Casey Calls on Federal Agencies to Enhance Web Access for People with Disabilities, Seniors

Published in RINewsToday on February 27, 2023

After Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced on March 20, 2020, the bipartisan Department of Veterans Affairs Website Accessibility Act with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), the legislative proposal passed both chambers to ultimately be signed into law nine months later by President Donald Trump. The new law directed the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to report to Congress regarding the he accessibility of VA websites to people with disabilities.

Casey calls for better website technology 

On Dec. 20, 2022, Casey released Unlocking the Virtual Front Door, a 72-page report detailing the findings of an 11-month investigation that found widespread failure across the federal government to ensure that website technology is accessible for people with disabilities, seniors, and veterans. The investigators identified the absence of U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reporting as a contributing factor to widespread accessibility gaps at the numerous federal departments and agencies.

On June 30, 2022, Casey led a bipartisan group of Senators respondence led by Casey in sending correspondence to DOJ Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding answers from the agency on its lack of website accessibility for people with disabilities. 

Earlier that month, Casey also had sent correspondence to VA Secretary Denis McDonough urging the agency to improve VA website accessibility for disabled veterans.

Casey also released a report from the VA from the VA which found that only 10 percent of VA websites are fully accessible for people with disabilities, as required by law, posing barriers to deaf, blind and paralyzed veterans as well as tens of thousands of veterans with other disabilities. 

On July 28, 2022, Casey’s Senate Aging Committee held a hearing that further investigated the issue the issue of federal website accessibility.

With Casey’s ongoing pressure, ultimately DOJ would finally release a report last week  for the first time in a decade.  

Reaction’s to DOJ’s website data release

Casey, Chair of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, quickly reacted to the release of DOJ data in a Feb. 22, 2023, press release, noting that the agency was required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to provide a report to Congress and the President every two years on federal technology accessibility. “Despite this mandate, the latest report was from 2012, leaving taxpayers in the dark for over a decade about the accessibility of government technology, including websites, for people with disabilities,” said the press release.

While new data confirmed the findings of Casey’s recent investigation that exposed widespread accessibility barriers to federal technology, the press release criticized the data as “insufficient and incomplete,” calling on DOJ and the entire federal government to prioritize technology and web accessibility and transparency.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the federal government to make all its website information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Unfortunately, because of ongoing barriers to federal website and technology access, Casey charges that many people with disabilities—including seniors and veterans—are being barred from accessing key government resources, facing barriers to accessing information about COVID-19, filing claims and accessing health care, using VA kiosks, and more.

Casey’s repeated calls for data for transparency confirmed by his investigation that revealed that people with disabilities are being locked out of government services and are not given a level playing field in federal workplaces due to inaccessible technology. ”Unfortunately, after a decade of keeping the public in the dark, DOJ has not provided Americans with disabilities insight into what progress has been made over that time period—which will make it harder for the federal government to remedy these issues and ultimately improve web and technology accessibility,” says the Pennsylvania Senator. “It is clear that the federal government has a lot more work to do to make technology accessibility and transparency a priority and fulfill our promise to Americans with disabilities, older adults, and veterans,” he said.

Casey urged the DOJ to improve transparency around Section 508 compliance by returning to their mandated biennial reporting and ensuring their reports are modeled more closely after the agency’s 2012 web report  instead of an abridged data set that DOJ released last week 

Taking a closer look 

DOJ’s recently released report, based on data from Feb. 2021 through August 2022, compiled in partnership with the General Services Administration, found that one in 10 public-facing websites at major federal departments and agencies are not fully accessible for people with disabilities. In addition, three in five internal websites at major federal departments and agencies are not fully accessible to people with disabilities.

According to the data, the Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor, Department of State, and VA reported that 50 percent or less of the public-facing websites that were tested comply with federal accessibility requirements.

The DOJ data noted that some departments and federal agencies did not report conducting any accessibility testing of internal websites. It not clear what steps departments and agencies are taking to test other types of technology covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. 

DOJ data indicated that key government agencies, including DOJ itself, as well as the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, and the Environmental Protection Agency did not have adequate “resources committed and/or staff trained to implement policies, processes, and procedures.” These shortfalls in staffing were reflected in data regarding the low number of federal and contract employees directly supporting Section 508 programs in many agencies. 

DOJ also found that “agency maturity remains largely unchanged from prior reporting,” raising concerns that, despite over a decade of technological evolution, many federal government agencies have not made efforts to improve and better integrate Section 508 compliance and ensure the federal government’s resources are available for people with disabilities, including taxpayers and federal workers.

Finally, Casey observed that DOJ’s recommendations underscore many of the recommendations he made in his report, which called for enhanced oversight and transparency from DOJ regarding Section 508 compliance as well as better integration of accessibility into everyday oversight efforts at every federal agency.

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AARP Rhode Island calls on Congress to act on lowering high drug costs

Published on March 14, 2022 in Rhode Island News Today

On the day before the Washington, DC-based AARP’s March 8th launch of its new ad campaign showing the impact of Congress’s failure to act on prescription drug prices, AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor, Volunteer State President Marcus Mitchell and Volunteer Lead Federal Liaison Dr. Phil Zarlengo joined Rhode Island US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse for a virtual news conference highlighting the need for Congress to act now to slash rising prescription drug costs. 

During the 26 minute and 45 second event, AARP Rhode Island, representing 132,000 members, delivered a petition signed by more than 16,114 Rhode Islanders, calling for Congress to act now and stop unfair drug prices. AARP has called for fair drug prices for years and supports legislation that passed the House in November, which would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, put a cap on out-of-pocket costs that older adults pay for their prescription drugs and impose penalties on drug companies that raise prices faster than the rate of inflation.

“Americans are fed up with paying three times what people in other countries pay for the same drugs. More than four million people across the country, including more than 16,000 here in the Ocean State, are joining AARP to demand lower prices for prescription drugs,” said Taylor in a statement announcing the petition being delivered to Reed and Whitehouse. “There will never be a better time to lower drug prices than the historic opportunity in front of Congress. Now is the time to get it done!” Taylor says.

Big Pharma makes billions from high drug costs

“Big Pharma is making billions while seniors and taxpayers are suffering,” says AARP State President Mitchell, noting that just last month Big Pharma raised the prices of 800 prescription medications.” People are sick and tired of paying three times for prescription drugs what people in other countries are paying for these drugs, “It’s outrageous and unacceptable,” Mitchell said.

According to Mitchell, “if consumer prices had risen as fast as drug prices during the last 15 years, gas would cost $12.20 a gallon and milk would cost $13 a gallon.” This gives perspective to this issue, he said.

“Big Pharma is trying again to scare lawmakers and members of AARP and everyone else with misleading claims to stop Medicare to negotiate prices, charged Zarlengo. “We, at least, know the truth. The truth is by allowing Medicare negotiation [of prices], that process will help seniors during these times of inflation by lowing their prices of drugs and putting more money in their pocket,” he said.

Zarlengo gave the two Rhode Island Senators a message from Rhode Island seniors: “Don’t let Pharma win this time, lets lower drug prices now.”

“We hear you loud and clear,” said Senator Reed, responding to the over 16,000 signees of AARP’s petition. “Congress must address this issue of drug pricing. The system continues to force families into untenable choices between their health and other basic needs. One of the simplest things to do is to allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. I have been urging administrations, both Republican and Democratic for more than a decade to do this,” he noted.

“The VA already does this,” said Senator Whitehouse told his fellow panelists and those tuning in to the March 7 news conference. “And there is a big discrepancy in what the Veterans Administration (VA) pays for drugs and what Medicare pays for drugs. We have a reconciliation bill still in the Senate; it’s something Democrats can pass with only 50 votes. The bad news is that we need all 50 members to agree on the reconciliation measure and that has proven difficult. I hope we can agree on a package that all 50 of us can sign off on… and finally, finally, finally give Americans the drug pricing relief that they need. AARP is incredibly important in this fight. All your members make a difference. Thank you for stepping up yet again,” he said.

AARP fights Big Pharma on television and with digital advertising

In AARP’s new ad campaign, Larry Zarzecki, a retired law enforcement officer with Parkinson’s Disease who was forced to sell his home in order to afford his medications, returns to the airways as a spokesperson for AARP, illustrating the impact of the high cost of prescription drugs on seniors.  The retiree first shared his story in an AARP ad three years ago, but Congress’ failure to act means he has had no relief from the high cost of his treatments. As he says in the new ad, “I shouldn’t have to decide between my home or my medicine because Congress refuses to act. I’m tired of waiting for Congress.”

AARP’s seven-figure ad buy includes television and digital advertising in the DC area, and television in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.

Responding to AARP’s new ad campaign, AARP Rhode Island’s Taylor said: “Larry Zarzecki was forced to sell his home in order to afford his medications.  He is but one example of Congress’ failure to act. No one should have to give up a home in order to pay for over-priced prescription medicines.  She called on Congress to put a stop to “spiraling price increases” by giving Medicare the authority to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices.

“If the Veterans Administration can do so – paying roughly half as much for brand name prescription drugs as does Medicare Part D – then why can’t Medicare?” says Taylor.  “For a decade, Big Pharma has spent more on stock buybacks and dividends than on research and development; it’s outrageous that drug makers are charging Americans three times what people in other countries pay for the same drugs and justifying it with lies and scare tactics that simply don’t hold up,” she  added.

AARP has called for lower drug prices for years and is urging the Senate to pass legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, put a cap on out-of-pocket costs that older adults pay for their prescription drugs and impose penalties on drug companies that raise prices faster than the rate of inflation.

“Americans are sick and tired of Congress’ broken promises to bring down the price of prescription drugs,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer announcing the launching of this ad campaign. “As Americans pay more and more for many consumer goods, Congress has an historic opportunity to lower drug prices and help seniors like Larry to afford their medications and other essentials,” she said.

It’s time to act NOW

According to AARP, without congressional action, pharmaceutical companies will continue to set high prices for prescription drugs and raise them without any warning or justification. The Washington, DC based advocacy group representing 38 million members recently released a report showing that 75 of the 100 brand name drugs with the highest total Medicare Part D spending have already increased their  list prices in the first month of 2022.

During the State of the Union, President Biden called for Congress to bring down the price of prescription drugs as a way to help consumers manage rising prices. The House of Representatives passed several prescription drug measures as part of the Build Back Better Act in November, but the Senate has yet to pass similar legislation.

It’s time for the Senate to put the welfare of the nation’s seniors first by passing legislation to put the brakes to spiraling prescription drug costs. This will be a hot campaign issue in the upcoming mid-term elections, just 230 days from now.

Campaign reminds Veteran caregivers to “Take Care of Themselves”

Published in RINewsToday on January 17, 2022

Since 2011, AARP and the Ad Council have launched public service announcements (PSAs) encouraging America’s caregivers to care not only for their loved ones, but also for themselves. Over the years, these PSAs s have targeted women aged 40 to 60, male caregivers aged 35 to 60 and Hispanic/Latino and African American/Black caregivers with an emphasis on women ages 35 to 60.The partner-driven ad campaign directs viewers to AARP’s Family Caregiving site, where caregivers can find free care guides, self-care tips, planning resources, legal and financial guidance and more.

Now AARP and the Ad Council’s have released the PSA, “Roxana’s Story,” on Dec. 9th. The latest evolution of the Caregiver Assistance campaign aims to acknowledge the unique challenges that military veteran caregivers face and provide them with free resources from AARP to better care for their loved one and themselves.

Roxana Tells Her Caregiving Tale

In 2003, Roxana, a full-time student, became the full-time caregiver of her husband, Victor. In the PSA she recalled receiving a 4 a.m. phone call where she learned that her husband had been wounded in action in Afghanistan, having received a moderate traumatic brain injury. Roxana was suddenly thrust into the role of caregiver to Victor, through his initial recovery process, and then having to adjust to his injury for the rest of their lives.

Reflecting over the last 18 years, Roxana stated in the PSA the realization that one of the most important components of being a caregiver is taking care of yourself. “I didn’t want to forget that I also had goals, and a life,” she said, noting that she asked Victor to “meet me halfway.” With assistance from his therapists, he was able to help with everyday chores.

The PSA, the first-ever targeting caregivers of veterans and current members of the military, addresses the unique caregiving challenges facing these individuals, reminding the more than 6.5 million military veteran caregivers that there are resources available to them. The PSA is recorded as either a :30 or 60-second message, was filmed and directed by military veterans from the veteran-owned creative shop Gig line Media (the production arm of We Are the Mighty).

Military veteran caregivers experience unique challenges when providing care. For many in this group, their caregiving journey starts earlier in life (85% are under 40) and lasts longer, according to Caregiving in the U.S. 2020, a report by AARP and the National Alliance on Caregiving. They deal with challenges that civilian family caregivers don’t normally face, including unseen injuries and wounds. They also consistently experience worse health outcomes, greater strains in family relationships, and more workplace problems than non-caregivers. Many also spend more time helping with emotional support or social interaction due to mental or behavioral health diagnoses.

“Oftentimes those caring for veterans and current member of the military experience a high emotional and physical toll, including consistently worse health outcomes and greater strains in family relationships compared to other caregivers,” said Bob Stephen, vice president of family caregiving and long-term care at AARP in announcing AARP’s lates PSA campaigned targeting military veteran caregivers. “Through this campaign, AARP will continue to recognize and provide resources to support these valued caregivers who play such a vital role for veteran and military families,” he says.

For caregivers who are unsure about seeking help because they think it’s selfish or a sign of failure, the PSA campaign reminds them that they can’t care for their loved one without also caring for themselves.

The PSAs direct viewers to AARP’s Family Caregiving site at www.AARP.org/Caregiving and www.AARP.org/Cuidar, where caregivers can download a free military veterans Caregiving Guide for self-care tips, planning resources, legal and financial guidance, and more in English and Spanish as well as AARP’s new Veterans and Military Families Health Benefits Navigator, a one-stop-resource in English and Spanish to help make the process less confusing and overwhelming when it comes to available options for U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) health benefits, military Tricare, Medicare, private insurance and Medicaid.

“Taking care of a veteran in your life often means that you start younger and care for longer. In many cases, this means you’re forced to manage situations other family caregivers aren’t forced to face,” said Michelle Hillman, Chief Campaign Development Officer of the Ad Council. “We’re humbled to continue this campaign to remind the millions of military veteran caregivers that they do not face these unique challenges alone.”

For more information about caregiving resources, please visit AARP.org/Caregiving or call 1-877-333-5885 or www.AARP.org/Cuidar or call 1-888-971-2013 for Spanish resources.