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

Tackling surge of COVID-19 in Nursing Homes

Published ion RINewToday on December 15, 2020

Over the months, while public health officials watch the uptick in new COVID-19 cases, Congress releases two reports, one taking a snapshot of nursing home performance and resident deaths throughout the first eight months of the pandemic, and the other one sounding the alarm about the impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s nursing homes and warning it is now getting worse.  

About three months ago, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced the release of a 67-page report on care provided in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities throughout the nation during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The comprehensive report, titled “COVID-19 and Nursing Homes: What Went Wrong and Next Steps,” reviewed U.S. nursing home performance during the early fall and summer months of the pandemic. According to the report, more than two out of five deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States are linked to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Stopping the Spread of COVID-19 in Nursing Homes

“Partisan finger pointing, rather than meaningful analysis, cannot serve as a useful guide for policymakers in crafting the necessary bipartisan reforms in response to the unprecedented challenges facing this entire sector and its employees working on the frontlines during this pandemic,” says the Senate Finance committee report, released on Sept. 23. It stressed that suggestions that coronavirus-related deaths in nursing facilities “are attributable solely, or even primarily, to acts or omissions by the current administration falls well short of addressing the multi-faceted problems in this sector.”

The report added, “Such a one-dimensional approach necessarily overlooks several factors that fueled the outbreak of COVID-19 in nursing homes across the United States, and around the world. Minimizing, or devoting scant attention to such factors, makes it enormously difficult for members of Congress to come together in support of long-overdue reforms and bipartisan solutions to the complex problems facing nursing homes today.” 


The report, produced by the majority staff of the Senate Finance Committee, examined what steps might have prevented these fatalities by minimizing the spread of COVID-19 in the facilities and discussed what actions could be taken now to slow the surge of deaths in nursing homes during this and future pandemics.  

While new coronavirus cases have surged to nursing homes throughout the nation and despite federal and state efforts to stall the spreading of the virus, the Senate Finance Committee report noted that facilities have already received significant relief assistance from Congress and the Trump administration totaling approximately $21 billion in addition to technical assistance, guidance and training.

The report’s findings noted that for years preceding the COVID-19 outbreak in March, private nursing homes have had widespread deficiencies in infection control and prevention.  The majority staff also found that state governments and health officials in some of the hard-hit states fell short of their responsibility to ensure quality care, and in multiple states, staffing and supply shortages persisted for years prior to the pandemic. 

Nursing homes around the world have struggled with many of the same issues as the United States during the pandemic, including Europe, the United Kingdom and Canada, noted the report.

State governments in some cases also failed to enforce federal guidelines for these care facilities as required through their participation in Medicare and Medicaid, particularly guidance provided to minimize coronavirus transmission in their facilities, noted the report. In addition, the majority staff found that nursing home staff who work in multiple facilities unknowingly played a key role in spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes. 


Finally, the Senate Finance Committee report also noted that several governors pressured nursing facilities to accept COVID-19 patients when personal protective equipment (PPE) was still in short supply and some did so even after the federal government made temporary hospitals available in their jurisdictions. 
·       
The Senate Finance Committee report provided, to members of the Senate Finance Committee with detailed background information on the many challenges that nursing homes continue to face during this year’s public health crisis. It provides Congressional lawmakers with specific recommendations, based on best practices that some facilities and public officials adopted during the ongoing pandemic to protect their residents and staff.  It also includes additional suggestions to better protect the nation’s older Americans from elder abuse, neglect and exploitation.

 
Updating the Grim Toll of COVID-19 Deaths in Nursing Homes 

Last week, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the Special Committee on Aging, and Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ranking Member of the Finance Committee, released their report that warned that the already dire situation in nursing homes is worsening.

“It’s with great sadness that we are once again giving a grim update on the toll that COVID-19 is continuing to take on nursing homes. It’s abundantly clear that inaction has contributed to the loss of more than 104,000 mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends and neighbors who lived and worked in nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the country,” said Senators Casey and Wyden, in a statement announcing the report released on Dec. 10. “Experts are predicting that we are heading into the most severe months of the COVID-19 pandemic, marred by climbing caseloads and increasing stress on our Nation’s health care system,” they say, calling on the Senate colleagues to hammer out and pass a comprehensive COVID-19 relief bill. 

According to the eight-page report, entitled, “The Cost of Inaction: 19 Deaths an Hour and Rising,” last month, more than 15 nursing home residents died from COVID-19 per hour, with 19 residents dying each hour during the week of November 22, 2020, the most recent week reported.

The Senate Aging Committee report noted that the number of weekly COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents has increased 133 percent since Labor Day, and 96 percent among nursing home workers during the same period. Workforce shortages have also increased since Labor Day: In November, one in six nursing homes nationwide reported that they do not have a sufficient workforce, says the report.

The Democratic Senators warned that COVID-19 cases will surge in nursing homes if Congress does not come together to hammer out bipartisan legislation to stop the spread of the pandemic.

These new report findings serve as a warning as to what will come if Congress does not come together to alleviate the COVID-19 crisis in nursing homes, says Casey and Wyden. It calls for a national strategy to save lives in nursing homes, including providing facilities with a sufficient supply of PPE, ample access to testing, resources for vaccine distribution, funding for strike teams and adequate workforce supports, and accountability measures to uphold resident rights and permit safe visits with family.

Finally, in the Ocean State…

Just days ago,the latest update of the AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard, released by AARP’s Public Policy Institute, unveiled a new report in a series on improving the care of care provided in the nation’s nursing homes. “Rhode Island’s nursing homes continue to face alarming trends,” says the AARP report.

Using data released by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services—which is self-reported by nursing homes—the AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard to provide four-week snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff. The dashboard will continue to be updated every four weeks.

In the four weeks analyzed, from October 19 to November 15, AARP’s dashboard reports that Rhode Island nursing homes had a dramatic increase in resident and staff cases, and a higher percentage of facilities reporting they are without a 1-week supply of PPE.

“With coronavirus surging across the country, nursing home residents and staff remain in grave danger as the virus reenters nursing homes and other facilities at an alarming pace,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell.  “Facilities continue to have shortages of the staff and PPE needed to keep residents and workers safe and stop the spread. Our state leaders must act now to save lives,” she said.

Connell added, “AARP will continue fighting to protect nursing home residents now and offering solutions to improve our long-term care system for the decades to come.”

For copies of Senate reports go to: https://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/The%20Cost%20of%20Inaction.%2019%20Deaths%20and%20Hour%20and%20Rising.pdf

https://www.finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/SFCNursingHomesCOVIDMajorityStaffSFCReport23Sep2020FINAL.pdf.

The complete dashboard is available at aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard.