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.

Senior Centers key provider in RI’s Long-Term Care Continuum 

Published in RINewsToday on September 19, 2022

Over nine years ago, this columnist penned a commentary, “Senior Centers, Not Just a Place to Play Bingo,” that appeared in the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call.  As we celebrate National Senior Centers Month in September, today’s Senior Centers continue to take a wholistic view of providing programs and services to their older participants. They are providing programming and services that truly takes into account the body, mind and social needs of their members, aged 55 and up. As I stated years ago, “senior centers are not a place that our parents once visited years ago to just knit or play bingo.” That continues to be true, and even more so, today. 

“Every day, senior centers bring our grandparents, parents, older neighbors, and friends together to build community and share trusted services and information to help all age well,” said Dianne Stone, NCOA’s Associate Director of Network Development and Engagement in a statement announcing the September celebration of the nation’s Senior Centers. “Research shows that compared with their peers, people who attend senior centers have higher levels of health, social interaction, and life satisfaction,” she says.

“There’s never been a better time to come home to your senior center,” Stone said. “Come see everything your local center has to offer,” adds Stone.

Senior Centers continue to be a catalyst for mobilizing the creativity, energy, vitality, and commitment of the older participants, says Mayor Donald R. Grebien in a proclamation he released on September 1, recognizing September as Senior Citizens Month. The City’s Leon Mathieu Senior Center, like the 35 senior centers around the state, empower their older participants to take control of their own health and well-being and the health of their fellow participants, says the mayor. 

Established in the 1980s by the U.S. Administration on Aging, the centers programming has slowly evolved to encompass activities that encourage healthy aging and wellness. Senior Centers across the Ocean State offer activities and programs, case management and social services and public benefits counseling, also social and cultural programming, social and recreational opportunities, even offering a place to eat a nutritional meal.

Many of the Senior Centers have their own vans and drivers who transport seniors to and from their homes for shopping, social cultural activities, to medical appointments and into each Senior Center’s meal sites.

Even during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senior Centers responded by connecting with their members by making health checks thru telephone calls, offering programs and services via internet and social media sites, and delivering meals to the homebound seniors. During the ongoing pandemic, Senior Centers continue to provide countless hours of support to older adults, and have become integral to health care delivery throughout Rhode Island by providing COVID-19 guidance home testing kits and vaccine education to their participants.

At Pawtucket’s Leon Mathieu Senior Center, health screenings, specifically taking blood pressure readings, are performed by nursing students from Rhode Island College and URI Pharmacy students discuss the importance of being compliant with taking prescribed medications, too. Proper nutritional counseling is also offered. 

Starting in church basements, many as small social clubs, the passage of the Older Americans Act in 1965, propelled Senior Centers into a key provider role in the nation’s long term care continuum of care.

Today, more than 10,000 Senior Centers serve one million older adults every day. In Rhode Island, 35 agencies, serving over 200,000 persons, are geographically spread out from Westerly to Woonsocket and from Foster to Tiverton. Some are managed by municipalities, others by nonprofit groups. While catering to serving the state’s burgeoning elderly population, some have expanded their mission to offer programs for young and middle-aged adults.

According to the state’s Office of Healthy Aging, Rhode Island’s older adult population is growing rapidly. Over 31 percent of Rhode Islanders are 55 or older versus 28 percent nationally, and our state has the highest proportion in the United States of those 85 or older. 

With the graying of Rhode Island, the state’s Senior Centers are offering programming and services to attract the state’s aging baby boomers by focusing on health and wellness, recreation, and lifelong learning.  Yes, Senior Centers are a key provider in the state’s long-term care continuum to keep aging boomers, healthy, independent and allow them to age in place in the community.

Providing resources for local senior programs should be a shared responsibility of federal, state, and local governments, says Maureen Maigret,  chair of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s Aging in Community Subcommittee and a Board Member of Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island (SACRI).  “It was frustrating to see drastic state cuts to these programs in the mid 1990’s and we were pleased funding was restored. Governor McKee put $200,000 in the current budget, with the idea this was a step toward to providing funding equal to ten dollars per person aged 65-plus in each community,” she notes. 

“Aging advocates such as the SACRI will be pushing to get to the ten dollar level,” says Maigret. As state funding increases, Maigret calls on local communities to continue to provide funding and resources to their local senior centers to meet projected population growth of their older adult residents.  

According to Maigret, research has shown their importance in slowing or preventing functional decline and promoting a good quality of life.

Today’s Senior Centers are not your parent’s bingo hall, as some still mistakenly believe. Why not visit the Leon Mathieu Senior Center or your local Senior Center during National Senior Center Month and you may even be surprised with what you find? Call the Leon Mathieu Senior Center for more details about its offered programs and services at 401/728-7582. Or go to https://pawtucketri.com/senior-center.

To find a Senior Center in your community go to https://agefriendlyri.org/tools-resources/senior-centers-rhode-island/./Herb Weiss

 

Time to be educated on senior issues with primary just weeks away

Published in RINewsToday on August 22, 2022

On Aug. 17, just twenty-eight days before Rhode Island’s Sept. 13th Primary Election, at the Warwick-based Pilgrim Senior Center, Gov. Dan McKee joined Lt. Governor Sabina Matos, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, other elected leaders and advocates to highlight recently passed legislative and budget initiatives that supported  Rhode Island’s senior population. The Governor ceremonially signed legislation passed this legislative session. 

Among those investments is $4 million in the FY 23 state budget to increase the Circuit Breaker Tax Credit available to qualifying seniors and adults with disabilities, raising the maximum credit received to $600 and increasing the income threshold for eligibility to $ 35,000.  This property tax credit program provides relief to eligible seniors and adults with disabilities who own or rent their homes. The budget also increases the amount of pension income that is exempt from state taxation for all retirees from the first $15,000 to the first $20,000.

Whether it’s tax relief, housing, food security, or utilities, our Administration is looking at these issues through the lens of ensuring our seniors are able to not just live in the Ocean State, but that they are also able to thrive here,” stated the McKee at the event, a continuation of his #RIMomentum Tour. “I am proud to deliver a budget and sign several pieces of legislation that support and protect our seniors, and I thank the sponsors and advocates who helped see them across the finish line,” he said.

“Both as chair of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council, and as a granddaughter whose family cares for a senior, I am dedicated to ensuring that every Rhode Islander has the support they need to live full, rich, and long lives. The budget we have passed this year, along with the bills signed today, will significantly improve on our seniors’ quality of life,” said Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos. “We are going to continue working to provide high-quality services to our neighbors of every age.”

With his ceremonially pen, the Governor also signed these pieces of legislation:

H7133B (Reps, Joseph M. McNamara) and S2207A (Sen. Joshua Miller): This legislation authorizes the creation and implementation of a pharmaceutical redistribution program by the Department of Health and the Board of Pharmacy to begin on Jan. 1, 2023.

H7246 (Representative Jason Knight) and S2228 (Senator Cynthia A. Coyne): This legislation lowers the age at which a victim can be considered an elder under the state’s elder financial exploitation laws.

H 7068 (Representative Kathleen A. Fogarty) and S2317   (Senator V. Susan Sosnowski): This legislation makes it easier for senior citizens to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Aging Advocates Gear Up for Next Legislative Session

McKee’s ceremonial signing of legislation was a visible sign to aging advocates that state officials are recognizing that these are wise investments that foster healthy lives and economic security for our growing older population, says Maureen Maigret, Chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council and serves on the Board of Directors for the Senior Agenda Coalition and the Village Common of RI. “The budget builds on Subcommittee promoted legislation sponsored by Rep. Deb Ruggiero and Sen. Cynthis Coyne to expand the Property Tax Relief law and last year’s addition of close to $1Million in Governor McKee’s budget to increase income eligibility for the Office of Healthy Aging ‘At Home Cost Share’ program and to include persons under age 65 with Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” she said. 

According to Maigret, several items from the Sub-committee’s Strategic Plan that did not make it this year are the expansion of the Medicare Savings Program to help lower-income adults pay for Medicare Part B’s hefty premiums and extending the state Paid Family Leave law beyond six weeks which will help families needing to take time out of work to care for both older relatives and children needing medical/nursing care. “These are just some of the items we will be advocating for in 2023,” she said.

Maigret notes that September’s Primary Election is less than a month away. “New laws make it easier to vote.  You can apply online for a mail ballot for the Primary which must be sent in by August 23rd, she says. 

Becoming an Educated Voter on Senior Issues

According to Ballotpedia, the website encyclopedia of American politics, all 435 voting seats in the House of Representatives and 34 Senate Seats will be up for grabs on the midterm elections scheduled for Nov. 8, 2022 . The seats of five of the six non-voting members of the House are also up for election as well. 

Ballotpedia notes, state elective offices up for election in 2022 include 36 gubernatorial seats, 30 lieutenant gubernatorial seats, 30 attorney general seats, and 27 secretary of state seats. Including down-ballot races, there are 309 state executive offices up for election across 44 states in 2022, says Ballotpedia.

Also, 88 of the country’s 99 state legislative chambers will also hold regularly scheduled elections, representing 6,278 of the nation’s 7,283 legislative seats, adds Ballotpedia.

The Washington, DC-based AARP gears up its efforts, through its “Our Voices Decide” campaign, to ensure that America’s seniors can continue to maximize their influence on this year’s midterm elections (at both the state and national levels) like they have for previous elections. 

According to AARP Rhode Island, AARP in every state has a voter engagement page that provides information on when, how and where to vote and, in many states, recent changes in voting laws. Ours is at www.aarp.org/RIVotes. This webpage is updated frequently. 

Many states also post video voter guides, in which candidates are asked questions. In Rhode Island – and in every state — candidates were strictly limited to 60 seconds or less to respond. Texts of the questions and answers on video are posted online. The candidate responses appear in alphabetical order, just as they would appear on the ballot, says AARP Rhode Island.

AARP has provided voting information for many years. AARP Rhode Island featured videos of candidates for Governor in 2020. We chose to feature candidates in three contested 2022 Primary races – Governor, 2nd Congressional District and Providence Mayor, says AARP Rhode Island.

“Voting gives you the power to decide what our future looks like,” AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine said. “But you have to be in the know to vote. AARP Rhode Island sees the importance of collecting 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. Our Video Voter Guide takes this a step further and with an important focus, giving older voters clear, concise answers on issues that impact their lives. Debates and candidate forums seldom focus on these questions and that is why AARP steps in to give voters a non-partisan, trusted resource to better understand where candidates stand before they cast their votes,” she says.

“In Rhode Island and across the country, the data clearly shows that 50+ voters will be the deciders in the 2022 elections,” said 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,” she adds.

“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.

Other Resources…

On August 3 the Senior Agenda Coalition of RI co-hosted a Governor’s Candidates Forum hosted by 17 organizations (www.senioragendari.org/coalition). To learn how the candidates from both parties responded to seven questions about aging policy and issues. Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=okQ5FguKMao