The Coronavirus and its Effect on Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 22, 2020

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the nation, the Social Security Administration (SSA) and other federal agencies strive to cope with meeting the huge challenges they face resulting from the unexpected pandemic outbreak, attempting to juggle worker safety while maintaining their daily operations.

On March 19, Key House Democratic and Republican Committee Chairs send a clear message to SSA as to the importance of minimizing any disruptions to its operations during the coronavirus crises. Throughout its 85-year history, Social Security recipients (seniors, families who have lost a breadwinner, and people with disabilities) have never missed getting their monthly check. Keeping this in mind, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) and Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX), along with Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), Ranking Member Tom Reed (R-NY), Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis (D-IL) and Ranking Member Jackie Walorski (R-IN), sent a letter on March 19 to Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Andrew Saul calling on the agency to continue their work to prioritize health and transparency in an effort to minimize disruptions as they administer vital services during the coronavirus crisis.

“We know the decision to close SSA field offices…was a difficult decision. … This move will save lives and will also protect the health of SSA frontline staff, whose public service is so critical,” the key House lawmakers wrote.

“We understand that as coronavirus spreads, you are prioritizing work that fulfills SSA’s core mission,” the letter continued. “We fully support this prioritization.”

“We are writing to urge the Social Security Administration (SSA) to vigorously safeguard the health of the public and agency employees during the coronavirus crisis, while also minimizing disruptions in services to the American people,” stated the House lawmakers. “Telework is a commonsense response to coronavirus and we urge you to maximize its use across SSA. In addition, we encourage SSA to communicate regularly and robustly with the public and with its employees about SSA’s coronavirus response. Social Security is a program that affects the lives of all Americans. As SSA’s response to coronavirus evolves, the public must be able to count on timely information about how to access benefits and services, including assistance when a problem arises.”

The members emphasized that that they stand ready to work with the agency to ensure it has the resources and authority it needs to operate effectively during the crisis while ensuring SSA remains able to send benefits on time each month.

COVID-19 Changes Way SSA Does Business

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way SSA does business across the nation. Effective Tuesday, March 17, SSA closed all local Social Security offices for in-person service. SSA says that this decision protects the population it services — older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions—and its employees during the crisis.

But SSA employees remain at their cubicles, the processing of benefits and claims continues. However, critical services can be accessed online. The agency directed the pubic to visit its website (https://www.ssa.gov/) or its toll-free number, 800-772-1213 for customer service. You can apply for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits online, check the status of an application or appeal, request a replacement Social Security card (in most areas), print a benefit verification letter, and much more – from anywhere and from any of your devices.

According to SSA, there is also a wealth of information to answer most of your Social Security questions online, without having to speak with an SSA employee in person or by phone. Visit our online Frequently Asked Questions at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ask.

However, those persons who are blind or terminally ill, or need SSI or Medicaid eligibility issues resolved related to work status can obtain in person services in local offices.

SSA also provides COVID-19 related information and customer service updates on a special website (https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/)
According to a March 19 blog posting by the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “The Ways and Means committee leaders suggest SSA allow employees to telework where possible, in accordance with federal guidelines. National Committee senior legislative representative (and former 35-year SSA employee) Webster Phillips says the agency’s teleworking capabilities have been diminished since Andrew Saul came on board as administrator – and will take time and resources to build back up.”

The NCPSSM’s blog posting noted, “SSA will discontinue several of its normal activities in order to prioritize beneficiaries’ needs. “There are workloads that they’re not going to process while this is going on, focusing exclusively on paying benefits,” says Phillips. Those include stopping all Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) and curtailing eligibility re-determinations for SSI recipients.”

Finally, “SSA also has discontinued in-person disability hearings to protect the health of claimants and employees. Instead, those hearings will take place via telephone or video conference, where possible,” adds the blog posting.

The Bottom Line…

On March 19, SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul, issued a statement to assure the 65 million Social Security recipients that SSA payments will continued to be processed. He stated, “The first thing you should know is that we continue to pay benefits.”  But Saul warned, “Be aware that scammers may try to trick you into thinking the pandemic is stopping your Social Security payments but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.”

The United States Postal Service has so far experienced only minor operational impacts in the United States as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, with Saul’s assurances and the postal service still delivering mail, you can expect to get your benefits.
Stay healthy.

2020 Census Data Impacts Federal Funding Allocated to Aging Programs and Services

Published in the Woonsocket Call on January 19, 2020

By April 1, every home across the nation will receive an invitation from the U.S. Census Bureau, a nonpartisan government agency, to participate in the 2020 Census. Once this invitation arrives, it’s important for you to immediately answer the short questionnaire by either going on-line, phone, or by mail. When you respond to the census, you’ll tell the Census Bureau where you live as of April 1, 2020.

The U.S. Constitution: Article 1, Section 2, mandates that the country conduct a count of its population once every 10 years. The 2020 Census will mark the 24th time that the country has counted its population since 1790

The population statistics generated by the upcoming 2020 Census will be used to distribute over $700 billion annually in federal funds back to tribal, state and local governments. The collected census data also determines the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives, provides insight to governments, business and community planning groups for planning purposes, and finally defines congressional and state legislative districts, school districts and voting precincts

2020 Census Statistics and the Graying of America

According to a blog story published on Dec. 10, 2019, by American Counts (AC) Staff, the upcoming 2020 Census will provide the federal government with the latest count of the baby boom generation, now estimated at about 73 million. The boomer generation born after World War II, from 1946 to 1964, will turn 74 next year. When the 2010 census was taken, the oldest had not even turned 65.

Baby Boomers are also projected to outnumber children under age 18 for the first time in U.S. history by 2034, according to Census Bureau projections. With an increasing need for caregiver and health services and less family caregiver support, the boomers will be forced to depend on federally-funded support services, their allocation depending on policy decisions based on census data.

“Data from the 2020 Census will show the impact of the baby boomers on America’s population age structure,” said Wan He, who has for over 21 years overseen the Aging Research Programs for the Population Division of the U.S. Census Bureau.

AC’s blog article, part of a Census Bureau series detailing the important community benefits that come from responding to the 2020 Census questionnaire, stresses that exact count of American’s age 65 and over is important for tribal, local, state and federal lawmakers to determine how they will spend billions of dollars annually in federal funds on critical aging programs and services for the next 10 years.

While everyone uses roads, hospitals and emergency services some state and federal programs specifically target older Americans – the 2020 Census statistics will be used to distribute funding to senior centers, adult day care facilities, nutrition programs including meals on wheels, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, job-training programs, elder abuse programs, Medicare Part B health insurance and Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people including those age 65 and older.

“The census is really important to us in the aging community,” said John Haaga, of the National Institute on Aging in Washington, D.C. in the AC’s blog article. “It’s our only way to figure out how things are different across the country, what areas are aging faster, where elderly disabled people live, or where older people are concentrated, like Appalachia or West Virginia, because young people are leaving for the cities,” says Haag, noting that “Older people are remaining behind there.”

Haaga noted, “Other states, such as Florida, have large older populations because people are moving there to retire.”

“You can start to look at specifics like how many older people are living alone who are more than 10 miles from an adult day care centers,” says Haaga. “You can answer questions of access and how to improve it,” he adds, noting that census statistics helps lawmakers or business people decide where to open health clinics or senior citizen centers, among other services.

Calls for Action: Fill Out that Census Questionnaire

AARP has three main goals, according to State Director Kathleen Connell. “First,” she said, “to ensure a fair and accurate census count by educating our​ members and older adults about the census outreach efforts. Second, to provide tips and resources to encourage safe participation while protecting themselves from bad actors and census related fraud during this time. And third, to help people age 50 and over gain employment as census enumerators.”

“AARP has long been involved in informing people about the census, including the fact that the headcount is labor intensive – to the tune of 400,000 temporary staff. In the past, retired adults have made up a good portion of those who work in the decennial count of Americans, often as enumerators who go door-to-door in neighborhoods. In many communities, the Bureau will be looking for bilingual applicants.”

To be sure, Connell adds, the loss of a Congressional seat would have an impact on Medicare funding and other services that support Rhode Island’s age 50 and over population. “If a subset of people doesn’t participate in the census, the area in which they live will be represented as having fewer residents than it actually does; the costs to states and communities could be large, consequential and long-lasting. A census that is as complete and accurate as it can be – and doesn’t undercount the number of residents in a given area – is a vital resource for everyone,” she said.

Connell sits on the RI Complete Count committee and the AARP State Office is using its email list and social media in a series of reminders and encouragement to participate in the census. AARP also is reaching out to members who might consider becoming census workers.

Adds Jennifer Baier, AARP Senior Advisor, Census lead: “Many federally funded programs rely on census data to distribute billions of dollars to states and localities across the country. According to the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, Rhode Island receives about $3.8 billion per year based on Census data. That includes funds for schools, roads and hospitals and also programs that aid older Americans, such as Medical Assistance Program (Medicaid) Medicare Part B, Special Programs for the Aging, Meals on Wheels, Heart Disease Prevention Programs and more.”

“The 2020 Census is just nine questions long, and takes about 10 minutes to fill out – those ten minutes impact millions of dollars of federal funding in every state and communities across the country,” says Baier.

Uncompensated Cost of Caregivers is a Whopping $470 Billion

Published in the Woonsocket Call on November 17, 2019

Approximately 41 million unpaid family caregivers provided an estimated 34 billion hours of care in 2017 — worth a whopping $470 billion — to their parents, spouses, partners, and friends, according to the latest report in AARP’s Valuing the Invaluable series. The 2019 estimated value of family caregiving is based on 41 million caregivers providing an average of 16 hours of care per week, at an average value of $13.81 per hour. Previous AARP Public Policy reports were released in 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2015.

“It’s encouraging to see greater recognition of the emotional, physical and financial struggles that caregivers face,” said Susan Reinhard, senior vice president, AARP Public Policy Institute, in an April 14th statement announcing the release of the 32-page report. “But the demands on family caregivers are not just a family issue and we must continue to push for meaningful support and solutions,” says Reinhard.

Every caregiver, as well as their families, know the value of their efforts,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “In Rhode Island, the estimated total value of 114 million hours of work by the state’s 136,000 caregivers is $1.8 billion. The aggregate is astounding, making a clear case for supporting this vital commitment made by family and loved ones.”

“These numbers inspire our members who spend many hours at the State House as AARP Rhode Island advocacy volunteers,” Connell added. “They have helped pass key legislation — the CARE Act, paid caregiver leaves and many other key bills — that have given caregivers resources and opportunities to make their task less daunting. Caregivers are truly invaluable,” she says.

Putting a Spotlight on the Nation’s Caregivers

AARP’s report notes that the estimated $470 billion equates to about $1,450 for every person in the United States (325 million people in 2017). Its economic impact is more than all out-of-pocket spending on US health care in 2017 ($366 billion). Uncompensated care provided by caregivers is also three times as much as total Medicaid spending on long-term services (LTSS) and supports ($154 billion in 2016) and even the total spending from all sources of paid LTSS, including post-acute care ($366 billion in 2016).

The AARP researchers say that the estimate of $470 billion in economic value of uncompensated care is consistent with nearly two decades of prior research studies, all of which found (like the current study) that the value of unpaid family care vastly exceeds the value of paid home care.

The AARP report, Valuing the Invaluable: 2019 Update Charting a Path Forward, also explores the growing scope and complexity of caregiving, including an aging population, more family caregivers in the paid workforce, and the increasing amount of medical and nursing tasks entering the home.

According to the AARP report, family care givers, who provide day-to-day supports and services and manage complex care tasks, are becoming more diverse. While most family caregivers are women, about 40 percent are men who are providing more assistance than just driving to doctor’s appointments and grocery stores or paying bills. Like all caregivers, they are assisting a parent, spouse or friend with bathing and dressing, pain management, managing medication, changing dressings, helping with incontinence and even preparing special diets.

While a majority of baby boomers are providing caregiving services, a growing number of younger adults are now shouldering this responsibility, too. Nearly 1 in 4 (24 percent) are millennials (born between 1980 and 1996). Despite their low salaries, the young adults are spending more of their salary on caregiving expenses than other generations. The researchers estimated that this spending in 2016 was about 27 percent of their income.

About 60 percent of family caregivers are juggling a job and providing care, too. This will continue as aging baby boomers choose to remain in the labor force to bring additional income into their household. Workplace benefits for caregivers becomes become even more important as they face economic and financial strain in their later years.

For those employees who choose to leave their job to become a full-time caregiver, they risk both short-and long-term financial difficulties, say the researchers.

Finally, the researcher’s recommendations to better support family caregivers included developing a robust and comprehensive national strategy with the needs of an increasingly diverse caregiver population included; providing financial relief and expanding workplace policies; developing caregiver training programs; and expanding state and federal funding for respite programs.

More Work Needs to Be Done

The AARP report warns that the rising demand for caregivers with the graying of the nation’s population, shrinking families will drastically reduce the supply. In 2010, there were 7.1 potential family caregivers for every person age 80 and over. By 2030, there may be only 4.1 potential caregivers for every person age 80 and over, they say.

Although significant federal and state policy are already in place to assist the nation’s caregivers, more work needs to be done, say the researchers. They call on Congress and state lawmakers to keep pace with the changing demographic, social trends and needs of the family caregiver.

Resources and information on family caregiving, including AARP’s Prepare to Care
Guides, are available at http://www.aarp.org/caregiving.

Report on Falls, Injuries Released

PUblished in Woonsocket Call on October 20, 2019

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

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

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

Pushing for Positive Change in Releasing Fall Report

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

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

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

Increasing Medicare Funding for Bone Density Testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Study Calls for Action on Creating Senior Housing for Middle-Income Seniors

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 18, 2019

A recently released report sends a stark warning to federal and state policy makers and to the private senior housing sector. The report forewarns that in the coming years, a large number of middle-income seniors, who need assisted living with supportive services, will be priced out of this level of care.

Seniors housing in the United States is paid out of pocket by seniors with sufficient assets. A relatively small percentage of Americans have long-term care insurance policies to defray the costs. For seniors with the lowest incomes, Medicaid covers housing only in the skilled nursing setting, but increasingly also covers long-term services and supports in home and community-based settings. Programs such as low-income housing tax credits have helped finance housing for economically-disadvantaged seniors.

The researchers call on the government and the senior housing sector to step up and to assist the projected 14.4 million middle-income people over age 75, many with multiple chronic conditions, who won’t be able to afford pricey senior housing.

According to this first-of-its-kind study that appears in the April 24 2019 edition of Health Affairs, 54 percent of middle-income older Americans will not be able to meet yearly costs of $60,000 for assisted living rent and other out-of-pocket medical costs a decade from now, even if they generated equity by selling their home and committing all of their annual financial resources. The figure skyrockets, to 81 percent, if middle-income seniors in 2019 were to keep the assets they built in their home but commit the reset of their annual financial resources to cover costs associated with seniors housing and care.

Accompanying the senior housing study are two perspective pieces in Health Affairs on how society can adapt to aging and supporting aging in communities.

The study, “The Forgotten Middle: Many Middle-Income Seniors Will Have Insufficient Resources For Housing And Health Care, was conducted by researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago, with funding provided by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), with additional support from AARP, the AARP Foundation, the John A. Hartford Foundation, and The SCAN Foundation.

Learning About the Needs of the Emerging ‘Middle Market’

“We still have a lot to learn about what the emerging ‘middle market’ wants from housing and personal care, but we know they don’t want to be forced to spend down into poverty, and we know that America cannot currently meet their needs,” said Bob Kramer, NIC’s founder and strategic adviser in a April 24, 2019, statement. “The future requires developing affordable housing and care options for middle-income seniors. This is a wake-up call to policymakers, real estate operators and investors,” he adds.

The report notes that significant financial challenges are expected to coincide with many middle-income seniors seeking seniors housing and care properties due to deteriorating health and other factors, such as whether a family member can serve as a caregiver. The study projects that by 2029, 60 percent of U.S. middle-income seniors over age 75 will have mobility limitations (8.7 million people), 67 percent will have three or more chronic conditions (9.6 million people), and 8 percent will have cognitive impairment (1.2 million people). For middle-income seniors age 85 and older, the prevalence of cognitive impairment nearly doubles.

The researchers say that this ‘middle market’ for seniors housing and care in 2029 will be more racially diverse, have higher educational attainment and income, and smaller families to recruit as unpaid caregivers than today’s seniors. Over the next 10 years, growth in the number of women will outpace men, with women comprising 58 percent of seniors 75 years old or older in 2029, compared to 56 percent in 2014, they say.

Bringing the Public and Private Sector Together

“In only a decade, the number of middle-income seniors will double, and most will not have the savings needed to meet their housing and personal care needs,” said Caroline Pearson, senior vice president at NORC at the University of Chicago and one of the study’s lead authors.

“Policymakers and the seniors housing community have a tremendous opportunity to develop solutions that benefit millions of middle-income people for years to come,” says Pearson.

Researchers say there is an opportunity for policymakers and the seniors housing and care sector to create an entirely new housing and care market for an emerging cohort of middle-income seniors not eligible for Medicaid and not able to pay for housing out of pocket in 2029.

The study’s analysis suggests that creating a new ‘middle market’ for seniors housing and care services will require innovations from the public and private sectors. Researchers say the private sectors can offer more basic housing products, better leverage technology, subsidize ‘middle-market’ residents with higher-paying residents, more robustly engage unpaid caregivers, and develop innovative real estate financing models, among other options.

As to the public sector, the researchers call on government to create incentives to build a robust new market for middle-income seniors by offering tax incentives targeted to the ‘middle market,’ expanding subsidy and voucher programs, expanding Medicare coverage of nonmedical services and supports, creating a Medicare benefit to cover long-term care, and broadening Medicaid’s coverage of home and community-based services.

“This research sets the stage for needed discussions about how the nation will care for seniors who don’t qualify for Medicaid but won’t be able to afford seniors housing,” said Brian Jurutka, NIC’s president and chief executive officer. “This discussion needs to include investors, care providers, policymakers, and developers working together to create a viable middle market for seniors housing and care,” he says.

Adds, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of AARP’s Foundation, “All seniors want to live in affordable, safe and supportive housing, and more than 19 million older adults are unable to do so. We must act now to implement innovative solutions – including robust aging-in-community efforts – to accommodate what is sure to be an increasing demand for housing that meets the needs of older adults.”

Is Rhode Island prepared to meet the senior housing needs of the state’s middle-income seniors in 2029? If not, the state’s federal delegation, lawmakers, state policy makers and the senior housing industry must begin to chip away at this looming policy issue.

To view the study, go to http://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2018.05233.

Senators Seek to Identify Subpar Nursing Homes

Published in the Woonsocket Call on July 14, 2019

Last month, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) succeeded in prodding the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to publicly release the April listing of underperforming nursing homes across the nation that require closer regulatory scrutiny but are not receiving any. Before CMS released the listing of candidates to the Special Focus Facility (SFF) program, the federal agency, charged with overseeing the care and quality in nursing homes, had not publicly identified these troubled facilities.

Less than 6 percent (88 facilities) out of more than 15,700 nursing homes nationwide are participants of the SFF program. CMS publicly identifies these facilities to the public. But an additional 2.5 percent (or approximately 400 facilities) qualify as candidates for the program because of having a “persistent record of poor care” but are not selected because of limited resources at CMS, according to a 26-page report, “Families’ and Resident’s Right to Know: Uncovering poor care in America’s Nursing Homes,” released in June 2019 by Pennsylvania’s two U. S. senators.

Nursing homes that are part of the SFF program have 12 to 18 months to correct any deficiencies and have two clean CMS surveys. If a facility fails to meet that target, it is are subject to increased regulatory enforcement, including being dropped from the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Calls for Transparency

On March 4, 2019, Casey and Toomey wrote to CMS requesting information on its oversight of nursing homes in the SFF program. In that letter, the Senators requested the federal agency to provide the names of the 400 SFF candidates, calling for details about programs operations, scope and overall effectiveness. On May 3, 2019, CMS provided a written response and two weeks later, on May 14, the Senators received the listing of SFF candidates for April 2019. The names of these SFF candidates were not made public until Cassy and Toomey forced the issue by releasing this information in their report on June 5.

In CMS administrator Seema Verna’s May 14 letter to the two senators, Rhode Island-based participants and candidates in the SFF program were identified. They are: Charlesgate Nursing Center (SFF Candidate); Hebert Nursing Home (SFF Candidate); Oak Hill & Rehabilitation Center (SFF); St. Elizabeth Manor East Bay (SFF Candidate); and Tockwotton on the Waterfront (SFF Candidate).

In responding to the senators, Verma said that regardless of whether a nursing home is part of the SFF program, “any facility that performs poorly on surveys and continues to jeopardize residents’ health and safety will be subject to CMS enforcement,” which includes civil money penalties, denial of payment for new admissions or termination from the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Verma also stressed that in addition to her agency’s regulatory oversight, its Nursing Home Compare website has been improved to include “new, more reliable sources for obtaining staffing and resident census data, as well as including more claims-based quality measures.”

“Regardless of participation in the SFF program, any facility that performs poorly on surveys and continues to jeopardize residents’ health and safety will be subject to CMS enforcement remedies, such as civil money penalties, denial of payment f-or new admissions, or termination,” adds Verma.

Casey and Toomey believe that the list of SFF candidates is information that must be publicly available to individuals and families seeking nursing care for their loved ones. For that reason, the Senators have released the April 2019 list of SFF candidates and are continuing to work with CMS to make future lists public.

Through the release of the SFF candidate list and the Senate report, which details preliminary findings from surveys and public information about these candidate facilities, the Senators aim to provide Americans and their families with the transparency and information needed to choose a nursing home that would provide quality care to a loved one.

CMS Inquiry Identifies Issues

Casey and Toomey’s CMS inquiry into the SFF program put the spotlight on several issues. It became apparent to the two senators that a nursing home’s participation in the SFF program was not easily understandable to the public or would-be residents and their families. It became clear that CMS’s Nursing Home Compare, the agency’s online website, was not consistently updated to reflect any changes in the SFF program. “For example, in March 2019, the small icon used to indicate that a facility is an SFF participant was not on the webpage of five of the 17 newly-added SFF participants,” noted the Senate report. Most important, CMS’ website did not identify SFF candidates.

According to the released Senate report, only CMS and the state regulatory agency in which the nursing home is located and the facility itself, had knowledge of who is an SFF candidate. While CMS requires every nursing home to notify residents and its community of its regulatory SFF participant designation, these requirements do not apply to SFF candidates.

Aside from CMS recently updating its Nursing Home Compare webpage to more clearly indicate which nursing homes are SFF participants, it lacks details about the SFF program. There is no information explaining the reason for a facility’s participation in the program, the length of time it has been in the program or whether it has fixed the care issue. Most important, CMS does not include information on facilities that routinely cycle in and out of the SFF program, says the Senate report.

“There are few decisions more serious or life-altering than that of choosing a nursing home. I am pleased that CMS has taken the work that I have done with Senator Toomey seriously and is heeding our call to release the list of nursing facilities that are nominated to the Special Focus Facility program,” said Casey. “Our bipartisan work will ensure that families have all the information at their fingertips when choosing a nursing home. Now we must work in a bipartisan fashion to ensure the SFF program is working properly and that CMS has the funding it needs to improve underperforming nursing homes nationwide,” he says.

Adds, Toomey, “Ensuring that families have all the information they need about a nursing home will improve the quality of care at facilities across the country.”

Trump Spending Priorities Would Fray Social Safety Net Programs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 16, 2019

Last Monday, President Donald Trump released his proposed FY 2020 budget request to Congress. Lawmakers, who rejected many of these budgetary spending requests in the president’s previous two submitted budgets proposals, consider his latest to be “dead-on-arrival.”

But, Trump’s $4.7 trillion fiscal blueprint, outlined in the 150-page “Budget for a Better America,” gives us a clear picture of his spending priorities and policies he seeks to implement through executive orders and regulator changes.

Trump’s FY 2020 spending plan proposes funding increases for combating the opioid epidemic, improving veteran’s health care, fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure ($200 billion increase), even giving the Pentagon a 5 percent increase in spending exceeding what the military asked for. White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump successfully pushed for the FY 2020 budget to include $750 million to establish a paid parental leave program and a $1 billion one-time fund to provide childcare to under served populations.

Trump’s budget proposal makes a commitment of $291 million to eliminate the spread of HIV within a decade, it slashes the National Institutes of Health’s funding by 12 percent, and the budget for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention by about 10 percent.

Trump does not back away from his controversial stance of building a wall, putting in an additional $8.6 trillion for the construction of a U.S. Mexico border barrier. Congress had earlier opposed his demand for $5.7 billion for the construction project.

Trump Budget Proposal Puts Senior’s Earned Benefits at Risk

In 2016, Presidential candidate Trump had pledged not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, but he does in his submitted FY 2020 budget proposal.

Trump calls for a 5 percent cut in non-defense federal agencies, including a whopping $ 1.5 trillion in Medicaid over 10 years. The budget plan instead allocates $1.2 trillion to create “market-based health care grants,” (a.k.a block grants) for states that would start in 2021. This gives states the power to set their own rules for this program.

Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would be eliminated by Trump’s FY 2020 budget proposal by ending ACA’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions and causing millions of people to join the ranks of the uninsured. About 15 million more Americans have joined Medicaid since the ACA expansion was enacted.

Trump’s budget proposal also cuts Medicare by $845 billion over the next decade by cutting payments to hospitals and physicians, rooting out fraud and abuse, and by lowering prescription drug costs.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Disability Insurance program takes a huge budgetary cut of $25 billion and the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget is slashed by 1 percent, at a time when the agency is working hard to ratchet up its customer service provide to SSA beneficiaries.

Trump’s budget proposal would cut $220 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly referred to as the food stamp program. The program currently serves 39 million people. Under this budget, beneficiaries would be required to be employed for 20 hours a week to be eligible for assistance and replacing the EBT-debit card used to purchase groceries with the delivery of a “Harvest Box” filled with non-perishable foods like cereal and pasta, canned goods and surplus dairy products.

Housing and Urban Development’s 202 housing program for seniors and people with disabilities takes a $36 million hit, says long-time aging advocate Bill Benson, principal of Washington, D.C.-based Health Benefits ABC, in the March 15th issue of Aging Policy and Public Health News.

According to Benson, several Older Americans Act programs including the Family Caregiver Support program would be cut in Trump’s budget proposal. The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program would be cut by $1 million. Elder Justice Programs would also be cut under the President’s budget including a $2 million cut to the Elder Justice Initiative at Administration for Community Living.

” Cruelest of all [budgetary cuts] is the proposed out-right elimination of the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) which is the only source of sustained federal funding to states for Adult Protective Services (APS),” says Benson. Some 37 states use SSBGs to support their APS programs. SSBG is also used by states for a number of other services benefiting older adults including home-delivered meals and case management.

Shortchanging Seniors

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) warns that Trump’s budget proposal shortchanges seniors. “In combination with 2017’s tax cuts for the wealthy and the administration’s failure to allow Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma, the Trump budget shows that his administration is not plugged into the realities of being elderly in America,” he says.

Richtman says that Trump’s budget plan also proposes to eliminate federal grants that help pay for programs under the Older Americans Act, such as Meals on Wheels and home heating assistance for the elderly poor.”

According to Richtman, the 116th Congress gives seniors hope with introduced legislation that would boost Social Security benefits and expand Medicare coverage to include dental, hearing and vision services, changes that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. He calls on Congress to “quickly reject this callous budget proposal — and take decisive action to enhance the well-being of older Americans.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sees Trump’s newly released budget proposal as very troubling, too. “It sharply cuts funding in the part of the budget that invests in future economic growth through education and training, scientific research, infrastructure, and the like,” he says.

“It reverses progress in making affordable health care available to people who don’t have employer coverage or can’t afford private coverage. It cuts basic assistance substantially for families, children, and elderly and disabled people who are in need and struggle to get by. And, it doubles down on policies that take away health care, food, and housing when adults aren’t able to meet a work requirement,” says Greenstein.
“Despite bemoaning deficits, it calls for making the costly 2017 tax cuts — which largely benefit those who already have high incomes and wealth — permanent,” he adds.

Richtman believes that Trump’s 2020 spending proposal serves as a warning of what the administration would do if it were not for the firewall known as the Democratic-led House of Representatives. “These draconian ideas – though rejected by voters in the 2018 mid-terms – remain in the conservative political bloodstream, requiring continued advocacy on the part of seniors and their champions in Congress,” he says.

The release of Trump’s FY 2020 budget program begins the Democratic party’s efforts to retake the White House and Senate in the 2020 presidential election, just over 598 days away. By making major cuts in Social Security and Medicare and turning Medicaid into a state block grant program, Trump is giving Democratic challengers in the 2020 presidential election fodder to create politically-charged themes for ads to turn senior voters against him for seeking cuts in these popular domestic programs.

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