Lawmakers can do more for Seniors next year

Published in RINewstoday on July 11, 2022

Just days before July 1, 2022, Gov. Dan McKee was joined for the signing of the $13.6 billion state budget (2022-H7123aa) for fiscal year 2023 by Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin L. Abney and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan W. Pearson.

Taking a Look at the Budget’s Dollars and Cents

Let us take a look as ho the state’s FY2023 budget, signed by McKee on June 27, 2022, impacts older Rhode Islanders.

The budget doubled the funding for the Livable Homes Modification Program, from $500,000 to $1 million, which reimburses half the total retrofit costs, up to $4,000, to support home modifications and accessibility enhancements to allow individuals to remain in community settings. The increase is intended to address an anticipated surge in applications.

For retirees, the Assembly raised from $15,000 to $20,000 the amount of annual pension income that is exempt from state taxation.

The FY 2023 Budget also allocated an additional  $200,000 to the Office of Healthy Aging’s budget for senior centers, bringing total funding to $1 million. That is a 25% increase.

The budget also makes significant investments in the quality of healthcare for seniors, providing rate increases to many kinds of providers of health care, nursing homes, home and community-based services for elderly (increase in starting pay to $15 hour), in addition to seeking a study by the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner on appropriate reimbursement rate levels into the future.  The budget also includes substantial increase to reimbursement rates for Meals on Wheel meals ($400,000), ensuring that the program is able to provide high-quality therapeutic and culturally appropriate meals to participants.

Lawmakers also added $4 million to increase the “circuit breaker” tax credit available to qualifying elderly and disabled residents, raising the maximum credit from about $400 to $600 beginning in tax year 2022 and indexing that amount to inflation. They also made credit available to more Rhode Islanders by increasing the income threshold for eligibility from $30,000 to $ 35,000.

Those with military pensions will no longer have to pay any income taxes on them, beginning in the 2023 tax year. The governor had proposed phasing out military pension taxation over five years, but legislators instead made them tax-free in their entirety in one year.

Lawmakers also kept the Governor’s plan to invest $168 million in upgrades to Eleanor Slater Hospital, including $108 million to construct a new long-term care acute care hospital at the Zambarano campus in Burrillville.

The plan accelerates the six-year phase-out of Rhode Island’s motor vehicle excise tax, eliminating what would have been the final year of the tax next year.  The amended budget provides replacement license plates for free.

The state budget included a year-long pilot program to provide free service on the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s business route, the “R” line that runs from Pawtucket to Cranston.

It also added $11.5 million general revenue funds to launch a retail Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) pilot program, beginning Jan. 1, 2023.  Eligible households would receive an incentive payment of 50-cents for every dollar spent on fruits and vegetables, subject to limits.  The state also requested a waiver from the Federal Nutrition Service to streamline the application process for elderly and disabled individuals seeking assistance from the SNAP program.

Lawmakers also allocated $10 million for rebalancing the state’s long-term care continuum, for funding home care agency workforce recruitment, retention and training.  Also, money in Rhode Island’s new budget includes $8.1 million to increase Medicaid Dental rates to increase access to dental services for older adults.

Finally, lawmakers kept in the $250 million total from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal funds in the approved budget to address state’s affordable housing crisis.

Taking a peek at new state laws

The Rhode Island General Assembly passed H-7942/S-2623 which increases access and utilization of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and provides age-friendly housing options for older adults, family caregivers, and people of all ages and abilities.

McKee also signed the Let RI Vote Act into law. This new law makes voting safer, easier, and more accessible for all Rhode Islanders. Some of the major provisions of the bill include no-excuse mail ballots and emergency voting; online mail ballot applications; permanent absentee list opt-in for nursing home residents; no witness or notary requirement to vote by mail;  multilingual voter information hotline, community ballot; and voter registration list maintenance.

A new law also seeks to develop broadband in Rhode Island by creating a Broadband Advisory Committee. It’s director will be responsible for connecting with federal agencies to access funds for broadband infrastructure deployment pursuant to federal grants, facilitating broadband service adoptions, expanding digital literacy for residents (especially seniors), experiencing economic hardship, and for future economic development.

Following the passage of S-2228, the definition of an elderly person in regard to exploitation has changed from someone 65-years-old to someone who is 60 years old, making the definition of an elderly person consistent with state law.

Finally, the proposed Perry Sullivan one-year exemption has been eliminated. This preserves $38.6 million for home and community-based services for 2023.

Gearing up for next year’s legislative session

“Despite the lack of passage of H-7616 sponsored by Rep. Lauren Carson to elevate the Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging to full Department status, I’m confident that it will be reintroduced early in 2023. I also anticipate broad community conversations to fine tune the design and identify the needed resources,” says Vin Marzullo, a well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and national service administrator.

“AARP Rhode Island worked hard on Smith Hill during the 2022 legislative session to achieve a number of important wins for the age 50 and over Rhode Islanders,” stated Catherine Taylor, AARP Rhode Island State Director. “We will find it easier to vote, have access to more housing options and assistance for accessibility modifications, see our direct care workforce better paid and better trained, and so much more. And, as always, AARP Rhode Island is committed to ensuring that those age 50 and our families know about these changes and how they will improve our lives,” she says.

 “Although there was some very good news for seniors coming out of the 2022 legislative session, overall, the results were modest when we think about the projected growth of our older population, that 42% of older Rhode Island households have income less than $ 40,000 and that our Office of Healthy Aging is under resourced. So much advocacy work remains,” warns Maureen Maigret, chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council and Policy Advisor for the Senior Agenda of Rhode Island, representing 21 organizations to mobilize people to enhance the quality of life of older Rhode Islanders.

However, Maigret sees a big win in the state budget language calling for rate review for state contracted providers as far too many services important for all ages have become so difficult to access due to poor payment rates to providers for many years. One example is that dental rates under Medicaid have not increased since the early 1990’s so older adults have had an extraordinarily hard time getting detail care, she says.

“Another big win that the Senior Agenda worked tirelessly for was removing the suspension of the $38.6 millions of “Perry-Sullivan” funds for FY 2023 that was in Gov. McKee’s proposal,” says Maigret.

However, Maigret expressed disappointment that the state’s budget only calls for minimum wage for home care direct care staff of $15 per hour. “Advocates tried to get this up to at least $17 to address the homecare workforce crisis that leaves some seniors waiting months for service,” she says.

According to Maigret, other items that will help older adults and persons with disabilities with rising housing costs are the expansion of the Property Tax Relief program sponsored by Rep. Ruggiero and Sen. Coyle.

“While we are appreciative overall for the gains that have been made for Rhode Island’s seniors in this legislative session, it is just a start toward what our state needs to do to meet the needs of our aging population,” says Bernie Beaudreau, Executive Director of Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island. “I am disappointed that the minimum wage of $15 per hour was set so low.  This wage level will not do much to attract workers and solve the severe workforce shortages that home care agencies are facing. We also have to be vigilant about the administration of this new law as we have already seen a draft regulation suggesting that $15 will be the “average wage,” not the “minimum wage” of home care workers.

Use ARPA Funds to Make Rhode Island “Age Friendly”

Published on the November 1, 2021 in RINewsToday

With the first public hearing cancelled because of Wednesday’s nor’easter on Oct. 26, Gov. Dan McKee and Lt. Gov Sabina Matos, along with Commerce Director Stefan Pryor and their staff, came to Warren’s Hope & Main to kick off the second public hearing to gather comments about the recently released “Rhode Island 2030: Charting a Course for the Future of the Ocean State.”  The 55-page “working” paper studied and analyzed options for spending the funds authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Over 50 people came to Warren to give their suggestions as to how the COVID-19 federal dollars should be spent. Problems to address included: lack of affordable housing, the growing homeless program, recovering from the pandemic and rebuilding the state’s economy, and creating an age-friendly state.  

During his testimony, West Warwick resident Vincent Marzullo advised McKee and Matos not to forget Rhode Island’s increasing aging population. According to Marzullo, for the first time in recorded history, there are more people over the age of 64 in the world than children under five. In Rhode Island, over 31 percent of residents are age 55 or older, and by 2030 one-quarter of our population will be over 65. 

While many of the Rhode Island’s 2030 report’s draft recommendations, as well as suggestions from the RI Foundation and AFL-CIO, are worthy, “what is obvious in the current draft is the lack of specific attention, focus and strategy needed to get to an age-friendly designation, said Marzullo, a well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and social justice Director in Rhode Island for the Corporation for National & Community Service.

“Don’t we now have an obligation to insure better healthcare, safety, housing, livability, caregiving, etc. for this aging population?” Marzullo asked.  

One way for Rhode Island to accomplish this is to join the AARP Age-Friendly Network of States and Communities, which defines eight interconnected domains that can help to identify and address barriers to the well-being and participation of older people. 

State Director Catherine Taylor says that AARP Rhode Island has been working toward making Rhode Island age-friendly for most of the past three years and in a letter back in mid-July urged the governor and state leaders to use ARPA to accelerate AARP’s effort.  

“We are on the cusp of an opportunity to improve livability dramatically,” adds Taylor. “AARP Rhode Island has urged Governor McKee and state leaders to designate a substantial portion of the $1.8 billion in federal ARPA funds to areas that contribute to further development of age-friendly cities and towns — prioritizing healthcare, housing, public transportation, and the long-term services and supports that are essential to older Rhode Islanders,” she says.

The defined domains of AARP Age-Friendly cities are: Outdoor Spaces and Buildings (people need public places to gather — indoors and out); Transportation (driving shouldn’t be the only way to get around); Housing; Social Participation; Respect and Social Inclusion; Work and Civic Engagement; Communication; and Information and Community and Health Services.

Eight other states have obtained “Age-Friendly” status in collaboration with AARP and The World Health Organization (WHO).  

“Well-designed, livable communities promote well-being, sustain economic growth, and make for happier, healthier residents — of all ages,” said Taylor. “That is why AARP has guided Newport, Cranston, Providence and, most recently, Westerly into membership in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. While we are in discussion with other towns and cities who have shown interest, it has been our goal for some time to see that the State of Rhode Island also joins,” she says.

“A key benefit of the Network is the abundance information and support that membership provides. State leaders would have access to global resources on age-friendly best practices, models of assessment and implementation, and the experiences of other states, cities and towns around the world,” notes Taylor.

“The Network helps participating communities become great places for people of all ages by adopting features such as safe, walkable streets; better housing and transportation options; access to key services; and opportunities for residents to participate in civic and community activities. We believe that Rhode Islanders of all ages prefer living in an age-friendly environment. Many, especially older people, are eager to be involved in the process,” adds Taylor.

Marzullo urged McKee to issue an Executive Order, charging the Lt. Governor to convene representatives from the aging community to design and develop an operational plan for Rhode Island to be designed as an “Age Friendly State.”  The groups should include AARP, Age Friendly RI (RIC), the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC), RI Office of Healthy Aging, United Way RI, RI Senior Center Directors Association, RI Elder Info, Senior Agenda Coalition/RI & the RI Commission on National & Community Service (RIDE). 

Creating a Well-Designed Livable Community for Seniors

Maureen Maigret, policy consultant and chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, notes that the Subcommittee has worked successfully to address “age friendly” domains for several years and that Rhode Island’s 2023 State Plan on Aging also calls for the state to be designated as ‘Age Friendly’ and to work with its partners to promote livable communities for all ages.

“While a formal state commitment through an Executive Order has not happened a number of state agencies such as Environmental Management have been working to embrace age-friendly principles in their work, says Maigret, noting our Rhode Island municipalities have made a commitment to make their communities age-friendly.

In a Sept. 23 Providence Journal op-ed, Maigret called for making Rhode Island age-friendly, recommending that the General Assembly invest in the state’s growing older population. “Knowing that 50-70% of older persons will need some type of long-term services as they age, our most important immediate challenge is to stabilize the paid workforce that helps with the supports needed to remain living at home and to ensure we provide quality congregate care,” says Maigret. 

“We must take immediate steps to secure competitive, living wages for our direct care workers who assist with these tasks and to provide more supportive services for our hundreds of unpaid caregivers who care for loved ones, adds Maigret.  “By looking ahead to 2030, it makes sense to direct a small portion of the federal ARPA funds to communities to both enhance the work of our local senior centers and local Villages and volunteer programs as well as to initiate other age-friendly effort,” she says. 

Maigret calls on Rhode Island’s 39 Cities and Towns to use some of the significant ARPA funds to complement any state funds coming their way for such activities. But for now, stabilizing the long-term care workforce is critical.

A Final Thought…

“The COVID pandemic demonstrated the vulnerability and inequities within both our communities of color and older adults.  In formulating policy and budget investments for the future, Rhode Island has a unique opportunity to promote a statewide “Age Friendly” environment and incorporate the principles of a “beloved community” – a prescription for a healthy society,” says Jim Vincent, President of NAACP’s Providence Branch.

Vincent calls on the Governor and Lt. Governor to give serious attention to not only rebooting our economy, but to strengthening our social fabric and public education to foster a more equitable and civil society. 

Make your voices heard. Now is the time for creative ideas and reactions to the McKee-Matos’ Rhode Island 2030 draft report, which is why they are holding public input sessions. Please take the time to be an advocate for seniors in Rhode Island – and for other causes and issues that are important to you.

Public input sessions will be held at 5 p.m. on the following dates:

Tuesday, Nov. 2 at the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick

Thursday, Nov. 4 at Innovate Newport (513 Broadway, Newport)

Tuesday, Nov. 9 at United Theatre (5 Canal Street, Westerly)

You can also submit your feedback, online, at www.RI2030.com

For a copy of the McKee-Matos working paper, go to https://ri2030.com/_files/public/RI%202030_final.pdf.

For details about AARP Livable Communities Network (age-friendly communities, to to https://www.aarp.org/livable-communities/network-age-friendly-communities/.