Senior citizens are getting a lot of help from the Rhode Island legislature, as five out of the six legislative priorities that would either extend existing programs or create news ones to benefit the elderly are on track to work through the legislature or be included in the FY20 budget this year.
“I really am encouraged by the state of elder care in Rhode Island as the legislature recognizes the importance of allowing older adults to age in the community,” said Meg Underwood, Warwick’s Director of Senior Services in an email.
Underwood was is particularly by the response and support she saw at the recent Legislative Leaders Forum, organized by the Senior Agenda Coalition and held at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick last Tuesday, where House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi gave a shout out to the Pilgrim Senior Center and spoke with the packed room about the important issues to senior citizens in the state. The event was also attended by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.
Top priority legislation includes continuing the funding for free bus passes for seniors through the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, which serves 18,000 low-income seniors and people living with disabilities. That funding has been included in Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal, and Shekarchi said on Wednesday there was a “high degree of probability” that the funding would be undisturbed throughout the budget refining process.
Elsewhere, the state is looking into expanding the eligibility for home caregivers that would split costs between the individuals and the state. Currently eligibility exists for individuals making 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, but the bill, introduced by Warwick Rep. Joseph Solomon Jr. in the House and Walter Felag (Warren) in the Senate, would increase that eligibility to those at the 250 percent income level.
Shekarchi said that funding currently exists in the budget proposal to establish some framework to this program, but that it is a costly prospective program and that, “We have to manage the cost of it, and make sure that we do it right.”
Also related to homecare services, the budget also calls for a 2 percent increase in the reimbursement rate for homecare provider services through Medicaid. Additionally, an Independent Provider Program is proposed to be created through this year’s budget that would recruit, screen and train individuals which Medicaid-eligible recipients could hire directly to provide care in their homes. It is a model that has been utilized in states such as Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, California and Washington.
One priority identified by the Senior Agenda Coalition – a $185,000 allocation to create a program to help fund more respite support for caregivers – has not been included in the budget.
Shekarchi personally introduced legislation that would seek to establish a coordinated care network related specifically to treating Alzheimer’s, which is currently under review with the House Health Education and Welfare Committee.
“A lot of good things going on, we just have to all balance these needs,” Shekarchi said. “We want to make sure elderly people have a safe, healthy and clean environment to live in in Rhode Island.” Shekarchi emphasized the importance of elderly people being able to continue to live out their golden years within their own homes with dignity and care.
Underwood agreed wholeheartedly with this claim, and praised the governor and legislature for doubling funding to senior centers in last year’s budget.
“Evidence suggests that programs and initiatives that support aging in place reduce costs for families, governments and health systems,” she wrote. “In addition, it has been shown that aging in place has health and emotional benefits over that provided through institutional care. By doubling the funding for senior centers last year, the Governor and legislature recognize the importance of senior centers as a major support to seniors living in their own homes. We provide socialization, meals, insurance and benefits counseling, exercise, arts, cultural and educational programs, transportation and so much more.
Underwood also praised Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon for continuing to support senior programs and services in the city, and called the Transwick transportation system for seniors and people with disabilities “second to none.”
However, Underwood said the state’s transportation vendor for non-emergency medical appointments, MTM, “has failed our seniors since it began its contract on January 1 of this year.” She said that the state is holding them accountable, fining the company $1 million for poor performance during the recent wintry months and scheduling a third oversight meeting with them in the House.
“Again, that attention by the State to that issue is indicative of the attention being paid to senior issues,” she writes.
While encouraged by the current status, Underwood said that more can always be done. She cited stats from the Rhode Island Statewide Planning Office that projects by 2030, Rhode Islanders aged 65 or older will account for 23.1 percent of the state’s population (in 2014 it accounted for 15.8 percent).
“With all of the challenges facing Rhode Island’s older adults, the biggest challenge for the State will likely be in keeping pace to help a vulnerable population that is growing exponentially,” she wrote.
Shekarchi put it in a different perspective.
“[Senior citizens are] not a special interest group, it’s a demographic where everybody is going to get there one day, hopefully,” he said. “I told the audience during the conference that, everybody in this room is either a senior citizen or is going to be one some day.”