Voter reform must include accessibility for seniors and persons with disabilities

Published in RINewsToday on May 17, 2021

It’s over 540 days until the November 8, 2022 mid-term elections. The clock is ticking, say voter rights advocates, who are gearing up to push back at voting bills they see as restrictive being introduced at multiple state houses.  

As of March 24, 2021, GOP State legislators, responding to claims of voter fraud and election irregularities in last year’s Presidential election, have introduced 361 bills seen as restrictive by voter rights advocates in 47 states. “That’s 108 more than the 253 similar bills tallied as of February 19, 2021 — a 43 percent increase in little more than a month,” according to data compiled by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

“These measures have begun to be enacted. Five restrictive bills have already been signed into law. In addition, at least 55 restrictive bills in 24 states are moving through legislatures: 29 have passed at least one chamber, while another 26 have had some sort of committee action (e.g., a hearing, an amendment, or a committee vote),” says the nonpartisan law and policy institute, noting that in some cases “a single bill can have provisions with both restrictive and expansive effects”.

President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats are pushing back at GOP efforts they see as “suppressing voting” and introduced H.R. 1, For the People Act, which would be intended to “expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws, end partisan gerrymandering and create new ethics for federal lawmakers”.  The bill is considered to be the largest overhaul of U.S. voting in a generation, and is opposed by GOP lawmakers, who call it overreaching.

Fix Voter Access Issues for Seniors, and Persons with Disabilities

Although newspapers regularly cover both voter security and voter rights issues, voter access issues impacting seniors and persons with disabilities don’t receive adequate ink. 

Now, a national report’s findings reveal that some obstacles still exist for disabled voters at the polls. The recently released U.S. Election Commission (EAC)’s comprehensive 52-page national report, “Disability and Voting Accessibility in the 2020 Elections,” identified accessibility issues for voters with disabilities.  The study focused on polling place access, mail and absentee voting accessibility, election administration challenges, COVID-19 obstacles, and community involvement.

As the EAC plans for future elections, this data will be crucial in helping officials adopt new voting technologies and address the ever-growing accessibility needs of an aging demographic.

“In an election year with so many obstacles and unknowns, the improvement in accessibility for voters with disabilities is a testament to the hard work and dedication of election officials,” EAC Chairman Ben Hovland said, in a February 16, 2021 statement announcing the release of the report. “We are proud of election officials’ accomplishments during an especially difficult election season. This study provides the EAC with indispensable feedback as we continue our work with election officials and accessibility experts to ensure all Americans can vote privately and independently,” he said.

The EAC spearheaded the study under clearinghouse and research mandates outlined in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The goal of the study was to analyze the 2020 election experience for voters with disabilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on a similar 2012 study also conducted by the EAC in conjunction with Professors Schur and Kruse, of Rutgers University, the project launched immediately after the 2020 general election.

The 2020 study engaged 2,569 respondents including 1,782 voters with disabilities and 787 voters without disabilities. As in 2012, the oversampling of voters with disabilities was designed to produce a sample large enough for more accurate measurements and reliable breakdowns by demographic variables and type of disability.

Compared to 2012, overall results show election officials made great progress serving voters with disabilities and ensuring they could cast a private and independent ballot. Obstacles continue to exist, but improvements were evident.

According to the researchers, voting difficulties among people with disabilities declined markedly from 2012 to 2020. About one in nine voters with disabilities encountered difficulties voting in 2020. This is double the rate of people without disabilities, but a sizeable drop from 2012.

The study’s findings indicated that among people with disabilities who voted in person, 18 percent reported difficulties, compared to 10 percent of people without disabilities. The disability figure is down from 30 percent in 2012.

During a general election that experienced a shift to mail and absentee voting, 5 percent of voters with disabilities had difficulties using a mail ballot, compared to 2 percent of voters without disabilities. One in seven (14 percent) of voters with disabilities using a mail ballot needed assistance or encountered problems in voting, compared to only 3 percent of those without disabilities. 

The researchers found that five of six (83 percent) of voters with disabilities voted independently without any difficulty in 2020, compared to over nine of ten (92 percent) of voters without disabilities. Voting difficulties were most common among people with vision and cognitive impairments.

Close to 75 percent of voters with disabilities voted with a mail ballot or early in-person in 2020. This represents a significant increase from 2012 and is higher than the two-thirds of non-disabled voters who did so in 2020, say the researchers. No doubt the pandemic influenced the increase.

Finally, the researchers note that people with disabilities voted at a 7 percent lower rate than people without disabilities of the same age, pointing toward a continuing disability gap in voter turnout.

Senate Moves to Remove Barriers for Seniors and Disabled

Last month, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules & Administration, introduced the Accessible Voting Act, legislation to remove barriers to voting for seniors and people with disabilities.  This legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Notably, an all Democratic sponsorship at this time.

This legislative action was triggered by a Government Accountability Study that found that combined deficiencies in architectural and voting booth access resulted in only 17 percent of polling places being fully accessible in 2016. The Accessible Voting Act would make polling places and voting systems more accessible, expand options for casting a ballot in federal elections and establish an Office of Accessibility within the Election Assistance Commission, dedicated to overseeing and supporting state efforts to make voting more accessible.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. That right is jeopardized when seniors and people with disabilities are pushed to the margins by barriers that prevent or make it hard for them to cast their ballots,” said Senator Casey in a statement announcing the introduction of the bill. “The Accessible Voting Act would remove these barriers and support the ongoing efforts by state and local agencies to make voting a truly equitable and accessible process,” he said.

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is not possible for too many Americans. Inaccessible polling places and voting booths, limited access to transportation, insufficient options for casting ballots, and inaccessible voter information websites are all obstacles to voting for millions of Americans,” adds Klobuchar. “The Accessible Voting Act would help ensure that we remove barriers to voting for citizens with disabilities, the elderly, Native Americans, and those with limited English proficiency. Our democracy works best when all citizens can make their voices heard at the ballot box,” she said.

“Despite existing federal law protecting the rights of people with disabilities, far too often, these rights are overlooked and forgotten in our electoral process. The Accessible Voting Act seeks to bolster the protections for voters with disabilities, as established by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Help America Vote Act, and ensure equitable access to every American voter in our democracy for years to come,” said Curt Decker, executive director, National Disability Rights Network.

The Accessible Voting Act would create a national resource center on accessible voting to conduct cultural competency training for election officials and poll workers.  It would establish a new state grant program for the Office of Accessibility to provide dedicated funding to improve accessibility to voting. Finally, it would provide voting information and resources through accessible websites so voters know how to register to vote and cast a ballot.

As Congress grapples with legislation coming from both parties to tighten voter security on one hand, and ease voter restrictions on the other, it will be a significant failure to not also address the issues of accessibility for our population facing aging and disability obstacles.

Cicilline Pushes for House Aging Committee

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 4, 2021

Yesterday, the 116th Congress came to an end, with the new Congressional session convening that day with the swearing in of lawmakers elected on Nov. 3, 2020.   Some political observers say that legislative gridlock during this Congress made it the least productive in the last fifty years.  GovTrack.us, reported that of 16,587 bills thrown into the legislative hopper, 252 became enacted laws, and 712 resolutions were passed.

During a Fox interview last February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) candidly admitted he prevented the consideration of hundreds of bills passed by the House that were sent over to the Senate for consideration.   McConnell’s “Legislative Graveyard” created by his controlling the legislative agenda by blocking debate, markup and refusing to allow a vote on House proposed legislation, was widely reported by the media and documented in a 33-page report, “2020 Democracy Score Card,” released last September by Common Cause, a watch dog advocacy group.

The results of tomorrow’s Georgia Senate runoff will determine if the GOP can maintain legislative control of the Senate. If Senate Democratic candidates win their seats, the Senate Democratic caucus will have the majority with 50 Senate seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris having a tie breaking vote. But if McConnell, called “the Grim Reaper” by his critics, continues to maintains political control of the upper chamber, Democratic legislative proposals introduced to improve the quality of life of America’s seniors and to help those struggling to financially make ends meet, would be rejected.  

Legislative Proposals to be Reconsidered by New Congress

During the116th Congress, Washington, DC-based aging advocacy groups, including the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) , AARP, Social Security Works, Leadership Council on Aging, and National Council on Aging, pushed for passage of legislative proposals to enhance the quality of life of America’s seniors and to strengthen and expand Social Security and Medicare, to keep these programs fiscally sound.  As the new Congress begins, lawmakers might consider bringing back legislative proposals that were not enacted in the previous Congressional session because of a Republican-controlled Senate.  Here are a few legislative proposals that have some merit and I hope to see reintroduced this year:

Congressman John Larson (D-Conn.) called on Congress to finally address the Social Security “Notch” issue. By ignoring this issue, workers born in 1960 and 1961, would likely see lower Social Security retirement benefits in the future, charged NCPSSM.  Last session, Larson, who chairs the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, introduced the “Social Security COVID Correction and Equity Act,” to increase benefits for those born in 1960 and 1961 without impacting the benefits for any other beneficiary. 

Larson also introduced the “Social Security 2100 Act” to strengthen and expand Social Security.  The landmark legislation would keep the program financially healthy for more than 75 years, while boosting benefits for all retirees. Congress must work during the 117th session to protect and expand the nation’s Social Security program.

The late Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Chair of the House Oversight Committee, introduced the “Lower Drug Costs Now Act” which the House passed last session, would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription prices with Big Pharma, which would save the government and seniors nearly $350 billion in drug costs. The bill would also expand traditional Medicare by adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits. 

Additionally, a bipartisan crafted bill, the “Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act,” introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), was not allowed to be considered on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader McConnell.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, this legislation would save taxpayers $95 billion, reduce out-of-pocket spending by $72 billion and finally reduce premiums by $1 billion.

Almost three months ago, the Social Security Administration announced that approximately 70 million Americans would see a meager 1.3 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) increase to Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income.  With retirees experiencing financial difficulties during the pandemic, a $20 increase in their monthly check might not help them to pay for spiraling health care and drug costs, along with the expenses of purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to keep them safe. 

Following the announcing of the 2021 COLA, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation Committee, introduced the “Emergency Social Security COLA for 2021 Act” to provide Social Security beneficiaries with a 3 percent increase (or a $250 per month flat increase) which would reduce the impact of the small 2021 COLA increase. 

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act,” 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.  Days after the introduction of the Senate bill, Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), signed on as a cosponsor of the House version.  

This legislative proposal 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.

New Push to Reestablish House Aging Committee

“After a lifetime of hard work, seniors should be able to enjoy their retirement years with dignity and peace of mind,” says Rhode Island’s Cicilline. “It’s the best way to secure the future of Medicare and Social Security, bring down the cost of prescription drugs, and find solutions for housing, transportation and long-term care issues that are especially important to Rhode Island seniors,” he says.

A long-time advocate for seniors, Cicilline announces in this weekly commentary his intentions of reintroducing a House resolution in the 117th Congress to reestablish the House Aging Committee

During the previous three Congressional sessions, Cicilline, representing the state’s first legislative district, introduced a House Resolution (just 245 words) to reestablish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. Two of the times a Republican-controlled House blocked consideration of the House Resolution. 

According to Cicilline, the House can easily create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by just approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other aspects.  Funding would be up to the Appropriations Committee. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

The previous House Aging Committee was active from 1974 to 1993 (until it was disbanded because of budgetary issues) put the spot light on an array of senior issues including elder abuse, helped increase home care benefits for older adults and helped establish research and care centers for Alzheimer’s disease.  

Cicilline noted that a House Aging Committee would perform comprehensive studies on aging policy issues, funding priorities, and trends.  Like its predecessor, its efforts would not be limited by narrow jurisdictional boundaries of the standing committee but broadly at targeted aging policy issues, he notes.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get the job done,” says Cicilline.

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.

Updated on Jan. 4, 2021

LCAO Calls for Fourth Stimulus Bill to Protect the Health and Well-Being of Seniors

Published in the Wooonsocket Call on April 19, 2020

As part of the Economic Impact Payment provision in the recently enacted $ 2.2 trillion stimulus bill, at press time about 80 million Americans have already received their $ 1,200 stimulus check ($2,400 for joint filers) through direct deposit. But for those 70 million Americans waiting for this payment by paper check, this Congressional handout may not be delivered to their mail box by early May, predict a Democratic Senator.

While the U.S. Treasury Department denies that embossing President Donald Trump’s signature on the “memo” section of the check will delay the delivery of paper checks, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.) disagrees.

A Break in Protocol

In an April 15 statement, Wyden stated: “Donald Trump is further delaying cash payments to millions of Americans struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table to feed his ego. Only this president would try to make a pandemic and economic catastrophe all about him.”

According to an article published in the Washington Post on April 14, “It will be the first time a president’s name appears on an IRS disbursement, whether a routine refund or one of the handful of checks the government has issued to taxpayers in recent decades either to stimulate a down economy or share the dividends of a strong one.”

The Washington Post article, penned by Reporter Lisa Rein, reported that Trump had initially approached Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who oversees the Internal Revenue Service, to be allowed to sign the checks. “But the president is not an authorized signer for legal disbursements by the U.S. Treasury. It is standard practice for a civil servant to sign checks issued by the Treasury Department to ensure that government payments are nonpartisan,” says the article.

Political insiders say that we can expect to see a fourth stimulus package hammered out between the Democratic-controlled House, the GOP-led Senate and Trump, to pump billions to jumpstart the nation’s sputtering economy. A second round of cash payments may well be part of this economic stimulus package, they say.

“We could very well do a second round,” said President Donald Trump at a White House news conference held over a week ago. “It is absolutely under serious consideration,” he said.

Last week’s commentary publicized Max Richtman, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, call to Congress to protect seniors in a fourth stimulus package (go to https://herbweiss.blog/2020/04/12/congress-must-protect-seniors-in-phase-four-stimulus-package/).

The continuing political battle over crafting the fourth stimulus bill has been put on hold for now with Democratic and WRepublican congressional leaders extending recess. After conferring with public health experts, the House and Senate will not come back into session until, Monday, May 4th.

Calling on Congress to Protect Seniors During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In an April 8 letter, the Washington, DC-based Leadership Council on Aging Organizations (LCAO), representing 69 national nonprofit organizations, urged Congressional lawmakers to ensure that a fourth stimulus package will protect the health and wellbeing of seniors and their families. LCAO’s 19-page communication provides over 50 recommendations (in the areas of housing services, income security and health and community resources) that are key to helping and providing the needed support to assist seniors cope with the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Specially, LCAO calls on Congress to put funding for affordable housing in a fourth stimulus bill, by funding $ 1.4 billion for federally assisted housing supports to make up for vacancies along with decreased rents from HUD-and USDA-assisted older adult residents, and for emergency housing assistance. Investing $1 billion for new Section 202 Homes would result in short-and long-term jobs as well as 3,800 affordable homes becoming available with service coordinators, says LCAO. Congress was also requested to allocate $450 million in emergency assistance for HUD-assisted senior housing communities, too.

LCAO opposes any attempts to weaken the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs. The aging group strongly resists any efforts to include a provision in the stimulus bill that would eliminate the payroll contributions to these programs and pushes for the expansion of Social Security and Supplemental (SSI) benefits to enhance the income security of America’s retirees.

Over 10 million workers and retirees have earned benefits under multiemployer pension plans, says LCAO, urging Congress in their letter to allocate sufficient funds to protect the “hard-earned benefits” of these retirees.

With a growing number of the nation’s seniors relying on the support of caregivers, LCAO calls for support of older adult caregivers and children through the expansion of the refundable tax credit for “other dependents.”

Within the next five years, 25 percent of the workforce will be age 55 and over, says LCAO, noting that it becomes crucial to provide adequate funding to the Senior Community Service Employee Program for workforce training.

It’s important to protect seniors from confusing and unfair billing hospitals and payment scams. This can be accomplished by establishing standards for billing that will help seniors manage the aftermath of health care costs due to the pandemic.

Each year, Medicare loses $60 billion to fraud and abuse. LCAO also requests $20 million for the Senior Medicare Patrol to educate Medicare beneficiaries on combating fraud and abuse scams.

LCAO’s letter also asked Congress for adequate funding of mass testing for COVID-19, data collection and accelerate Medicare enrollment to provide seniors and people with disabilities with access to needed medical treatment, two populations with the highest risk for being afflicted by the devastating virus. Congress must also ensure access and affordability to prescription drugs, says the Washington, DC-based aging advocacy group.

LCAO urged Congress to give states sufficient Medicaid funding to keep hundreds of thousands of Medicaid recipients from losing health coverage, which would increase the risk of these individuals spreading the COVID-19 virus.

The need to social distancing may force day care centers to close. LCAO says that a fourth stimulus bill package might add language within the Medicare and Medicaid Home and Community Based Service funding to authorize states to apply retainer payments to adult day care centers for the purpose of providing services to seniors outside the physical center.

LCAO also made a recommendation to prevent the unnecessary transfers of seniors to hospitals and nursing homes and support those recovering from COVID-19 by increasing beneficiary access to home health care by eliminating Medicare’s requirement that they be home bound to quality for this benefit.

LCAO’s letter supported the expanded access to hospice care by allowing physician assistants to certify need and to create a federal fund to identify and set up alternative care sites to nursing homes that meet the same minimum federal standards of care.

LCAO pushed for an additional $50 million to fund the Medicare State Health Insurance Program, a program providing unbiased, free and personalized information to assist seniors to chooses Medicare products, to help seniors understand their specific health care coverage needs under this COVID emergency.

The fourth stimulus bill, says LCAO, must also include funding to ensure providers in health care facilities and at community-based programs, be given personal protective equipment. These providers should be provided free child care and sick leaved during this crisis, too.

Considered “a frontline resource in the battling the pandemic,” LCAO calls for the adequate funding to Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program, administered by the Health Resources Administration.

LCAO, noting the importance of federal programs that assist seniors to stay at home (including the Older Americans Act that directly serve seniors and caregivers, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the largest federal nutrition program), asks Congress to increase funding, benefits and streamline the application process to these programs to address healthcare and food needs during this pandemic.

With the COVID-19 virus spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities, LCAO calls for more funding to the nation’s long-term care ombudsman program for remote online training and education of nursing facility staff and volunteers, and to the National Ombudsman Resource Center for training materials.

With elder abuse and neglect cases in the community reaching 63,000 in 2018 and an expected surge in incidences due to the pandemic, LCAO calls for funding of $ 120 million for the nation’s state and local Adult Protective Services programs in the next stimulus bill. Also, allocating $4.1 billion for the Social Service Block Grant Program can provide critical services to vulnerable seniors through adult protective services, adult day care and in-home support services, congregate and home delivered meals, case management programs.

Finally, in a fourth economic response package, LCAO calls on lawmakers to include $15 million for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and $10 million for the Senior Companion program to provide volunteer opportunities for seniors in their communities during the pandemic crisis. Congress might also consider “easing or suspending the current age requirements for participation,” to allow younger seniors to participate.

Remember Your Older Constituents

With the Trump Administration and GOP lawmakers pushing to put billions of dollars into the fourth stimulus bill to support the nation’s large corporations and small businesses, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for Congress to not forget the needs of the nation’s seniors. If you run into your Congressman or Senator, make sure you urge them to seriously consider the needs of their older constituents.

To get a copy of LCAO’s letter to Congress, go to https://www.lcao.org/files/2020/04/LCAO-April-2020-Letter-for-COVID-19-Package-4-FINAL.docx.pdf .