COVID-19 Key Issue for Older Voters

Pubished in the Pawtucket Times on November 2, 2020

With Tuesday’s presidential election, hopefully most voters will have reviewed the policy and political positions of President Donald J. Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.  Throughout the months of this heated political campaign, especially during the two debates and at the town meetings each candidate held on the same evening, their positions diverged sharply on major issues, specifically the economy, immigration, foreign policy, global warming, abortion and COVID-19. In the final stretch of the presidential campaign, winning the war against COVID-19 has quickly become the top issue of voters. 

Over the months, Trump, 74, has barnstormed throughout the country, especially in battleground states, hoping to capture enough electoral votes to win a second term on Nov. 3.  While states reduce the size of gatherings to reduce the spread of COVID-19, throughout the campaign Trump’s rallies have continued to bring thousands of supporters together, with many flaunting local and state coronavirus-related crowd restrictions by not wearing masks or social distancing.  

However, Biden, 77, is always seen wearing a mask, urging his supporters at online and drive-in events to support his candidacy.  At those events, the former vice president called Trump rallies “super-spreader events,” and he stressed the importance of following the advice of public health and medical experts as to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Differing Views on COVID-19

The 2020 presidential campaign has been overshadowed by the COVID 19 pandemic, with 9 million confirmed cases, 227,000 Americans dying from the coronavirus and an economic downturn forcing more than 31 million people to file for unemployment. During his rallies, Trump claimed “the nation has turned the corner,” calling for the country to “return to normalcy” even as COVID 19 hot spots were popping up across the nation.  Trump also promised the development of a vaccine and distribution after the election and treatment regimens.  Lately, he has suggested that physicians and hospitals are just inflating the number of COVID-19 deaths for profit, drawing the ire of the American Medical Association.

At an Oct. 18 Nevada rally, Trump charged that if Biden is elected there will be more coronavirus pandemic lockdowns because “he’ll listen to the scientists.” The president charged that will result “in a massive depression.”

In stark contrast, Biden countered Trump’s call for normalcy and his rosy assessment of a COVID-19 vaccine release by stating, “We’re about to go into a dark winter…He [has no clear plan, and there’s no prospect that a vaccine is going to be available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year.”

 Oftentimes, Trump’s messaging of the importance of wearing a mask has not been clear, often times contradicting the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention and the White House COVID-19 Task Force.  “I was okay with the masks.  I was good with it, but I’ve heard very different stories on masks,” he said during his town hall on NBC on Oct. 15.   The president opposes a mandate requiring the wearing of masks and favors leaving this decision to state governors and local leaders.

Turning a Deaf Ear to Public Health Experts

As COVID-19 spreads like wildfire across the nation, Trump and many of his supporters at his large campaign gatherings and even some GOP lawmakers continue to not wear masks or practice social distancing to stop the spread of the disease, their actions ignoring the warnings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House COVID-19 Task Force.

According to an Oct. 12 CNN tweet, “Dr. Fauci says Pres. Trump resuming in-person rallies is “asking for trouble” and “now is… a worse time to do that because when you look at what’s going on in the United States it’s really very troublesome. A number of states, right now, are having increase in test positivity.”

During an interview with CNBC on Oct. 28, Reuters reported, that Dr. Fauci stated, “We are in a very different trajectory.  We’re going in the wrong direction,” noting the COVID-19 cases are increasing in 47 states and hospitals are being overwhelmed by these patients.”

“If things do not change,” Dr. Fauci warned, “If they continue on the course we’re on, there’s gonna be a whole lot of pain in this country with regard to additional cases and hospitalizations and deaths.”

Now researchers are beginning to shed light on Trump’s large rally gatherings and the spread of the COVID-19 among the supporters who attended the events.

Zach Nayer, a resident at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, and a colleague reviewed the number of new COVID-19 cases for the 14 days before and after each Trump rally from late June to a Sept. 25 Newport News event, and published their findings on Oct. 16 on the health news site STAT.

According to the researchers, the spikes in COVID-19 cases occurred in seven of the 14 cities and townships where rallies were held: Tulsa, Oklahoma; Phoenix; Old Forge, Pa.; Bemidji and Mankato in Minnesota; and Oshkosh and Weston, Wis.

Meanwhile on Oct. 30, Stanford researchers, studying 18 Trump rallies (between June 20 and Sept. 22) concluded that those large events resulted in more than 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and likely caused more than 700 deaths among attendees and their close contacts.

No End in Sight

Don’t expect the COVID-19 pandemic to end soon as the number of those infected and deaths continue to spiral out of control.  

According to the COVID Tracking Project, COVID-19 cases increased by 97,080 on Oct. 31, by far the largest one-day jump since the beginning of the pandemic last March, with Midwestern states leading a wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths across the nation just before the Tuesday’s presidential election.  Experts say that those statistics refutes Trumps charges that the number of COVID 19 cases is growing due to increased testing. 

America’s oldest seniors have lived through the 1918 flu pandemic, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and World War II. Now they, along with aging Baby Boomers, face the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.  Among adults, the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age. According to AARP, 95 percent of the people across the nation that have died of COVID-19 were 50 and older even though most of the coronavirus cases have been reported in younger than 50.

Before older voters cast their ballots they must consider which presidential candidate’s leadership style can marshal the nation’s resources and devise the best strategy to combat COVID-19 and stop its spread. 

Do we reopen the nation, opening schools and businesses or do we consider lockdowns if recommended by the nation’s public health and medical experts?  Do we consider a “national mask mandate” or do we just leave it up to state governors to decide whether to implement an order requiring people to wear them in public? 

Your vote matters. For you older voters, it just might save your life.

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Democratic House Passes Landmark Legislation to Drive Down Spiraling Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 16, 2019

Just days ago, the Democratic House leadership successfully pushed for passage of landmark legislation, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3), that would give Medicare the power to negotiate directly with drug companies to bring down pharmaceutical prices and make those savings available to seniors.

House Democrats passed Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s sweeping legislation on Dec. 12 to lower the cost of prescription drugs on a largely party-line vote. The bill, which passed 230 to 192 with unanimous Democratic support and the backing of two Republicans, Reps Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn) and Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash), is considered “dead on arrival” in the Senate. The White House has indicated President Trump would veto H.R. 3 it if it came to his desk.

The House Republicans fought to block passage of H.R. 3 by releasing their own legislative proposal, H.R. 19, to lower drug costs. The bill, consisting of bipartisan legislative provisions to lower drug costs that had already been adopted, would have achieved lower drug prices without imposing government price controls that House Republicans believed would decrease research and development spending for new drug cures.

Although House Republican Whip Steve Scalise called on the Democratic leadership to bring H.R. 19, with 135 sponsors and no Democrats, to the House Floor, the GOP proposal did not receive a vote on its own. It was offered by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) as an amendment to H.R. 3 and failed by a vote of 201 to 223, getting eight Democrat votes.

The Nuts and Bolts

H.R. 3 would put the brakes of spiraling drug cost by giving power to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate directly with drug companies to force real price reductions while also ensuring that seniors never lose access to the medicines they need. The legislation also expands access to the lower, negotiated drug prices to persons with private insurance, not just Medicare beneficiaries.

The 320-page House bill also prevents pharmaceutical companies from price gouging patients by capping the maximum price for a negotiated drug at the average price people in countries similar to the U.S. pay. It would create a brand new, $2,000 out-of-pocket limit on prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries and even delivers vision, dental, and hearing benefits to Medicare beneficiaries for the first time.

H.R. 3 also increases the number of low-income seniors eligible for assistance with their drug costs and cost sharing for hospital and doctor visits. By extending guaranteed issue protections to disabled beneficiaries and to individuals who want to switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare, the legislation improves access to private supplemental coverage that helps fill in Medicare’s gaps for beneficiaries in traditional Medicare.

“The U.S. House of Representatives resoundingly defied Big Pharma today by-passing historic legislation to lower prescription drug prices for America’s seniors and their families. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3) accomplishes what we and other advocates have long demanded — that Medicare be empowered to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, which the CBO says will save more than $450 billion in drug costs. It also caps Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket prescription drug costs at $2,000 per year, says Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, in a statement.

The Pros and Cons of H.R. 3

Richtman says that it is time for the Senate Chamber to act. Drug pricing legislation that passed by the Senate Finance Committee has not been brought up for a vote on the Senate floor. “We insist that the Senate follow the House’s lead and act now to lift the burden of crushing prescription drug prices. Seniors who have been rationing pills or foregoing other necessities in order to afford crucial medications have waited long enough,” he says.

In a statement released following House passage of H.R. 3, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond, called the legislation” a bold step toward lowering prescription drug prices and high out-of-pocket costs for millions of older Americans.”
“High drug prices disproportionately hurt older Americans, particularly Medicare Part D enrollees, who take between four and five prescription medications each month and have an average annual income of just over $26,000 a year. The average annual price of a specialty drug used on a chronic basis is now $79,000. Medications cannot work if they are unaffordable, says LeaMond.

Adds AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, “Drug companies are price-gouging older Americans and taxpayers– who pay the highest drug costs in the world,” noting that “AARP is proud to support H.R. 3, which would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and cap out-of-pocket costs for Part D enrollees. The bill also enhances Medicare by improving access and adding needed dental, hearing, and vision coverage.”

Opposing the passage of H.R. 3, the White House says in a statement, “Heavy-handed government intervention may reduce drug prices in the short term, but these savings are not worth the long-term cost of American patients losing access to new lifesaving treatments.” Noting that lowering the price of prescription drugs is major concern for seniors, the White Houses warned that H.R. 3 is the wrong approach to address this issue, “especially when bipartisan legislative alternatives that encourage innovation while lowering prescription drug

During a briefing with reporters over two months ago, President and CEO Stephen Ubl, of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), warned the passage of H.R.3 would trigger “nuclear winter” for biotech innovation. Fiercely opposing passage, PhRMA has called on the Senate to “stop H.R. 3 in its tracks.”

Putting the Brakes on Rising Drug Costs in Rhode Island

“We all know someone who has been forced to ration the medication they need to live so that they can afford to keep a roof over their family’s heads or put food on the table. In America, in 2019, this should never be the case,” said Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-RI), who voted to pass the measure. “Pharmaceutical companies have abused American patients and taxpayers to increase their profits hand over fist without recourse for too long. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act will put an end to the price gouging by big pharma that sees American patients and taxpayers paying more for their prescription drugs than people in other countries, says the Rhode Island Congressman representing the state’s first congressional district.

In his 2016 campaign, President Donald J. Trump supported the government to negotiate drug prices. Cicilline calls on the president to honor this promise and urges Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring a companion measure to the Senate floor for consideration. At press time more than 300 House passed bills are stuck in the Senate (about 275 are bipartisan).

According to Cicilline, the out-of-pocket savings to Rhode Islanders will be substantial. “This year alone, more than 1,000 women in the state will be diagnosed with breast cancer, 550 people will be told they have prostate cancer, and 190 folks will be diagnosed with leukemia. H.R. 3 will lower the average costs of many popular medications for these and other cancer treatments. The cost of Ibrance for treating breast cancer will be reduced by as much as 65 percent. Zytiga, a common prescription for people with prostate cancer, will be reduced by as much as 66 percent. And the cost of Tasigna, which is commonly prescribed to people with leukemia, will go down by as much as 71 percent,” says Cicilline, who serves as the Democratic Policy and Communication Committee Chair.

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Congressman released information detailing how much more Rhode Islanders with diabetes pay for their insulin than people in other countries. Currently, 8.6 percent of Rhode Islanders, just over 83,000 people, have diabetes. They pay from $1,200 to $20,000 per year for the most commonly used insulin medications. Under the newly passed H.R. 3, the average total cost of NovoLOG Flexpen, a common insulin medicine, would decrease by as much as 76 percent. Under H.R. 3, Rhode Islanders could spend 3.5 times less on insulin, and some of the commonly used insulins could cost as little as $400 per year.

According to Cicilline, seniors in his Congressional District will see Medicare improvements if H.R. 3 becomes law. At this time, Medicare does not provide coverage for: oral exams for 71 percent of beneficiaries, eye exams for 66 percent of beneficiaries, hearing exams for 66 percent of beneficiaries, dental exams for 75 percent of beneficiaries, eye glasses for 75 percent of beneficiaries, and hearing aids for 86 percent beneficiaries.

Under H.R. 3’s Medicare expansion, 93 percent of beneficiaries (98,800 people) stand to gain from adding a dental benefit, 75 percent of beneficiaries stand to gain from adding a vision benefit, and 97 percent (102,700 people) of beneficiaries stand to gain from adding a hearing benefit.

On December 6, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released an updated version of their bipartisan Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 201. Will McConnell, who controls its legislative fate, allow it to be considered on the Senate floor? Can a conference committee iron out the different between a Senate bill and H.R. 3, that can be pass both chambers and be signed by the president?

The legislative clock is ticking. It’s 324 days until the upcoming 2020 presidential election and the voters are demanding Congress to put aside philosophical policy differences and come up with a compromise that will truly put the brakes on rising drug costs. We’ll see.

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

Trump Signs Legislation to Undo Nation’s Banking Rules

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 27, 2017

On May 22, 2018, The Senior Safe Act, a bipartisan bill authored by U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to help protect older American’s from financial exploitation and fraud, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 258-159 as part of a bipartisan banking reform package after previously passing the Senate in March by a vote of 67-31. President Donald J. Trump’s signed the bill into law rolling back regulatory oversight of the nation’s financial industry.

The Senior Safety Act is part of S. 2155, the “Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act,” a bill that modified the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, which was passed by Congress in 2010 to oversee the financial industry after the financial crash and recession of 2008-09.

Protecting Older Investors from Financial Exploitation

Through the watchdog efforts of the Senate Aging Committee, financial exploitation of seniors was identified as a top senior issue to combat. According to the Government Accountability Office, financial fraud targeting older Americans is a growing epidemic that costs seniors an estimated $2.9 billion annually. These frauds range from the “Jamaican Lottery Scam,” to the IRS impersonation scam, to the financial exploitation of seniors through guardianships. Earlier this year a hearing was held to update the public about the committee’s efforts to combat scams targeting older Americans as well as unveil its 2018.

As the Chairman and former Ranking Member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Senators Collins and McCaskill introduced the Senior $afe Act last year. Existing bank privacy laws can make it difficult for financial institutions to report suspected fraud to the proper authorities. The Senior $afe Act address this problem by encouraging banks, credit unions, investment advisors, broker-dealers, insurance companies and insurance agencies to report suspected senor financial fraud. It also protects these institutions from being sued for making reports so long as they have trained their employees and make reports in good faith and on a reasonable basis to the proper authorities.

“As Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, I have been committed to fighting fraud and financial exploitation targeted at older Americans,” said Senator Collins. “The Senior $afe Act, based on Maine’s innovative program, will empower and encourage our financial service representatives to identify warning signs of common scams and help prevent seniors from becoming victims.”

Judith M. Shaw, Maine Securities Administrator and chair of the North American Securities Administrators Association’s Committee on Senior Issues and Diminished Capacity, says that this legislation incentivizes financial service institutions, including those in the securities industry, to train key employees on the identification and reporting of suspected financial exploitation of seniors. “This is a significant and important tool in the ongoing efforts to protect senior investors,” she adds.

Adds Jaye L. Martin, Executive Director of Legal Services for the Elderly, “We know from our proven success with Senior Safe in Maine that education of financial services professionals is a key component to identifying and stopping financial exploitation of seniors. There is no doubt this bill will help prevent seniors all over the country from becoming victims.”

With the passage of S. 2155, Keith Gillies, President of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA), said, “The Senior Safe Act provides “much needed protection for older investors and will allow advisors to better protect their clients’ interests.”

“Advisors are often the first line of defense for scammers looking to take advantage of investors,” says Gillies, noting that studies have found older Americans are often a prime target.

The Pros and Cons of S. 2155

Since the Dodd-Frank legislation’s passage eight years ago, 20 percent of small banks have been put out of business, said President Trump and a ceremony where he signed S. 2155 into law. He predicted that the roll back of the costly banking reform regulations, both “crippling” and “crushing” to community banks and credit unions, would stimulate the banking industry to increase lending to businesses.

Banking regulations made it virtually impossible for new banks to be established to replace those that had closed their doors, said Trump, denying small businesses with access to capital. “By liberating small banks from excessive bureaucracy — and that’s what it was: bureaucracy — we are unleashing the economic potential of our people,” said Trump.

Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) calls the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act a jobs bill, saying “it is a much-needed solution for the folks who power our local economies.”

In an op-ed in the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly, Senator Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana) said, “This banking package is reasonable, balanced, and the result of thoughtful negotiation and compromise. It would take measured steps to encourage community financial institutions to boost lending and provide new protections for consumers. And it’s an example of what we can achieve when we work together to break the gridlock in Washington.”

But others strongly oppose passage of S. 2155.

Although S. 2155 has a provision to protect seniors from financial exploitation, Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline, expressed strong concerns when the Houses passed S. 2155, he jokingly refers to as “the Bank Lobbyist Act.”

“Ten years ago, Wall Street’s recklessness brought our economy to the brink of collapse. It has taken Rhode Island years to recover. In many ways, we are still recovering.,” noted Rhode Island’s Congressman representing District 1. “The Dodd-Frank financial reform law ended the worst of the Big Banks’ excesses. It established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and gave working people a voice against the most powerful corporations in our country,” he said, noting that the passing of S. 2155 has reversed this progress.

It’s a massive giveaway to the wealthy and the middle class is getting screwed. This is a raw deal for working men and women. The American people deserve A Better Deal,” Cicilline said.

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, warns that with the deregulation of banks, the GOP “are still gunning for Social Security under the guise of entitlement reform.”

Richtman predicts the passage of S. 2155 and it’s signing into law “makes another financial crisis more likely.”” He asks, “How fair is it to ask workers to be responsible and save when the government strips away protections intended to keep our savings secure?”

“Retirees’ Social Security benefits must be preserved because, at least for now, they are the only thing workers can depend on after the next financial crash,” says Richtman.

The Senior $afe Act was endorsed by organizations, including AARP, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS), the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions (NAFCU), the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA), the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI), Transamerica, and LPL Financial.