Whitehouse Pushes for COVID-19 Senate Proposal to Protect Residents, Employees

Published in the Pawtucket Times on March 1, 2021

As the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic approaches, U.S Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) joins Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) in introducing a legislative proposal to save lives of nursing home residents and employees and assist with vaccinations.   At press time, over 1.3 million nursing residents and workers in long-term care facilities have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 170,000 have died so far, accounting for approximately 35 percent of COVID-19 deaths nationwide.

Taking a Close Look at S.333

Last week, S.333, “The COVID-19 Nursing Home Protection Act,” was thrown into the legislative hopper.  Initially introduced last Congress, the latest version, now being considered by the Senate Finance Committee, would provide funding to give nursing homes the needed resources to keep residents and workers safe; funding would go towards providing vital infection control assistance and organizing local health and emergency workers – known as “strike” or “surge” teams – to manage COVID-19 outbreaks and care for residents.  At this time no House companion measure has been introduced.

S. 333, introduced on Feb. 22, would provide $210 million for the Secretary of HHS to contract with quality improvement organizations to provide essential infection control assistance to nursing homes. 

Moreover, the legislative proposal would also send $750 million in funding to states to implement “strike” or “surge” teams. States are using “strike” or “surge” teams to ensure a sufficient number of aides, nurses and other providers are available to care for residents. Such teams also help manage COVID-19 outbreaks within a facility, particularly as vaccinations proceed in these settings. Since August, approximately 20 percent of nursing homes have reported each week that they do not have a sufficient workforce to care for residents.”

The impact of the pandemic has been devastating to minority communities, where reports have indicated that facilities serving significant numbers of Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely to have COVID-19 infections. S. 333 would require the HHS Secretary to collect and make public demographic data on COVID-19 cases and deaths, including information on age, race, ethnicity, and preferred language. 

Whitehouse supports President Joe Biden’s call for the implementation of strike teams in his American Rescue Plan to help address these persistent shortages as well as the collection and dissemination of data on suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths by race, ethnicity and preferred language.

Controlling COVID-19 Outbreaks in the Nation’s Nursing Homes

“Nursing home residents and staff have been through a traumatic year,” said Whitehouse who sites on the Senate Finance Committee.  “We need to prioritize vaccinating and caring for the Americans who live and work in these settings.  That means providing additional staff as needed to control outbreaks and making sure every resident and care worker who wants a vaccine can get one.,” said the Rhode Island’s junior Senator who has served since Jan. 4, 2007.

“As more than 170,000 residents and workers in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19, it is critical that Congress pass the COVID-19 Nursing Home Protection Act,” says Sen. Bob Casey, Chair of the U.S. Special Committee on Aging.

“This bill would address persistent staffing shortages in nursing homes by utilizing strike teams, promote infection control protocols and require that demographic data is collected on COVID-19 cases and deaths,” notes Casey.

Adds Casey, “The challenge this terrible virus poses are unprecedented and requires an immediate and extraordinary response. That is why my colleagues and I are advancing strategies to give states what they need – funding for ‘strike’ teams to help address staffing shortages in nursing homes and assist with vaccinations in these settings. We have an obligation to protect our most at-risk citizens.”

 “We applaud the efforts of Senator Whitehouse and his colleagues to provide funding for the protection of nursing home residents and staff,” said Scott Fraser, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, an affiliate of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association.  “We are especially pleased with the creation of strike teams to address the critical issue of staffing shortages during times of crisis.  This is a suggestion that RIHCA brought to Senator Whitehouse’s attention this past Spring when our homes were in critical need of additional staff due to the pandemic.  We thank him for listening and taking action,” he says.

At press time, 12 Democratic Senators join Sens. Whitehouse, Casey, Warnock, Blumenthal, and Booker, becoming cosponsors to this legislation.  They are: Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jack Reed (D-RI), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI). 

A Call for Bipartisan Support

With the Senate now under Democratic control, there is a good chance that S. 333 will be considered by the Senate Finance Committee and if passed sent to the floor for consideration.   During the 116th Congressional session, the former Senate GOP Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who often called himself the “Grim Reaper,” sent Democratic legislation to a legislative graveyard, refusing to act on Democratic legislation, even proposals with bipartisan support.

It’s time for Senate Republicans to support a Democratic proposal that protects the health and safety and the wellbeing of nursing home residents and workers in the nation’s 15,600 nursing homes. 

Partisan politics shouldn’t play a role in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to not urge his caucus to support this worthy legislative proposal.  S. 333 truly deserves bipartisan support and enactment, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Cicilline Pushes for House Aging Committee

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 4, 2021

Yesterday, the 116th Congress came to an end, with the new Congressional session convening that day with the swearing in of lawmakers elected on Nov. 3, 2020.   Some political observers say that legislative gridlock during this Congress made it the least productive in the last fifty years.  GovTrack.us, reported that of 16,587 bills thrown into the legislative hopper, 252 became enacted laws, and 712 resolutions were passed.

During a Fox interview last February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) candidly admitted he prevented the consideration of hundreds of bills passed by the House that were sent over to the Senate for consideration.   McConnell’s “Legislative Graveyard” created by his controlling the legislative agenda by blocking debate, markup and refusing to allow a vote on House proposed legislation, was widely reported by the media and documented in a 33-page report, “2020 Democracy Score Card,” released last September by Common Cause, a watch dog advocacy group.

The results of tomorrow’s Georgia Senate runoff will determine if the GOP can maintain legislative control of the Senate. If Senate Democratic candidates win their seats, the Senate Democratic caucus will have the majority with 50 Senate seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris having a tie breaking vote. But if McConnell, called “the Grim Reaper” by his critics, continues to maintains political control of the upper chamber, Democratic legislative proposals introduced to improve the quality of life of America’s seniors and to help those struggling to financially make ends meet, would be rejected.  

Legislative Proposals to be Reconsidered by New Congress

During the116th Congress, Washington, DC-based aging advocacy groups, including the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) , AARP, Social Security Works, Leadership Council on Aging, and National Council on Aging, pushed for passage of legislative proposals to enhance the quality of life of America’s seniors and to strengthen and expand Social Security and Medicare, to keep these programs fiscally sound.  As the new Congress begins, lawmakers might consider bringing back legislative proposals that were not enacted in the previous Congressional session because of a Republican-controlled Senate.  Here are a few legislative proposals that have some merit and I hope to see reintroduced this year:

Congressman John Larson (D-Conn.) called on Congress to finally address the Social Security “Notch” issue. By ignoring this issue, workers born in 1960 and 1961, would likely see lower Social Security retirement benefits in the future, charged NCPSSM.  Last session, Larson, who chairs the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, introduced the “Social Security COVID Correction and Equity Act,” to increase benefits for those born in 1960 and 1961 without impacting the benefits for any other beneficiary. 

Larson also introduced the “Social Security 2100 Act” to strengthen and expand Social Security.  The landmark legislation would keep the program financially healthy for more than 75 years, while boosting benefits for all retirees. Congress must work during the 117th session to protect and expand the nation’s Social Security program.

The late Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Chair of the House Oversight Committee, introduced the “Lower Drug Costs Now Act” which the House passed last session, would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription prices with Big Pharma, which would save the government and seniors nearly $350 billion in drug costs. The bill would also expand traditional Medicare by adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits. 

Additionally, a bipartisan crafted bill, the “Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act,” introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), was not allowed to be considered on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader McConnell.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, this legislation would save taxpayers $95 billion, reduce out-of-pocket spending by $72 billion and finally reduce premiums by $1 billion.

Almost three months ago, the Social Security Administration announced that approximately 70 million Americans would see a meager 1.3 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) increase to Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income.  With retirees experiencing financial difficulties during the pandemic, a $20 increase in their monthly check might not help them to pay for spiraling health care and drug costs, along with the expenses of purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to keep them safe. 

Following the announcing of the 2021 COLA, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation Committee, introduced the “Emergency Social Security COLA for 2021 Act” to provide Social Security beneficiaries with a 3 percent increase (or a $250 per month flat increase) which would reduce the impact of the small 2021 COLA increase. 

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act,” to provide needed resources to facilities to protect frail residents and staff. Residents in these facilities are among the most vulnerable because of their age and underlying medical conditions.  Days after the introduction of the Senate bill, Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), signed on as a cosponsor of the House version.  

This legislative proposal would help states implement strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings, including through the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and to support nursing home workers with premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits.

New Push to Reestablish House Aging Committee

“After a lifetime of hard work, seniors should be able to enjoy their retirement years with dignity and peace of mind,” says Rhode Island’s Cicilline. “It’s the best way to secure the future of Medicare and Social Security, bring down the cost of prescription drugs, and find solutions for housing, transportation and long-term care issues that are especially important to Rhode Island seniors,” he says.

A long-time advocate for seniors, Cicilline announces in this weekly commentary his intentions of reintroducing a House resolution in the 117th Congress to reestablish the House Aging Committee

During the previous three Congressional sessions, Cicilline, representing the state’s first legislative district, introduced a House Resolution (just 245 words) to reestablish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. Two of the times a Republican-controlled House blocked consideration of the House Resolution. 

According to Cicilline, the House can easily create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by just approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other aspects.  Funding would be up to the Appropriations Committee. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

The previous House Aging Committee was active from 1974 to 1993 (until it was disbanded because of budgetary issues) put the spot light on an array of senior issues including elder abuse, helped increase home care benefits for older adults and helped establish research and care centers for Alzheimer’s disease.  

Cicilline noted that a House Aging Committee would perform comprehensive studies on aging policy issues, funding priorities, and trends.  Like its predecessor, its efforts would not be limited by narrow jurisdictional boundaries of the standing committee but broadly at targeted aging policy issues, he notes.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get the job done,” says Cicilline.

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

Updated on Jan. 4, 2021

Democrats Will Have to Compromise if They Lose Georgia Senate Run-Off

With Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden taking the White House, the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) called on Congressional lawmakers to address the needs of older Americans during lame-duck session ending Jan. 3 and throughout President Biden’s first 100 days in office.  Can Congressional lawmakers put aside political differences to pass a last-ditch Stimulus package compromise, a defense bill, and consider aging legislation piling up in just 27 days when the lame-duck session ends?  Will there be political grid lock after President Biden takes office on Jan. 20 if the GOP maintains control of the Senate block Congress from taking up legislation impacting older Americans?

Legislation Piling Up in Lame-Duck Session

“Though this is normally a time when expectations for Congressional action are low, the National Committee expects our elected representatives to act on behalf of seniors and other struggling Americans hit hard by the pandemic,” says NCPSSM president and CEO Max Richtman, in correspondence sent to Congress on Dec. 3.

Across the nation seniors are the hardest hit age group by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  “Eight out of 10 deaths from COVID in the U.S. have been in adults 65 years old and older. Whether as part of an omnibus funding bill, continuing resolution or COVID relief package, The National Committee is urging lawmakers to pass urgently needed measures for seniors,” says Richtman.

Richtman calls on Congress to address the Social Security “Notch” issue. He warns that if Congress doesn’t take action, workers born in 1960 and 1961, will see lower Social Security retirement benefits in the future. According to the Chief Actuary of Social Security, this will sharply reduce benefits for those born in 1960 compared to the benefits received by people born just one year earlier, creating an effect known as a “notch,” notes NCPSSM’s correspondence.

Congress can correct this notch in Social Security benefits by passing Rep. John Larson’s (D-CT) H.R. 7499, the “Social Security COVID Correction and Equity Act,” says Richtman.  The legislative proposal would increase benefits for those born in 1960 and 1961 without impact the benefits for any other beneficiary. 

In October, the Social Security Administration announced that approximately 70 million Americans would see a meager 1.3 percent increase Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income. “More than half of seniors receive over one-half of their income from Social Security, and it provides at least 90 percent of income for more than one-in-five seniors.  These seniors are dependent on a reasonable COLAs to maintain even a modest standard of living in retirement,” said Richtman.

With retirees experiencing financial difficulties during the pandemic, a $20 increase in their monthly check might not help them to pay for spiraling health care and drug costs, along with the expenses of purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to keep them safe. 

Richtman’s correspondence also pushes for passage of Rep. Peter DeFazio’s H.R. 8598, “Emergency Social Security COLA for 2021 Act,” to provide Social Security beneficiaries with a 3 percent increase (or a $250 per month flat increase) which would reduce the impact of the small 2021 COLA increase. 

Protecting the Fiscal Viability of Social Security

Last August, NCPSSM and aging advocacy groups opposed President Trump’s signed executive order that would allow employers to defer workers’ payroll tax contributions for the rest of the year.  Between Jan. 1, 2021 and April 30, 2021, these employees will be required to pay back their deferred payroll taxes, doubling their FICA taxes for the first four months of 2021.  The National Committee has supported efforts to ease the burden for those affected by this hardship. 

NCPSSM correspondence also called on Congress to extend a protection to lower-income Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, including ‘Money Follows the Person’ (which provides funding for states to help skilled nursing care patients to remain in their homes) and impoverishment protections for the spouses of Medicaid recipients receiving long-term care.

Finally, Richtman requested extending the funding for Medicare Low-Income and Enrollment Assistance, which provides funding for State Health Insurance Assistance Programs and Area Agencies on Aging to assist low-income seniors access programs such as the Medicare Prescription Drug Program Part D Low-Income Subsidy.

NCPSSM’s “wish list”, detailed in Richtman’s correspondence, could easily be rolled into a continuing resolution that Congress must pass by Dec. 11 to get the federal government operational. But, any of the legislative proposals pushed by The National Committee would be bottled up in the Senate, by GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, referred to as the “grim reaper,” he Republicans maintain control of the Senate during the 117th Congress.

GOP ‘Grim Reaper’ Keeps Democratic Bills from Consideration

Last February, on Fox News Friday, anchor Bret Baier asked McConnell to confirm Democratic charges that House passed and Senate proposed legislation would never see the light of day on the Senate Floor.  At the time of this interview, the GOP Senator, controlling his chamber’s legislative agenda, confirmed that 395 bills sitting in his chamber would not be passed.

“It is true,” admitted McConnell during the Fox News interview.  “They’ve been on full left-wing parade over there, trotting out all of their left-wing solutions that are going to be issues in the fall campaign. They’re right. We’re not going to pass those.,” he said, recognizing the politics of a divided government. 

McConnell’s ‘Legislative Graveyard’ created by his blocking debate, markup and refusing to allow a vote on Democratic proposed legislation is well documented in the press and by a report released last September by Common Cause, a watch dog advocacy group with chapters in 35 states. “In fact, the Senate’s inaction has the 116th Congress on track to be the least productive in history, with just one percent of the bills becoming law [between] January 3, 2019 to September 16, 2020],” said Aaron Scherb, Common Cause’s director of legislation and author of the 2020 Democracy Scor

During an interview published on Sept. 16, 2020 in Newsweek, Scherb said, “There have been hundreds [of bills] that have been passed by the House at this point.  There have only been 158 enacted laws by this 116th Congress to this point.  Yet there are hundreds of bills that have passed the House but continue to sit in Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s desk, or his ‘legislative graveyard’ as it’s been called.”

With McConnell winning his reelection, the senator from Kentucky can only maintain control of the Senate’s legislative agenda if he can keep two GOP Senate seats up for grabs in next month’s Senate runoff in Georgia.  A Democratic win will give the party a majority 50 Senate seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie.

In order to pick up the two GOP Senate seats, held by incumbent Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Democrats must successfully mobilize voters and adequately fund the campaigns of Democrat Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnoc. At press time, millions of campaign dollars are pouring into Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, with the two GOP Senators bringing in more campaign donations because of Republican super-PACs giving them the spending edge. The Democrats are receiving their political contributions through small donors.

Even with the Democrats controlling the White House and House of Representatives, if McConnell maintains control of the Senate, legislative gridlock in the upper chamber will most certainly continue.  This will make it more difficult for the NCPSSM and other Washington, DC-based aging advocacy groups to successfully push for passage of legislation to ensure the financial security and health of seniors