padlock the door, the State did allow him access to the store to feed and maintain the animals until other arrangements were made.

Two weeks after his closing, Russell hammered out an agreeable payment plan with the State of RI for back taxes, but the economy never recovered, and by September, 2010 the doors closed for the final time. In a valiant effort, Russell paid off $18,500 of the $20,000 owed before he closed, but two years later to his surprise, he was blocked from registering his car because of the remaining taxes (and penalties) still owed. A dispute as to the amount of sales taxes (plus penalties and interest) paid ultimately ended with the state’s tax agency backing off and allowing him to register his vehicle.

Russell’s forced closing and ultimately his bankruptcy caught the eye of both statewide and national media. Two radio talk shows and television coverage brought the news of his closure to the public. Even the nation’s most popular Web site, “The Drudge Report,” posted articles. Amazingly, he says that over 100 pages of blog posting were also generated, too.

Making Ends Meet

Today, Russell, 72, is collecting Social Security supplemented by a part-time job delivering pizzas. He notes that beneficiaries will not receive cost of living this year. Like millions of Social Security beneficiaries, Russell feels the impact of inflation. “There is no extra money to buy groceries after paying my rent and utilities,” he says. Local food pantries provide additional food and the Pawtucket-based Blackstone Valley Community Action Program pays for some of his heating bills.

Reflecting on the lay off in his fifties that led to the opening of his small business and ultimately its closing as he reached his mid-sixties because of an ailing economy, Russell admits he did not have a strategy for getting through the tough times in his later years.

“I just coped,” says Russell. The former business owner has a strong opinion on opening a small business in Rhode Island. “Never,” he says. .

Calling on Congress to Increase Alzheimer’s Funding

Published in Woonsocket Call on February 21, 2016

Three weeks before President Obama released his Fiscal Year 2017 Budget on February 9,  Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), who chairs the U.S. Select Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) along with seven of their colleagues, called on the Democratic President to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research as part of his last proposed budget request. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who sits on the Senate Aging Panel, was among the cosigners.

In the bipartisan January 28 correspondence,  the cosigners said, “If nothing is done to change the trajectory of Alzheimer’s, the number of Americans afflicted with the disease is expected to more than triple between 2015 and 2050,” the Senators wrote.  Already our nation’s costliest disease, Alzheimer’s is projected to cost our country more than $1 trillion by 2050… Surely, we can do more for Alzheimer’s given the tremendous human and economic price of this devastating disease.”

Furthermore, cosigners warned that “$2 billion per year in federal funding is needed to meet the goal of preventing or effectively treating Alzheimer’s by 2025.” 

 Aging Groups Express Disappointment

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), says that the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, (P.L.114-113) provided $936 million in FY 2016 (a $350 million or 59.7% increase over FY 2015) for Alzheimer’s disease research at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the nation’s leading funder of Alzheimer’s disease research.

Richtman expressed disappointment that Obama’s budget proposal did not recommend funding about the FY 2016 level for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia research, it was essentially flat funded.

“Scientists have estimated that spending at least $2 billion a year on research is necessary to accomplish the national Alzheimer’s plan goal of preventing or effectively treating Alzheimer’s disease by 2025,” says Richtman.

According to NCPSSM’s 2016 Legislative Report, “the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia is expected to skyrocket over the next few decades because many people are living longer and the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease increases with age.”

Richtman says “making a significant investment in funding towards finding a cure and appropriate treatments for persons with Alzheimer’s disease and dementias is key to reducing the massive financial drain this disease will impose on the future of the Medicare program, along with the devastating emotional and financial toll exacted on the millions of Alzheimer’s victims and their family members and caregivers.”

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) also expressed disappointment in the proposed $337 million cut in research funding at NIA, contained in Obama’s 2017 Fiscal year budget proposal. “The Administration has been a champion in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease; however, we are disappointed that, in his final budget, the President is retreating,” said CEO and President Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr., of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA). “We were hoping President Obama would take the dramatic step necessary to confront the dementia crisis in this country head-on. We will continue to work with Congressional appropriators to ensure we are on the path to a cure,” says Fuschillo, Jr.

Like NCPSSM, Cicilline, Reed, Whitehouse, and many members of congress, the New York-based AFA urged the Administration to build on the historic 60 percent increase in Alzheimer’s research funding that was included in this year’s budget that provided an additional $1 billion in research funding in the upcoming federal budget.  If done, total federal spending would reach almost $ 2 billion, an amount that Alzheimer’s experts say is necessary to finding a cure or meaningful treatment by 2025 (detailed in the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease.

According to AFA, currently Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with studies indicating it could actually be as high as the third-leading caused.  But this devastating disorder is the only disease in the top 10 for which there is neither a cure nor impactful treatment.  Furthermore, “even with the Fiscal Year 2016 funding increase, funding for Alzheimer’s lags far behind HIV/AIDS, cancer and heart disease.

On the Home Front

Congressman David N. Cicilline, who successfully led the effort in the House to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research by more than 50% last year, sees a need for increased funding a necessity in the Fiscal Year 2017. “Alzheimer’s disease afflicts 22,000 Rhode Islanders and their families each year,” the Democratic congressman representing Congressional District 1.

With Congress poised to begin hammering out next year’s federal budget, Cicilline plans to continue his efforts in the House to fight for an increase federal funding for a treatment and a cure of the devastating disorder.  He urges for Alzheimer’s disease research remain a major funding priority for policymakers at every level of government.

Senator Jack Reed, serving as a member of the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, says, “Last year, we successfully included a $350 million boost in new spending for Alzheimer’s research, a 60% increase over the previous year.  Looking ahead to the coming fiscal year, we still have our work cut out for us in this challenging budgetary climate, but I am pushing to secure additional resources to help prevent, treat, and cure Alzheimer’s, as well as for education and outreach.”

“More and more Americans are being impacted by Alzheimer’s disease and we need a serious national commitment to finding cures and treatments.  That means making strategic investments now that will help save lives and future dollars in the long-term,” notes the Senator.

A Call for Action

Experts tell us an impending Alzheimer’s disease epidemic is now upon us. Federal and state officials are scrambling to gear up for battle, developing national and state plans detailing goals to prevent or treat the devastating disease by 2025.

According to the Rhode Island Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated five million Americans over age 65 are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013.  The prevalence may well triple, to over 16 million, if research does not identify ways to prevent or treat the cognitive disorder, says the Rhode Island nonprofit.  By 2050, it’s noted that the estimated total cost of care nation-wide for persons with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to reach more than $1 trillion dollars (in today’s dollars), up from $172 billion in 2010.

Congress must not act “penny wise and pound foolish” when it ultimately comes to determining the amount of federal dollars that will be poured into Alzheimer’s research in next year’s fiscal budget.  Less dollars or level funding will only increase state and federal government’s cost of care for Alzheimer’s care in every municipality in the nation.  A total of 469 seats in the Congress (34 Senate seats and all 435 House seats) are up for grabs in the upcoming presidential election in November.  Lawmakers must remember that every voter may be personally touched, either caring for a family member with the cognitive disorder or knowing someone who is a caregiver or patient.  That ultimately becomes a very powerful message to Capitol Hill that it is important to increase the funding to NIA to find the cure.

 

 

Rhode Island Lawmakers Poised to Give Retirees Financial Tax Relief

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 31, 2015

During the 2014 legislation session, Rep. Robert E. Craven, (District 32) introduced and successfully pushed for passage in the General Assembly. This legislative proposal would ultimately being signed into law by the Governor. Little did the North Kingston law maker realize that door knocking to get reelected in last November’s election would give him an issue to tackle on Smith Hill this year.

At hundreds of homes, he heard the same issue from his older constituents. One such comment was etched sharply in Craven’s memory: “You’re a nice guy, buy I am not going to vote for you because I am leaving the state, the older voter told him. The puzzled lawmaker asked “why?” The response, “We decided the state is so expensive to live in because of taxes we’re going to sell our house and move to Florida. Wanting the specifics, Craven asked, what specific tax bothers you? “We are only of a few states that tax social security benefits, that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said the older voter.

Craven’s legislative proposal, H 5000, was heard Wednesday night before the House Finance Committee. Strongly supported by House leadership, he says, the legislation would ease the tax burdens on Rhode Island retirees by exempting them from paying state income tax all Social Security benefits as well as income received from federal, state and local government retirement plans, disability benefits, military pensions and private pension plans and deferred-compensation plans.

Among its more than 40 co-sponsors are Rep. Stephen M. Casey (D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket), Rep. Michael A. Morin (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket), Rep. Samuel A. Azzinaro (D-Dist. 37, Westerly) and Rep. Cale P. Keable (D-Dist. 47, Burrillville, Glocester).

If enacted, Rhode Island would join 27 other states – including Massachusetts and Maine – and the District of Columbia that specifically exempt Social Security income from taxation. (Although Rhode Island does not specifically tax Social Security benefits, that income is identified on federal tax returns. Since Rhode Island’s income tax is based on the federal adjusted gross income of federal tax form filers, the end result is that Rhode Island generates a portion of its income tax collections from Social Security benefits.)

According to Craven, his legislative proposal would financially benefit Rhode Island seniors who receive retirement benefits. ”After paying into the Social Security system their entire working lives, or putting a little money away into private pension plans, or working at jobs that provide them with a pension, it doesn’t seem right that retirees are having taxes eat away at benefits they depend on for their very livelihood,” he says.

“Retirees living on a fixed income are probably more severely impacted by taxes and tax increases than other population groups,” observes Craven. “If we are committed to helping retirees have a safe and secure life in their later years, and if we want to help seniors afford to stay in Rhode Island rather than moving to more tax-friendly locations, we need to ease their financial burdens. Exempting retirement income from the state income tax is one step we should take,” he adds.

Tax Exemption in House Budget

Weaving its way through the legislative process Craven ultimately expects his legislative proposal to be modified to not give older tax payers a complete exemption on paying taxes for their social security income. Specifically, the revised language would say, “If your house hold income is under $100,000 or less than your Social Security is tax exempt from state income taxation.”

While a Senate companion measure has been introduced by Senator Walter S. Felag, Jr., representing Bristol, Tiverton and Warren, an amended H 5000 will be placed in the House Budget because of its cost, says Craven.

The price tag could be between $30 and $35 million, Craven says, noting that better than expected revenues enable it to be funded. “It’s a priority to the state’s economic recovery, he says.

Older retirees, making from $35,000 to $100,000, from Social security and their pensions, will just put their dollars in the local economy, adds Craven. “It’s a good investment and we owe it to them. These retirees have been here all their lives, he says, noting that they ask very little for benefits from municipalities. “They have a lot of time on their hands to volunteer [in their communities] and are very philanthropically included in offering money and services to charities.”

Says House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, “Representative Craven’s bill to exempt the state tax on Social Security will be included as part of the budget that the House Finance Committee will be considering within the next few weeks. Governor Raimondo included this exemption for low-wage earners in her original budget proposal, but the House will be broadening it to assist the middle-class retirees as well. The House budget exempts retirees, age 65 and over, who have income thresholds of up to $80,000 for individuals and $100,000 for joint tax filers.”

“We believe that by incorporating Rep. Craven’s bill into the budget, this will begin to stop the exodus of retirees leaving Rhode Island for many other states where there is no state tax on Social Security benefits,” adds Mattiello.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo sees Social Security is a key source of income for older Rhode Islanders, noting that her submitted March budget proposal eliminates state taxes on Social Security benefits for low and middle income seniors “to help them make ends meet and stimulate our economy.”
With Rhode Island unions hit hard by the state’s recent pension reform, Craven’s proposal has received thumbs up from some.

James Parisi, field representative and lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, says his union supports Craven’s legislative proposal. “Unlike some other tax cut proposals introduced this session, his bill includes state and local government pension benefits. About half of the state’s teachers were never eligible to participate in social security so any tax cut proposal that is limited exclusively to social security benefits would be unfair to thousands of retired public school teachers,” he says.

Jim Cenerini, a lobbyist for Council 94, AFSCME also says his union is squarely behind H 5000. “Council 94 believes that legislation deserves careful consideration and support because: many other states provide some type of income tax exemption to retirement benefits/Social Security; in 2014 Kiplinger ranked Rhode Island as one the least tax friendly states for retirees; and since a significant majority of public employees remain in Rhode Island, and contribute to our local economy by spending on goods and services, it’s important to provide an incentive to remain in-state.”

A Final Note…
Other legislation proposals have also been thrown into the legislative hopper this session to protect older taxpayers. H 5446, introduced by Woonsocket law maker Rep. Stephen M. Casey, would protect the pocket books of retired teachers who are receiving a pension from Massachusetts. “These retirees, whose pension are overseen by Massachusetts Teachers Retirement System, are essentially double taxed because of the state’s tax code,” he says.

On Friday, May 29, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) issued a report noting that the state may have significantly more funds available in fiscal 2015 and 2016 than anticipated when Gov. Raimondo submitted her budget in March. Specifically, state revenues are expected to be up by $106.8 million this year and $36.6 million next year, with additional funds available from expenditure reductions.

For this writer, its sound public policy to use some of the anticipated surplus identified in RIPEC’s report to enact H 5000 and H 5446 to lessen the tax burdens of Rhode Island’s retirees. As mentioned earlier, older taxpayers pull less resources from their cities and towns. But, most important, these retirees have greatly contributed to the quality of life in their communities throughout their working years.

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