Published in RINewsToday on March 27, 2023
Over two months ago, Gov. Dan McKee unveiled a sweeping $13.7 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year. After its release, the Senior Agenda Coalition of RI (SACRI), representing 21 organizations, called this budget “unfriendly to seniors,” charging that it “short-changed” seniors. In an e-blast that was sent to 1,800 seniors and aging advocates SACRI urged them to contact their lawmakers asking that they put more funding into the delivery of aging programs and services.
As the House Finance Committee continues to hold hearings on bills that might ultimately be rolled into the upcoming FY 2024 Budget, last week the SACRI brought 220 seniors, aging advocates and professionals in the aging network to the Warwick Crown Plaza to personally urge House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D-Warwick) and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-Providence, North Providence to hammer out an “age-friendly” budget.
SACRI Board Chair George Neubauer began this year’s Legislative Leaders Forum by quoting President Joe Biden’s call to Congressional lawmakers at the annual State of the Union Address to maintain Medicare and Medicaid. The President urged lawmakers to “stand up for seniors”. Setting the stage for why this event was organized, Neubauer told the packed room: “Today, we are here to speak up for ourselves.”
Painting a Portrait of Rhode Island Seniors
“Effective advocacy includes good data and good stories,” said Maureen Maigret, a SACRI Board member and policy advisor for the group setting the stage for the speakers. She presented demographic data on the state’s graying population, discussed the increased needs of state’s aging programs and services to keep people at home, and detailed SACRI’s budget policy fixes.
“We speak up for 200,000 seniors and our numbers are growing,” says Maigret, also a former State Representative and Director of the RI Department of Elderly Affairs. By 2030, 1 in 5 Rhode Islanders will be aged 65 and over,” she says.
While many think that seniors are a drain on the economy, they are not. According to Maigret, $3 billion dollars in Social Security benefits are pumped into the state’s economy. Twenty percent of seniors are still working and paying taxes and employers are very aware that seniors have extensive job experience skills and are usually very reliable employees.
“Additionally, seniors are part of an invisible workforce of unpaid caregivers who take care of family members and friends, also,” says Maigret, noting that AARP Rhode Island recently released a study reporting that there are 121,000 unpaid caregivers, with the value of their unpaid care estimated to be $2.1 billion dollars (just under $19 per hour).
“Seniors also contribute thousands of hours of volunteer work to their local communities, lending a helpful hand to senior centers, friendly visitor programs, Meals on Wheels, and to the Village Common of RI at four Village communities and multiple other agencies,” adds Maigret.
“An overwhelming 70% of Rhode Island seniors want to age in place and remain in their communities,” says Maigret, noting that “after age 65, 3 out of 5 of these individuals will need some support to stay in their homes.”
SACRI survey on areas of concern for seniors
With Rhode Island’s top House and Senate leadership listening, Maigret touched on the findings of a SACRI survey that identified an array of concerns expressed by their older constituents. Health and care issues came up on the top of this list, followed by isolation and loneliness, lack of knowledge of community support services, the need for transportation, loss of mobility, high housing costs, and lack of income.
The survey findings indicate that needed information is not reaching older adults to navigate the long term care system, says Maigret. Forty percent do not know about programs and services offered by Rhode Island’s Office of Healthy Aging (OHA) and The Point, the state’s aging and disability resource center. She noted that the Governor’s FY 2024 budget didn’t allocate any state dollars to operate The Point, whose mission is to direct seniors to needed programs and services.
“Even with Social Security, a large number of seniors have low incomes,” says Maigret, with 50% of older households living on less than $50,000 a year, another 27% living on less than $25,000. “The cost of long-term care is staggering and unaffordable with semi-private rooms in nursing facilities going for $94,900 a year,” she pointed out. “Assisted living facilities is out of reach for many, too, costing about $54,000 a year. Bringing a home care aide 40 hours per week into a person’s home costs a whopping $56,160,” she adds.
Maigret urged Shekarchi and Ruggerio to reallocate more state dollars to home care services. While other states, on average, spend 45% of Medicaid long-term care dollars on home care, Rhode Island only spends 22% with hundreds of seniors having to wait over 3 months to get home care services.
Maigret says that SACRI supports a legislative agenda that calls on the Rhode Island General Assembly to craft a “Better Budget for Better Care,” which will result in a permanent investment to improve the care provided to seniors. SACRI also urges that lawmakers raise direct workers pay to $20 per hour to attract workers into home care agencies and nursing facilities. To assist seniors to access needed programs and services, $500,000 must be allocated into the House budget to better market available information and referral services offered by The Point.
“Meanwhile, SACRI also is pushing to add five new positions at the OHA, with two being assigned to its Adult Protective Services Unit to increase increased caseloads,” says Maigret. By allocating funding to help more lower income Medicare beneficiaries pay their Medicare Part B premiums, seniors will have more money to pay their bills.
Telling Powerful Stories
SACRI pulled together a few “real life” stories to illustrate why Rhode Island lawmakers must craft an “Age Friendly” FY 2024 Budget.
Jeanne Gattegno, working in the elder abuse sector, shared her thoughts as to why OHA’s Adult Protective Service Unit (APSU) is underfunded. “Elder abuse is a crime and anyone suspecting abuse must report it. When its reported it must be investigated by the APSU,” she says.
According to Gattegno, in 2021, there were over 6,200 calls to OHA, over 1,400 calls were elder abuse complaints, and 2,800 were investigated as self-neglect. “There are five workers in the APSU. Just do the math. It’s an incredibly difficult job and it’s life and death and there are not enough people to help,” warns Gattegno.
Allyson Manning, an overworked Registered Nurse at a local nursing facility, highlighted her typical day working with two Certified Nursing Assistants to take care of 26 residents. Due to low wages, the facility can’t fill the third CNA position to assist the other two CNAs on the shift.
Serving as Team Leader, Manning says that there is not enough time to take care of her 26 residents. During this shift her chief responsibility is to pass medications, perform treatments and assessments. She often finds that her primary functions as an RN are late or difficult to carry out, due to the need to assist the CNAs with their tasks of toileting, washing, dressing and feeding residents.
“We are not attracting the people we need to these [CNA] positions. They are low paid jobs, but it is really rewarding work but it is hard work., she says. When hired, CNA’s are not staying long, turnover is high says Manning. While initially working full-time, she now only works two days a week.
Giving Their Thoughts…
RI Speaker of the House, Joe Shekarchi remarked that he clearly understood the very powerful stories shared by Gattegno, Manning and others. “I didn’t need to hear those stories because I live those stories every day. When his 97-year-old father recently fell at home and broke his pelvis, he was admitted to the Bethany House.
“I see how hard they work and the limited staff they have,” says the House Speaker, understanding the labor shortage’s impact on nursing facilities. “I see when my father hits the call button and it takes a long time [to answer] not because they are slow, but because they are doing three or four things at the same time,” he says.
“It’s important that seniors have options so they can choose what’s best for them,” says Shekarchi. “We need to provide supports for seniors to age in place and remain in their homes living independently,” he added, acknowledging that it is not always easy to do.
Shekarchi also recognized his effort with the Senate President made historic investments to require minimum staffing last year. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened because the nursing facilities are now facing labor shortages, he says.
According to Shekarchi, last year the General Assembly also provided more funding to make home care more accessible for seniors. Lawmakers also provided tax relief on pensions for older taxpayers and military veterans, strengthened laws to protect seniors from financial exploitation, and made it easier to apply for SNAP benefits and expanded property tax relief for seniors. He expects to continue his efforts this legislative session.
Shekarchi also reported that he has introduced a bill, supported by AARP RI, to allow zoning for constructing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in garages or basements. He called on seniors and aging organizations to support his housing bill.
The House Speaker also discussed proposed legislation by Rep. Lauren Carson (D-District 75, Newport) proposed legislation that would create a House Study Commission to coordinate Rhode Island’s programs and services for seniors, expressing the need for such a study commission.
Like Shekarchi, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio outlined a number of legislative successes last year. He recognized passage of Sen. Josh Miller’s legislation authoring the creation and implementation of a pharmaceutical redistribution program. Former Sen. Cindy Coyne’s legislation became law, too, lowering the age at which a victim can be considered an elder under the state’s financial exploitation law from 65 to 60.
With the state’s growing number of seniors, Senate President Ruggerio stated that senior issues are more important than ever.
“We need to do everything we can to ensure seniors and retirees can enjoy their older years with dignity and security,” he said. “Because after a lifetime of hard work and contributing to our communities… older Rhode Islanders deserve nothing less.”
“The Senior Agenda Coalition is a powerful tool in its work. At the Statehouse we rely on your voices to help guide us as leaders,” says Ruggerio, noting “we don’t have all the answers and appreciate your input.”
To watch SACRI’s 2023 Legislative Leaders Forum, go to https://ritv.devosvideo.com/show?video=7cd34a907d29&apg=c7e3a6c7.