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Legislative Viewpoint

Let’s keep our promises to seniors, families, and people with disabilities

Warren Official PortraitSenator Elizabeth WarrenOne of my top priorities since joining the U.S. Senate in 2013 has been fighting to ensure seniors and people with disabilities have the support they need to live with dignity and economic security.

Today I’m really worried about the new federal budget proposed by President Donald Trump’s Administration. The president’s proposed budget would take a meat ax to many important programs that directly benefit people in Massachusetts. For example, President Trump’s budget would:

  • Eliminate federal funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps about 120,000 Massachusetts households with elderly family members, people with disabilities, and young children stay warm during the cold winter months.
  • Slash funding by more than 25 percent for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which last year helped feed 779,000 people in Massachusetts, nearly half of whom are in families with members who are elderly or who have disabilities.
  • Cut more than $70 billion from vital income assistance programs for people with disabilities – including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
  • Eliminate the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which helps organizations right here in Franklin County and across the Commonwealth provide essential services like Meals on Wheels.
  • Eliminate the Serving the Health Insurance Needs of Everyone (SHINE) health counseling program. This program last year helped about 75,000 people across Massachusetts navigate basic health plans like Medicare, Medicare Advantage, Medicaid, Prescription Advantage, Health Safety Net and other programs. Thanks to SHINE and the program’s more than 600 trained volunteers, many seniors and families across the Commonwealth were able to access free health insurance counseling.

This budget proposal is wrongheaded and reckless. And it comes just after House Republicans passed their health care repeal bill, legislation that would slash Medicaid spending by $834 billion. These are cuts that would directly hurt people with disabilities, working families, babies, and seniors in nursing homes. Why make these cuts? All so that Congress can give giant tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires.

These are the wrong priorities for our country. The federal government should invest in America’s families, to make sure that every person has a real opportunity to build a future – we should not break the promises we’ve made to seniors, families, and people with disabilities. To defeat this budget, all of us must fight back. As Senator from Massachusetts and as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the Special Committee on Aging, I’m staying focused on these fights every day. I hope you will join me.

If you would like to contact me about any issues you’re concerned about, or if you need help with a federal agency, please don’t hesitate to call my Western Massachusetts office in Springfield at 413-788-2690 or email me.

Protecting home care services for our seniors

Jim McGovernCongressman Jim McGovernThere is no place like home, and for many seniors there is no place better to live than at home. With retirement on the horizon for many of the Baby-Boomer generation, so is the planning they will do as they continue to age. Home health care is one of the most affordable and comfortable ways for individuals to receive the daily care they need without having to move to a nursing facility. Today’s home health care industry offers one of the most effective and cost-efficient delivery systems of comprehensive, high-quality healthcare services.

Especially important for millions of America’s seniors and people with disabilities, home health care allows them to live independently and receive care in a patient-preferred setting – in their own home.

The home health industry employs a workforce of more than 1.2 million as nurses, therapists, home care aides, social workers and clinicians. Daily, 10,000 Baby Boomers become eligible for Medicare, and we need to continue to build on home and community-based care as a means to take care of our rapidly growing senior population.

With the communication and technological advances over the last several years, the home health community has pioneered leading-edge models and therapeutics to deliver comprehensive, high-quality, patient-centered care across the health care delivery system.

These models lead to better patient care coordination, medication management, disease and chronic care management, and behavioral and preventative education. The innovative approaches of today’s home health care show great promise in addressing many of the concerns associated with disparities in health care and access in rural communities.

For many seniors, the ability to age in place and continue to live a full and independent life are some of their top priorities as they enter into retirement. I hear time and time again from the seniors I talk to that they and their families are more comfortable and prefer receiving care in their own homes when appropriate as opposed to receiving care in an institutional setting. But in order to receive the home care they desire, programs like Meals on Wheels, visiting nurses care, senior day care, and many more are crucial.

Unfortunately, the recent budget released by President Trump guts many of the critical programs that seniors turn to when times are tough and they need some extra help – you can rest assured that I will do everything I can to ensure that these programs are preserved and seniors are protected.

Please feel free to call my office in Northampton at (413) 341-8700, Worcester at (508) 831-7356, or Leominster at (978) 466-3552 if you have any questions or if my office can be of any assistance to you at all, and please accept my best wishes for a warm and pleasant summer!

Expanding services for dementia prevention and care

KulikState Representative Steve Kulik, First Franklin DistrictMemory loss and the inability to manage our own affairs is a frightening prospect, threatening, as it does, our independence and very sense of self. Therapists, clinicians, doctors and family members often feel adrift as they struggle to better respond to the needs of afflicted loved ones. Sadly, at this time, there are no known cures for dementia. Therapies can only slow its advance, and promising drugs have not lived up to expectations. But there is hope through greater understanding and support. Several of my colleagues in the Massachusetts Legislature are focused on regulations and laws to broaden eligibility for services, strengthen training for care providers, and allow spouses to serve as paid caregivers.

The state’s Executive Office of Elders Affairs, too, has embarked on a series of initiatives intended to promote better community understanding of Alzheimer’s and related diseases and ease the burdens on victims and their families. Regular readers of The Good Life may recall the recently published letter to LifePath from the Secretary of Elder Affairs, Alice Bonner, commending the agency for its efforts to “improve the lives of individuals living with dementia and their caregivers.”

Among the reforms being considered by the legislature is a bill filed by my House colleague Rep. Bruce Ayers of Quincy, that would extend the benefits of what is called the Frail Elder Home and Community-Based Services Waiver to people diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, regardless of their age. Currently, to receive a frail elder waiver you must be at least 60 and be financially qualified for MassHealth. Recipients of a waiver are eligible for a range of supports from adult day care and home and chore services to respite care for the primary or family care giver, with the goal of helping people stay in the familiar surroundings of their home rather than a nursing home. With the tragedy of dementia striking many younger people, Rep. Ayer’s bill is enlightened and timely.

Another bill of merit, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Benson of Lunenburg, would, for the first time, make spouses eligible to serve as paid caregivers for dementia victims and others who struggle with daily living skills, and who are covered by MassHealth Standard. For some years, family members and friends (as well as outside individuals) have qualified for a stipend. It’s time to end the exclusion for spouses. Who else may be more available and knowledgeable of their partner’s needs?

A third bill, sponsored by Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, calls for the Office of Elder Affairs, through designated local agencies, to provide training to protective service caseworkers specifically focused on recognizing the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease to better understand how the illness may affect screening, investigation, and the provision of appropriate services.

Nationally, more than 30 percent of people over age 85 have some form of cognitive disorder. In Massachusetts, it’s estimated that more than 120,000 men and women are living with this impairment. Recent studies, including long-term research in Finland, have confirmed that individual lifestyle choices, including exercise, an active social life, cognitive stimulation, and a “Mediterranean diet” rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and olive oil, can reduce the onset of dementia. Public policy, too, plays an important role. I am pleased that our Legislature is advocating for greater awareness and expanded services for prevention and care, which I fully support.

Planning for a new budget with an eye toward our elders

paul markby State Representative Paul Mark, Second Berkshire District, Vice Chair, Committee on Rules

April is budget month in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The House Committee on Ways and Means releases an initial version of the Fiscal Year 2018 state budget on April 12. This initial version is the result of months of studying revenue numbers, evaluating the needs of constituents and state agencies, conducting multiple public hearings around the state, and considering the Governor’s budget requests from late January. Once the members of the House see this first draft plan, we have three days to offer amendments of our own, and a week after that to co-sponsor amendments that other legislators have filed. We then meet at the State House the last week of April to consider each and every line item, each and every amendment, and debate what we think should be included and what should be left out. The Senate follows the same process in May, the House and Senate versions are reconciled over the month of June, and the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

Every year, services for seniors are among the most important we fight for during that budget process. It is important as a legislator to look beyond numbers on a spreadsheet and to realize what those numbers actually represent. They represent services that are vital to residents of our commonwealth and money that is coming out of the pockets of hardworking people throughout Massachusetts. We strive to balance those two needs by finding budget items that result in the biggest bang for our limited dollars through programs that are investments that will end up saving us all money over time. Services for seniors are among the best investments we can make. Helping to keep people in their homes can both save money in the long run and improve the quality of life for someone who has paid into the system for many years. Preventative services like Meals on Wheels and transportation for medical treatment keep people healthy, safe, and living longer and better lives. That benefits everybody regardless of age in a profound way.

Throughout my time serving the people as state representative, I have never felt more uncertainty than I do this year as a result of the tone and news coming out of Washington, DC. As I write this, I have no idea what our national health care law, our federal budget, or attempts to change and possibly undermine Medicare and Social Security will look like. While Massachusetts can and will continue to lead on access to healthcare and services for our residents, we will be in a tough position if we are expected to backfill cuts that could top one billion dollars from the federal government. It is imperative that we all keep an eye on what is happening in congress, and let our federal delegation know that we support them in their efforts to fight unnecessary cuts that would be harmful to seniors, children, and our neighbors throughout Massachusetts.

State and local tax relief options for seniors

KulikState Representative Steve Kulik, First Franklin DistrictStaying in the familiar surroundings of our own home is becoming more of a challenge each year as we age and as property taxes go up. Exemptions and “work off” opportunities can be a great help for people living on fixed incomes, but more could be done at the state and local levels to reduce the burden of the quarterly tax bill.

Property tax relief for seniors is by no means new. More than 50 years ago, the legislature enacted modest initiatives to ease the impact of the property tax on Massachusetts residents over the age of 70. Three decades later, the legislature took a much more comprehensive look at the issue and, in 1999, enacted two landmark laws: the Circuit Breaker and the Work-Off program.

Circuit Breaker offers eligible homeowners and renters 65 and over a state income tax credit, or refund if no taxes are due. The benefit for a given individual is equal to the amount by which property taxes plus one-half of your sewer and water bill exceeds ten percent of your income – up to $1,070, this year. Renters may qualify, too, if 25 percent of their rent payments exceed ten percent of their income. There are maximum income levels to participate ($40,000 for an individual, $60,000 for a couple) and a maximum valuation on your home of $600,000.

Circuit Breaker is quite familiar to many seniors and local officials. The Work-Off program may be less so and, in fact, may not be available in every community because it is a local option. The legislature gave cities and towns the freedom to adopt it or not and to establish criteria and maximum benefits.

The Work-Off program gives seniors the chance to share their skills and interests with their neighbors, as they work for the town – teaching classes, doing clerical work, etc. – while earning a credit against their taxes. Any proposal has to be approved by town officials, but there is really no limit to the creative ideas that might be offered. In some communities, seniors facing physical challenges can designate another person to do the volunteer work, while the senior receives the benefit.

People are credited for their time at the state’s minimum wage, currently $10 per hour. In some communities, participants can earn up to a $1,000 credit against their tax bill. Some towns have income criteria or put a limit on the number of people who can take part. Other towns do not. Separate slots are usually available for veterans of any age or their surviving spouse.

Seniors can combine the benefits of circuit breaker and the work off program for total tax relief this year of up to $2,070, depending on the exemption limits established in their community.

Another tax relief program called deferment and recovery can also be helpful to seniors. The program allows people over age 65 to put off paying their taxes, in whole or in part. Seniors can opt to pay, say, 25 percent of their tax bill or half or none and change that percentage from year to year, as long as the total accrued tax bill is less than half the value of their property. Unpaid taxes become a lien against your house and are paid when the property is sold. Communities can charge up to eight percent interest on the accumulated taxes. Some charge less. A five percent rate is not uncommon.

There are also a number of smaller, more targeted tax relief initiatives that can benefit seniors. For example, if you are determined to be legally blind, you qualify for a $500 annual property tax exemption.

Many seniors are not as familiar as they could be with the array of tax relief initiatives. Both state and local government could do a better job publicizing these programs, and both areas of government need to continually revisit and update relief initiatives to account for inflation and annual tax increases. As always, if you have thoughts about property tax reform or any other issue, feel free to get in touch with me through my district office in Williamsburg at 413-977-3580 or my State House office at 617-722-2380.