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

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.

Dems Listening to Calls to Strengthen and Expand Social Security, Medicare

Published in the Woonsocket Call on September 23, 2018

The political clock is ticking…The midterm elections are less than 50 days away and just days ago, the Washington, D.C.-based AARP released a poll of age 50 and older Ohio voters who say they are especially concerned about their health care and personal financial issues.

The Politico-AARP poll, conducted by Morning Consult, surveyed 1,592 registered voters in Ohio from September 2 to 11, 2018 with a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points. For voters 50 and older, the poll surveyed 841 registered voters and has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

Don’t Touch Our Social Security, Medicare”

According to the newly released AARP-Politico poll findings, the older voters identified key issues that will influence how they will cast their vote in November at the polls. The respondents viewed health care (81 percent) the most important campaign issue followed by Social Security (80 percent) and Medicare (76 percent) and prescription drugs (65 percent). But, a strong majority (74 percent) support preserving the state’s Medicaid expansion, says the pollsters. .

“With less than 50 days to go before Election Day, candidates in Ohio would be wise to listen to the state’s most powerful voting group: 50-plus voters,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer in a statement releasing the polls findings. “History shows older voters turn out in force in every election, and AARP is making sure they are energized and know where candidates stand on the issues.”

AARP is partnering with Politico to create a series titled “The Deciders,” (www.politico.com/magazine/thedeciders) that integrates original polling focused on 50-plus voters, reporting, data analysis and cutting-edge data visualization tools built by Politico’s specialized interactive team. The third edition in the series is focused on Ohio, a key election battleground state. Other recent polls surveyed voters in Arizona and Florida.

The AARP-Political Ohio poll findings say that 74 percent of age 50-plus voters “strongly support” (42 percent) or “somewhat support” (32 percent) preserving Ohio’s Medicaid expansion which extended Medicaid eligibility for low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act.

Ninety one percent of the older voter respondents say they are “very concerned” (55 percent) or “somewhat concerned” (36 percent) about their utility bills increasing. In addition, 69 percent of these respondents “strongly support” (27 percent) or “somewhat support” (42 percent) creating an Ohio retirement savings plan.

The AARP-Political poll also noted that 74 percent of 50-plus voters say opioid addiction is “a very serious problem” in the state right now, and 61 percent say the government is not doing enough to address it. And, 70 percent of the older voters “strongly agree” that jobs and the economy are major issues this election season. Only one in five (23 percent) feel “well-prepared” to get and keep a job, says the researchers.

Finally, nearly half (46 percent) of 50-plus voters think government is unprepared to prevent a cyber-attack on public infrastructure.

Democrats Zero in on Senior Issues

While poll after poll of older voters sends the message “Don’t touch my Social Security or Medicare” the GOP turns a deaf ear, but the Democrats listen. Following President Donald Trump’s claim that Democrats are trying to cut Social Security at a campaign rally in Montana, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.), Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) on September 13, announced the bicameral Expand Social Security Caucus, over 150 members, including 18 Senators.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) David Cicilline (D-RI) James Langevin (D-RI) are members of the newly formed Expand Social Security Caucus.

Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works, an advocacy nonprofit group pushing for expanding Social Security, emceed the press conference and co-authored an opinion piece in The Hill celebrating the caucus launch.

Lawson noted, “We have members in the caucus from all corners of the country, from all parts of the Democratic Party. We’re waiting on some Republicans who might join, but they’ll be welcome when they realize that the American people are united in calling for an expansion of Social Security.”

The mission of this new congressional caucus is to push for the expansion of Social Security, one of the most popular and successful government programs. Last year alone, Social Security lifted 22 million Americans, including more than 15 million seniors, out of poverty. Before Social Security, nearly half of the nation’s seniors were living in poverty, says a caucus press release.

The caucus will ensure that expanding Social Security is a key part of the Democratic agenda before the midterm elections and next year and beyond. Over a dozen bills have already been introduced in the Senate and House to expand Social Security. With the caucus now playing a key role in expanding and strengthening Social Security, look for more bills to be introduced next Congress.

At the official unveiling of the new Congressional caucus, Sanders said, “We are here today to say very loudly and very clearly that at a time when millions of seniors are trying to survive on $12,000 or $13,000 a year, our job is not to cut Social Security. Our job is to expand Social Security so that everyone in America can retire with dignity and respect.” T

“Social Security is a lifeline for seniors and Americans with disabilities. We won’t let it be cut by one cent – and instead we will fight to expand it,” Co-chair Warren said. “The rich and powerful have rigged our economy to make themselves richer, while working families face a massive retirement crisis. If this government really works for the people, it should protect and expand Social Security.”

“A number of bills have been introduced in the Senate and House to expand Social Security, including legislation written by Sanders last year to lift the cap on taxable income that goes into Social Security, requiring the wealthiest Americans – those who make over $250,000 a year – to pay their fair share of Social Security taxes. That bill would increase Social Security benefits and extend the program’s solvency for the next 60 years.

Joining the caucus leadership Thursday were Social Security Works, the Alliance for Retired Americans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Latinos for a Secure Retirement, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the American Federation of Government Employees, the Arc of the United States, the Center for Responsible Lending and Global Policy Solutions.

With the midterm elections looming, the progressive and centralists of the Democratic party must put aside their differences to work together to support Democratic Congressional candidates who can win. One unifying political issue may well be supporting the expansion and strengthening of Social Security, Medicare and ensuring that Americans can be covered by affordable health insurance. Stay tuned.