- Written by Senator Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator for Massachusetts
Standing up for elders and people with disabilities
One of my top priorities in the U.S. Senate is working to strengthen the economic security of seniors and people with disabilities in Massachusetts. But today, some in Washington are trying to tear apart critical programs that help people live their lives with dignity.
Last year, President Trump and congressional Republicans tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act and gut the Medicaid program that helps millions of seniors stay in their homes and live independently, and also helps pay for nursing home care for loved ones. We fought back tooth and nail and saved those critical programs. We also stopped an effort to slash the budget of the already cash-strapped agency that runs Social Security. Budget cuts have forced the Social Security Administration to cut thousands of jobs and close 64 field offices since 2010 in towns like Greenfield, leading to outrageously long wait times and leaving many older people and Americans with disabilities struggling to get their benefits. We stood up against additional cuts – and in the last budget, I helped get a $480 million increase for the agency. This was the first increase to the Social Security Administration’s operating budget in eight years.
But the fight isn’t over. President Trump’s new proposed budget is a direct attack on older Americans and people with disabilities. It contains deep cuts to the SNAP program, which helps elderly people put food on the table. It would also eliminate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income people – including the elderly – stay warm during winters in the Commonwealth. It cuts tens of billions from Social Security’s disability benefits and guts Medicaid once again, threatening health care for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Meanwhile, efforts continue in Washington to privatize and cut benefits for millions of seniors who rely on Social Security to survive.
At the same time the president has proposed these cuts, Congress recently voted to award $1.5 trillion in tax breaks to billionaires and giant corporations. These are exactly the wrong priorities for our country. The federal government should be investing in America’s families, and it should make sure we keep the promises we’ve made to seniors, families, and people with disabilities.
I will fight to preserve and strengthen programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. People in Massachusetts deserve a Washington that works for them, and I’m committed to doing my part in the Senate to ensure that all Americans can retire and live with dignity.
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.
- Written by State Representative Steve Kulik, First Franklin District
Supporting spouses as caregivers in Massachusetts
A spouse, it often seems, would make the ideal caregiver for his or her partner, familiar with their wants and needs, familiar with their domestic surroundings. Yet under current regulations governing MassHealth, the state's health insurance program for people of limited means or dealing with disability, a spouse is not included among the relatives, friends or providers than can be paid to offer care.
Many of us in the state Legislature have been troubled by this paradox and been working to make a change in the regulations. MassHealth, too, has been reviewing the issue under a mandate from the Legislature. We put language in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget requiring MassHealth to complete a report by December of 2017, with a plan to implement spouses as paid caregivers. However, as of this writing, the report has not yet been issued.
One of my colleagues, Rep. Jennifer Benson of Lunenburg, filed a bill in this legislative session called "An Act Regarding Spouses as Caregivers" (H336), which would require that any program of home and community based services paid for by MassHealth, in which family members are allowed to serve as paid caregivers, should allow spouses to also be paid for their care and time.
As of this writing, Rep. Benson's bill was still being reviewed by the Legislature's Joint Committee on Elder Affairs under what is called an extension order that ends May 9. On the Senate side, a similar bill, filed by Sen Barbara L'Italien of Andover (S55), was given a favorable recommendation by the Joint Committee on Children and Families and Persons with Disabilities and sent to the Health Care Finance Committee.
Rep. Benson is hopeful that the Elder Affairs Committee will give her bill a favorable report, as she sees the benefit to so many people in need. “There are situations when a caregiver can’t be found, and a spouse is forced to give up what little source of income they have so they can stay home and care for their loved one. That pushes people who can’t afford a caregiver further into poverty. This bill would allow a MassHealth recipient to have their spouse serve as their caregiver and receive reimbursement in the same way that other family members can under current law.”
What makes the MassHealth prohibition on paying spouses particularly puzzling is that husbands or wives can earn an hourly stipend under different state-funded programs of "consumer-directed options" through home care agencies. Highland Valley Elder Services, which covers several of my towns in Hampshire County, helped introduce the model more than 15 years ago. Similar services have also been available for many years in Franklin County through LifePath. However, unlike MassHealth, participants in consumer-directed services are charged on a sliding scale. MassHealth recipients do not bear any financial burden. Also, hundreds of thousands more people are covered by MassHealth and would immediately benefit from statutory reform.
To determine the level of care a person may need, LifePath or some other provider agency will conduct an assessment of a person's ability to meet their basic daily needs such as bathing, dressing, shopping, meal preparation or managing their medications. The number of hours of care provided each week is matched to the person's needs.
When we know that spouses can be (although admittedly not always) very well-suited caregivers and when we know that helping a frail elder or disabled young person stay in their home can be more comfortable and, for the state, more economical than an institutional setting, it is time to make this needed reform and allow spouses to be paid for their time. I support both the House and Senate bills that will force a change in MassHealth regulations through statute
Steve Kulik has represented the First Franklin District, which includes 18 towns in Franklin and Hampshire counties and one town in Hampden County, since 1993. He plans to complete his years of service and retire from the Legislature at the end of 2018.
- Written by State Representative Paul Mark, 2nd Berkshire District, Chair of House Committee on Redistricting
Efforts to support our rural communities
The Massachusetts General Court created the Rural Policy Advisory Commission during the state budget process in 2015. I was recently appointed by Speaker Robert DeLeo to serve as his designee on the commission. The commission meets quarterly at venues rotating throughout our Commonwealth, including once annually in western Massachusetts. The mission of the commission is to “enhance the economic vitality of rural communities, defined as municipalities with population densities of less than 500 persons per square mile, and to advance the health and well-being of rural residents.”
Rural communities account for nearly 60% of the state’s total land area. However, the people living in these rural communities make up only 13% of the total population in Massachusetts. In Berkshire and Franklin Counties, every municipality except Greenfield, North Adams, and Pittsfield falls into the definition of rural. We face the same challenges that other rural communities all over the country face, forced to do more with less and working closely together to stretch our resources as far as possible. But unlike most similar communities elsewhere, we make up a very small percentage of the total population in an otherwise heavily urbanized state. Finding similar partners to work with and make our voices heard becomes that much more difficult.
The Rural Policy Advisory Commission and the Rural Legislative Caucus in the House and Senate exist to help find those partners we need to make our voices more powerful and to help come up with realistic solutions to the unique problems we face. By working with other rural legislators and other rural communities, we increase our effectiveness in the state government process. By finding new ways to partner with urban areas on topics of mutual interest, including services for seniors, food security, education funding, affordable housing, and transportation issues, we increase the likelihood of successfully achieving tangible and measurable results.
The next meeting of the Rural Policy Advisory Commission will take place on June 15th in Greenfield. The meetings are open to the public and there are many important topics that will be discussed. To learn more about the commission and its mission, to see a list of members and the organizations they represent, and to see reports filed by the commission with the legislature, please visit the following page on the Massachusetts state government website.
As always, please contact my office anytime we can help you with an issue in state government. Office hours are held Mondays in Greenfield, Thursdays in Charlemont and Northfield, as well as monthly at the Greenfield Senior Center and periodically at the Bernardston Senior Center. You can find the full office hours schedule and our office contact information at online. Thank you for the opportunity to serve.
- Written by Stan Rosenberg, Massachusetts State Senator
The Circuit Breaker:
Tax relief for Massachusetts senior citizens
Here’s a reminder about “The Circuit Breaker,” a tax credit for Massachusetts senior citizens age 65 an older.
It’s called the Circuit Breaker Tax Credit because it is “triggered,” like an electrical circuit breaker, when property tax payments exceed 10 percent of a senior’s annual income.
Those who qualify will still be required to pay property taxes to their local communities. But they will receive a dollar credit for every dollar their property tax, and certain water and sewer bills, exceed 10 percent of their income, up to the $1,080 maximum.
Senior citizens who rent their homes can also take advantage of the same dollar for dollar credit, up to the same $1,080 maximum, if 25 percent of their annual rent exceeds 10 percent of their annual income.
No special application is required. If you are qualified, you can receive this credit by filling out a 2017 Massachusetts state income tax return before the April 2018 deadline. Official information packets from the state Department of Revenue for 2017 state income tax returns will include Circuit Breaker schedules and will be available in local libraries and post offices beginning early in 2018.
Here are the basic requirements for eligibility:
- Must be a Massachusetts resident, age 65 or older;
- Must own or rent residential property in Massachusetts as your primary residence;
- Must have an annual income of $57,000 or less for a single filer; $72,000 or less for a head of household; and $86,000 or less for joint filers.
You are ineligible for this tax credit if:
- You are married and do not file a joint a return;
- You are a dependent of another tax filer;
- You receive a federal or state rent subsidy directly, or live in a property tax exempt facility;
- Your property is assessed at a value greater than $747,000.
This tax credit was approved in 1999, was implemented in 2001, and is based on a bill I filed as a member of the House of Representatives after hearing concerns raised by seniors in Pelham. I then worked with a number of my Senate colleagues, including then-Senate President Thomas Birmingham, for several years to create this program. Over the years it has helped tens of thousands of seniors save more than $660 million on their property taxes.
If you need more information, please don’t hesitate to contact my district office at 413-587-6365, or the state Department of Revenue Customer Service Bureau at 617-887-MDOR, or toll-free at 800-392-6089, or visit their website, www.massdor.com.
- Written by Senator Adam G. Hinds
Grassroots community supports for our hilltown seniors
As much of my district is rural, including the Franklin County towns of Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Conway, Hawley, Heath, Monroe, Rowe and Shelburne, I want to share examples of how communities are taking care of each other despite challenges of transportation and distance. The community-building work that seniors are taking on in Plainfield, Chesterfield, Cummington and several more of our hilltowns across Western Massachusetts is so important.
The low populations and long distances from most everything can be challenging for seniors looking to get proper nutrition, healthcare and other services in the hilltowns. In my first year as state Senator I’ve worked with social service agencies across the region, with town and city officials and with my fellow legislators at the State House to take on some of these challenges. We’ve been working to improve rural public transportation and to reduce health care costs, but I know that to make the most progress for seniors, it’s also going to take programs like the ones being created by the hardworking – and thoughtful – volunteers in our hilltowns. The efforts of Ann Irvine in Plainfield, Lorrie Childs in Chesterfield, Lucy Fandel in Cummington and many others are working to make it easier for seniors to stay in their homes.
I’ve learned that all of these support networks have grown out of a series of discussion groups focusing on the 2014 book Being Mortal by surgeon Atul Gawande. The first of these book groups came together in Plainfield when Ann Irvine asked Peg Whalen to lead a series of Being Mortal discussions, which drew 32 seniors over the course of five weeks. Dr. Whalen is the outreach coordinator for a group of councils on aging in Chesterfield, Goshen, Cummington, Westhampton, Williamsburg, Worthington and Plainfield. The consortium of COA’s receives grant funding from the state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs.
In Plainfield, the book discussion group has morphed into the Plainfield Cares program, which offers seniors rides to social events, recreation, entertainment, shopping and medical appointments. It also coordinates short-term help during an illness or after hospitalization. Trained members of the group have recently started visiting homes of the town’s oldest residents to identify unmet needs.
Another program, for all seven of the northern Hampshire hilltowns, is called Community Credits. The program matches people who want to offer volunteer help with those who would like to receive help. Chores that can be taken care of through the program range from gardening to wood stacking to cooking to house painting. Coordinator Lorrie Childs said she hopes that students from Hampshire Regional will become part of the group of volunteers who can provide help to seniors. Community Credits is supported by Highland Valley Elder Services Title 3 funds.
In Cummington, the Being Mortal book group has turned into a monthly discussion group called Living Fully, Aging Gracefully and Befriending Death. Additionally, a new program is forming in town called Cummington Community Care. The group’s plan is to strengthen townspeople’s abilities to face emergencies, large and small. One of the work groups is cataloging resources and needs. Another work group is getting trained to become a Community Emergency Response Team. A third group is planning to create a community freezer stocked with meals that can be had by those short on funds, energy or time.
It seems clear to me that all of this work is essential. It’s imperative that we care for our neighbors – and it’s important that we learn to accept help from others as we move into old age. So thank you, volunteers, who are maintaining and building community. And for making it possible for more seniors to stay in the homes they love.
For more information on these programs:
Plainfield Cares Transportation:
Jeannie Sargent, (413) 634-0170
Community Credits Program:
Lorrie Childs, (413) 296-4742
Cummington Community Care:
State Senator Adam G. Hinds (D- Pittsfield) represents the 52 westernmost communities of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District. He serves as the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts & Cultural Development and the Senate vice-chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies. He is serving his first term in the Massachusetts Senate.