Advocates on aging issues review their priorities for Gov. McKee’s policy agenda

Published in RINewsToday on Nov. 14, 2022

Over 3 months ago, the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island (SACRI) invited the six Gubernatorial candidates to give the details of their aging policy positions to hundreds gathering at East Providence High School, and watching virtually. With the dust settling after the Nov. 8 midterm elections, aging advocates are asking the winner, Gov. Dan McKee, to place a high priority on enacting aging policies that he supported during SACRI’s 143-minute forum.

McKee goes on the record

McKee addressed the issue that Rhode Island nursing home and home care providers can’t provide sufficient and sustainable wages to attract and retain workers because of low state reimbursement. When questioned about how he would rebuild and sustain a viable workforce to provide services to seniors and persons with disabilities, the Governor stated he has addressed staffing issues at home health agencies and nursing homes by expanding the Wavemaker Fellowships to include healthcare workers and increasing reimbursement rates for home health agencies by $900,000 annually.

More seniors prefer to age in place at home in their community rather then enter nursing homes. McKee gave his thoughts about Medicaid rebalancing and expanding the program to keep seniors at home. He touted the $10 million invested this year to rebalance the long-term care continuum, announcing his plans to soon issue an Executive Order to direct state agencies to review existing policies through

At the forum, McKee stated he will also direct all state agencies to appoint a representative to a task force, also including municipalities and community-based nonprofits, that will create a Statewide Aging Plan to determine where federal monies and grants can be utilized to support older Rhode Islanders.

During the mid-1990s the Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA) had a staff of 65. Demoted to the Office of Healthy Aging within the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, Gov. McKee went on record that he will support legislation next year to make the state’s Office of Healthy Aging a full cabinet department. He pledged to provide an adequate budget and staffing to oversee its programs and services to Rhode Island’s growing senior population.   

Gov. McKee also supported a yearly cost-of-living increase to the state Supplemental Security Income payment in the 2024 proposed budget. He also supported the increasing of eligibility for the Medicaid Savings Programs for seniors and people with disabilities in the proposed 2024 budget by eliminating the asset test and increasing eligibility to at least 185% Federal Policy Level. 

With the state passing $250 million in funding for housing, Gov. McKee agreed to provide an adequate amount to support senior housing.  He stated: “we’re off and running”, noting that he recently announced an investment of $80 million to construct 825 units in 17 communities.  The Governor noted that his 2030 plan speaks specifically on the issue of senior housing.

Make aging policy a priority

“With the growing needs of seniors throughout the country and within our state it is time to return to a function of government which “had teeth” to enact change for elders who were at risk,” says Bob Robillard, LMHC, President of Rhode Island Senior Center Directors Association, representing 34 Senior Centers, noting that his aging group is pushing for the passage of bipartisan legislation next session that will elevate the Office of Healthy Aging to a full department – cabinet – status. 

According to Robillard, having a seat at the table as a cabinet position, the Director would directly advocate with the Governor’s Office to address unmet needs and seek creative solutions for our seniors. 

Robillard also urged the Governor to continue efforts to develop secure and affordable housing that meets the need for increased  homelessness of Rhode Island seniors. ”Their income level and having to make difficult choices to survive each month is seen in our interactions with seniors every day, and they are increasingly utilizing food banks, emergency services, and our centers, and funding these basic services needs to be a top priority,” he says.

While some federal funds have been used to address this issue, Robillard says there is a “global need for a full and comprehensive Aging Plan for Rhode Island including the voices of direct service providers like the Senior Centers, senior advocates, caregivers and, of course, seniors, themselves.” 

Finally, Robillard believes that there should be a strong focus on transportation for seniors to access their community. “Safe, respectful and person-centered transportation in our rural areas throughout our state needs to be a focus,” he says, noting that if you cannot access your community in these ways then you cannot participate in them either.

With Rhode Island experiencing a critical shortage of homecare workers, Maureen Maigret, chair of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s Aging in Community Subcommittee, calls on Gov. McKee to provide funding in the FY2024 budget to increase wages for CNAs working in home care. “The current budget includes $10 million to rebalance long term care. These funds should be used for wage increases for homecare direct care staff as an initial step to bring these invaluable workers fair wages,” says Maigret.

“It is also important to provide more resources to the Office of Healthy Aging and support for local senior services. Governor McKee started to increase funds for local aging services in the current budget and the Office of Healthy Aging has requested funding to provide each community ten dollars per person aged sixty-five and over next year,” adds Maigret, urging the Governor to include this in the budget he presents to the legislature for FY2024 as well as other funding requested by the Office including $.5million to support the state’s Aging and Disability Resource Center known as THE POINT. 

Gerontologist Deb Burton calls for the Governor to move forward to pass an Olmstead Plan to create opportunities for individuals to live in the least restrictive environments. “The Olmstead Plan would fit hand in glove with providing resources for individuals to age in the community, and not in institutions,” says Burton, who serves as Executive Director of RI Elder Info.  

Finally, Vincent Marzullo, well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and national service administrator, suggests that McKee direct the RI Commission for National/Community Service to identify AmeriCorps (national service) opportunities that would help build capacity and service delivery for our local senior centers and human services offices.  “Their needs have grown considerably during COVID,” says the West Warwick resident.

Editor’s Note: During the COVID weekly press conference time, Gov. Raimondo noted that changes need to be made in how people live in Rhode Island’s nursing homes, both from a communicable disease point of view, and from a humanity point of view. She announced a fund of $5 million to be put aside to support nursing homes transitioning their physical “plants” to be single room – single bathroom accommodations. Since Raimondo left office, there has been acknowledgement that this fund was set aside, but no action taken to address the mandate moving forward.

RI Gubernatorial Forum to ask, “what’s your Senior Agenda”

Published in RINewsToday on August 1, 2022

The Senior Agenda Coalition of RI (SACRI) has joined 17 organizations to bring you Rhode Island’s 2022 Gubernatorial Forum where candidates will talk about senior issues. The event is scheduled for Wednesday, August 3, 2022, at 10:00 a.m. at the East Providence High School’s new 900-seat capacity auditorium. Seating is limited to 450 people, leaving space for social distancing. Doors will open at 9:30 a.m. At press time, 350 seniors and aging advocates have registered to attend in person or virtually.    

“Senior issues must be viewed as a public policy priority because Rhode Island’s older population is growing dramatically,” says Bernard J. Beaudreau, SACRI’s Exec. Director, and one of the event’s organizers. According to Beaudreau, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the state’s total population of 65 years and older has grown by 20% from 152,183 in 2010 to 182,486 in 2020, adding 30,303 people in this age group. Rhode Island’s statewide planning projections also indicate that people sixty-five and older will grow to over 247,000 by 2030, an increase of 65,000 seniors over the 2020 census.

Gubernatorial candidates to delineate positions on key Senior Issues

“During the 90-minute forum, the gubernatorial candidates will share their positions on seven questions, hammered out by event cosponsors, as to how they would address a variety of policy issues impacting older Rhode Islanders,” says Beaudreau.  “Attendees will learn how candidates would rebuild and sustain a viable workforce for nursing homes and homecare providers. They will also be asked about their plans for Medicaid rebalancing and expansion to improve home and community-based care opportunities while ensuring the financial viability of nursing homes,” he says. 

Beaudreau says the forum also gives the gubernatorial candidates an opportunity to detail their strategies on how resources can be increased to significantly support healthy aging in the community. They will be asked by the moderator what type of assistance will be given to low-income seniors, and will they support a yearly cost-of-living adjustment to the state SSI payment and increase eligibility for the Medicare Savings Programs for seniors and people with disabilities to at least 185% FPL.

The attendees will also learn how the candidates, if elected governor, will ensure that an adequate amount of the $250 million in funding for affordable housing is allocated for seniors and how they will work to ensure equal access to high quality healthcare and information about available health care resources.

Finally, the gubernatorial candidates will be asked to make a pledge to address the needs of Rhode Island’s older population and provide the leadership and resources necessary to create and implement a Rhode Island Strategic Plan on Aging.

Recognizing the political clout of Seniors

“SACRI’s upcoming Gubernatorial Candidates’ Forum is important as older adults historically have high turnout in elections and the Forum provides an opportunity to hear the candidates’ views on issues important to seniors,” says Maureen Maigret, Chair of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s Aging in Community Subcommittee. “The Forum should cause candidates to take a serious look at the state’s demographics, to note how the older population is growing, and to reflect on how government can best support older adults’ desire to remain healthy and living in the community and provide quality facility care when needed,” says Maigret.

“The Forum allows us to set forth policy priorities and hold whoever is elected accountable for addressing them. An example of this is when former Governor Raimondo was elected. She had been presented with priorities for restoring budget cuts to senior services such as Meals on Wheels and some of the cuts were restored in her budgets,” Maigret noted.

SACRI’s Beaudreau says that the senior vote will influence the outcome of the upcoming primary and mid-term. “Rhode Island seniors 60 years of age and older represent 34% of all registered voters and accounted for 42% of the vote in the 2020 general election. Rhode Island seniors have higher voter participation rates than the rest of the population,” says Beaudreau, this being 77% compared to 57% for voters under 60 years of age. “We have a powerful voice to be exercised to impact public policy,” he says.

Political pundit Wendy J. Schiller sees seniors as a crucial voting bloc in American politics. “On average, 72% of voters over the age of 65 turn out to vote in presidential elections, as compared to about 48.6% of voters under the age of 30. Seniors are consistent and typically well-informed voters on issues concerning Social Security and Medicare,” says Schiller, Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence in Political Science and Director of the Taubman Center on American Politics and Policy, Brown University. 

According to Schiller, in the past 3 elections, “seniors have split about 55-56% for the Republicans, and 45-46% for Democrats. Seniors have been viewed as more conservative (Sun City AZ, the Villages FL) but the data do not really bear that out as you can see. There is a tilt, but not a full lean toward the GOP; this midterm season might be different though. If the 22 midterm elections were held tomorrow, you might expect to see even a bigger swing toward GOP candidates than usual because of inflation alone. Inflation is just one area where there is a gap in issue concerns between older and younger voters. Older voters worry a great deal about inflation eating into their savings and pensions that are not adjusted for inflation while younger voters may be as concerned with climate change and abortion rights as much or even more than they are worried about inflation,” she says.  

Schiller says that seniors are like all other voters in that they are highly influenced by their political party affiliation, even in cases where the party proposes policies that run against their interests. “The GOP has proposed cutting Medicare ever since it was created, most recently under President Trump, but they are not careful to say that such cuts would not affect current recipients or even people aged 55 or over and the majority of seniors voted for Donald Trump in 2020. Democrats ran into some trouble with seniors when Bernie Sanders and others proposed Medicare for All because seniors thought it would dilute their own services through Medicare, and/or raise their premiums,” adds Schiller.      

Adds well-known Rhode Island Political Strategist, Rob Horowitz, “As a group, seniors vote more regularly than any other age group. In the 2020 presidential election, for example, more than 3-in-4 people eligible voters between the ages of 65 to 74 voted as compared to about 2-in-4 eligible voters between the ages of 18 to 24. Since Rhode Island has an older population, seniors are a key group in pretty much every state and local election.  Winning campaigns in Rhode Island and throughout the nation devote time and advertising dollars to reaching seniors.”

According to Bob Weiner, former chief of staff director of the House Select Committee on Aging under Florida Congressman Claude Pepper and former spokesman for both the Clinton and Bush White Houses, no one can forget the clout of older voters because they are the most motivated demographic group to vote. “They can’t be broken out by political parties as people expect,” observes Weiner, noting that it is a very close 50-50 split vote. “Older voters vote Democratic and Republican; the Democrats must do more to capture the senior vote.  It’s close. In 2020, while Joe Biden won the popular vote by 7 million, Donald Trump won the senior vote 52% to 47%. It’s not a matter of party. Seniors’ quality of life is not political,” he says.

“But on the issues, they will tear apart a candidate who doesn’t support Social Security, Medicare and the rights of seniors to have continued employment and privileges in society,” Weiner notes.

“So, anybody who thinks they can get away with some horrible position, such as cutting back Social Security or Medicare in five years or utilizing the myth that Social Security is in deficit crisis, they can’t  because it has a 2 trillion surplus resulting from Claude Pepper negotiations to keep the program fully solvent through 2034,” Weiner says, noting that it only needs a “little repair” to keep it going.    

“Anybody who thinks that they are going to use Social Security and seniors to fund other federal government operations is badly mistaken,” says Weiner. “When President Bush wanted to privatize Medicare and Social Security and made a campaign out of that he actually helped lose congressional seats in an off-year election,” said Weiner, warning political candidates to think twice when thinking about balancing the federal budget on the backs of the nation’s elderly. 

“Voting Gives You Power”

“In Rhode Island and across the country, the data clearly show that voters aged 50+ will be the deciders in the 2022 elections,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor. “We are working with dozens of advocacy volunteers who are fighting for voters 50+ to make their voices heard on the issues that matter – especially in Rhode Island where we are in the midst of a housing crisis, nursing homes are in jeopardy, the cost of long-term care is skyrocketing and where people want leaders who are committed to making local communities more livable.

“At the federal level, older voters want to know candidates’ positions on protecting and strengthening the Social Security benefits Americans have paid into and earned through years of hard work, protecting and improving Medicare benefits, lowering prescription drug prices, and supporting family caregivers who risk their careers and financial futures to care for parents, spouses, and other loved ones,” Taylor said.

“Voting gives you the power to decide what our future looks like,” she continued “But you have to be in the know to vote. AARP Rhode Island has collected the most up-to-date election information, including key dates and deadlines, to make sure that the voices of voters 50+ are heard. We are doing everything we can to make sure older Rhode Islanders are prepared to vote and know the safe and secure voting options included in the new, AARP Rhode Island-backed Let RI Vote Act. In mid-August, we will offer a Video Voter Guide posted along with all the latest election information at aarp.org/RIvotes,” Taylor said.

Co-sponsoring this event is a broad coalition of 18 service providers and advocates: 

A Community Together, Alzheimer’s Association of RI, Carelink, Community Partners Network of RI, Economic Progress Institute, Leading Age RI, NAACP Providence Branch, Ocean State Center for Independent Living, PACE, Progreso Latino, RI Assisted Living Association, RI Elder Info, RI Health Care Association, RI Organizing Project, RI Senior Centers Directors Association, SEIU Healthcare 1199, Senior Agenda Coalition of RI and Village Common of RI.

in the high school’s new 900-seat capacity auditorium. 

To read AARP web blog articles discussing the impact of senior voters at the polls, go to: 

www.aarp.org/politics-society/government-elections/info-2022/older-voters-midterm-issues.html

www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/research/surveys_statistics/politics/2022/aarp-targeted-congressional-districts-survey-voters-18-older.doi.10.26419-2Fres.00550.033.pdf

https://press.aarp.org/2022-4-6-Women-Voters-Age-50-Over-Will-Decide-Balance-Power-Next-Election

America’s Seniors need House of Reps. to bring back Aging Committee

Published in RINewsToday on July 4, 2022

By Tom Spulak, Bob Weiner and Herb Weiss

With a backdrop of extensive media coverage of the ongoing Ukraine War, the Jan. 6th hearings, and covering the political postering of Republican and Democrats as the midterm elections approach (just 127 days from now), Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) along with 50 Democratic cosponsors calls on the House of Representatives to pass his legislation, H. Res. 583, that would reestablish the House Select Committee on Aging, (HSCoA) and for Speaker Pelosi and Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern to schedule the necessary consideration in the House Rules Committee to enable floor action.

The Rhode Island Congressman’s effort has caught the attention of a group, including former Congressional staffers, the Leadership Council on Aging Organizations and the Strengthen Social Security Coalition (both representing over 100 million seniors age 50 and over), Execs of national aging groups, the Florida-based Claude Pepper Foundation, and a Rhode Island writer, who see the need to bring the investigative Special Committee back to put the spotlight on a myriad of aging issues that Congress must address.

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,” and the need for re-establishing the House Selection Committee on Aging (HSCoA) becomes even more important.

The last two years have proven particularly difficult for older adults in our country as the coronavirus had a disparate impact on the lives of older Americans, particularly those residing in the 28,900 nation’s assisted living facilities and over 15,000 nursing homes.

Historically, the HSCoA, operational from1975 to 1993, served as a unique venue that allowed open, bipartisan debate from various ideological and philosophical perspectives to promote consensus that, in turn, helped facilitate the critical work of the standing committees. Addressing the needs of older Americans in a post-pandemic world will require this type of investigative, legislative oversight, work which can be advanced and promoted by reestablishing the HSCoA.

As Americans are aging, we also face a variety of intergenerational concerns that merit the investigation by the HSCoA, such as growing demands on family caregivers and a burgeoning retirement security crisis.

A restored HSCoA would have an opportunity to more fully explore a range of aging issues and innovations that cross Authorizing Committees of jurisdiction, while holding field hearings, convening remote hearings, engaging communities, and promoting understanding and dialogue. Having both would bring value to Congressional deliberations.

Today, the Senate Permanent Special Committee on Aging is working on everything from scams against seniors to increasing Home and Community Based Services (HCBS), to calling out questionable billing practices by private Medicare Advantage insurers. Seniors have been better off over the last 30 years with a Senate Aging Committee in existence — and the Senate investigative committee would benefit from a reestablished HSCoA, whose sole mission would be to look out for older Americans.

Older voters vote both Democratic and Republican. Although the Democrats created an array of federal programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the Affordable Care Act, these doesn’t guarantee they vote for this party. Quite candidly, it’s close. In 2020, while Joe Biden won the popular vote by 7 million, Donald Trump won the senior vote 52% to 47%. It’s not a matter of party. Seniors’ quality of life is not political. Passage of H. Res. 583 would send a very clear message out to America’s older voters that Congress can successfully govern and create legislation to enhance the quality of life in their later years.

Over 30 years ago, Congressman Claude Pepper died. He was a great visible national advocate for America’s seniors. In his 80s, he chaired the HSCoA and later the House Rules Committee. As Chair of HSCoA, he passed landmark aging legislation, working closely with the House authorizing committees with jurisdiction over aging programs and services. His efforts put an end to mandatory retirement. Alzheimer’s became a household word because of the hearing of his investigative committee. Legislation was passed to enhance the quality of care in the nation’s nursing homes, even creating the National Institute’s for Health.

As newspapers in communities across the nation curtail or jettison their investigative teams, the initial HSCoA has a proven track record and reputation of investigating aging issues, and this is a sound reason as to why the investigative committee should again be reactivated.

Reestablishing the HSCoA would recognize Congressman Pepper, the nation’s most visible and effective spokesperson for seniors, and more importantly to seniors a seat at the “legislative table” as Congress deliberates and debate aging policy issues.

What a symbolic opportunity to have passed H. Res. 583 in May during Older Americans Month. Sadly, this did not happen. But Speaker Pelosi has an opportunity to use her leadership position to endorse the resolution to bring back the HSCoA before the midterm elections. And Congressman Cicilline must continually remind his House colleagues of this resolution’s importance to America’s seniors, each, and every chance he has — on the House floor, at Committee meetings, and in the hallowed halls of Congress.  With the support of the Democratic caucus, leadership will get the message that it’s time to act.  Now.

Tom Spulak, former staff director and General Counsel of the House Rules Committee when Claude Pepper was Chairman.

Bob Weiner is former staff director and confident to the late Congressman Pepper when he chaired the HSCoA.

Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket, RI-based writer who has covered aging, health care and medical issues for over 40 yearsand writes this weekly column on aging issues for RINewsToday.com.