Advocates on aging issues review their priorities for Gov. McKee’s policy agenda

Published in RINewsToday on Nov. 14, 2022

Over 3 months ago, the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island (SACRI) invited the six Gubernatorial candidates to give the details of their aging policy positions to hundreds gathering at East Providence High School, and watching virtually. With the dust settling after the Nov. 8 midterm elections, aging advocates are asking the winner, Gov. Dan McKee, to place a high priority on enacting aging policies that he supported during SACRI’s 143-minute forum.

McKee goes on the record

McKee addressed the issue that Rhode Island nursing home and home care providers can’t provide sufficient and sustainable wages to attract and retain workers because of low state reimbursement. When questioned about how he would rebuild and sustain a viable workforce to provide services to seniors and persons with disabilities, the Governor stated he has addressed staffing issues at home health agencies and nursing homes by expanding the Wavemaker Fellowships to include healthcare workers and increasing reimbursement rates for home health agencies by $900,000 annually.

More seniors prefer to age in place at home in their community rather then enter nursing homes. McKee gave his thoughts about Medicaid rebalancing and expanding the program to keep seniors at home. He touted the $10 million invested this year to rebalance the long-term care continuum, announcing his plans to soon issue an Executive Order to direct state agencies to review existing policies through

At the forum, McKee stated he will also direct all state agencies to appoint a representative to a task force, also including municipalities and community-based nonprofits, that will create a Statewide Aging Plan to determine where federal monies and grants can be utilized to support older Rhode Islanders.

During the mid-1990s the Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA) had a staff of 65. Demoted to the Office of Healthy Aging within the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, Gov. McKee went on record that he will support legislation next year to make the state’s Office of Healthy Aging a full cabinet department. He pledged to provide an adequate budget and staffing to oversee its programs and services to Rhode Island’s growing senior population.   

Gov. McKee also supported a yearly cost-of-living increase to the state Supplemental Security Income payment in the 2024 proposed budget. He also supported the increasing of eligibility for the Medicaid Savings Programs for seniors and people with disabilities in the proposed 2024 budget by eliminating the asset test and increasing eligibility to at least 185% Federal Policy Level. 

With the state passing $250 million in funding for housing, Gov. McKee agreed to provide an adequate amount to support senior housing.  He stated: “we’re off and running”, noting that he recently announced an investment of $80 million to construct 825 units in 17 communities.  The Governor noted that his 2030 plan speaks specifically on the issue of senior housing.

Make aging policy a priority

“With the growing needs of seniors throughout the country and within our state it is time to return to a function of government which “had teeth” to enact change for elders who were at risk,” says Bob Robillard, LMHC, President of Rhode Island Senior Center Directors Association, representing 34 Senior Centers, noting that his aging group is pushing for the passage of bipartisan legislation next session that will elevate the Office of Healthy Aging to a full department – cabinet – status. 

According to Robillard, having a seat at the table as a cabinet position, the Director would directly advocate with the Governor’s Office to address unmet needs and seek creative solutions for our seniors. 

Robillard also urged the Governor to continue efforts to develop secure and affordable housing that meets the need for increased  homelessness of Rhode Island seniors. ”Their income level and having to make difficult choices to survive each month is seen in our interactions with seniors every day, and they are increasingly utilizing food banks, emergency services, and our centers, and funding these basic services needs to be a top priority,” he says.

While some federal funds have been used to address this issue, Robillard says there is a “global need for a full and comprehensive Aging Plan for Rhode Island including the voices of direct service providers like the Senior Centers, senior advocates, caregivers and, of course, seniors, themselves.” 

Finally, Robillard believes that there should be a strong focus on transportation for seniors to access their community. “Safe, respectful and person-centered transportation in our rural areas throughout our state needs to be a focus,” he says, noting that if you cannot access your community in these ways then you cannot participate in them either.

With Rhode Island experiencing a critical shortage of homecare workers, Maureen Maigret, chair of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s Aging in Community Subcommittee, calls on Gov. McKee to provide funding in the FY2024 budget to increase wages for CNAs working in home care. “The current budget includes $10 million to rebalance long term care. These funds should be used for wage increases for homecare direct care staff as an initial step to bring these invaluable workers fair wages,” says Maigret.

“It is also important to provide more resources to the Office of Healthy Aging and support for local senior services. Governor McKee started to increase funds for local aging services in the current budget and the Office of Healthy Aging has requested funding to provide each community ten dollars per person aged sixty-five and over next year,” adds Maigret, urging the Governor to include this in the budget he presents to the legislature for FY2024 as well as other funding requested by the Office including $.5million to support the state’s Aging and Disability Resource Center known as THE POINT. 

Gerontologist Deb Burton calls for the Governor to move forward to pass an Olmstead Plan to create opportunities for individuals to live in the least restrictive environments. “The Olmstead Plan would fit hand in glove with providing resources for individuals to age in the community, and not in institutions,” says Burton, who serves as Executive Director of RI Elder Info.  

Finally, Vincent Marzullo, well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and national service administrator, suggests that McKee direct the RI Commission for National/Community Service to identify AmeriCorps (national service) opportunities that would help build capacity and service delivery for our local senior centers and human services offices.  “Their needs have grown considerably during COVID,” says the West Warwick resident.

Editor’s Note: During the COVID weekly press conference time, Gov. Raimondo noted that changes need to be made in how people live in Rhode Island’s nursing homes, both from a communicable disease point of view, and from a humanity point of view. She announced a fund of $5 million to be put aside to support nursing homes transitioning their physical “plants” to be single room – single bathroom accommodations. Since Raimondo left office, there has been acknowledgement that this fund was set aside, but no action taken to address the mandate moving forward.

Will Social Security survive the midterms?

Published in RINewsToday on October 31, 2022

With the midterm elections just a week away, the sputtering economy and inflation top the public’s agenda. If voters hold President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers accountable for these concerns, voting for Republican candidates might just give control of Congress to the GOP.  By controlling the legislative agenda of both chambers, the GOP could drastically impact the future of Social Security and Medicare, warns the Washington, DC-based Center for American Progress (CAP), a public policy research and advocacy organization.   

House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) signaled on Oct. 18 during a Punchbowl News interview that the GOP would use next year’s debt limit threat as a bargaining chip to force spending cuts to entitlement programs including Social Security and Medicare, warns CAP, sounding the alarm in an Oct. 21st website article.

CAP’s article reported that McCarthy’s statement reveals how he might use the upcoming debt-limit debates next Congress to make cuts in entitlement programs if he takes control of the House’s legislative agenda next Congress. “You can’t just continue down the path to keep spending and adding to the debt.  And if people want to make a debt ceiling {for a longer period of time}, just like anything else, there comes a point in time where, okay, we’ll provide you more money, but you got to change your current behavior.” When pressed on whether the GOP would seek cuts to entitlement programs in a debt ceiling fight, the House Minority Leader refused to take Social Security and Medicare cuts off the table, saying “he wouldn’t predetermine anything,” he said.

Over the past ten months some Republican lawmakers have transparently outlined their plans to change the entitlement programs, noted CAP, detailing these examples:  

Nearly 75% called for slashing and privatizing Social Security, raising the retirement age to 70, and ending Medicare as we know it as part of the Republican Study Committee FY 2023 budget, says CAP.  

According to CAP, statements made by two Republican Senators might gain traction in a GOP controlled Congress.  Specifically, Rick Scott (R-FL), Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, might gain support for his “Rescue America” plan, that would sunset Social Security and Medicare after five years, and recreate it every five years.

Over four months ago, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a key Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, promised “entitlement reform is a must for us to not become Greece” if the Republicans control the upper chamber,” noted CAP. 

CAP also noted that Republican Senate and House candidates in hotly contested races also called for changes to Social Security and Medicare and prescription drug reforms that lower drug costs for seniors. 

Added CAP, “Forty seven percent of Republican candidates for U.S. House running in toss-up districts, according to the Cook Political Report, actively support ending Social Security or Medicare as we know it.”

House and Senate Republicans are calling for the repeal of the recently enacted Medicare drug reforms. “In a Sept. 2022 story in Axios, several House Republicans called for repealing the prescription drug reforms included in the [recently enacted] Inflation Reduction Act.  Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), the ranking member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, saying, “I would image that will be a top priority for Republicans in the new [Congress],” says CAP.

Even before the dust settles after the upcoming midterm elections, Republican Senators have sponsored legislation to eliminate Medicare prescription reforms, says CAP.  “Senate Republicans Marco Rubio (R-FL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and James Lankford (R_OK) have sponsored legislation to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act’s prescription drug provisions, including the creation of a $2,000 out-of-pock cap on prescription drug spending for Medicare Beneficiaries; a crackdown on drug companies that increase drug prices in the Medicare program faster than inflation; and empowering Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices,” notes the web article.  

Can Rhode Island’s new congressman stand up to House GOP leadership?

Throughout the CD2 campaign, RI General Treasurer Seth Magaziner has tried to tie former Mayor Allan Fung to the GOP agenda to cut Social Security and Medicare.  Fung has called his Democratic opponent “a liar,” stating that his own mother relies on her Social Security check. During his debates, the GOP candidate says,  “Do you think I would ever do anything to hurt my own mother?” he says.

Fung calls for bipartisan support to strengthen Social Security – like “Scrapping the Cap” that will tax persons at higher incomes, and for the expansion of coverage for dental work, vision care, and hearing aids.  

Fung also distances himself from the far-right Republicans by consistently saying he has a long history of being a political moderate and taking a balanced approach and working across the aisle to get things done. He pledges to co-sponsor bipartisan legislation.

While Fung stays razor focused on tying Magaziner, President Biden and Congressional Democrats to causing high inflation rates and a sputtering economy, Magaziner says don’t forget about Social Security and Medicare.

In an interview with Politico Fung said, “I’ve always been that middle-of-the-road, common sense-type person. They’re talking like, ‘Oh, there’s this radical Republican.’ That’s not me.”

Politico continues, “Fung is among a small cadre of centrists looking to revive the mantle of New England Republican in the House. They’re largely running away from Trump and social conservatism, hitting their Democratic opponents on record-high prices and betting that inflation worries over everything from home heating oil to fertilizer will resonate in the region’s mix of tiny blue-collar cities, wealthy suburbs and family farms.”

Fung talks frequently about his intent, if elected to be involved in the “Problem Solvers Caucus”,  an independent member-driven group in Congress, comprised of representatives from across the country – equally divided between Democrats and Republicans – committed to finding common ground on many of the key issues facing the nation. He hopes to have a leadership role in this group, bringing a more moderate Republican influence to Congress.

As a moderate freshman congressman, can Fung be a strong voice to the GOP leadership against any proposal that would make cuts to Social Security and Medicare?  As a moderate freshman congressman, can Magaziner be a strong voice to the Democratic leadership?

It’s clear that after a Congressman (Langevin) with considerable years of clout in congress, both candidates will have a path in front of them to create their own influence and strength.

Voters 50+ most powerful, election deciders; true for all Rhode Island cities, towns

Published in RINewsToday on October 24, 2022

Every political pundit knows that seniors are the most reliable voters. AARP Rhode Island’s latest analysis of voter records from the office of the Rhode Island Secretary of State clearly confirms this observation. Age 50 and over voters accounted for more than 70% of Rhode Island voters who turned up in the September 13th primary election, says Rhode Island’s largest aging advocacy group.

“This year’s 50+ numbers increased over the last midterm election in 2018, when Rhode Islanders aged 50 and over accounted for 67% of those who voted,” says AARP Rhode Island. 

“In this year’s primary, 72% of voters statewide were 50 years old or older. This held true in analysis of the Congressional District 2 voters, where 72% of CD2 primary voters also were 50 or older,” says AARP Rhode Island, noting that municipal percentages ranged from 59% (Providence), 69% (Pawtucket and Cranston), 74 % (Warwick), 79% (Bristol) to 87% (Narragansett).  

“Voters 50+ consistently show up at the polls in much greater numbers than their younger counterparts – and then some,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor in an Oct. 18 statement announcing the voting analysis.

“This extremely powerful voting bloc has made it clear that key issues such as protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare, improving nursing home safety, achieving retirement security, and providing means for people to live in their own homes with independence and dignity as long as possible are powerful motivators when they vote. It is undeniable that Rhode Island candidates who want to win must pay attention to issues that matter to 50+ voters,” says Taylor.

“The 50+ are our most powerful voters – and they will be the deciders in the 2022 elections,” Taylor added.

AARP Rhode Island’s “Voters 50+: Our Voices Decide” campaign has provided tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders information on how, when and where to vote at www.aarp.org/RIVotes. Here they also can view videos of gubernatorial and CD2candidates answering questions that reflect older voters’ top concerns as determined by AARP’s most recent statewide Vital Voices Survey.  

AARP Rhode Island captured some 50,000 views of the eight Video Voter Guide videos posted on Facebook and on its Web page for the Primary and General Elections.

According to Maureen Maigret, Policy Advisor for the Senior Agenda Coalition of RI, the AARP data shows the continued importance older voters have in election outcomes. “This will surely carry over to the November 8th election. Older adults are motivated to vote  because they see it as a civic duty and understand how government decisions made by elected officials impact not just their lives, but that of their family members and their community,” says Maigret.

“After the election, protecting Social Security and Medicare must be a major focus of advocacy at the federal level. Seniors also care about strengthening programs to promote independent living in the community and caregiver supports which are both national and state issues,” adds Maigret.  “And they care that our children and grandchildren have access to quality educational opportunities as they represent the future of our state, country and the world,” she says.

Disabilities won’t keep older voters from voting

The second “State of Voters with Disabilities Survey”,  released by Easterseals in partnership with AARP, found that 92 percent of Americans with disabilities age 50+ plan to vote in the 2022 midterm election. The majority say they will use early voting methods and/or require specific accommodations to vote. 

“Tens of millions of Americans with disabilities plan to vote in the 2022 midterm election, but nearly half (43 percent) require specific accommodations to vote, and 62 percent are concerned that changes to voting laws could negatively impact their ability to cast a ballot,” said Kendra Davenport, Easterseals president and CEO in an Oct. 4, 2022, statement announcing the survey findings. “This bipartisan population is highly motivated to participate in the democratic process, but they are very concerned about the barriers in their way to fully exercise their right to vote,” she says.

According to Easterseals, the survey was conducted among a nationally representative sample of people with disabilities, and an oversample of adults with disabilities 50+, from August 23-29, 2022, by Pathfinder Opinion Research. Combined with Census estimates for this population, the survey results show there are an estimated 33 million registered voters with disabilities with nearly 30 million planning to vote in the 2022 U.S. midterm election.

“Recent changes in election laws are impacting voters’ ability to successfully cast their ballots this year. That’s why AARP is dedicated to providing all voters 50+ with trusted information on when, where and how to vote during this election cycle,” said AARP’s director of Advocacy Engagement and Inclusion, Lisa Simpson in a statement. “It’s more important now than ever for all voters 50+ to use their voice and power to vote,” she said.

Sixty one percent of American voters with disabilities 50+ rely on early voting methods to participate in the election by using absentee main-in voting, ballot box drop or early voting in person prior to Election Day. Only 39 % will vote in person.

Additionally, the researchers say that a significant number of voters with disabilities, 43%, require at least one accommodation in order to vote, such as transportation assistance to a voting location, in-person voting assistance from a voting official, a wheelchair at their voting site, and a braille ballot or sign-language interpreter.

“If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as other Americans, there would have been 1.75 million more voters in 2020,” said Lisa Schur, professor and co-director of the Rutgers Program for Disability Research. “Part of the disability gap is due to inaccessible voting systems, which not only make it physically difficult to vote but also send a psychological message that people with disabilities are not welcome in the political sphere,” she says.

Voters with disabilities demonstrate broad, bipartisan support for various policy reforms that would make it easier to vote.  Ninety percent support allowing voters who are older and/or have disabilities to receive assistance from people they trust to request, fill out and return their absentee ballots while 82 % support expanding the use of absentee ballot drop boxes. Finally, 70% support allowing any registered voter to vote by mail with an absentee ballot with no reason given (available in RI).

Be an educated voter

For updates on the upcoming 2022 midterm election, go to AARP.org/elections. Follow local events sponsored by AARP Rhode Island and its advocacy efforts, go to states.aarp.org/rhode-island. You can also text RIVOTES to 22777 to receive a one-time text message with a link to Rhode Island voter information. (Message and data rates may apply.)