Tracking legislation of interest to seniors as RI General Assembly wraps up – Herb Weiss

Published in RINewsToday on June 28, 2021

 In the waning days of the 2021 legislative session, RI House lawmakers approved a $13.1 billion state budget for the 2022 fiscal year (by a party-line vote of 64 Democrats to 10 Republicans) that boosts key supports for vulnerable Rhode Islanders — particularly affordable housing and social services— without imposing any broad-based tax increases.

The budget plan also fully funds K-12 education, boosts support for higher education, restores funding to Eleanor Slater Hospital and funds a first-of-its-kind statewide program for police body cameras.  

Additionally, the budget codifies the state’s existing Livable Home Grant Program to provide subsidies (up to 50%) for certain disability and accessibility home modifications, which will enable older people to remain in their homes. The budget includes $500,000 for the Livable Home Grant Program.

At press time, the state budget moves to the Senate for consideration. Once passed by the upper Chamber and signed into law by Gov. Dan McKee, the budget covers the new fiscal year, beginning July 1.

In the Waning Days…

According to Larry Berman, the House’s Communication Director, 1,470 bills were introduced in the House and 978 in the Senate. According to the RI General Assembly’s bill tracker, less than 30 are identified as directly related to seniors.

Here is a sampling of these bills:

The Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D- District 1, Providence) and Rep. Scott A. Slater (D-District 10, Providence), sets minimum staffing levels for Rhode Island nursing homes and was signed into law by Gov. McKee, two days after General Assembly passage. The legislation (S 0002A, H 5012Aaa) will establish a minimum standard of 3.58 hours of resident care per day, initially, and 3.81 hours of resident care per day beginning January 1, 2023. The bill also provides funding to raise wages for direct care staff to help recruit and retain a stable and qualified workforce.

With final votes in both chambers, the General Assembly approved The Elder Adult Financial Act sponsored by Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne (D-District 32, Barrington, Bristol and East Providence) and Rep. Joseph J. Solomon, Jr. (D-District 22, Warwick). The legislation requires financial institutions to report suspected financial exploitation of seniors to the Office of Healthy Aging and authorizing them to temporarily hold transactions they suspect as such. The legislation will be sent to the governor for signature. The legislation (S 0264A, H 5642A) would require financial institutions to train employees to recognize indicators of elderly financial exploitation, and on their obligation to properly report it and place a hold on suspicious transactions. The legislation was the result of recommendations made by the Special Task Force to Study Elderly Abuse and Financial Exploitation, a group led by Sen. Coyne that met in 2018 and 2019 to explore the facets of elder abuse and make policy recommendations to address them.

Rep. Gregg Amore (D-District 65, East Providence) and Sen. Valarie J. Lawson’s (D-District 14, East Providence) legislation, The Uniform Control Substance Act, would exclude chronic intractable pain from the definition of “acute pain management” for the purposes of prescribing opioid medication has been signed into law by Gov. McKee. The legislation (H 5247A, S 0384A) calls for new guidelines for treatment of chronic intractable pain based upon the consideration of the individualized needs of patients suffering from it. The legislation acknowledges that every patient and their needs are different, especially those suffering from chronic pain. Chronic intractable pain is defined as pain that is excruciating constant, incurable, and of such severity that it dominates virtually every constant, moment. It also produces mental and physical debilitation and may produce a desire to suicide for the sole purpose of stopping the pain.

The House passed legislation sponsored by Rep. June S. Speakman (D-District 68, Warren, Bristol) to allow visitation for nursing home residents by a designated family member or caregiver during a state of emergency. Under the Rights of Nursing Home Patients legislation, an essential caregiver would be an individual—whether a family member or friend of a resident of a nursing home or long-term care facility – who is designated to provide physical or emotional support to the resident during a declaration of disaster emergency. The legislation (H 5543aa) would require the Department of Health to create rules and regulations providing for the designation of essential caregivers to provide in-person physical or emotional support to a resident of a nursing home or long-term care facility during the period of 15 days after a declaration of disaster emergency and until 60 days after the termination of the declaration. The bill would require DOH to develop rules and regulations on designating an essential caregiver and the criteria to qualify. Those rules would include health and safety regulations as well as requirements allowing an essential caregiver to have regular and sustained in-person visitation and physical access to a resident of the nursing home or long-term care facility. The bill now goes to the Senate, which on June 1st passed companion legislation (S 0006A) sponsored by introduced by Sen. Frank S. Lombardi (D-District 26, Cranston).

As part of its ongoing efforts of addressing the cost of prescription drugs, the RI Senate passed legislation that requires pharmaceutical companies to disclose drug pricing information and legislation would prohibit an annual or lifetime dollar limit on drug benefits. The first legislative proposal (S 0494A), which was introduced by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio (D-District 4, North Providence, Providence) would require the pharmaceutical manufacturers disclose to the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner the wholesale acquisition costs of drugs if this cost is at least $100 for a 30-day supply. It would also require the disclosure of pharmacy benefit management information to include rebates, price protection payments and other payments that are saved by the pharmacy, health plan issuer or enrollees at the point of the drug. The second one, (S 0381A), which was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey (D-District 29, Warwick), would require that health plans that provide prescription drug coverage not include an annual or lifetime dollar limit on drug benefits. It would also cap out-of-pocket expenses that some consumers would be required to pay for prescription drugs.  The measures now move to the House for consideration.

The Senate also approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Melissa A. Murray (D-District 27, Woonsocket, North Smithfield) limiting insured patients’ copays for insulin used to treat diabetes to $40 for a 30-day supply. The legislation (S 0170A), which is part of the Senate’s prescription drug affordability legislative package, would apply to all insurance plans that cover insulin. Under the legislation, insurers would be required to cap the total amount that any covered person is required to pay for covered insulin at $40 for a 30-day supply, regardless of the amount or type of insulin prescribed. It also forbids that coverage from being submit to any deductible. The bill does allow insurers to charge less if they choose. The cost of insulin has risen sharply over the years, and the cost is much higher in the United States than in other countries.  Millions of Americans depend on insulin for the management of diabetes. The legislation goes to the lower chamber, where House Speaker Pro Tempore Brian Patrick Kennedy (D-District. 38, Hopkinton, Westerly) is sponsoring a companion bill (H 5196A).

Finally, the passed legislation sponsored by Sen. Valarie J. Larson (D-District 14, East Providence) would increase temporary caregiver benefits for Rhode Islanders. The bill (S 0688) increases temporary caregiver benefits to six weeks in a benefit year starting Jan. 1, 2022, and would increase temporary caregiver benefits to eight weeks in a benefit year beginning Jan. 1, 2023.Rhode Island was the third state in the nation to pass a paid family leave programs when it enacted the Temporary Caregiver Insurance program in 2013.  It provides up to four weeks of partial (about 60%) wage replacement for workers who need to take time from their jobs to care for a serious ill family member or to bond with a newborn, adopted or foster child.  The worker’s job and seniority are protected while the worker is on leave.An amended companion measure (H 6090A), sponsored by House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-District 63, East Providence) passes the House and now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Deputy House Republican Minority Leader, George Nardone (R-Dist. 28, Coventry, Rep. Michael Chippendale (R-Dist. 40, Coventry, Foster, and Glocester and Rep. Raymond A. Hull (R-District 6, Providence) submitted H 5547 to ensure proper, safe, and personal contact with loved ones in congregate care facilities.  The legislation addresses the COVID-19 mandates that denied access to individuals in hospitals, group homes, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and Veterans homes. The purpose of this legislation is to entitle all residents of healthcare facilities and group homes the opportunity to designate a support person for regular, in-person visits. The policy is designed to balance disease transmission protocols with the benefits of having a loved one present during a lockdown. The House Health & Human Services Committee recommended the legislation be held for further study.

Senate Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz (R-Dist. 23, Burrillville, Glocester, North Smithfield, introduced S 644 to provide medical assistance coverage for medical services provided qualifying eligible recipients for community-based care. The Senate Health & Human Services Committee has also recommended the legislation be held for further study.

Thoughts from the Sidelines at AARP

AARP Rhode Island says they “…are thrilled that the Livable Home Modification Grant Program, which provides matching funds for needed construction to ensure that Rhode Islanders with disabilities can remain safely and comfortably at home, was included in the FY22 budget,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor. “That was the highlight of the budget for us. Codifying this program has been a major priority.

“Another important win was enactment of the Elder Adult Financial Exploitation Prevention Act. This law is an important new tool to fight for the one-in-five older Rhode Islanders who is a victim of financial exploitation, with an average loss of $120,000. AARP-RI wrote to Governor McKee urging him to sign this critical legislation and they are delighted that he has done so.  This will be a game-changer in the effort to protect the life savings of older Rhode Islanders.

“Now we have our eye on the number of prescription drug bills that we’ve been working hard on, and we’re hopeful they will see passage before the end of the session. At this time, there are four Senate-approved Rx bills that need action in the House, and we are eagerly awaiting House passage of Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy’s insulin cap bill.

The Legislative session is expected to end by the end of next week. Stay tuned to see what legislative proposals ultimately make it to the Governor’s desk for signature.

UPDATE:

‘According to Maureen Maigret, Vice Chair of Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, a former state representative and Director of Rhode Island’s Elderly Affairs, one of the biggest wins for older adults in the budget — the expansion of the Office of Healthy Aging @Home Cost Share program to increase income eligibility from 200% of the federal poverty level to 250% and to include persons under age 65 with Alzheimer’s/dementia. “Over $2Mil in all funds was added to the budget to do this. It was promoted by legislation sponsored by Sen. Walter Felag and Rep. Joseph Solomon. An estimated 500 persons will get subsidized home care and/or adult day services with this expansion. It was a priority of the Aging in Community Subcommittee for several years,” she says. 

Maigret also notes that the budget also includes Medicaid rate increases for a number of home and community care providers designed to increase access to these options for persons needing care. “These include assisted living, adult day services, shared living and home care. Importantly, with the cost of so many basic services such as rent and food increasing it raises the amount of money a person on home care can keep to pay for living expenses before they must pay a share of the cost of the services,”

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Seniors would benefit in President Biden’s $6 trillion budget

Published in RINewsToday on June 14, 2021

On May 28, with the release of a $6 trillion budget for fiscal year (FY) 2022, President Joe Biden outlined his values and vision as to how he proposes to revive the nation’s sputtering economic engine as it emerges from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 72-page budget document, “Budget of the United States,” (with more than a 1,400-page appendix) details his spending priorities that begin next Oct. 1. Biden’s generous budget depends on increasing taxes on America’s corporations (from 21 to 28 percent) and high earners, who received significant tax breaks from the President Trump/GOP tax cuts of 2017.

With the FY 2022 Budget pushing federal debt to the highest levels since World War 1I, Republican lawmakers quickly called the proposal “dead on arrival” in Congress.  However, Cecilia Rouse, chair of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors says the Biden Administration is willing to live with a budget deficit to invest in the economy now, especially with low interest rates to borrow; deficits can be reduced later. 

President Biden’s new spending under the just released proposed FY 2022 budget, recognizing his Administration’s priorities, reflects the major proposals already outlined under the administration’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan and $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. Provisions in these two proposals would overhaul the nation’s aging infrastructure and invest in education, childcare, paid family and medical leave, fight climate change. 

President Biden’s spending plan also recognizes priorities outlined in the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year as well as the Administration’s “skinny” discretionary budget request released in April. Most importantly, it reflects a commitment from the president to safeguard Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Loving It or Hating It Depends on Where You Sit

In remarks delivered Thursday in Cleveland, President Biden made the case for his budget request and what he describes as an investment in the country’s future. “Now is the time to build [on] the foundation that we’ve laid to make bold investments in our families and our communities and our nation,” he said. “We know from history that these kinds of investments raise both the floor and the ceiling over the economy for everybody.”

In the FY 2020 Budget proposal’s “Message from the President”, Biden says, “The Budget invests directly in the American People and will strengthen the nation’s economy and improve our long run fiscal health. It reforms our broken tax code to reward work instead of wealth while fully paying for the American Jobs and American Family Plans over a 15- year period. It will help us build a recovery that is broad-based, inclusive, sustained, and strong,”

Of course, response to Biden’s Spending plan depends on which side of the aisle you are sitting.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) released a statement strongly endorsing Biden’s fiscal blueprint. “Congressional Democrats look forward to working with the Biden-Harris Administration to enact this visionary budget, which will pave the path to opportunity and prosperity for our nation. The Biden Budget is a budget for the people,” she said.

On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strongly opposing Biden’s Budget proposal. “Americans are already hurting from far-left economics that ignores reality,” said McConnell, in a statement. “The Administration’s counterproductive ‘COVID relief bill’ has slowed rehiring. Families are facing painful inflation, just as experts warned the Democrats’ plans might cause. And the Administration wants to triple down on the same mistakes?” said the six-term Republican Kentucky Senator.

With the Democrats holding the slim majorities in the House and Senate and controlling the White House, Biden’s FY 2022 Budget proposal will have more weight than if the Republicans were in the majority, says Dan Adcock, Government Relations and Policy Director at the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM).

According to Adcock, Biden’s funding numbers will change as his FY 2022 budget proposal goes through the appropriation process in the upcoming months. With its release, Congress can now begin negotiating funding levels and spending bills. Competition for a finite amount of funding will ultimately result in funding level ultimately allotted to programs and agencies by each of the 12 appropriations under their jurisdiction. Funding for most programs important to older Americans is under the jurisdiction of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

“With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day – and the number of seniors projected to double by 2050 – it’s clear that President Biden understands the need to safeguard the older Americans he calls ‘pillars of every community – now and into the future.” Says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO.

Slashing Drug Costs to Pay for Expanding Medicare Coverage

Richtman says that Biden’s fiscal blueprint calls on Congress to allow Medicare to negotiate prices for certain high-cost, life-saving drugs that many seniors currently cannot afford and to require manufacturers to pay rebates when drug prices rise faster than inflation. These reforms could yield over half a trillion in federal savings over 10 years, which could help pay for coverage expansions and improvements, including access to dental, hearing, and vision coverage in Medicare,” he notes. Today, traditional Medicare does not cover routine care like dental checkups or hearing aids.

According to Richtman, President Biden’s budget also includes more than $400 billion in new spending over ten years to expand Home and Community-based Services (HCBS) for low-income seniors and people with disabilities who prefer to receive skilled care in the comfort of their homes and communities, even moreso after the devastation COVID wrought on nursing homes.  

In states that have not taken advantage of Affordable Care Act (ACA) opportunities to expand Medicaid, the budget proposes providing premium-free, Medicaid-like coverage through a federal public option, along with incentives for states to maintain their existing expansions. 

Biden’s FY 2022 budget also urges Congress to improve customer service for Social Security beneficiaries to prescription drug pricing reform to expanded HCBS, adds Richtman.  It also proposes a $1.3 billion (or 9.7%) funding increase for the Social Security Administration.  The increase seeks to improve customer service, including services at SSA’s field offices, state disability determination services, and teleservice centers.

 The Older Americans Act (OAA) provides funding for a wide range of home and community-based services, such as meals-on-wheels and other nutrition programs, in-home services, transportation, legal services, elder abuse prevention and caregivers’ support. These programs help seniors stay as independent as possible in their homes and communities. 

For details about Biden’s FY 2022 Budget proposal and OAA funding levels, made available from the Washington, DC-based National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, go to: https://www.n4a.org//Files/FY22%20PresBudget%20and%20historical%20Labor-HHS%20Appropriations%20Chart.pdf

 Stay Tuned 

The House continues its work on hammering out appropriation bills through subcommittees in June and in the full House in July.  The Senate’s work is expected to begin in mid-Summer and to continue well into September. If the appropriate bills are not passed and signed into law by Oct. 1, Congress will need to pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government into the first months of FY 2022.

Like most Budget proposals, especially in a partisan Congress, Biden’s spending plan will need to be rewritten to win support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. However, it will serve as a roadmap for a Democratic controlled Congress in crafting 12 appropriation spending bills. Partisan bickering during the appropriations process may well force passage of a continuing resolution before Oct. 1 to block a government shutdown. 

Cicilline Moves to Re-Establish the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging

Published in RINewsToday on April 30, 2021

Congressman David Cicilline is poised to offer a resolution to re-establish the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging, whose work came to an end in early January 1993, at the conclusion of the 102nd Congress.

The Washington, DC-based Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO), a coalition of 69 aging organization, has recently called on the House to support Cicilline’s measure when introduced, “which focuses on the well-being of America’s older population and is committed to representing their interests in the policy-making arena”.

“Now is the opportune time to reestablish the House Aging Committee,” says LCAO Chair, Max Richtman, who serves as President and CEO of the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), in an endorsement letter sent to the Rhode Island Congressman on March 30, 2021, detailing the graying of America. 

“Every day, 12,000 Americans turn 60. By 2030, nearly 75 million people in the U.S.—or 20 percent of the country—will be age 65 or older. As America grows older, the need for support and services provided under programs like Social Security, SSI, Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act also increases,” he said, stressing the importance of this select committee.

The resolution to approve the House Aging Committee was passed on October 8, 1974, by a 299–44 margin in the House. Its legislative duties expired during the 103rd Congress, as the House leadership was under pressure to reduce its internal costs and to streamline the legislative process. Initially, the House panel had 35 members, but would later grow to 65 members.

Those opposing reauthorizing the House Aging Committee would say that its elimination would slash wasteful spending, after all, the chamber already had 12 standing committees with jurisdiction over aging issues. On the other hand, advocates warned that the staff of these committees did not have time to broadly examine aging issues as the select committee did.

In a March 31, 1993 article published in the St. Petersburg Times, reporter Rebecca H. Patterson reported that Staff Director Brian Lutz, of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Retirement Income and Employment, stated that “during its 18 years of existence the House Aging Committee had been responsible for about 1,000 hearings and reports.”

The Fourth Time “Hopefully” is the Charm…

Over 28 years after the House Democratic Leadership’s belt-tightening efforts to save $1.5 million resulted in the termination of the House Aging Committee, Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline is poised to reintroduce legislation to reestablish the House Aging panel, active from 1974 until 1993.

More than five years ago, Cicilline had introduced H. Res. 758 during the 114th Congress to reestablish the House Aging Committee. Rhode Island Congressman Langevin and 27 Democratic lawmakers out of 435 House members became cosponsors. But it caught the eye of the co-chairs of the Seniors Task Force (later renamed the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Aging & Families), Congresswomen Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). The lawmakers also signed onto supporting this resolution.

Correspondence penned by Cicilline urged House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and House GOP leadership to support House Res. 758. Ultimately, Ryan blocked the resolution from being considered and no legislative action was taken in the GOP-controlled House chamber. 

With House Speaker Ryan still retaining the control of the House during the 115th Congress, Cicilline’s H. Res.160 would not gain traction. At that time only 27 Democratic lawmakers stepped forward to become cosponsors, the resolution attracting no support from House GOP lawmakers.  

For the third time, during the 116th Congress, Cicilline would again introduce H. Res. 821 to reestablish the House Aging Committee. Even with the Democrats retaking the House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi taking control of the chamber’s legislative agenda, the resolution would not get a committee vote, again blocking it from reaching the floor for a vote.

During the 117th Congress, Cicilline is not taking “no” for an answer, and continues his push to bring back the House Aging Committee.  Once his resolution is thrown into the legislative hopper, it will be referred to the House Committee on Rules for mark-up and if passed will be considered by the full House. It’s expected to be just 245 words like the previous ones introduced during the last three Congresses.  

The Resolution: Short and Sweet

Cicilline’s resolution would reestablish a House Aging Committee without having legislative jurisdiction, this being no different than when the select committee previously existed. It would be authorized to conduct a continuing comprehensive study and review of aging issues, such as income maintenance, poverty, housing, health (including medical research), welfare, employment, education, recreation, and long-term care. These efforts impacted legislation taken up by standing committees.

According to the Congressional Research Service, it is relatively simple to create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other issues that need to be address.  Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

This resolution would also authorize the House Aging Committee to study the use of all practicable means and methods of encouraging the development of public and private programs and policies which will assist seniors in taking a full part in national life and which will encourage the utilization of the knowledge, skills, special aptitudes, and abilities of seniors to contribute to a better quality of life for all Americans.

It would also allow the House Aging Committee to develop policies that would encourage the coordination of both governmental and private programs designed to deal with problems of aging and to review any recommendations made by the President or by the White House Conference on Aging in relation to programs or policies affecting seniors.

“After a lifetime of working hard and playing by the rules, Rhode Island seniors should be able to enjoy their retirement years with dignity and peace of mind. Re-establishing the House Aging Committee will help make this goal a reality. From protecting Social Security and Medicare to lower the costs of housing and prescription drugs, this Committee will help ensure we can deliver better results for seniors here in Rhode Island and across America,” says Cicilline.

Looking Back

According to NCPSSM’s Richtman, who served as staff director for the Senate Special Committee on Aging from 1987 to 1989, the House Aging Committee historically served as a select committee that fostered bipartisan debate from various political and philosophical viewpoints to promote political consensus that, in turn, impacted the legislation that was taken up in authorizing committees. This select committee would have an opportunity to more fully explore a range of aging issues and innovations that cross Committee jurisdiction, while holding field hearings, convening remote hearings, engaging communities and promoting understanding and dialogue.

While seeing the value of the House Aging Committee, Richtman speculates that regardless of which party is in the majority, the challenge of re-establishing the select committee is that the Legislative Branch appropriation would require that existing House standing committees forgo some funding and staff to create a budget and staff for the Aging Committee. Given that the Aging Committee could have no legislative jurisdiction; the authorizing committees would not lose legislative power.

Robert Blancato, president of Matz, Blancato, and Associates, who was the longest-serving staff person on the original House Aging Committee, from 1977 to 1993, sees the need to bring back the House Aging Committee. “It provided a deeper examination of issues affecting older adults through hearings, investigations, and reports. Every member of the committee was also a member of a standing committee and could take their expertise to into that work,” he noted.

Blancato, who served with three chairs — Will Randall (D-MO), Claude Pepper (D-FL) and Edward Roybal (D-CA), warns that a “floodgate problem” may well derail Cicilline’s efforts to get his resolution passed. “You create one and there will be pressure to create more,” says Blancato. But, bringing back the House Aging Committee is extremely important because there is no “stated expertise in any current standing committee [to investigate] on aging issues,” he adds.

America’s aging population warrants reestablishing the House Aging Committee, says Professor Fernando Torres-Gil, M.S.W., Ph.D., Social Welfare and Public Policy Director, Center for Policy Research on Aging at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “By 2029, all 80-plus individuals born between l946 and l964 will be 65 years of age and over. These so-called “aging baby boomers” will create challenges and opportunities that the Congress must examine, understand and respond to with legislation, oversight and partnerships with government, stakeholders and advocates,” says Torres Gill, who served as the select committee’s staff director from 1985 to 1987.

Under the Chairmanship of Congressmen Roybal and the partnership with the ranking minority member, Congressman Rinaldi (R-TX), Torres-Gil saw first-hand the tremendous influence that this select committee had on influencing and motivating House members to promote thoughtful responses to the needs of older Americans, “It served as one of the few venues for bi-partisanship and long-term planning on complex issues facing older persons,” he stated.

According to Torres-Gil, the complexities of an aging society will increase given the pandemic, the growing voices of immigrants, ethnic and minority groups and the challenges for ensuring the financial viability of legacy entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Older Americans Act.  “Now is the time to bring back this vital congressional “thought leader” on legislative action for the aging and diversity of the United States,” he says.

To illustrate the importance of the House Aging Committee, Bill Benson, Staff Director of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Housing and Consumer Interests from 1987 to 1990, (chaired by Congressmen Don Bonker (D-WA) and later James Florio (D-NJ), points to his subcommittee’s work on housing issues. “Both before, during, and after my tenure with the subcommittee, we were able to dig deeply into a multitude of significant housing-related programs and problems facing older Americans. During my tenure alone we conducted at least a dozen hearings just on housing, addressing affordability, quality and appropriateness, contributing significantly to legislative action,” he said.

“I am certain that in just that over two-year period we held far more hearings on housing and aging than have been conducted, in total, in the nearly three decades since. During this interum, there has been almost no congressional attention to housing for the elderly. It is no surprise that today we see homelessness among older adults increasing rapidly, among many other housing problems facing older Americans,” adds Benson, stressing that resurrecting the House Aging Committee is crucial to housing policy for the elderly, along with so many other crucial issues.

The Amazing Legacy of Fiery Senior Advocate Claude Pepper

Kathleen Gardner served as Claude Pepper’s staff director of the Subcommittee on Health and Long-Term Care, from 1984 until his death in 1989, and continued to serve Pepper’s successor, Edward Roybal, until the House Aging Committee was abolished.  She was the last surviving member of the Subcommittee, boxing up and archiving its papers for delivery to the Tallahassee, Florida-based Claude Pepper Foundation.   

According to Gardner, few know that it was Pepper who was largely responsible for sponsoring or cosponsoring legislation to establish the majority of the Institutes of Health (including the National Heart and Cancer Institutes, the Deafness and Arthritis Institutes, the National Institute of Mental Health and six other Institutes). “One of his last legislative improvements to the National Institutes of Health was the establishment of the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine – without which the mapping of the human genome – which will unlock so many of the mysteries of disease — would not have been possible, she adds. 

Between 1982 to 1990, Melanie Modlin served as a Professional Staff Member for the full Committee and ultimately became Gardner’s Deputy Director for the Subcommittee on Health and Long-Term Care.  She remembered how the House Aging Committee investigated “Diploma mills,” by setting up its own diploma mill, then a phony accreditation to give the investigators credence.  The select committee also held one of the first hearings on Alzheimer’s disease, which was just beginning to become a household word. 

Modlin recalled that her Subcommittee was tasked with creating a universal health care bill. “Once more, Pepper and the House Aging Committee was a step ahead of the curve,” she says, noting that this debate has come back to Congress.

As newspapers in communities across the nation curtail or jettison their investigative teams, the House Aging Committee has a proven track record and reputation of investigating aging issues is a sound reason as to why the Select committee should be reactivated, says Modlin, especially with the rapid growth of America’s aging population.  

Robert S. Weiner, President, Robert Weiner Associates News, who was a close friend and confidant of Pepper, clearly knew the importance and impact of Pepper’s House Aging Committee on the daily quality of life of seniors. Weiner, who served as Staff Director for the Subcommittee on Health and Long-term care from 1975 to 1977 and Chief of Staff of the full Aging Committee, from 1976 to 1980, remembered, “I was thunderbolt struck when [GOP House Speaker] Newt Gingrich abolished the Aging Committee – the Senate wisely kept theirs.”

“Congressman Claude Pepper used the House Aging Committee as a force for the elderly. Bringing it back would be of immeasurable help regardless of which party has the White House in assuring the best health care programs possible, stopping any raiding of the Social Security Trust Fund, and protecting seniors,” says Weiner.

The House Aging Committee prodded Congress to act in abolishing forced retirement, investigating nursing home abuses, monitoring breast screening for older women, improving elderly housing, and bringing attention to elder abuse by publishing a number of reports, including “Elder Abuse: An Examination of a Hidden Problem and Elder Abuse: A National Disgrace,” and “Elder Abuse: A Decade of Shame and Inaction.” The Committee’s work would also lead to increased home care benefits for the aging and establishing research and care centers for Alzheimer’s Disease.

“One of the best known aging accomplishments of Claude Pepper was to end mandatory retirement by amending the Age Discrimination provision in the Employment Act, remembered Weiner, noting that this would get him the cover of Time Magazine with the tag line the “Spokesman for the Elderly.” 

Kentucky Fried Chicken King makes his mark

It was Pepper’s idea to bring in Col. Harland Sanders as a witness. Many still remember the 81-year-old Kentucky Fried Chicken King, wearing his trademark spotless white suit and black string tie, and testifying against mandatory retirement in federal jobs,” said Weiner, noting that a few years later it would end up also in the private sector, and the bill would pass 359 to 2 in the House and 89 to 10 in the Senate, with President Carter signing the bill despite strong opposition of the Business Roundtable and big labor, he said.

Weiner also noted that among the House Aging Committee’s other accomplishments under Pepper’s Chairmanship was legislation creating standards for supplemental insurance and holding hearings to expose cancer insurance duplication. “Witnesses were literally forced to wear paper bags over their heads to avoid harassment by the insurance companies. That legislation became law,” he said.

As a long-time Washington insider, Weiner sees the best avenue of bringing the House Aging Committee back from the dead is to get House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her leadership team, Congressmen Steny Hoyer (D-MD and James E. Clyburn (D-SC), to support Cicilline’s resolution.  “It’s not just a matter of ‘getting them to say ok – it’s using the right way to do it that works. While you can get groups to support your efforts to bring back the House Aging Committee, you must verbally make the case to House leadership,” says Weiner.  Looking back, “that’s how Pepper always did it – he’d pull people to a place on the floor and talk with them.”

“If he gets those three, or even one or two, and they tell the other two – done deal – it goes to the floor of the caucus for a vote,” notes Weiner.

In Summary…

Over thirty years after the death of Claude Pepper (D-FL) in 1989, no national advocate has emerged to take the place of the former Chairman of the House Aging Committee, who served as its chair for six years. As a result, House Democratic lawmakers and aging advocates are forced every new session of Congress to fend off proposals to cut aging programs, Social Security, and Medicare. 

Gardner believes that Cicilline’s efforts to reestablish this needed Select Committee would be a salute to Pepper, the nation’s most visible spokesperson for seniors, and more importantly to his desire to establish a “legislative voice” for our nation’s most vulnerable population – our senior citizens.”   

Hopefully House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will agree with Gardner’s assessment.  If only for the sake of the nation’s seniors.

For details about the Claude Pepper Foundation, go to https://claudepepperfoundation.org/about/claude-pepper-center/