Whitehouse Pushes for COVID-19 Senate Proposal to Protect Residents, Employees

Published in the Pawtucket Times on March 1, 2021

As the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic approaches, U.S Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) joins Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) in introducing a legislative proposal to save lives of nursing home residents and employees and assist with vaccinations.   At press time, over 1.3 million nursing residents and workers in long-term care facilities have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 170,000 have died so far, accounting for approximately 35 percent of COVID-19 deaths nationwide.

Taking a Close Look at S.333

Last week, S.333, “The COVID-19 Nursing Home Protection Act,” was thrown into the legislative hopper.  Initially introduced last Congress, the latest version, now being considered by the Senate Finance Committee, would provide funding to give nursing homes the needed resources to keep residents and workers safe; funding would go towards providing vital infection control assistance and organizing local health and emergency workers – known as “strike” or “surge” teams – to manage COVID-19 outbreaks and care for residents.  At this time no House companion measure has been introduced.

S. 333, introduced on Feb. 22, would provide $210 million for the Secretary of HHS to contract with quality improvement organizations to provide essential infection control assistance to nursing homes. 

Moreover, the legislative proposal would also send $750 million in funding to states to implement “strike” or “surge” teams. States are using “strike” or “surge” teams to ensure a sufficient number of aides, nurses and other providers are available to care for residents. Such teams also help manage COVID-19 outbreaks within a facility, particularly as vaccinations proceed in these settings. Since August, approximately 20 percent of nursing homes have reported each week that they do not have a sufficient workforce to care for residents.”

The impact of the pandemic has been devastating to minority communities, where reports have indicated that facilities serving significant numbers of Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely to have COVID-19 infections. S. 333 would require the HHS Secretary to collect and make public demographic data on COVID-19 cases and deaths, including information on age, race, ethnicity, and preferred language. 

Whitehouse supports President Joe Biden’s call for the implementation of strike teams in his American Rescue Plan to help address these persistent shortages as well as the collection and dissemination of data on suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths by race, ethnicity and preferred language.

Controlling COVID-19 Outbreaks in the Nation’s Nursing Homes

“Nursing home residents and staff have been through a traumatic year,” said Whitehouse who sites on the Senate Finance Committee.  “We need to prioritize vaccinating and caring for the Americans who live and work in these settings.  That means providing additional staff as needed to control outbreaks and making sure every resident and care worker who wants a vaccine can get one.,” said the Rhode Island’s junior Senator who has served since Jan. 4, 2007.

“As more than 170,000 residents and workers in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19, it is critical that Congress pass the COVID-19 Nursing Home Protection Act,” says Sen. Bob Casey, Chair of the U.S. Special Committee on Aging.

“This bill would address persistent staffing shortages in nursing homes by utilizing strike teams, promote infection control protocols and require that demographic data is collected on COVID-19 cases and deaths,” notes Casey.

Adds Casey, “The challenge this terrible virus poses are unprecedented and requires an immediate and extraordinary response. That is why my colleagues and I are advancing strategies to give states what they need – funding for ‘strike’ teams to help address staffing shortages in nursing homes and assist with vaccinations in these settings. We have an obligation to protect our most at-risk citizens.”

 “We applaud the efforts of Senator Whitehouse and his colleagues to provide funding for the protection of nursing home residents and staff,” said Scott Fraser, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, an affiliate of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association.  “We are especially pleased with the creation of strike teams to address the critical issue of staffing shortages during times of crisis.  This is a suggestion that RIHCA brought to Senator Whitehouse’s attention this past Spring when our homes were in critical need of additional staff due to the pandemic.  We thank him for listening and taking action,” he says.

At press time, 12 Democratic Senators join Sens. Whitehouse, Casey, Warnock, Blumenthal, and Booker, becoming cosponsors to this legislation.  They are: Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jack Reed (D-RI), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI). 

A Call for Bipartisan Support

With the Senate now under Democratic control, there is a good chance that S. 333 will be considered by the Senate Finance Committee and if passed sent to the floor for consideration.   During the 116th Congressional session, the former Senate GOP Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who often called himself the “Grim Reaper,” sent Democratic legislation to a legislative graveyard, refusing to act on Democratic legislation, even proposals with bipartisan support.

It’s time for Senate Republicans to support a Democratic proposal that protects the health and safety and the wellbeing of nursing home residents and workers in the nation’s 15,600 nursing homes. 

Partisan politics shouldn’t play a role in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to not urge his caucus to support this worthy legislative proposal.  S. 333 truly deserves bipartisan support and enactment, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

New Report Charges that States Disfranchise Older Voters

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 11, 2017

Since 1948, Wisconsin resident Christine Krucki had voted in every presidential election, but effectively lost her right to vote when her state enacted a voter ID law in 2011. An old Illinois photo ID and proof of her residence in Wisconsin was just not good enough to allow her to cast a vote.

Krucki did not have a birth certificate and was forced to purchase one for $20. However, her last name on the document did not match her current last name, changed when she married. She then paid $15 dollars for a copy of her marriage certificate , but that document listed her list name differently than her birth name, as she was adopted a different name after moving in with her stepsister when she was in her early 20s. Changing her name on the Illinois marriage certificate to match her birth certificate to solve the problem would cost between $ 150 and
$ 300.

The obstacles Krucki faced when attempting to exercise her right to vote are encountered by millions of older Americans when they attempt to vote. With the 2018 mid-term elections less than a year away, two U.S. Senators release a report detailing Krucki’s problem at the polls, and notes how suppressive state laws and inaccessible voting locations disenfranchise older voters.

Pushing Older Voters Away from the Polls

Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ranking Member of the Committee on Rules and Administration’s 15 page report, “Barriers to Voting for Older Americans: How States are Making it Harder for Seniors to Vote,” finds that strict voter identification (ID) laws, closure of voting locations, inaccessible polling places and limits on early voting and absentee ballots are preventing seniors and people with disabilities from casting votes.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. But, that right is under threat for millions of older Americans and individuals with disabilities across the nation,” stated Sen. Bob Casey in a statement announcing the report’s release. “This report brings awareness to the unique challenges that seniors face in exercising their constitutional right. We must work to ensure that all Americans have equal access to the voting booth.”

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is becoming harder and harder for many Americans, especially our seniors,” add Sen. Klobuchar, noting that long lines, inaccessible polling places, and strict voter ID laws have become barriers to voting for older Americans. “This important report shines a light on the hardships these voters face and proposes common sense solutions to make voting easier for everyone. We need to do more to restore Americans’ confidence in our political system. Our first step should be making it easier for their voices to be heard on Election Day,” he says.

The report, released on Nov. 2, also includes new information from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that only 17 percent of the polling places it examined during the 2016 election were fully accessible. Most polling places GAO examined had one or more impediments from parking to the voting area and had accessible voting stations that could impede private and independent voting.

According to the report, suppressive voting laws and issues of accessibility affect tens of millions of older Americans and people with disabilities. In the 2016 election, 30 percent of the voters were between the ages of 50 and 64-years-old and 13 percent were 65 and older. Sixteen million (11.5 percent) of the 139 million votes were cast by people with disabilities. As the baby boomer population continues to age, these restrictions and barriers are likely to adversely impact more Americans.

In order to protect the voting rights of older voters and persons with disabilities, the report calls on Congress to ensure the full authorization and empowerment of all federal voting laws, which will make polling places accessible to older voters. Access to polls can also be increased by allowing opportunities for accessible early voting and absentee voting. Finally, it calls on limiting restrictions on voting and ensure that election laws fully consider the needs and abilities of older Americans.

Reflections from Rhode Island

“The depth of this issue varies from state to state,” says AARP State Director Kathleen Connell, who herself is a former Rhode Island Secretary of State. “I believe that older Rhode Islanders are well protected here, but we must be vigilant. Older Rhode Islanders are traditionally the most engaged voting group. Their voices are important and should not be silenced in any way.”

“I would add, however, that deliberate voter suppression is a threat to voters of all ages and the implications are as serious as they are obvious.

“When Voter ID legislation was passed in Rhode Island, we worked with then Secretary of State Ralph Mollis to set up photo booths to create ID cards for voters who did not have proper photo IDs. It was well received, but transportation was identified as a barrier to reaching some potential voters. Fortunately there were other remedies in place and, I have to say, no one contacted us saying they were prohibited from voting.”

Adds, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, this report presents a troubling situation across our country. The right to vote is sacred. I have spent the past three years modernizing our elections so that we can engage and empower all Rhode Islanders. Civic participation at all age levels is critical to our success as a state. I will continue to work to remove barriers so that eligible Rhode Islanders can have easier access to the ballot.”

Joe Graziano, Gorbea’s Communication Coordinator, notes that the GAO findings cited in this “Barriers to Voting” report is based on Council on State Governments research that his Department did not have a chance to review. “While it is not called “early voting”, Rhode Island does have an emergency mail ballot period that allows Rhode Islanders to cast their ballot ahead of Election Day without an excuse, says Graziano, noting that older voters have been able to use this system, in fact, 45 percent of the emergency mail ballots cast last year were by Rhode Islanders 65 and older.

Graziano admits that the GAO report shines a light on some of the barriers to voting across the nation. “Secretary Gorbea agrees that access to voting is critical and has successfully strived to improve it in the last three years including the introduction of online voter registration, automatic voter registration and the implementation of new, easier to use elections technologies (voting machines and ePoll books). Additionally, she has redesigned the ballot and the voter information guide to make them easier to read and understand. She also introduced legislation to update and expand opportunities for early, in-person voting,” he says.

“As a way to mitigate the negative impact of the photo ID requirement for voting, the Rhode Island Department of State has made sure that free photo Voter IDs are available to people in the communities where they live,” says Graziano, noting that last year alone, the Secretary of State staff held 51 events at senior centers and retirement facilities to ensure that eligible, older voters had proper voter identification, were introduced to new voting technologies and had any of their elections related questions answered by our Elections Division staff.

Looking to the upcoming General Assembly Session, Graziano says that Secretary Gorbea will once again introduce legislation for early in-person voting. “The legislation would eliminate the need for emergency mail ballots by allowing voters to cast their ballot at their local city or town hall, up to 20 days prior to an election, including the Saturday and Sunday prior to Election Day,” he says.

For more details about the Senate voting obstacle report, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Voting%20Rights%20Report.pdf.