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.

House Bill to Expand, Strengthen Social Security

Published in Woosocket Call on February 3, 2019

With the 116th Congress kicking off on January 3, 2019 and the Democrats seizing control of the House, it did not take long for a bill to emerge that would strengthen and expand the nation’s Social Security program. Seven years ago, when U.S. Congressman John Larson (D-CT) first introduced the Social Security 2100 Act during the 113th Congress, the GOP controlled Congress blocked a fair hearing and vote. Now, with a Democratic majority in the House Larson’s Social Security proposal will finally get a thorough review as Democrats take control of the House Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor. These committees have oversight of Social Security.

Larson chose to throw the bill into legislative hopper on the 137th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birth, who signed Social Security into law in 1935.

On January 30, 2019, Larson, recently appointed to chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, introduced H.R.860, the Social Security Act 2100 Act, with over 202 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin), to ensure the retirement security of working Americans for another century.

Passage of the Social Security 2100 Act only requires a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass. But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

H.R. 860’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. It would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients will receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

Increasing the Financial Solvency of Social Security

According to an independent analysis of the Social Security’s Office of the Chief Actuary, H.R. 860 proposal would also strengthen and protect the Trust Funds by 75 years.

H.R. 860 would have wealthy individuals pay the same rate as everyone else. Presently, payroll taxes are not collected on wages over $132,900.
Larson’s legislation would apply the payroll tax to wages of $400,000, affecting the top 0.4% of wage earners. The bill gradually phases in an increase in the pay roll contribution rate beginning in 2020, of 50 cents per week, so that by 2043 workers and employers would pay 7.4 percent instead of 6.2 percent. Finally, the bill’s provisions would combine the Old-Age and Survivors, called Social Security, and the Disability Insurance trust funds into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure that all benefits will be paid.

“Social Security is a promise that after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity and economic security. It’s critical that Congress preserve and strengthen this promise for years to come,” said Cicilline, who serves as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, representing Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district.

Larson, recently appointed chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, noted, “With 10,000 baby boomers becoming eligible for Social Security every day, the time to act is now. The Social Security 2100 Act will provide economic security not just for today’s seniors but for future generations too,” said Larson, as the bill was thrown into the legislative hopper.”

There have not been any significant adjustments to Social Security since 1983, when Tip O’Neill was Speaker and Ronald Reagan was President, said Larson. “It’s time for Congress and the President to come together again, just like Speaker O’Neill and President Reagan did to make this a reality, he said.

“For years, fiscal hawks have told us that the only way to ‘save’ Social Security is to cut benefits for future retirees. Congressman Larson’s bill is a resounding rebuke to those claims. The Social Security Act 2100 keeps the program financially sound for most of this century while boosting benefits for millions of beneficiaries,” said Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Richtman says, “Congressman Larson has promised that, for the first time, this legislation will receive thorough consideration in the U.S. House, including hearings with testimony from experts and the public. We applaud him for his vision, persistence, and advocacy on behalf of America’s current and future retirees in moving this bill forward.”

Today, more than 222,000 Rhode Islanders receive Social Security benefits today. It is the most important retirement income for 4 out of 5 seniors and provides financial protections to disabled workers and families who have lost a breadwinner.

For decades, GOP lawmakers pushed its Social Security reforms by privatization, raising the retirement eligibility age and imposing stingier COLA formulas. But, national poll after poll, across party lines and age groups, revealed the public’s strong support for the nation’s retirement program.

Washington Insiders expect Larson’s Social Security bill to pass the House. While GOP Senate leadership keeps the companion measure at arms-length, the upcoming 2020 elections may well grease the legislative wheels for passage. Over 20 Republican Senate, whose seats are at serious risk, may well vote for passage with Democratic Senators.
Stay tuned…