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Legislative Viewpoint: Advocating for Elder and Disability Rights in 2020

Senator Jo ComerfordSenator Jo ComerfordTwenty-twenty is upon us yet it feels like mere moments ago that I was sworn into the Massachusetts Senate — my team and I first putting the proverbial rubber to the road to address the issues I heard about during my campaign.

From the start, thanks to constituents sounding the alarm, elder and disability rights have been central to our policy platform. Here are just a few examples of bills I introduced just weeks into my first year, the ideas for which came from constituents:

  • I filed a bill to allow spouses to serve as caregivers, paid by MassHealth for the necessary personal care services they provide. The goal is to allow someone who is eligible for nursing home care to remain at home if they choose. Under current law, some family members are already considered eligible to be a caregiver for someone who is elderly or living with disabilities in the community. For example, a daughter or a cousin could qualify as a caregiver, and be paid when they take care of someone at home. But a spouse doesn’t qualify under current rules. This bill simply broadens the definition of “family member” to fairly include the spouse of an elder or person living with disabilities. 
  • Additionally, I filed legislation that would expand the earned income tax credit program (EITC) and eliminate the age limit so that those who work past age 65 can continue to benefit from this important program. A recent study from the University of Massachusetts found that the Commonwealth has one of the highest rates of elder economic insecurity in the nation. The EITC is one of the most effective programs at lifting people out of poverty by helping working low-income individuals and families receive a tax credit to make ends meet. Currently, state EITC assistance ends when individuals turnage 65. This hurts older workers with little or no savings whose Social Security benefits do not provide sufficient income. My bill would raise the EITC age cap and allow older adults to qualify for help. 
  • Finally, I also filed legislation to prevent individuals from experiencing the “cliff effect” when their income or assets rise even a little above an economic threshold and benefits are cut as a result. This bill would change the rules for PACE and Home and Community Based Service Waiver programs by allowing individuals with income above the eligibility threshold to remain in the programs simply by paying a premium equal to the amount that their income is over the limit. This would help seniors and individuals living with disabilities maintain safe, independent lives in their communities and prevent unnecessary and costly stays in long-term care facilities. 

I’m delighted that my bill to allow spouses to serve as caregivers and my bill to stop the cliff effect have both been reported favorably out of the initial Joint Committees that they were sent to at the beginning of the session. This is the first step toward winning the passage of any piece of legislation. You can read a great deal more about these bills and many others via my website: senatorjocomerford.org.

From the start, thanks to constituents sounding the alarm, elder and disability rights have been central to our policy platform.

I have found it equally important to be mindful of elder and disability rights in my role as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health. It was a great honor to be chosen as chair of this important committee, particularly as a new member of the Senate. The Public Health Committee received over 400 bills to review each session. Every bill gets a public hearing and a vote by the Committee. Many of the bills that come before the Committee deal with the treatment that medical professionals are able to provide, the way that hospitals work, or the health accommodations we make in schools and public places.

The Committee is still reviewing a great deal of legislation, but we’ve already approved a number of important bills. One requires MassHealth to cover all dental procedures. Oral health is often neglected when we talk about health care, and I’m committed to making sure that we don’t leave out oral health in our policy debates. We’ve also recommended support for a bill to focus more attention on diabetes. Diabetes is rapidly becoming an epidemic, afflicting over 680,000 people in the state. The complications, including heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and early death, cost the state’s health care system a staggering $8 billion last year — let alone the personal and family impact. The bill directs the state to formulate an action plan to focus our attention on the disease and coordinate efforts on coverage, research and treatment, and a concentrated effort on prevention. 

And yet another bill the committee approved is one I filed focused on health equity. Even with — arguably — one of the better health care systems in the nation, we have glaring health disparities in Massachusetts. Health is bound up in much more than just care delivery programs, though they are critical. Recent studies have shown that the most significant social determinants of health and wellness include: education, economic stability, housing, air quality, transportation, and the built environment.

That’s why my bill requires that each state budget submission identify major state initiatives that positively affect health and health care, including programs in housing, transportation, education, and so on — issuing a health equity statement which details the impact of the initiatives on removing health disparities and advancing health equity.

In all of this work, I’m tremendously glad for the staunch advocacy of my constituents and organizations like LifePath. It’s going to take all of us to ensure that our government works equitably for all people. I’m honored to take up this work with all of you.