New efforts on Smith Hill to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates

Published in RINewsToday on April 18, 2022

On March 8th, a press conference on Smith Hill put the legislative spotlight on introduced rate setting legislation intended to fix Rhode Island’s long-time problem of paying insufficient reimbursement rates to human-service agencies delivering social, human and clinical services to Medicaid recipients. 

Over 80 human service providers, clients, and aging advocates, came to support Sen. Louis DiPalma and Rep. Julie Casimiro’s two pieces of legislation to fix a broken Medicaid payment reimbursement system. These bills would provide for periodic rate review/setting processes to ensure accurate and adequate reimbursement of social, human and clinical services.

“Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio came, giving his blessings, too. “It is critical that we undertake a review of reimbursement rates so that we have a thorough understanding of the data and we can make informed decisions,” said the top Senate lawmaker. “These bills will help bridge the gap and bring reimbursement rates where they need to be,” he said.

The Reimbursement Fix…

DiPalma and Casimiro’s bills do not specify dollar amounts for adequate hourly wages but would hammer out the “periodic rate review and setting process.”

The first bill (2022-S 2311 / 2022-H 7180) establishes a process which would require the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), assisted by a 24 member advisory committee, to provide review and recommendations for rate setting and ongoing review of social service programs licensed by state departments, agencies and Medicaid. 

The second one (2022-S 2200 / 2022-H 7489) establishes a process which would require Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), assisted by a 24 member advisory committee, to provide review and recommendations for rate setting and ongoing review of medical and clinical service programs licensed by state departments, agencies and Medicaid.

At press time, legislation has been referred to the Senate and House Finance committees for review. 

“Years of stagnation in our state’s Medicaid reimbursement rates have negatively affected hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders who rely on a wide range of services,” claims DiPalma, (D-District 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport and Tiverton), a long-time advocate at the Rhode Island General Assembly for human services providers and disabled Rhode Islanders.  

DiPalma says a comprehensive rather than a piece meal approach is now needed to address this reimbursement issue. Stressing that the two bills would fix the continuing reimbursement issue. “For our providers, the people they serve, and the future of our state, it is imperative we act now,” he warns. 

Rhode Island’s healthcare system is suffering a crisis of care that’s only worsened due to the pandemic, charges Casimiro (D-Dist. 31, North Kingston and Exeter), noting that the state’s human health agencies are understaffed and under-supported and it is hurting the state’s most vulnerable residents.  

“Our reimbursement rates have remained too-low and unchanged for many years and the residents of our state cannot access the crucial services they need if there is no one there to provide the care,” said Casimiro, urging Rhode Island lawmakers to stop the exodus of human services workers for their jobs.  Proper oversight of the rate setting process and appropriate reimbursement rate increases will ensure a high-level of care provided, sorely needed now, she says.    

Providers call for ratcheting up RI’s Medicaid payment rates

Long-time aging advocate and former Representative, Maureen Maigret, translated the rate payment issue into a “dollar and cents” example. Maigret, a policy consultant who previously chaired the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s Aging in Community Subcommittee, noted that the Bureau of Labor Statistics show in 2020 in Rhode Island the average wage for a home health aide was less than $15 per hour and nursing assistants slightly $16. “These low wages do not come close to meeting one’s basic needs, forcing workers to work more than one job or, as more are doing, just abandoning this type of work altogether for better pay, she added, stressing that this was before these workers faced 7% inflation and gas prices reaching over $5 per gallon,” she said.

“High workforce turnover rates are especially troubling for patients receiving homecare, who value building a long-term relationship with someone coming into their home frequently, says Bernie Beaudreau, Executive Director, the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island, “Seniors cannot age with independence and dignity if homecare workers are not treated with respect in wages and working condition,” he says.

This legislation is a step in the right direction and provides the state an opportunity to move toward the realignment of reimbursement rates that accurately reflect the actual cost of the delivery of behavioral health treatment and services,” says Susan Storti, President and CEO of The Substance Use and Mental Health Leadership Council of Rhode Island.

“These bills ask our state a clear, direct question: do we, or do we not, support inclusive lives in our communities? We must reply with an equally clear answer: ‘Yes, we do’ and pass S-2311 and H-7180, says Tina Spears, Executive Director, Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, noting that for CPNRI and its members it is all about inclusion of children and adults with disabilities and behavioral health conditions in our society. 

Time to pay providers adequately  

With all 38 Senators co-sponsoring both his Senate bills, DiPalma is pleased with the positive reception his legislation has received in the upper chamber. “We cannot delay any longer. The time to act is now,” he says, stressing that it’s important for lawmakers to get these bills over the “goal-line. “There are hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders counting on us to get this done,” he adds.

DiPalma says that a Senate hearing is being planned  to consider S 2311 and S 2200 on Thursday, April 28 at the Rise of the Senate in the Senate Lounge. All are encouraged to attend the hearing and voice their support. 

Bill would (re)create a RI Department of Healthy Aging

Published on March 21, 2022 in RINewsToday

There are new efforts on Smith Hill to transform the state’s Office of Healthy Aging (OHA) into a department making it far more visible and effective as an advocate for the state’s growing senior population.  H. 7616, introduced by Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-District 75, Newport), would expand the office in the Department of Human Services (DHS) into a full-fledged state department, expand its director’s authority, and appoint local senior centers as hubs for service delivery, with authority to bill Medicaid for transportation services.

The RI Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA) was created by law in 1977 and remained a department until 2011, when the legislature changed it to a division within the Department of Human Services (DHS). In 2019, the department was re-named the Office of Healthy Aging (OHA), shifting narratives and perceptions associated with growing older. At press time, the Office of Healthy Aging remains a division under the Department of Human Services. 

“Rhode Island should invest much more than we do in services that enable people to age in place and safely remain in their communities. Those services are far more cost-efficient overall, and encourage an active, more fulfilling lifestyle for people as they age”, says Carson in a statement announcing the introduction of the bill on March 2, 2022. “Considering that a quarter of our population consists of seniors, and that ratio is growing as the Baby Boomers join them, now is the time,” she adds.

At press time, the bill has been sent to the House Finance Committee, and its cost has not yet been determined and there is no companion measure introduced yet in the Senate.

“Working cooperatively with the senior centers operating around the state, we could make it much easier for people to access the support they need as they age, and really make the quality of life much better for the entire older population of our state,” says Carson expressing the importance of the state’s senior centers.

H. 7616 would authorize the new Department of Healthy Aging to protect and enable seniors to stay healthy and independent by providing meals, health programs, transportation, benefits counseling and more. Under the bill, the department would provide professional development to agencies and programs that provide services to seniors in the state and become a clearing house to help those agencies and businesses assist senior centers, which would serve as hubs for the delivery of services from the state.

In particular, H 7616 directs the new department to manage and develop a multi-tiered transportation system that works with the Department of Human Services, the Department of Transportation, senior centers and with all existing modes of public transportation to develop transportation plans that suit the elderly population of each municipality. The director would be enabled to authorize senior centers to bill Medicaid for transportation they provide.

The legislation also seeks to have the new department develop and submit to the General Assembly a funding formula to meet the requirements the new law sets forth, including input from seniors and the caregivers and allocating funding to each municipality based on its senior population, with restrictions that the funding be used only for senior programs.

Carson explains that this bill is intended to start important dialogue among state lawmakers, state officials and aging organizations about appropriately providing for Rhode Island’s aging population.

 “Whether or not we pass this bill this year, we have to address the needs of our growing older population. Leaving those needs unmet has a much greater price tag than decent locally administered basic programs would. Our whole state would be better served by investments that keep seniors safe with support in their community,” Carson said.

OHA and Aging Advocates Give Their Two Cents

Nicole Arias, a spokeswoman for OHA, says “we look forward to any future discussions and collaborations with community members, partners, and legislators.” When asked if the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Aging, charged with advising the governor on aging policies and problems impacting older Rhode Islanders, Chair James Nyberg stated the commission also plans to review and discuss the bill at an upcoming meeting. 

“Our office looks forward to participating in dialogue that empowers and supports our aging residents and championing essential quality of life items such as healthy housing and reliable transportation. While our office is still unpacking H 7616, we appreciate Rep. Carson and the bill’s cosponsors for advocating on behalf of our senior residents,” says Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who over sees the state’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC). The group works to preserve senior’s quality of life in all settings and coordinates state policy concerning all sectors of long-term care for seniors.

Bernard J. Beaudreau, Executive Director of the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island, says his group strongly supports any and all efforts that increase the state’s programs and services to address the growing needs of our aging population, especially those with low and moderate incomes.  The state-wide coalition calls for the reinstatement of OHA to a full department, but not without the commensurate expansion of funding and services that are needed for this important state government function.   

“When the Department of Elderly Affairs was reorganized to be a division of the Department of Human Services, we were concerned that it signified a diminishing of the importance of senior needs in the state budget.  While from a management perspective, the division within the larger Department of Human Services could streamline the delivery of services, there would still be the need to increase staffing and programs to meet the growing needs,” says Beaudreau. This did not happen in the ensuing years.

“Restoring the OHA to a department status will strengthen its position at the budget table and elevate the importance of programs supporting older residents of our state. We hope that will make a difference,” says Beaudreau.

“The legislation proposed by Rep. Carson elevates the conversation about the importance of age-friendly policies that enable Rhode Islanders to choose how we live as we age,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor. “AARP Rhode Island looks forward to being part of this conversation and continuing to advocate fiercely at both the state and local levels for enhanced home and community-based supportive services, accessible and affordable housing and transportation options, and full inclusion of people of all ages and abilities in community life,” she said. 

According to Maureen Maigret, policy consultant and chair of the Aging in Community Sub-committee of Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, H 7616 is a very significant bill that will help to stimulate a long due discussion as to how the state should fund senior programs and services in light of the state’s growing age 65 and older population. This age group is projected to represent at least one in five of  the state’s residents by 2040.

Maigret recalls that the state’s Department of Elderly Affairs was created by law in 1977 and remained a cabinet level department until 2011 when the Rhode Island General Assembly changed it to a division within the Department of Human Services as part of the enacted budget bill.  Eight years later, lawmakers would change the agency’s name from the division of elderly affairss the OHA. The enacted law placed OHA in the Department of Human Services for administrative purposes and called for the OHA Director to be appointed by and to report to the Governor with advice and consent of the Senate.

When Maigret left her position of Director of Elderly Affairs (serving from 1991 to 1994), its budget for FY1995 was $13.9 million (state funds) and it had at least 60 full-time employees. The state’s  FY2022  budget for OHA stands at $12 million (state funds) with 31 authorized employees, she said.

Maigret warns that the existing OHA is under-resourced both in state funding and human resources. She calculates that Rode Island spends about fifty dollars per older person (age 65 and older) when taking into account state funding for senior services and its population age 65 and over.

“We could do so much more to support our older adults by addressing service gaps especially for those not poor enough to meet our strict Medicaid income eligibility rules which require older adults to have income less than $13,600 and assets less than $4,000 single and $6,000 for a couple,” Maigret says. Funding for local senior centers and programs in Rhode Island municipalities should be calculated by at least $10 per person aged 65. 

Maigret urges state lawmakers to support local transit assistance efforts, to increase funding for caregiver support programs, and to expand information services to provide assistance to seniors to assist them to find subsidized home maintenance and chore service programs.  Better funding should be allocated to support volunteer programs that provide companionship and other services to reduce social isolation,“ she says.

“I suggest reverting the OHA to a full department as called for in H 7616 only if there is a concomitant increase funding and resources, says Maigret, noting that one source of funding could be available from  the Perry/Sullivan law (that the Governor’s budget proposes to defer for FY2023.),  These state funds could be used to allow OHA to truly provide the needed supports and services to older adults to live full and healthy lives as intended in the department’s creation,” she says.

“Older adults suffered greatly during the COVID pandemic – 90% of the deaths were individuals 60 and over, claims Vin Marzullo, a well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and and national service administrator. “We must provide greater attention and care for this vulnerable population,” he says. 

“Since the proposed legislation to elevate the OHA to department status was initiated by the Rhode Island House, I would hope that former House legislator, Marie Cimini, would welcome and embrace this legislation to become a premiere agency for the Governor, quips the West Warwick resident. He notes that Cimini was recently nominated by Gov. Dan McKee for the position of Director of the state’s Office of Healthy Aging.  This nomination requires Senate confirmation.

The other cosponsors of the H 7616 include Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown), Rep. James N. McLaughlin (D-Dist. 57, Cumberland, Central Falls), Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), Rep. June S. Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Warren, Bristol), Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence) and Rep. Brandon Potter (D-Dist. 16, Cranston).

Hopefully the upper chamber will see the wisdom in considering a companion measure to  H. 7616.  Let the debate begin. 

For more details about OHA, go to https://oha.ri.gov/

The crafting of Rhode Island’s first State Plan on Caregiving

Published on February 28, 2022 in Rhode Island News Today

Rhode Island has the distinction of having one of the highest percentages of adults aged 85 and over in the country. In 2017, out of a population of 1,060,00 there are more than 136,000 caregivers providing 114 million hours of care, says AARP Rhode Island.  More Rhode Islanders will be thrust into caregiving roles in the coming years.

In response to the continued aging of Rhode Island’s population, the Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging (OHA) and Family Caregiver Alliance of Rhode Island officially released Rhode Island’s first State Plan on Caregiving.  The state’s new Plan for Caregivers serves as the framework for the crafting and implementation of new policies, as well as the expansion of various existing programs and partnerships to assist caregivers. The Plan serves to strengthen and advance the shared mission of OHA and the Family Caregiver Alliance of Rhode Island at the United Way (FCARI)  to promote choice, independence, empowerment, and the overall well-being of older adults, individuals with disabilities, and their caregivers.  FCARI is supported with funds from OHA.

As an advocate for caregivers throughout the state, The FCARI serves as the administrator of the 29-page Plan which extends through Sept. 2023. 

A Call for Supporting Rhode Island’s Caregivers

“The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated many of the challenges faced by our older adults and their caregivers, particularly social isolation,” said Interim Director Michelle Szylin announcing the release of this report on Sept 24, 2021. “Caregivers have a tough job and often receive little support. Through the development of this State Plan, we’re showing our commitment to strengthening resources available for our caregivers and better supporting the important work they do across our state,” she says.

Adds Maryam Attarpour, Program Manager, Family Caregiver Alliance of Rhode Island at the UWRI, “Caregiving has been and will always be a major part of the fabric of our society.” Attarpour says that the new State plan puts the needs of family caregivers first. “Our goal is to create a state that is equitable, inclusive, and supportive of our family caregivers, and the loved-ones they care for,” she says.

According to the statement, the State Plan on Caregiving also builds on the state’s existing efforts to meet the needs of Rhode Island caregivers of any age.  It provides an overview of the existing support network available for family caregivers to access as well as addresses the work that remains to ensure equitable access to resources and advocacy. 

One of the key areas of support that the plan focuses on is developing a comprehensive, robust website and social media presence for FCARI that will serve as a hub of information for resources and information for caregivers. It will also ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion for Rhode Island Caregivers and those for whom they care, too.

The State Plan will also ensure that the caregivers of Rhode Island seeking long term services and supports are identified and provided with information assistance and advance  opportunities for digital access (iPads, notebooks, computers and phones) to better serve and support Rhode Island Caregivers.

Over the years, the Rhode Island General Assembly has worked closely with aging advocates to enhance supports and resources for the state’s caregivers.  The State Plan calls on lawmakers to review existing laws to determine if they need to be refined or better funded.  It also suggests that legislation that has been submitted and not passed as well as laws and policies from other states be reviewed for “relevancy for supporting Rhode Island family caregivers.

Putting a Face on Family Caregivers

On Feb. 15th, Maureen Maigret, Chair of the state’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s Aging in Community Subcommittee, told members of the Rhode Island House Oversight Subcommittee on Aging & Senior Services, the importance of hammering out sound policy to support the state’s growing number of caregivers.

Maigret painted a picture of the typical care recipient, citing the 2020 Report, Caregiving in the U.S., to the attending House lawmakers. “Eighty nine percent of the care recipients are a relative, with 50% being either a parent or parent-in-law, spouse/partner (12%), grandparent/grandparent-in-law (8%), sibling/sibling-in-law (7%), adult child (6%) or nonrelative (10%), she said, noting that the average care recipient’s age is 68.9.

While 61% of the caregivers are women, 39% are men, adds Maigret, noting that 61% are white, 14% African American and 17% Hispanic.  The age of most caregivers falls between ages 60-65, says Maigret, noting that younger adults also find themselves having to provide caregiving chores.  Twenty-four percent of persons ages 18-34 and 23% of person’s ages 35-49.

It’s not easy to be a caregiver, says Maigret. She warned that caregivers should be considered “the hidden patient” because they are at risk for becoming depressed, extremely fatigued, stressed, feeling overwhelmed, being socially isolated, losing income and having physical health problems.

Maigret’s presentation was followed by a panel led by Acting OHA Director, Michelle Szylin, and her staff who provided information on programs OHA offers to assist caregivers including subsidized respite, home care and adult day services and special pilots to support those caring persons with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Although our legislature and Governor have been supportive of funding programs to support caregivers, the growth of our older population means more persons will need to become caregivers,” said Maigret. “We need better state programs and services to provide physical, emotional and financial support, and enhanced access to information about available resources,” she said.

Maigret adds: “There is also an urgent need to address the direct care worker crisis by providing the workers with fair and competitive wages.  Many caregivers need to supplement the services they provide with paid caregivers if they are in the workforce, or need to take care of other family needs. Yet due to the low wages paid for personal care workers, it is not always possible to find such help.”

For a copy of the State Plan on Caregiving go to https://fcari.org/state-plan-on-caregiving/