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Legislative Viewpoint

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.

The fight for the Older Americans Act services like Meals on Wheels

Congressman Jim McGovernCongressman
Jim McGovern
In the richest nation on Earth, it is unconscionable that hunger among American seniors continues and is actually on the rise. From 2001 to 2013, the number of seniors experiencing the threat of hunger increased by an alarming 45 percent.

Over 46 million Americans in our country are hungry: 16 million are children; 9.6 million are seniors. That’s 15.5 percent of everyone over 60-years-old.

One reason for the rise in hunger among seniors is the economy. Since the recession began in 2007, the number of seniors experiencing the threat of hunger has increased by 56 percent. But it is not only the very poor who are struggling. Out of those seniors who face the threat of hunger, the majority have incomes above the poverty line.

Congressman McGovern spends a day with Meals on Wheels

Homebound seniors face unique challenges. Unable to travel outside of their homes, they rely on services like Meals on Wheels to provide nourishment. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the Highland Valley Elder Services March for Meals event.

I began the day packing meals and then accompanied Arthur Mongeon on his meal delivery route. On that day alone, the kitchen I visited at the Salvo House delivered 500 meals to seniors and disabled people in the community. As I spoke to people along the meal delivery route, it struck me how much they value the service that Meals on Wheels provides. Oftentimes, the meal delivered is the main meal of the day, containing one-third of the nutrition recommended per day. For many, this meal is their main source of nutrients.

Funding Meals on Wheels

Many organizations in our communities are stepping up to supplement federal anti-hunger programs. Franklin County Home Care Corporation recently held their 2015 Meals on Wheels Walkathon to raise funds for the program, to help ensure they can say yes to every elder in need. The federal government must continue to be a reliable partner in these efforts.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act, which includes the Meals on Wheels program, and Congress is expected to consider a long-term reauthorization bill for these critically important programs. Rest assured that I will fight to adequately fund and strengthen Meals and Wheels and other support programs that our seniors count on. Our seniors deserve nothing less.

Congressman Jim McGovern’s local district office is located at 94 Pleasant Street in Northampton, and can be reached at 413-341-8700. Visit McGovern.House.Gov to learn more.