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 .

Nursing Home Care in the Spotlight

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 4, 2019

Following on the heels of its March 6 hearing, “Not Forgotten: Protecting Americans from Abuse and Neglect in Nursing Homes,” the Senate Finance Committee held its second nursing home hearing this year, “Promoting Elder Justice: A Call for Reform,” on July 23, in 215 Dirksen, to study proposed reforms to reduce neglect and abuse in the nation’s nursing homes and to put a spotlight on the need to reauthorize key provisions of the Elder Justice Act.

During the two hour and twenty-minute morning hearing, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) along 11 members of the Senate committee listened to the testimony of five panel witnesses.

In his opening statement, Grassley acknowledged that the work isn’t done yet to improving the care in the nation’s nursing homes and Congress must protect nursing home and assisted living residents and those in group living arrangements from harm. The Iowa Senator noted in the recently released U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report the federal agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, noted that while one-third of nursing home residents may experience harm while under the care of these facilities, in more than half of these cases, the harm was preventable.

Calls for Bipartisan Efforts to Improve Nursing Home Care

Grassley called on Congress to reauthorize programs, such as the Elder Justice Act, to put the brakes on the growing trend of elder an abuse fueled by social media.

Adds, Wyden, in his opening statement, there is now an opportunity for Congress to come together to hammer out bipartisan legislative reforms to fix the nation’s nursing home oversight efforts. He urged his fellow Senate committee members to work to reduce the instances of physical, sexual, mental and emotion abuse in nursing homes, that appears to be increasing. He also called for a redo to the federal nursing home rating system because it does not reflect the increased prevalence of abuse.

During the first panel, Megan H. Tucker, Senior Advisor for Legal Review, of the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), stated that abuse and neglect oftentimes are not properly identified, reported or even addressed. While most providers are delivering good care, Tucker warned that Health and Human Service safeguards are lacking.

Tucker testified that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should use data more effectively and close the gaps in their reporting process to ensure that abuse and neglect are identified and the deficiencies corrected.

Concluding the first panel, John E. Dicken, Director, Health Care, of the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), discussed a newly released GAO report, released at the hearing, that detailed a growing trend of abuse and neglect of residents. According to one GAO report findings, abuse deficiencies more than doubled between 2013 (430) and 2017 (875), with the greatest increase in actual harm and immediate jeopardy deficiencies, and that abuse is still under-reported, he said. The GAO report also expressed concern over “significant gaps” with CMS’s oversight.

Leading the second panel, Robert Blancato, Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, called on Congress to reauthorize, the Elder Justice Act. With elder abuse becoming a “national emergency,” he urged lawmakers to dedicate funding for Adult Protective Services at the local and state levels. Blancato also stressed the importance of strengthening the long-term care ombudsman program, continuing the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, authorizing an Advisory Board on Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation, and finally funding for elder abuse forensic centers.

President and CEO, Mark Parkinson, of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association (AHCA), representing nearly 10,000 of the 15,000 plus nursing homes in the country who provide care to nearly four million individuals each year, stated he was not at the hearing to defend poor care but to provide solutions to Congress to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Fixing the Problem

Parkinson testified that over the past seven years, facilities participating in AHCA’s quality initiative, have shown improvement in 18 of 24 quality measures. Specifically, there are less hospital readmissions, fewer antipsychotic medications being prescribed, staff are spending more time than ever before with residents and today’s nursing homes are more person-centered care today than ever before.

Parkinson called on lawmakers to improve employee background check systems, add patient satisfaction data to CMS’s nursing home rating system, address the severe staffing shortage and to adequate fund Medicaid.

Finally, Lori Smetanka, Executive Director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, ended the second panel discussions, by warning that more must be done to protect nursing home residents from abuse.

Smetanka urged Congress to take steps to enforce minimum requirements for sufficient staffing, establish standards and oversight for nursing home ownership and operations, prevent rollback of nursing home regulatory standards, increase the transparency of information and to strengthen and adequately fund elder justice provisions.

Now, with the Congress putting poor nursing home care on its policy radar screen, both Democratic and Republic congressional leadership must work closely together to come up with bipartisan solutions. Fix this problem once and for all.

Senate Finance Committee members — Senators Lankford, Stabenow, Daines, Menendez, Carper, Cardin, Warner, Casey, Brown, Cortez Masto, and Hassan – attended the July 23 hearing

To listen to this Senate Finance Committee hearing, go to http://www.c-span.org/video/?462733-1/finance.

For a copy of the GAO report, http://www.gao.gov/assets/710/700418.pdf.

Democrats Put High Drug Costs on Radar Screen

Published in Woonsocket Call on September 30, 2018

On August 21, at an afternoon Democratic Senate hearing titled “America Speaks Out: The Urgent Need to Tackle Health Care Costs and Prescription Drug Prices,” Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Ron Wyden (D-WA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tina Smith (D-MN), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Joe Manchin (D-WV), gathered to hear the personal stories of witnesses who have struggled with paying for the high cost of prescription drugs and listen to an expert who tracks price trends for prescription drugs widely used by older Americans.

In the last 18 years prescription drug prices have risen 3 times faster than physician and clinical services,” says DPCC’s chairwoman Stabenow in her opening statement. “We pay the highest prices in the world. The outrages prices force people to skip doses, split pills in half and even go without the medication they need,” she says, calling this problem a “matter of life and death,” says Stabenow.

Democrats believe health care to be a basic human right, while the GOP considers it to be a commodity to go to the highest bidder, adds Stabenow, denoting the philosophical differences of the two political parties.

Wyden, Ranking Member on the Senate Finance Committee who sits on the DPCC, recalled that two years ago when then presidential candidate Donald Trump was on the campaign trail pledged to make sure Medicare would negotiate like crazy to hold down costs for seniors and taxpayers. While Trump is well into one year and a half into his term, Americans year ad half into his term Americans believe it is crazy that we are still not negotiating to hold down the cost of medicine.

Wyden and his fellow DPCC committee members also call for Medicare to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Senate DPCCs Puts Spotlight on Rising Drug Costs

At the Senate’s DPCC’s hearing, Witness Nicole Smith-Holt, a Minnesota state employee, and mother of four children shared a tragic story about her 26-year old diabetic son, Alec, who had died because he could not afford his copay of $1,300 for diabetic supplies and insulin.

The Richfield, Minnesota resident recounted how her son tried to ration the insulin to make it last until his next paycheck, but he died as a result of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Stahis Panagides, an 80-year old Bethesda, Maryland retiree, testified that he could not afford to pay $ 400 per month for prescribed Parkinson’s medication. He could not pay for the new course of treatment, recommended by his neurologist, even with a supplemental Medicare plan, he says, so he just refused to take it.

Retired social worker John Glaser, a long-time grassroots organizer for the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, came before the Democratic committee, saying “Medicare drug benefits and the Affordable Care Act’s closing of the coverage ‘donut hole’ have made a huge difference in my life and are invaluable for the quality of my life. Without these improvements he would have spent about $5,000 one-of-pocket on prescription drugs last year, he notes.

Glaser also shared that his brother, who is afflicted with diabetes, heart problems, and kidney disease, takes over 50 pills every day. “If my brother had to pay the full price for all of those drugs, he’d be living on the street,” he says.

Marques Jones, who has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), told the Senators that his MS medication costs about $75,000 annually. Despite having robust insurance coverage, Jones’ annual out-of-pocket spending on drug co-pays and insurance premiums for his family of five is very high. This has caused the resident of Richmond, Virginia to become a vocal advocate for those who suffer from MS.

Finally, Leigh Purvis, Director, Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, a coauthor of the AARP Public Policy Institute’s annual RX Price Watch Reports, warned that today’s prescription drug price trends are not sustainable. “The current system is simply shifting costs onto patients and taxpayers while drug companies remain free to set incredibly high prices and increase them any time that they want,” says Purvis, noting that Congressional efforts to reduce prescription drug prices could save billions of dollars.

AARP Report Tracks Skyrocketing Drug Costs

One month after Senate’s DPCC’s hearing, a new AARP report, released on September 27, 2018, says that retail prices for many of the most commonly-used brand name drugs prescribed to older adults by older adults increased by an average of 8.4 percent in 2017, greater than the general inflation rate of 2.1 percent. The annual average cost of therapy for just one brand name drug increased to almost $6,800 in 2017, says the AARP researchers.

According to the new “Rx Price Watch Report: Trends in Retail Prices of Prescription Drugs Widely Used by Older Americans: 2017 Year-End Update,” released just days ago, revealed that for over a decade, brand name drug prices have “exceeded the general inflation rate of other consumer goods by a factor of two-fold to more than 100-fold.”

If retail drug price charges had reflected the general inflation rate between 2006 and 2017, the average annual cost for one brand name drug in 2017 would have been $2,178 instead of $6,798, said the AARP Public Policy report.

Taking multiple medications can be costly, says the AARP report. “For the average senior taking 4.5 medications each month, this would translate into an annual cost of therapy that is almost $21,000 less than the actual average cost of therapy in 2017 ($9,801 vs. $30,591), notes the findings of the AARP report.

“Despite years of relentless public criticism, brand name drug companies continue increasing the prices of their products at rates that far exceed general inflation,” said AARP Chief Public Policy Officer Debra Whitman, in a September 26 statement with the release of the AARP report. “It’s clear that we need long-term, meaningful policies that go beyond just hoping that the drug industry will voluntarily change its excessive pricing behavior,” adds Whitman.

“The average older American taking 4.5 prescription medications each month would have faced more than $30,000 in brand name costs last year,” adds Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, and co-author of the AARP report. “That amount surpasses the median annual income of $26,200 for someone on Medicare by more than 20 percent. No American should have to choose between paying for their drugs and paying for food or rent,” says Purvis.

Some highlights of AARP’s New Drug Cost Report

AARP report’s findings noted that brand name drug prices increased four times faster than the 2017 general inflation rate and that drug retail prices that year increased for 87 percent of the 267 brand name drugs studied.

Finally, research findings indicated that “retail prices for 113 chronic-use brand name drugs on the market since at least 2006 increased cumulatively over 12 years by an average of 214 percent compared with the cumulative general inflation rate of 25 percent between 2006 to 2017.”

In recent correspondence to the Secretary of the Health and Human Services, AARP calls for regulatory and legislative reforms that will allow the Secretary to be able to negotiate drug prices for Medicare, allowing the safe importation of lower cost drugs into the United States and ensuring that generic drugs can more easily enter the market. Now, AARP waits for a response.

Putting the breaks on the skyrocketing pharmaceutical costs might just be the bipartisan issue that the new Congress can tackle once the dust settles from the upcoming mid-term elections.

To watch DPCC’s August 21st Senate hearing, go to https://www.democrats.senate.gov/dpcc/hearings/senate-democrats-to-hold-hearing-with-americans-hurt-by-high-cost-of-prescription-drugs.

For a copy of AARP’s drug cost report, to http://www.aarp.org/rxpricewatch.