RI Law ensures teaching of Holocaust, Genocides in public schools

Published in RINewsToday on July 12, 2021

The Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Coalition (RIHGEC) has successfully pushed state lawmakers to pass legislation that formalizes a commission to implement a 2016 law to require public schools to teach students about genocide and the Holocaust.  The 2016 law was introduced by Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence) and House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian.

Under the legislation, RIHGEC will gather and disseminate Holocaust and genocide information, work with the Department of Education to update and promote statewide Holocaust and genocide education programs, and promote public awareness of issues relating to Holocaust and genocide education.  It would also oversee a Holocaust and Genocide Awareness month to continue to raise public awareness of horrific atrocities. 

In the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, RIHGC’s broad-based coalition, comprised of Jewish organizations, and Commission on Prejudice and Bias along with members of the Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, and indigenous communities, would see their lobbying efforts gain traction leading to passage of legislation to create a permanent state commission to  promote and continually improve genocide and Holocaust education in schools.  

H 5650 A, entitled the “Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Commission,” quickly passed through the House because several lawmakers pushed hard for it. The efforts of Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D-Dist. 7, Providence), the legislation’s primary sponsor, and cosponsors House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence, and Rep. Nathan W. Biah Sr. (D-Dist. 3, Providence) led to passage of the legislative proposal on May 18 by a vote of 77 to 0, with two lawmakers not voting.

On April 23, S 0840 A (the House bills companion measure) was introduced in the upper chamber and referred to the Senate Education Committee for consideration.  However, Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence), the  primary sponsor, and cosponsors Sens. Joshua Miller (D-District 28, Providence/Cranston), Hanna Gallo (D-District 27, Cranston), Thomas Paolino (R-District 17, Lincoln, North Providence, and North Smithfield) and Meghan Kallman (D-District 15, Pawtucket),  watched this legislative proposal sit in the Senate Committee for weeks, having been referred for further study. Oftentimes, this was a polite way of leadership to kill a legislative proposal. 

But, in the waning days of the legislative session, an intensive lobbying effort from RIHGE Coalition members including sending emails, making phone calls and sending informational packets to the Senate Education Committee finally led to the Senate Education Committee  passing S 0840 A and sending it to the Senate floor for consideration.  On July 1st, the legislative proposal passed by a vote of 36 to 1 with one lawmaker not voting and the other abstaining.

The legislative proposal was transmitted to Gov. Dan McKee on July 7 for his signature. The bill was transmitted to the Governor on July 7. He has until the 14th to sign or veto the bill, at which point if he has not acted it will become law without his signature.

According to Robert Trestan, New England Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, Rhode Island now joins 19 states that mandate Holocaust and genocide education, and 7 of those states include a commission or council to help implement the mandate.  Eleven states that do not have mandates have formed commissions or councils that develop educational programs about the Holocaust, he says.

“While we do not have data regarding the efficacy of these groups, it is key that experts, educators, and community members have a role in forming curricula and school programs on this important subject, says Trestan.

Rhode Island Law Puts Rhode Island in Forefront of Fighting Hate

“Rhode Island was in the forefront of passing legislation requiring the study of Holocaust and genocide education in its public schools,” says Marty Cooper, RIHGC’s Chair. “This was due to Rhode Islanders commitment to educate its students on this issue as it related to hate, bullying and overall racism nationally as well as globally,” he adds.

Cooper says that many states that passed similar legislation have a commission to oversee implementation and ongoing study of the Holocaust and genocides. What makes Rhode Island’s commission standout is it will also oversee a Holocaust and Genocide Awareness month. 

RIHGC will reach out to the state and the Commission, at the appropriate time, providing input of what has been done and what the coalition listed as goals, and action to be taken to help assure the newly established Commission moves forward with little, or no delay. “The coalition will also provide any material needed by the Commission and will be available to consult with the Commission when requested,” he says. 

“Genocide and Holocaust Education is more important than ever. With hatred toward minority communities on the rise we must continue to ensure our state teaches what happens when hatred is allowed to go unchecked,” says Adam Greenman, president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.   “Never again must mean never again and I’m glad this commission will work to make that a reality,” he adds. 

Adds Gretchen Skidmore  Director, Education Initiatives, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: We cannot anticipate how an educational mandate will be implemented in local schools, but the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum supports quality Holocaust education by providing free resources and trainings for educators in every state. We believe when done with rigor, Holocaust education should inspire students to think critically about how and why the Holocaust happened and what lessons it holds for us today.”

Thoughts from the Legislative Arena

“Teaching young people about the devastating  impact that the Holocaust and other genocides have had throughout the course of history is crucial to building a safe and just future for all,” said Gov. Dan McKee. “We must educate the next generations about the atrocities of the past to ensure it never happens again. I look forward to signing this legislation to provide all students in Rhode Island public schools with that education. This is an important step forward in putting an end to acts of hatred, anti-Semitism, and prejudice wherever they exist,” adds McKee.

President of the Senate Dominick J. Ruggerio said, “We need to ensure that students are educated about the atrocities of the past not just so that they have a full understanding of world history, but also so that they can recognize the conditions that lead to intolerance and oppression.”

“My hope is that, with the creation of a Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission, we raise awareness and understanding so that students realize how insidious the impact of hate can be,” said Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick). “We just saw a horrific example of antisemitism not far away in Boston, where a rabbi was brutally attacked while standing in front of a menorah on the steps of a Jewish school. Incidents like this show that we need to continue to educate our children, so they understand that hateful ideology can cultivate real, physical and/or emotional repercussions. It’s incumbent upon all of us to combat hate in all forms.”

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Sandra Cano said, “As a refugee who fled from violence in my native Colombia, I know firsthand the horrors of not knowing if you are safe in your own home. Senator Goldin’s legislation helps ensure that all Rhode Island students are educated about the Holocaust and genocides of the past, which is a critical first step to ensuring such terrible events are not repeated. The importance of this legislation is only magnified when we consider the hate and demonization of certain groups taking place right here in the United States today.”

“Given the hate and bigotry that is common in public discourse today, it is especially important to educate students about the incredible damage that prejudice and intolerance have caused throughout history,” says Goldin, whose grandparents fled eastern Europe to Canada during pogroms. Those of her family members who were unable to escape died in either the pogroms or the Holocaust.

The best way to ensure our future generations never repeat these actions is to teach them about the impact the Holocaust and other genocides have had in our world,” adds Goldin.

“Learning about our past provides perspective on current world events. It is also an opportunity for people to learn from one another about experiences of oppression,”  Goldin adds.

Paolino, a cosponsor of the Senate legislation, also lost family in the Armenian genocide.  “My relatives have a keen understanding of how hate and bigotry can escalate to reverberate through generations,” he said, stressing the importance of educating society on the warning signs of genocide. “Learning the history about these atrocities and how to prevent them will best protect our future,” adds Paolino.

Kislak noted that so many Rhode Islanders’ families are from countries that have been impacted by genocides. “Listening to each other’s stories and learning about those diverse histories will help us see the humanity in one another and build stronger communities, she says.    

First-Person Survivor Witnesses Dwindling  

Bill Benson, who interviews survivors of the Holocaust before live audiences at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., sees first hand the importance of educating the world about the horrors of the Holocaust.  “Because of the coronavirus pandemic we are now providing the museum’s First-Person program virtually, he says.

Benson recently interviewed 90-year-old Irene Fogel Weiss, who survived incarceration at Auschwitz, a forced death march, and then at the end of the war absorbing the reality of the murder of most of her extended family in the Holocaust, the result of Nazi Germany’s fanatical genocidal drive to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe.

“She knows all too well that she is one of the remaining but quickly dwindling survivors of the Holocaust still able to share the pain and horror she witnessed and experienced first-hand,” says Benson.

“Sadly, there are people in the United States and elsewhere in the world who not only minimize the horror and scope of the Holocaust, but others who deny its reality entirely. If they are willing to do that just imagine their unwillingness to acknowledge much less condemn genocide in what seem like obscure places on the globe, like Myanmar, Syria, Rwanda, the Balkans, and elsewhere,” says Benson.

“Rhode Island’s legislature can help to transcend widespread ignorance and even denial of the Holocaust and genocide by establishing this Commission. Weiss will not be able to provide her first-person testimony indefinitely,” acknowledges Benson. “New well-informed voices must step forward. A Genocide and Holocaust Commission can help to educate and inform about the realities of genocide and help ensure new generations learn what they do not know so they can lend their voices to efforts to confront hate and end genocide,” he says.

Rhode Island’s newly established Commission will ensure that the Holocaust and Genocides that occurred throughout the world will never be forgotten by Rhode Islanders.  Our state built firmly on the principles of religious freedom now sends this message out to the world: “Never Again.”

The RIHGEC includes representatives from the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Center, The Genocide Education Project, , as well as the general community, including members of the Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, and indigenous community.

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

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State Lawmakers to Tackle High Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 16, 2020

The Washington, DC-based AARP began its call for reducing prescription drug prices nationally in the late spring of 2019. At the same time, state legislatures around the country began taking up legislation. However, in Rhode Island, where the legislature meets only once a year, from January to June, it was too late to introduce bill in last year’s session.

AARP’s Elaine Ryan, VP of State Advocacy and Strategy reports: “We’re seeing an unprecedented number of states tackling the problem of high prescription drug prices. About 45 states expect to engage on prescription drug legislation or regulations this year. Right now, AARP is actively engaged in legislation in 25 states to address rising prescription drug prices. A variety of bills are moving through state legislatures, including bills on cost-sharing caps on insulin, price transparency, importation, price gouging, and affordability boards.”

Now, AARP Rhode Island is gearing up its lobbying efforts on Smith Hill this legislative session to put the brakes on rising prescription drug costs.

High Prescription Costs Top AARP Rhode Island’s Issues

State Director Kathleen Connell, of AARP Rhode Island, led the charge against skyrocketing drug costs by taking the group’s “Stop Rx Greed: Cut Drug Prices Now” campaign to four Rhode Island communities. At its AARP RI Community Conversations kickoff event in Warwick on Oct. 15, she called on Congress and the Rhode Island General Assembly to make prescription drugs more affordable a legislative priority. “We pay not only at the pharmacy counter, but through higher insurance premiums, and through the higher taxes we need to pay to fund programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Older Americans are hit especially hard. Medicare Part D enrollees take an average of 4 to 5 prescriptions per month, and their average annual income is around $26,000. One in three Americans has not taken a medication as prescribed because of the cost,” she said.

Connell reported that a recent AARP Rhode Island’s survey revealed that 79 percent of the member respondents called for lowering the price of prescription drugs, considering it the organization’s top priority.

During these events, using state-by-state specific data released last summer by AARP researchers, Connell was able to use Rhode Island data to document an increase in drug costs for seniors, identifying these drugs, the number of Rhode Islanders who need them and how much costs have risen.

Rhode Island’s state specific data revealed that the average annual cost of brand name prescription drug treatment increased 58 percent between 2012 and 2017, while the annual income for Rhode Island increased only 5.6 percent. Prescription drugs don’t work if patients can’t afford them, says the aging advocacy group, says Connell.

AARP Rhode Island also held Community Conversations in North Providence (Oct. 29), East Providence (Nov. 21) and Newport (Dec. 5). About 80 people attended these events, including in the legislative districts in those communities, along with Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio (D-District 4, North Providence, Providence) and House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (D-District 23, Warwick).

AARP Rhode Island Calls for Lower Prescription Drug Costs

On Feb. 5, over 120 people, including state lawmakers, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, and AARP Rhode Island staff and members, gathered in the State Room to attend the AARP Rhode Island Annual Reception. The event would become the backdrop to announce the Rhode Island Senate’s legislative agenda to tackle increasing prescription drug costs, the unveiling of package of eight bills supported by AARP Rhode Island.

At the event, Connell said: “This is an issue we are pounding on and I think you are going to see progress this year on this stellar important issue – Stop Rx Greed. I don’t need to go through the list of hardships suffered as these prices escalate way beyond reason. And we know this can’t continue the way it is. It’s probably not going to be a silver bullet that will solves this, but a lot of lot more work of the kind you have seen to make this iceberg move.”

Senate President Ruggerio along with 14 Senators from his chamber came to announce their support of the AARP sponsored legislation that would provide a pathway to import less-costly drugs from Canada, increase more market transparency, raise senior’s awareness around price changes and limit patients’ share of the costs.

House Majority Leader Shekarchi, came to the legislative reception with 20 House lawmakers, to share their concern about the lack of affordability of prescription. Shekarchi personally knows about high drug costs. “I am a Type II Diabetic and I have a lot of prescriptions. I feel the pain because I pay $30 a pill with the copay. I know what it costs and it is ridiculous,” he says.

“Patients deserve to know what drugs will cost, how they can pay for them in a fair and reasonable way, and how they can take advantage of any or all opportunities to save on those costs,” said Shekarchi, stressing that “people living on fixed incomes should not have to skimp between doing what is essential in buying prescription drugs, or food or housing.”

Shekarchi noted that he has already put in legislation with House colleagues, calling for Rhode Island’s insurers to completely cover the cost of copays for epinephrine injectors, or EpiPens. The bill would help reduce the high cost of the injectors, which has prevented some people with allergies from obtaining the life-saving device. The Warwick lawmaker also cosponsored a bill to create a prescription drug affordability board to protect Rhode Islanders from the high costs of prescription drug products.

Shekarchi concluded, by announcing that House lawmakers will shortly join the Senate in introducing AARP’s package of legislation (from five up to eight bills).

In a statement announcing the introduction of Senate bills to lower prescription drug costs, Ruggerio said: “Rhode Island’s population is one of the oldest in the nation, and the high prices consumers pay for prescriptions have a significant impact on us. Most older Rhode Islanders have limited means, and the high costs mean many people are cutting back on essentials of living or taking less than their prescribed amount of expensive drugs. The pharmaceutical industry is not going to address this on its own, so it’s up to the state and federal governments to take action.”

Tackling the High Cost of Prescription Drugs

After AARP Rhode Island’s Annual Legislative Reception, the following legislative proposals were thrown into the legislative hopper that day and companion measures have now been introduced in the House.

Senate legislative proposals included:

A bill limiting changes to a health plan’s drug formulary — its list of covered drugs — to protect consumers. Sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth A. Crowley (D-District 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket), this legislation (S 2324) would generally limit plans to modifying formularies at renewal time with 60 days’ notice and require that modification be identical among all substantially identical benefit plans.

Legislation (S 2319) sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey (D-District 29, Warwick) to cap out-of-pocket expenses for prescription drugs at the federal limits for high-deductible health plans, currently $1,400 for individual plans and $2,800 for family plans.

A bill (S 2317) sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-District 1, Providence) to prohibit cost sharing for patients 45 or older for colorectal screening examinations, laboratory tests and colonoscopies covered by health insurance policies or plans.

Legislation (S 2322) sponsored by Sen. Melissa A. Murray (D-District 24, Woonsocket, North Smithfield) to limit the copay for prescription insulin to $50 for a 30-day supply for health plans that provide coverage for insulin.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. (D-District 10, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton) requiring pharmacists to advise patients about less-expensive generic alternatives to their prescriptions or when it would cost them less to pay for their drugs outright instead of using their insurance. The bill (S 2323) would also bar pharmacy benefits managers from imposing gag orders on pharmacists that prevent them from making such disclosures.

A prescription drug transparency act (S 2318), sponsored by Senate President Ruggerio. This bill would requires pharmaceutical drug manufacturers to provide wholesale drug acquisition cost information to the Department of Health and pharmacy benefit managers to provide information related to drug prices, rebates, fees and drug sales to the health insurance commissioner annually. Such transparency would help payers determine whether high prescription costs are justified.

A bill (S 2321) sponsored by Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-District 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Tiverton, Newport) to create a state-administered program to import wholesale prescription drugs from Canada, which has drug safety regulations similar to those of the United States. Such programs are allowed under federal law, with approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Legislation (S 2320) sponsored by Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne (D-District 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence) to create a prescription drug affordability board tasked with investigating and comprehensively evaluating drug prices for Rhode Islanders and possible ways to reduce them to make them more affordable.

As the 2020 Presidential election looms, Congress and state law makers are very aware that lowering skyrocketing prescription drug costs is a top priority for their older constituents. With more than 250 bills passed by the Democrats in the House (some of these bills would lower prescription drug costs) sitting in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “legislative graveyard,” the Rhode Island General Assembly must take the lead to legislatively fix the problem.

Connell anticipates that there might be more than 15 drug bills in the House and Senate, 10 submitted by AARP. Rhode Island lawmakers must seriously consider these legislative proposals and join the 26 states that have already passed new laws aimed at lowering prices for prescription medications.