Elmer Gardiner is a veteran, a veteran of community campaigns.
At 79 years old, he says he’s never lost a battle and he doesn’t plan on losing his fight to increase the basic income threshold to be exempt from the monthly $104.90 premium payment for those with Medicare Plan B.
Gardiner, who lives in Warwick and is probably best remembered in Cranston for his activism in the 1970s, fired the opening round of his campaign last year. He didn’t get too far. It was the year for laying the groundwork.
This year, he has gained momentum with bills introduced in the Senate and House and on Thursday he appeared before the House Finance Committee. He wasn’t alone. He had mustered support from the George Wiley Center; AARP; Ocean State Action; and the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island.
Gardiner’s battle for the state to cover the premium for Medicare Plan B for the state’s poorest seniors is hard to dismiss. Of Rhode Islanders with Medicare Plan B, he estimates 5,000 would be affected and the total added cost to the state would be $2.5 million.
The amount is a guesstimate, explains Maureen Maigret, consultant for the older woman’s policy group of the Senior Agenda Coalition. She said there is no way of knowing how many people who are eligible for the benefit will actually apply for it. The fiscal note on the legislation calculates a cost of $3.1 million.
“It is somewhat complicated,” Maigret said in a telephone interview Friday.
Making it challenging is that there are three levels of Plan B Medicare with varying thresholds for premium payments. But the concept is simple – it’s to give the elderly with low fixed incomes some relief.
It’s money Gardiner believes would flow back into the economy when these people enjoy a meal out, buy the gas to visit the grandkids or buy medical products that are not covered by Medicare. In the end, he thinks it would be a small investment with great gains.
“My generation has supported Social Security and Medicare since their inception. A lot ended up at 65 and all they have is Social Security. Don’t forget them. They need help,” he told the committee.
Under the legislation, the current threshold for eligibility to the Medicare Saving Program would be raised from 133 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent of the poverty level. That would raise the cutoff for eligibility from $1,292 a month to $1,830 a month. Connecticut and Maine have already raised the threshold.
Should the legislation pass, Gardiner would benefit, but it wouldn’t be a make it or break it situation for him. His ex-wife lives with him.
“I think we’re better off now than when we were married,” he said with a laugh in an interview waiting for the committee to start. “Right now I make it. But it [the increase] would give me the opportunity to go out a couple of times a week.”
Gardiner likes using the word “dignity,” as in, “It will give people on fixed income a boost in spirit, some dignity.”
When he was a resident of Cranston, Gardiner took up the cause of saving the Cranston-Johnston Regional Catholic School, which the diocese was proposing to close. Gardiner said he was instrumental in contacting the Christian Brothers that eventually ran the school. His community activism led him to run as an independent for the State Senate. He doesn’t remember the year, but he hasn’t forgotten the support he received at the polls. He said he received 800 votes, about 400 shy of the winner.
There were other community battles. He said water pressure was so low in Dean Estates (which he labeled the “pretentious” section of Cranston), the fire department had to respond with two trucks. Gardiner took up the cause for the city to build a water tower, which it did at a cost of $300,000.
Then there was the battle to stop a trash incinerator: Gardiner recalls the claim of proponents that 98 percent of emissions were clean and safe. Gardiner took up the cry that the city would be subjected to the 2 percent “dirty air” 24 hours a day and, if built, the giant incinerator would be required to take in trash from outside the state. For $150, Gardiner printed up petitions and circulated them. The campaign grew in numbers and all the big corporate money behind the project was unable to stop the groundswell.
Former Warwick Representative Maigret said she contacted Gardiner after reading his letters in the Warwick Beacon suggesting expanding eligibility for payment of the premium. She said she looked into Gardiner’s proposal, finding that other states had changed the threshold. She helped guide him. His senator, Erin Lynch, introduced the bill in the Senate. Representative Edith Ajello is carrying it in the House.
During the committee hearing, John Cavaliere of the George Wiley Center said the state would immediately see the advantages of extending the saving plan. Deanna Casey, director of advocacy for AARP, said that 150,000 Rhode Islanders are on Medicare and that 40 percent of them are living on incomes of less than $20,000.
“This would put $1,200 [a year] in the pockets of seniors, and that’s a big deal,” she said.
Bill Flynn, executive director of the Senior Agenda Coalition, chose a different tack. He said that on average, women live 2.7 years longer than men. Once a woman has lost her spouse, she becomes dependent on her own Social Security that often is far less because they “missed out” on earning wages while raising families.
In addition, he said, studies show that on average, people on Medicare spend $5,600 a year out of their own pockets on medical related expenses. Also, Flynn noted that in order to have the cost of the premium covered, people must apply for it.
Gardiner pointed out that as a veteran, he is eligible for Veterans Administration benefits and that the VA regularly audits his eligibility. He suggested that if state human resources were to do the same, people would have a better understanding of the system and fewer would fall through the cracks.
But that’s a battle for another day – for now he’s carrying the torch to “give some dignity” to some of the state’s lowest income seniors.