Published in RINewsToday on March 20, 2023
With oversight of the state’s aging programs and services scattered among state agencies charged with overseeing a fragmented long-term care (LTC) system, House Deputy Majority Leader Lauren Carson (D-District 75, Newport) tossed H 5224 into the legislative hopper. The bill calls for the creation of a Special Legislative Commission (to be referred to as House Study Commission), with 14 members, to study and provide recommendations to coordinate the state’s program and services provided to older residents. The commission, charged with taking a comprehensive look at the funding, coordination and delivery of state agency programs and services to older Rhode Islanders, would be required to report its findings and recommendations to the House no later than Feb. 7, 2024, and it would expire on May 7, 2024.
According to House Communications Director Larry Berman, “Legislation to create commissions are requested when issues need greater study than just one hearing. Commissions usually consist of House members, along with experts in the field, who will meet on multiple occasions and then develop recommendations to the House.”
The Nuts and Bolts
The House Study Commission’s legislative charge would include making a comprehensive study of key statistics that includes compiling demographic and financial statistics, and health status of older Rhode Islanders, and taking a look at their strengths and vulnerabilities to enable them to stay in the community. It would assess federal, state and local programs available, examining duplication of services, and provide recommendations as to how to eliminate red tape and better coordinate services among state agencies to improve the delivery of programs and services.
Its final report would also review and provide recommendations for the funding of services through State, Federal, and private grants, and provide recommendations for more efficient distribution and use of these dollars. It would also include making recommendations for the creation of a portal to provide and coordinate aging programs and services in the areas of employment, education, independent living, accessibility, and advocacy, as well as local older adult centers and services.
Also, recommendations would be provided on mental health, transportation, food access, and health care. The commission would also explore and provide recommendations for additional regionalization of services.
Aging Organizations and Advocates push for passage
Last week, the primary sponsor of H 5224, and supporters, testified before the House Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee to give their thoughts about the creation of a House Study Commission and its positive impact on the delivery of programs and services to older Rhode Islanders.
Carson, the primary sponsor, opened up the hearing on the legislation telling lawmakers that many programs for older Rhode Islanders fall in different places around the state. “Even professionals are having problems navigating the system, never mind family, friends and parents,” she says, referencing a conversation she had with a Director of a Newport-based Senior Center, discussing the challenges during the COVID pandemic to navigate the system at state-level, providing services to her older clients.
“If we look back over the last 20 years, we used to have a cabinet-level position on Aging, then we had a Division on Aging, and now we have an Office on Aging,” says Carson, noting that we have an increasing amount of older people in Rhode Island. She called for lawmakers to return the Office of Healthy Aging at a cabinet-level.
By creating a House Study Commission, lawmakers can look in an organizational way at how programs are being offered to seniors,” says Carson.
According to George Neubauer, Chair of the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island (SACRI), an advocacy coalition representing 21 organizations, told lawmakers that SACRI had called for candidates at its Gubernatorial forum held last August to create a Rhode Island Strategic Plan on Aging. This plan would help the state look at its infrastructure and coordination of services for its rapidly growing older population, he said. At this time Rhode Island has no such plan, he said.
In his testimony, Neubauer stated: “While the purpose of this proposed House Study Commission does not specifically call for development of a state Strategic Plan on Aging, it does call for a comprehensive look at our older population. “It would be charged with providing recommendations of collaboration, coordination within agencies, funding of services, and recommendations in areas of importance to older adults’ needs and quality of life, he added.
“A number of states have developed what are sometimes referred to as Master Plans on Aging (including California, Massachusetts and New York). A Master Plan could be a roadmap to help the state transform its infrastructure and coordinate services for its older persons. The findings and recommendations of this study Commission could lead to development of such a plan for Rhode Island,” says Maureen Maigret, former Director of the Rhode Island Department of Elderly Affairs (now the Office of Healthy Aging) and Chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council.
It is now time for the creation of the House Study Commission, says Vincent Marzullo, who served 31 years as a career federal civil rights and social justice administrator at the National Service Agency, and a well-known aging advocate. “For the first time in recorded history, there are more people over the age of 64 in the world, than children under five. In Rhode Island, over 31 percent of residents are age 55 or older, and by 2030 one-quarter of our population will be over 65,” he says.
“Don’t we now have an obligation to ensure better healthcare, safety, housing, livability, caregiving, etc. for this aging community?” asked Marzullo, noting that during the pandemic more than 90% of the deaths were individuals over 60 —- and 53% of overall deaths were congregate care residents.
“With the lessons learned over the past two years and the devastating impact of COVID on our older adults, it’s critical that we reexamine our aging infrastructure, the needs for services, and the local service capabilities to this growing population, adds Marzullo, calling for “a serious, adult conversation that is long overdue to take place with the aging community, service providers and lawmakers about designing our plan for a more ‘Age-Friendly’ RI, which supports local senior centers as the local hub for the delivery of services.”
Deborah Burton, Executive Director of RI Elder Info, said that enacting H 5224 is “an essential step” towards improving the lives of older Rhode Islanders. “By studying our current services and initiatives, identifying future needs, and identifying potential areas for improvement, we can ensure that all older adults in our state have access to the resources they need to achieve wellbeing and maintaining maximum independence in ways that value, empower and engage them,” she said.
Carmela Greer, Executive Director of Edward King House Senior Center, gave her views as to why it is important to establish a House Aging Commission authorized by H 5224. “This opportunity to document who does what, when, for whom, with what dollars is a common-sense approach to building a comprehensive cost-effective way to care for the other of our most vulnerable populations second only to children,” she said.
According to Greer, who also serves as Policy Committee Lead for the RI Senior Center Directors Association, once this policy road map is designed, “smart decisions can be made to establish where the money can be saved, where duplication can be eliminated, and where existing funding can be re-directed, where duplication can be eliminated, and where existing funding can be re-directed to serve all parties involved.”
In concluding her testimony, Greer said: “We don’t want to re-invent the wheel. We want to fix the one we have.”
Where House Leadership Stands…
House Minority Leader Michael L. Chippendale (R-District 40, Coventry, Foster, Glocester), goes on the record supporting Carson’s call to create a special legislative commission to study aging policy in the state. “House Republicans recognize the fact that RI is aging and how important it is to coordinate our services to cut duplicity and inefficiencies. A study commission establishes a deep dive public discussion into an understanding of our statewide need, and lessens the possibility of bureaucratic, unintended consequences, which can occur in the submission of haphazard bills,” he says, noting that “Republicans also believe that this is an area, where if the topics are properly vetted, the state can cut costs and bring efficiency to our core government senior services.”
“I support the concept of this commission and I am certainly open to it, but I need to discuss it further with the sponsor, Representative Lauren Carson, before recommending further action. I look forward to speaking with her in the coming weeks of the legislative session,” says House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-District 23, Warwick).
Shekarchi and his leadership team will evaluate all legislative resolutions creating House Study Commissions introduced this legislative session to determine which one(s) will be allowed to proceed for a committee, and ultimately, floor vote. At press time, there is no fiscal note. Creating House Study Commissions must have adequate resources and staffing for their operations.
With H 5224 having bipartisan support, aging organizations hope that Speaker Shekarchi sees the importance of allowing a committee and floor vote on this resolution. Democratic and Republican lawmakers must lobby the House Speaker for his endorsement to support passage of this very important commission. Every Rhode Islander will ultimately need to access comprehensive aging programs and services in their later years.
House debate on Carson’s Health Study Commission may well create the political will down the road after it releases its report leading to the creation of Rhode Island’s first Strategic Plan on Aging.
H 5224 cosponsors are Representatives Samuel A. Azzinaro (D-District 37, Westerly), Thomas E. Noret (D-District 25, West Warwick), Susan R. Donovan (D-District 69, Bristol, Portsmouth), House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-District, East Providence), Karen Alzate (D-District 60, Central Falls, Pawtucket), Jason Knight (D-District 67, Barrington, Warren), and Kathleen Fogarty (D-District 35, South Kingston.
To show your support for H 5224, contact your House Representative. Go to https://www.rilegislature.gov/representatives/default.aspx. You can also contact House Speaker Shekarchi by calling (401) 222-2447. Or email, firstname.lastname@example.org.