Some Favs… Looking Back at 2021

Published on January 3, 2022 in RINewsToday

As an ‘age beat’ journalist for over 40 years, I have penned more than 813 articles covering aging, health care and medical issues. These authored and coauthored pieces have appeared in national, state, and local trade and association publications, dailies, weeklies, and in this weekly column in RINewsToday.com. Some were even republished in my two books, Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly (2016) and Taking Charge: Volume 2  More Stories on Aging Boldly (2021).

I provide you with a few of my favorite publish weekly commentaries published in 2021 that you may have enjoyed reading. Many of these articles in their entirety and others can be viewed on my author archive  page at rinewstoday.com/herb-weiss/.

“Study Takes Look at Decision Making /in Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine,” published on Jan.  25, 2021 in RINewsToday.com. 

With colder weather keeping people indoors and holiday events drawing families together, Rhode Island like other states continue to see a growing transmission of the COVID-19 Delta, and now Omicron variants. The debate of mandating vaccines has expanded into requiring a booster, too. 

This article reported on research findings that suggested ways as to how to increase a person’s likelihood to get vaccinated. Even though researchers didn’t touch on requiring booster shots, the findings should still be relevant in the current debate, as science is showing the waning of the vaccine after many months.

The COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project Survey, a group whose mission is to increase public dialogue on vaccine education, released survey findings that showed the preferred locations to receive COVID-19 vaccines, and which leading information sources are two influences over a person’s decision to get vaccinated.

The study, commissioned by the Washington, DC based Alliance for Aging Research, one of the three nonprofit organizations leading the project, found the majority (51 percent) of respondents ranked their healthcare provider or pharmacist as one of the sources most likely to influence their decision to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents said they would prefer to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in their healthcare provider’s office.

After healthcare providers and pharmacists, when asked to provide the top two additional sources of information about COVID-19 vaccines that would most influence their decision to get vaccinated, 32 percent of respondents cited nationally recognized health experts, and 30 percent named family and friends. However, older respondents were increasingly more likely (75 percent ages 65 and older) to trust their healthcare provider or pharmacist, followed by 43 percent (ages 65 and older) trusting nationally recognized health experts.

The majority (64 percent) of respondents indicated they would prefer COVID-19 vaccination in their healthcare provider’s office, while 29 percent prefer a pharmacy, 20 percent a drive-thru vaccine clinic, and only 13 percent would like to receive the vaccine at a grocery store or pharmacy.

Additional factors driving the location where respondents would like to receive the vaccine included the ability to get the vaccine quickly or not have to wait in line (45 percent) and a location close to home (41 percent), the study found.

“A Call for House Dems to Bring Back House Aging Committee,” published on Aug. 16, 2021 in RINewsToday.com.

Last Aug, Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline, along with fellow lawmakers, Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Doris Matsui (D-CA), who serve as co-chairs of the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Aging and Families, introduced H. Res. 583 to amend the rules of the House to establish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. This is the Rhode Island lawmaker’s fourth attempt, and in the upcoming months he must push for passage by the House Rules Committee.  

H. Res. 583 would reestablish the House Aging Committee without having legislative jurisdiction; this being no different than when the permanent committee previously existed. It would be authorized to conduct a continuing comprehensive study and review of aging issues, such as protecting the Social Security and Medicare programs, income maintenance, poverty, housing, health (including medical research), welfare, employment, education, recreation, and long-term care. These efforts impacted legislation taken up by standing committees. It has been referred to the House Rules Committee for consideration.

“America’s seniors have spent a lifetime working hard and moving our country forward and they deserve the best in their retirement,” says Cicilline, in this article. “The pandemic has disproportionately impacted seniors and now with growing concerns about inflation, seniors on fixed incomes will bear the burden of the rising cost of prescription drugs, food, housing, and other essentials,” he says, noting there has never been a more urgent time for Congress to reauthorize the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging than right now,” he says. 

At press time, there are just 40 cosponsors of H. Res. 583. Bob Weiner, the former staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging under Chairman Claude Pepper (D-FL), warns that to get  the attention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and leadership of the caucus, there should be 100 cosponsors – an obtainable number.

“When Congress gets back from recess, the Rhode Island Congressman must now push for more cosponsors and meetings to get this resolution endorsed by the House Democratic Leadership and the House Rules Committee and then passed on the House Floor”, says Weiner, noting that a GOP takeover of the House after mid-term elections could ensure that this effort will be legislatively blocked unless it has overwhelming support to show a constituent price.  

“It’s now time to stamp out Antisemitism,’ published on Oct. 18, 2021 in RINewstoday.com.  

Throughout 2021, three of my weekly commentaries warned that Antisemitism is alive and well in the United States, Germany, and throughout the world, and called for Rhode Island lawmakers to condemn all acts of hate within Rhode Island’s borders.

The article reported on the alleged charges of Gil Ofarim, a popular German-Israeli singer who lives in Germany, about an alleged anti-Semitic remark made by an employee at the Westin Hotel in Leipzig.

Director of AJC Berlin said, “Marriott should take all necessary steps to ensure that something like this will never happen again. AJC stands ready to help with our expertise and knowledge.”

The article reported that the FBI’s annual Hate Crimes Statistics Act (HCSA) report, revealed that 2020 saw a six percent increase in reported hate crimes from the previous year and represented the highest total in 12 years. The latest FBI’s report, released Aug. 30th, is based on voluntary local law.

This article also reported on the top school administrator with the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake advised teachers that if they have a book about the Holocaust in their classroom, they should also provide students with a book from an “opposing” viewpoint, according to an audio recording obtained by NBC News.

“How do you oppose the Holocaust?” quipped one teacher in response to the school administrator, with the school district later apologizing. Last month, the School District approved a change to district policy that prohibits employees from secretly recording video of meetings or work sessions.

The survivors who witnessed the horrors of the Genocide and the Holocaust during World War II continue to dwindle in numbers and will soon no longer be here to share their tragic stories. Rhode Island’s Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission, recently created by the General Assembly, is organizing and gears up to keep this knowledge alive to millennials, Gen Z, and other generations. 

“It’s Time to End Suicide by Bridge in Rhode Island,” published on July 26, 2021, in RINewsToday.com.

Last legislative session, Rep. Joseph J. Solomon Jr.’s (D-Dist. 22), legislative proposal, H-5053, to require safety barriers or netting on the three bridges that connect Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands to the mainland of Rhode Island, never came out of the House Corporations committee.

“Too many people have committed suicide on those bridges in the last decade,” said Rep. Solomon in a statement released when the bill was introduced last January. “Due to technological advances, there are various types of barriers and netting available to increase safety without hindering access for routine inspection and maintenance of the bridges,” he said.

“It’s not only a serious problem, but an alarmingly frequent one,” said Solomon explaining why he introduced his bill, as reported in this article. “Last year alone, the Portsmouth Police responded to the Mount Hope Bridge 36 times. And the cost of suicide goes far beyond the individual. It affects friends, families, first responders, and health care professionals. Those who survive the fall all say the same thing: “they feel instant regret the moment their feet leave the railing,” he said.

This weekly commentary detailed the efforts of forty-year Samaritan volunteer Bryan Ganley and East Bay resident Melissa Cotta, who initiated a petition for safety/suicide prevention barriers to increase awareness of this issue and to show that residents of Rhode Island, as well as the surrounding areas that use our bridges all the time are in support of these barriers.

Ganley and Cotta have submitted a request for funding to the General Assembly’s American Rescue Plan Act State Fiscal Recovery Fund Recommendation Portal. The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority also has submitted a request to this portal requesting funding for an engineering study.

Six months ago, 2,630 people signed Cotta and Ganley’s petition. At press time, over 4,062 signatures have been collected calling for new barriers to Rhode Island’s unprotected bridges. To view and sign this petition, go to tinyurl.com/ribridgingthegap.

Senator Bob Dole’s legacy – putting nation over politics

Politician, War Hero, Senator Bob Dole Dies at 98

Published on December 7, 2021 in RINewsToday

Bob Dole a seriously wounded World War II hero, a Kansas politician who served in the House from 1961 to 1969 and the U.S. Senate from 1969 until 1996, who unsuccessfully ran as the Republican candidate against Bill Clinton for President in 1996, dies at age 98, after a long illness.  

According to the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Senator Robert J. Dole died in his sleep on early Sunday morning.  While no cause of death was reported the former Senator was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer last February.  While funeral arrangements have not been announced, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that Dole, one of the longest serving Republicans in the Senate’s history who served as Senate Majority leader from 1985 to 1987 and from 1995 to 1996, will lie in state in the United States Rotunda on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021.  A formal arrival and departure ceremony will be held on Thursday morning.  Dole will join just 34 others, including government officials and military officers, who have had this honor in the U.S. Capitol since 1852.

“Putting his life on the line to defend our nation, he was awarded two Purple Hearts for his valor and sacrifice on the battlefield – and, when he came home, served as an inspiration to millions of Americans living with disabilities.  From the Well of the House to the Floor of the Senate, as a presidential candidate and as an elder statesman, he was one of the foremost advocates for our servicemembers, veterans and military families,” stated Pelosi, in a statement announcing Dole being given the nation’s highest honor to lie in state in the Capitol.   

“Senator Dole exemplified the Greatest Generation, and while I never had the pleasure of serving in the Senate with him, his reputation and his achievements, and most of all his character proceeded him, said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “I always admired his steadfast advocacy for Americans with disabilities, and his love for this country,” he added.

Adds Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, “Whatever their politics, anyone who saw Bob Dole in action had to admire his character and his profound patriotism. Those of us who were lucky to know Bob well ourselves admired him even more. A bright light of patriotic good cheer burned all the way from Bob’s teenage combat heroics, through his whole career in Washington, and through the years since.”

Fixing Social Security

Back in the late 1970s, President Ronald Reagan reacted to Social Security’s short-and long-term financing crisis funding crisis by charging the National Commission on Social Security Reform (NCSSR), chaired by Alan Greenspan, by making recommendations on strengthening the program’s financial viability to Congress.

There were NCSSR members of the bipartisan Commission who did not believe there was an impending fiscal crisis, believing that it was being politically blown out of proportion.  Like today, there were philosophical differences in how to keep Social Security solvent.  

The political polarization that resulted in hammering out recommendations kept the NCSSR from making its original deadline to issue its report. Reagan was forced to extend the life of the Commission, and this ultimately gave time for the 15 members to reach a compromise.

However, even with the NCSSR compromise, there was still political gridlock in Congress as to how to fix Social Security. But a chance reading of Dole’s article on Social Security published in the January 3, 1983 issue of the New York Times, brought Senator Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) together on the Senate floor with the Kansas Senator. Ultimately it was these two seasoned Senators who put political differences aside to draft a bipartisan compromise to allow the passage of NCSSR’s recommendations, including taxation of Social Security benefits and increasing the retirement age for receiving full benefits.

Dole and Moynihan’s “Gang of Seven”, including three NCSSR members and two Reagan advisors, came up with a politically acceptable time frame of payroll tax increases and spending reforms that both the Democrats and Republicans could accept. Meeting outside the halls of Congress, the so-called “Gang of Seven,” Dole, Moynihan, three other members of the Greenspan Commission and two Reagan advisors, came up with a timetable of payroll tax increases and spending reforms that legislators of both parties could accept. On April 20, 1983, President Reagan signed the Social Security reform into law. 

Reaching Across the Aisle

In a statement, President Joe Biden noted that even though he and Dole often disagreed on issues during his time in the Senate, “he never hesitated to work with me or other Democrats when it mattered most.”

“He and Ted Kennedy came together to turn Bob’s lifelong cause into the Americans with Disabilities Act — granting tens of millions of Americans lives of greater dignity,” said Biden.

“When he managed the bill to create a federal holiday in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. — a bill that many in his own caucus opposed — I will never forget what he said to our colleagues: “No first-class democracy can treat people like second-class citizens,” noted Biden.

Finally, Biden noted Dole’s support of  another bipartisan effort, the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. This initiative provided school meals and food for nursing mothers and young children. “It saved the lives of countless young people who would otherwise have died in infancy — and brought dignity to tens of millions of families at home and abroad. This work, for Bob, was about more than passing laws. It was written on his heart,” said Biden.

Known for his integrity and trustworthiness, this statesman, war veteran, patriot, knew how to work across the aisle to pass Senate bills that would help seniors, the disabled, and the needy, oftentimes in opposition to his caucus. He put the nation first above politics.

Hopefully, Congress can clearly see Dole’s political legacy of being bipartisan in legislating.  It’s not too late.   

A Sacred Trust – moves to strengthen Social Security

Published on November 8, 2021 in RINewsToday

Almost two weeks ago, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairperson John B. Larson (D-Conn.) threw H.R. 5723, the Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, into the legislative hopper. During its unveiling in the historic committee room of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, the same room where Social Security and Medicare legislation was crafted in the 1930s and 1960, the Connecticut Congressman’s proposal comes on the heels of the Social Security Administration’s 2021 estimate that the trust funds that support the program will be depleted in just 13 years, averting an estimated 20 percent cut in benefits by 2034.

The Sacred Trust Act is the successor to Larson’s original Social Security 2100 Act, which he first introduced in 2014.The House Ways and Means Committee is planning to hold a hearing on the bill in Nov. followed by a markup.

At press time, 194 House Democratic Members are cosponsoring the 100-page House Democratic proposal with no Republican lawmakers crossing the aisle. Almost 40 advocacy groups are endorsing the House Democratic proposal.

At the Oct. 26 news conference unveiling Larson’s legislative proposal, the Connecticut congressman noted that Congress expanded Social Security during the past 50 years and it has been 38 years since lawmakers have taken any comprehensive action to strengthen the program.“ With 10,000 Baby Boomers a day becoming eligible, and with millennials needing Social Security more than any generation, the time for Congress to act is now,” he said.

Taking a Close look at H.R. 5723

According to the legislative fact sheet released at the news conference, H.R. 5723 gives a benefit bump for current and new Social Security beneficiaries. It provides an increase for all beneficiaries (receiving retirement, disability or dependent benefits) equivalent to an average of 2% of benefits to make up for inadequate Cost-of-Living Adjustments (COLA) since 1983.

Larson’s Social Security proposal also protects Social Security beneficiaries against inflation. It improves the annual COLA formula by adopting a Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), to better reflect the costs incurred by seniors who spend a greater portion of their income on health care and other necessities. Although the 2022 COLA 5.9%, the largest in years, the average for the past 10 years is roughly 1.5% and in 3 of the past 12 years, beneficiaries received no COLA at all.

It protects low-income works that provides a new minimum benefit stet at 25% above the poverty line and would be tied to wage levels to ensure that minimum benefits doe not fall behind. Currently, 5 million seniors live in poverty.

The Sacred Trust Act also contains other provisions that seniors and their advocates have sought for years, including:

  • Improving Social Security benefits for widows and widowers in two income households so they are  not penalized for having two incomes.
  • Ending five-month waiting period to receive disability benefits so those with ALS or other severe disabilities no longer have to wait.
  • Providing caregiver credits for Social Security wages to ensure that caregivers are not penalized in retirement for taking timeout of the workforce to care for children and other dependents.
  • Extending Social Security benefits for students to age 26 and for part-time students.
  • Increasing access to Social Security dependents for children who live with grandparents or other relatives.
  • Requiring Social Security Administration (SSA) to mail annual statements to all workers detailing the FICA contributions they make and projects of their benefits in the future. 
  • Preventing unwarranted closures of SSA offices to improve customer serve
  • Improving access to legal representation for people seeking long-term disability benefits.

H.R. 5723 would pay for strengthening the Social Security Trust Fund by having millionaires and billionaires pay the same rate as everyone else.Currently, payroll taxes are not collected on an individual wages over $142,800.The legislative proposal would apply payroll taxes to wages above $400,00.This provision would only impact the top 0.04% of wage earners.

Larson’s proposal would also extend the solvency of Social Security by making a significant contribution to the programs solvency, making up more than half of the shortfall in the Social Security Trust Funds.

Finally, H.R. 5723 would combine the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance with Disability Insurance into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure all benefits will be paid.

It’s Now Time to Fix Social Security 

Larson’s Social Security proposal would “take historic steps to expand Social Security — delivering for retirees, people with disabilities, and their families the first real boost in benefits in 50 years.  The Sacred Trust Act also would bring new revenue into Social Security amid projections that the trust fund will run dry in 2034 if Congress doesn’t take action,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“To those who claim that no one in Washington has the courage to address Social Security’s challenges, or that the only solution is to cut benefits for future generations, Congressman Larson’s bill is a stunning refutation,” states Richtman, noting that he understands that beneficiaries need an increase in monthly checks to meet skyrocketing living expenses. “He knows that the fairest way to strengthen Social Security’s finances is for the wealthy to begin paying their fair share of payroll contributions.  For years, seniors and their advocates have demanded these improvements,” adds Richtman.   

“There is good news for everyone in this bill, which is only fitting, since Social Security touches almost every American’s life.  Beneficiaries have waited long enough for these vital improvements.  Congressman Larson now has nearly 200 cosponsorsin the House.  After seven long years, seniors and their advocates can finally see the finish line, says Richtman.  

With the Democrats controlling the White House, seniors have a good chance of seeing the expansion and strengthening of Social Security.  The proposal has many of President Biden’s promises made during his campaign.  But, like Larson’s previous Social Security Bill, the latest version has no Republican cosigners.

Over the years, poll after poll has shown that the American public strongly supports Social Security, across party and demographic lines.  Larson’s legislative proposal has the support in the House, but will it pass in the upper chamber with Senate Democrats holding a slim majority?  Will voter support influence Republican lawmakers to work across the aisle with Democrats to hammer out an acceptable bipartisan  proposal, as the 2022 mid-term elections get closer?  We’ll just have to wait and see.