Bill Protects Nursing Home Residents, Providers

Published in the Pawtucket Times on June 1, 2020

This month, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) throw a bill in the legislative hopper to slow the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in nursing homes. It’s a common-sense legislative proposal and needed.

A recently released Kaiser Family Foundation study reported, “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on people who reside or work in long-term care facilities, including the 1.3 million individuals in nursing homes; 800,000 in assisted living facilities; 75,000 in intermediate care facilities; and 3 million people who work in skilled nursing or residential care facilities.”

Combatting COVID-19 in Congregate Settings

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, Casey and Whitehouse’s legislative proposal, S. 3768, The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act, seeks to provide needed resources to facilities to protect frail residents and staff. Residents in these facilities are among the most vulnerable because of their age and underlying medical conditions. According to an analysis conducted by Gregg Girvan for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, as of May 22, in the 39 states that currently report such figures, 43 percent of all COVID-19 deaths have taken place in nursing homes and assisted living facilities

As more than 20,000 nursing homes residents and workers have died due to COVID-19, according to the latest reports, on May 19, 2020, Casey and Whitehouse introduced S.3768 to help states, nursing homes and intermediate care facilities put the brakes on the spreading of the deadly COVID-19. The legislative proposal, with 14 Democratic cosponsors (including Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed}, would help states implement strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings, including through the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and to support nursing home workers with premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits.

S. 3768 was referred to Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As of March 30, 2020, a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate or this measure has not been received.

Days after the introduction of 25-page Senate legislative proposal, a House version (H.R. 6972) was introduced by Rep. Ana G. Eshoo (D-CA), cosponsored by Reps. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-IL), Donna E. Shalala (D-FL), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and David N. Cicilline (D-RI). The House bill was referred to House Energy and Commerce

“This virus spares no state, no county, no facility. The unprecedented crisis unfolding in our Nation’s nursing homes demands an immediate, extraordinary response. Reports indicate nursing home residents and workers account for roughly 1 in 4 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States,” said Casey, who serves as Ranking Member of the U.S Senate Special Committee on Aging, in a statement announcing the bill’s introduction. “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act would provide $20 billion in emergency funding [for staffing, testing, Personal Protective Equipment, etc.] to devise a sorely needed national, coordinated response to stem the spread of this terrible virus in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities,” notes Casey.

According to Casey, the Senate bill would also require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop guidance on cohorting best practices, including on how to safeguard resident rights. It would also instruct HHS to collect and publish data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, and finally fund surge teams of nurses, aides, and other critical staff to fill in at facilities where multiple residents and staff members have been infected.

“COVID-19 poses an immediate threat to the more than 1.3 million Americans, including more than 7,000 Rhode Islanders, who live in nursing homes,” says Whitehouse, noting that frontline staff across the nation are “doing heroic work under very challenging circumstances.”

“We need to get vastly more personal protective equipment and tests to nursing homes, which care for the patients who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Our legislation would also help states fund surge teams, sending additional staff reinforcements to facilities where they are needed to care for patients and prevent infection,” adds Whitehouse.

Before S. 3768 was officially introduced, in early March, Washington, DC-based AARP announced its support for the Senate proposal. “AARP supports the draft of the Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act that would help protect the health and save the lives of people in nursing homes and other facilities by supporting testing, personal protective equipment, staffing and more,” said Megan O’Reilly, Vice President of Government Affairs for AARP. “The proposal would also improve public transparency and help protect the rights of residents and their families, adds O’Reilly, calling on Congress “to act immediately to stem the loss of life and slow the spread of the virus.”

In the House Chamber, Rhode Island’s Cicilline, a member of the House Democratic Leadership as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, has also pushed for Congressional funding to stop the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes. The fifth term Congressman has called for additional funding for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund in the next package for congregate care facilities, including nursing homes. He also signed a letter to HHS Secretary Azar and Administrator Verma, of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), urging that HHS and the CMS to ensure that a significant portion of the newly allocated $25 billion for testing in the recently passed CARES Act be utilized for testing in nursing homes and other congregate living facilities.

State-wide Efforts to Combat COVID-19 in Nursing Homes

With Governor Gina Raimondo declaring a state of emergency on March 9, 2020, with the COVID-19 arriving in Rhode Island, the deadly pandemic virus spread quickly throughout the state’s nursing homes. At press time, it has been reported that 75 percent of all related COVID-19 deaths are in nursing homes.

According to Joseph Wendelken, Public Information’s Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), the state moved quickly to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the community and in nursing homes. He stated: “We curtailed and then prohibited visiting early on, and we have been doing extensive testing in every assisted living facility in the state. We are doing cyclical testing, meaning that we are continually testing all residents in all homes on a rotating basis. We are giving tailored infection control guidance to specific homes, and we are helping them procure additional PPE.”

Adds Wendelken, RIDOH has established two COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Homes [at Oak Hill Center in Pawtucket and Oakland Grove Health Care Center in Woonsocket] to be a COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Home. “These are centralized facilities to accept patients who are being discharged from the hospital and who are COVID-19 positive but no longer require acute-level care. This strategy allows COVID-19 positive patients leaving the hospital to receive specialized rehabilitation and step-down, post-acute care while reserving hospital beds for patients who need acute-level care,” he said.

On Smith Hill, the Rhode Island House Republican Caucus has recently called for members of the House Committee on Oversight to meet to address the increasing COVID-19 death rate in the state’s nursing and assisted living facilities.

Putting Politics Aside…

With less than 156 days until the upcoming 2020 Presidential election, will S. 3768 reach the Senate floor for a vote. Since the beginning of 2019, more than 350 House-passed bills—including hundreds that have bipartisan support—have been buried by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) in his legislative graveyard. With no Republican Senators supporting Casey and Whitehouse’s COVID-19 bill, will it even reach the Senate floor for a vote?

It’s time for McConnell, who has called himself the “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation, to lay down his deadly scythe, making the safety of millions of residents who reside in the nation’s 15,583 skilled nursing facilities a legislative priority. The GOP Senator from Kentucky, who is in a close Senate race with Democratic opponent Amy McGrath, might consider putting politics aside during a raging COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the nation to work with Senate Democrats to protect frail residents and nursing home staff. Kentucky voters might view protecting residents against COVID a bipartisan issue.

Search on for GOP Senators to Protect Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 29, 2017

Since President Donald Trump took the oath of office on January 20, he is making good on some of his hundreds of campaign promises. During his first week in office Trump signed three executive orders declaring new government policies and eight presidential memoranda detailing the priorities of his new administration.

But, for aging groups, with Trumps arrival in Washington, D.C, the skirmish officially begins to protect Medicare in this new session of Congress.

With Trump and Congressional Republican Leadership on record for their support of repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, President and CEO Max Richtman, of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), clearly sees the writing on the wall. If successful, Richtman warns that GOP legislative actions will severely damage Medicare impacting 57 million seniors and disabled adults who rely on the program for their health care.

Building A Firewall Against Privatizing Medicare

With the GOP holding a slim majority of the U.S. Senate seats, 52 to the Democrats 48 seats, Richtman sees swaying Republican Senators away from their party’s position on privatizing Medicare to protect the federal health care program.

On January 24, 2017, Richtman urged Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to be the Senate’s “firewall against Medicare cuts.” His correspondence asked them to vote against proposals to privatize Medicare, raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, and repeal provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law, that provided additional benefits to beneficiaries.

Richtman reminded the GOP Senators that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) improved Medicare benefits and extended the solvency of the Part A Hospital Insurance Trust Fund by more than a decade. ACA’s closing of the prescription drug donut hole has put money into the pockets of Medicare beneficiaries. The health care law also added coverage of an annual wellness visit and eliminated copays for preventive services like cancer screenings, he said.

“I am also troubled by “premium support” [GOP] proposals to privatize Medicare,” says Richtman. According the aging advocate who was a former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging and a 16-year veteran of Capitol Hill, under previous privatization plans, beneficiaries would not enroll in the current program; rather, they would receive a capped payment or voucher to be used to purchase private health insurance or traditional Medicare. Private plans would have to provide benefits that are at least actuarially equivalent to the benefit package provided by fee-for-service Medicare, but they could manipulate their plans to attract the youngest and healthiest seniors. This would leave traditional Medicare with older and sicker beneficiaries whose higher health costs would lead to higher premiums that they and others may be unable or unwilling to afford, reducing the fee for service risk pool even further resulting in a death spiral for traditional Medicare.

GOP Medicare Fix Financially Hurts Beneficiaries

Richtman also told the GOP Senators that NCPSSM opposed the raising of the Medicare eligibility age from age 65 to 67 because the proposal would increase costs for millions of older Americans. Absent the guarantees in the existing ACA, such as requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions and limiting age rating, millions of seniors 65 and 66 without Medicare would find private insurance unaffordable. Raising the eligibility age would also increase average costs for Medicare as younger, healthier seniors are eliminated from the risk pool and costs are spread across an older, less-healthy population, he says.

Richtman urged the GOP Senators to oppose efforts underway in the 115th Congress to block grant Medicaid, cap Medicaid payments on a per-beneficiary basis (per capita caps) and/or repeal the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. He noted that these policy changes would “financially hurt states and lead to states cutting services, quality and eligibility for the most vulnerable of our senior population.”

Many seniors would not be able to absorb the loss of coverage and increase in their costs that would occur if these proposals became law. In fact, half of all Medicare beneficiaries in 2014 had incomes below $24,150 and Medicare households spent over two times more than the average American household on out-of-pocket health care costs,” he says.

“If Senate Democrats stand strong, we only need a handful of Republicans to protect the commitment to Medicare,” says Richtman. “We hope Senators McCain, Collins, Grassley, and Alexander to do the right thing for seniors in their states – and across America.”

Richtman correspondence to the four GOP Senators is part of NCPSSM’s pro-active legislative strategy to protect the existing Medicare program. The letters sent quantify the economic impact that proposed Medicare cuts would have on seniors in the four GOP Senators’ states: Arizona (with 1.3 million beneficiaries), Maine (306,000 beneficiaries), Iowa (nearly 572,000 beneficiaries), and Tennessee (1.2 million beneficiaries).

“We know that these four Republican Senators have the wisdom and judgment to protect seniors in their states from legislation that would impose painful Medicare cuts,” says Richtman. “It’s time to slam the brakes on any attempts to pass harmful legislation.”

Senate Democrats Attempt to Block HHS Nomination

Two days before Trump was sworn in as president, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held confirmation hearing on Rep. Tom Price, (R-Ga), Trump’s nominee to oversee the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency that oversees the Medicare program. In confirmed, he is expected to play a key role in the GOP’s efforts to privatize Medicare.

No formal vote was taken at the HELP Committee hearing but the Congressman is scheduled to testify a week later at the Senate Finance Committee, which will vote on his nomination.

During the four-hour heated confirmation hearing, held in 430 Dirksen Senate Office Building, HHS nominee Price dodged questions lobbed by Democrats about the Trump Administrations position on the future of Medicare. They also zeroed in on his personal financial investments in health care companies, calling them conflicts of interest which the denied.

Price, an orthopedic surgeon and a six term congressman, considered to be one of the most vocal critics of Obamacare on Capitol Hill, is expected play a key role in the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, sitting on the HELP Committee, gave this take on Price after the first of two confirmation hearings: “Price hasn’t been able to win Democratic support for any of his health care legislation [in the House] and today confirmed that he and his allies have no plan that can win support from across the aisle or the millions of Americans who would be affected by tearing down the Affordable Care Act. He conceded that he should not stop Americans under twenty-six from staying on their parents’ insurance, re-open the dreaded prescription drug doughnut hole for seniors, deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and reinstate lifetime limits on care. But he has no plan to make that happen.”

Adds Whitehouse, “Price also failed to reassure the Rhode Islanders I serve who rely on Medicare for their care. He has fought to voucherize the program, which would gradually unload costs onto seniors while eroding their benefits. He needed to tell the American people they could depend on him to faithfully administer Medicare and keep the sacred promise we’ve made to our seniors of a dignified retirement with access to good health care. He did not.”

“Congress must protect Social Security and Medicare, but many Republicans see the latest election results as an opportunity to hollow out these vital programs. President Trump’s pick to oversee Medicare has long championed efforts to privatize Medicare, which I strongly oppose. Cutting benefits and privatizing these programs could hurt millions of Americans and harm our economy,” said Sen. Jack Reed, noting that these programs reduce poverty and improve public health in ways that benefit all Americans.

As NCPSSM’s Richtman continues his effort to sway GOP Senators, rallying the troops at the state-level may well be the path to blocking GOP attempts to privatize Medicare. Voters in states with Republican Senators must send this message to their elected official, “don’t touch my Medicare.” Let the movement to strengthen Medicare in these states begin today.

We Need Congress to Step Up and Fix Social Security, Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 3, 2016

Expect the nation’s Social Security program to be fully funded for nearly two decades, and Medicare’s solvency to continue courtesy of health care reforms. Social Security beneficiaries may even get a very small .2 percent cost of living (COLA) adjustment next year but will get wacked with a Medicare premium increase. These facts are reported in the recently leased 262 page report issued by the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare funds, transmitted to Congress and President Obama. This is the 76th report issued by the Trustees that financially reviews these two of the nation’s largest entitlement programs.

This 2016 Trustee Report, released on Jun 22, should be of interest to Rhode Island’s retirees who receive checks from Social Security, According to AARP, 153,349 Rhode Islanders received Social Security checks as of the end of 2014. Also, 22 percent of Rhode Island retirees depend on their Social Security check for 90 percent or more of their income. Their average benefit is $1,341 per month.
The Devils in the Details

The recently released 2016 Trustees Report notes there is now $2.81 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $23 billion more than last year and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.

Meanwhile, Social Security remains well-funded. In 2016, as the economy continues to improve, Social Security’s total income is projected to exceed its expenses. In fact, the Trustees estimate that total annual income will exceed program obligations until 2020.

The Trustees say that Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until the year 2034, the same as projected in last year’s Report. After that, Social Security will still have sufficient revenue to pay about 79% of benefits if no changes are made to the program.

Although the Trustees project a .2% Cost of Living Adjustment increase, retirees will be hit with a premium increase next year. Medicare Part B premiums are projected to increase by only a very small amount for about 70 percent of beneficiaries in 2017 from $104.90 to $107.60. The standard monthly premium is projected to increase from $121.80 to $149.00 while the annual deductible is projected to increase from $166 to $204 for all beneficiaries.

The Trustees peg Medicare solvency to the passage of healthcare reform, with the program paying full benefits until 2028, 11 years later than was projected prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act. However, this is two years earlier than projected in 2015.

Congress Must Step to the Plate

Responding to the Social Security Trustees report, recently released report, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, said, “While the Trustees once again report that the combined Old Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance Trust can pay full retirement, survivor and disability benefits for some time, we know that if no action is taken, benefits could be cut by nearly 25 percent in 2034, and families could lose up to $10,000 per year in benefits.”

“Social Security remains a critical part of the fabric of our lives to protect us from both expected and unexpected challenge,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins calls on Presidential candidates and those running for Congress and the Senate to make a commitment to strengthening Social Security and outline their plans for the fix. “Throughout the 2016 election, we’ll continue to push candidates to take action if elected,” she says.

As to Medicare, Jenkins adds, “This year’s Medicare Trustees report reinforces the recent progress that has been made through greater Medicare savings and lower costs per enrollee. The report also highlights the financial challenges that continue to face the Medicare program, which is projected to provide critical health coverage to 64 million Americans by 2020.”

“A typical senior today has an annual income of just under $25,000 and pays roughly one out of every six dollars of this in out-of-pocket health care costs. The more than 55 million older Americans who today depend on Medicare for guaranteed, affordable health coverage simply cannot afford more than they already pay,” says Jenkins.

The Solution Could Be Simple

Jenkins urges Congress to make simple solutions to bring stability to the nation’s Medicare program. She suggests Congress find ways to reduce high prescription drug costs, improve the nation’s health care outcomes, eliminate unnecessary diagnostic testing, curb excess paperwork, and identify waste and fraud in the program.

Adds, Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “What’s likely to be missing in headlines about today’s Social Security Trustees Report is that the program remains well-funded with total income, again, projected to exceed expenses. However, in order to head off a benefit cut in 2034 Washington should embrace the growing movement to lift the payroll tax cap and expand benefits for the millions of seniors struggling to get by on an average $1,300 retirement benefit.

The Trustees also project a tiny .2% cost of living adjustment next year yet Medicare premiums will increase in 2017, says Richtman. “Seniors continue to see their modest Social Security benefits eaten away by growing healthcare costs which illustrates, once again, that the current Social Security COLA formula isn’t accurately measuring seniors’ expenses. Congress needs to adopt a fully developed CPI for the elderly (CPI-E) and begin work on the many Social Security expansion bills now languishing in the House and Senate,” he adds.

This [Trustee’s] report reinforces the importance of ensuring that Social Security and Medicare are preserved and guaranteed, especially for working and middle class Rhode Islanders,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) who is a co-sponsor of the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act. “Reasonable measures, such as raising the cap on high-income contributions, should be considered by Congress to extend the solvency of these programs. I will continue to advocate for commonsense legislation that strengthens benefits for working families and ensures the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare,” he says.

RI. Reps Protect Social Security

Like Cicilline, Rep. Jim Langevin and Democratic Senators Jack Reed (D and Sheldon Whitehouse both view Social Security as an earned benefit and the primary source of income to millions of retirees that must be protected. The Rhode Island Congressional Delegation has fought off Republican efforts to privatize Social Security and have supported legislation to strengthen this program and Medicare.

It is very clear to aging advocates and to the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds that the next President and Congress put political differences aside to make legislative fixes to strengthen and ensure the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare.

The Trustees say this very clearly in their report, “Lawmakers have many policy options that would reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare. Lawmakers should address these financial challenges as soon as possible. Taking action sooner rather than later will permit consideration of a broader range of solutions and provide more time to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare.”

Political compromise will be the way to hammer out Social Security and Medicare reforms. When the dust is settled after the upcoming November president elections hopefully this message was delivered at the ballet box.