Category Archives: Politics

Threats at JCCs Harm Seniors and Communities

More than 100 Jewish Community Centers in 11 states have been threatened with bomb attacks since January. This is a depressing problem on many levels. Worst of all, it marks a rise in  anti-semitism that has also seen incidents of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries. It’s a wave of hatred that could end in violence.

Even now, the evacuations and closures at JCCs resulting from the threats are disrupting the lives of American communities, where JCCs are key centers for community life. Open to all, the centers typically have child care and schools, gymnasiums, and pools as well as a full range of social and educational programs.

Seniors are major JCC beneficiaries. The Jewish Community Center in Edison, NJ, for example, recently sponsored a lecture on living with low vision, emphasizing ways of maintaining independence despite deteriorating eyesight. Water aerobics and other swimming programs for seniors abound at JCCs. In Austin, the Shalom Austin JCC has an exercise class for people with arthritis, an AARP senior driver class, and all sorts of parties. They’ll send a van to pick up folks who need rides.  The Bender JCC of Greater Washington is about to screen a Multifaith Film Fest that will appeal to seniors throughout the community, while the Lewis S. Wolk JCC in Rochester, NY, has a senior social group featuring games, sing-alongs, and discussions. There’s also a monthly prostate cancer support group meeting at the Wolk JCC.

When activities such as these are disrupted, seniors suffer and community life is impoverished.

It was good to hear President Trump open Tuesday night’s speech to a joint session of Congress by condemning the JCC and cemetery incidents. Earlier in the day, however, according to the Pennsylvania attorney general, Trump made an ambiguous comment to a meeting of state attorneys general suggesting that the incidents might be “reverse” crimes — carried out by perpetrators trying to make others look bad. Some interpreted this as an attempt to portray Democrats or even members of the Jewish community as responsible, and New York’s Senator Charles Schumer denounced Trump’s remark as “absurd and obscene.”

Let’s hope the authorities solve the crimes affecting JCCs and Jewish cemeteries quickly, before community life in America is further damaged.


Impact of Deportations on America’s Seniors: The Great Unknown

We don’t yet know what the full impact of President Trump’s immigration enforcement policy changes will be, but the outlook is stark. According to the New York Times, “President Trump has directed his administration to enforce the nation’s immigration laws more aggressively, unleashing the full force of the federal government to find, arrest and deport those in the country illegally, regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes.” Millions of immigrants are potentially affected.

Little attention is being paid at the moment to what the consequences of sweeping deportations might be for America’s seniors. There is a crying need for data on how many seniors are being cared for by undocumented immigrants. Seniors in assisted living facilities and nursing homes could suffer due to staff shortages. How many seniors trying to age in place are being helped by companions who are undocumented? What will these seniors do when their companions are suddenly gone?  Supermarkets, restaurants, bus services, and taxi companies used by seniors may have difficulty operating.

Americans of all ages in several cities discovered the vital role immigrants play in the service sector on February 16, the “Day Without Immigrants.” That day could soon become the new reality nationwide.

When immigrants are no longer available to care for seniors or provide critical services, where will the burden fall? Most likely on the children — the sandwich generation already stretched to the limit.

The country, and seniors in particular — along with their children — would have benefited from a deeper discussion of the impact increased deportations will have, long before the Trump deportation policy changes were suddenly announced.

Programs Important to Seniors on the Chopping Block

The Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress are starting to float lists of programs to be cut from the federal budget, and several programs dear to seniors are being targeted. Republicans have been after these programs for years, specifically the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Senior Corps. This year, though, with Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress and the Presidency, there is a real danger that the cuts could come to pass.

Seniors all across the country — in rural areas and cities — rely on National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service (TV) for news. culture, information, and entertainment. Public broadcasting keeps us in touch with what’s happening in our country and our world. If we lost it, we would be isolated and far less informed.

The National Endowment for the Arts provides grants that bring art and music to communities big and small. Its accessibility program does great work in making the arts accessible to people with disabilities, older adults, veterans, and people living in institutions.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is currently funding 290 humanities projects in 43 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. This is the organization responsible for Ken Burns’ series, The Civil War, and it is sponsoring the creation of a website to preserve Studs Terkel’s interviews with Carl Sagan, Bob Dylan, Maya Angelou, and many others who have shaped our culture. In 2016, Common Sense for Seniors staff led a seminar on aging at the Yates County History Center with support from the New York Council for the Humanities, which in turn is funded in part by NEH.

The Senior Corps, conceived during the Kennedy Administration, links 270,000 55+ seniors to service opportunities in their communities. The Foster Grandparents program helps seniors serve as role models, mentors, and friends to children in their communities, while the RSVP program gives seniors the chance to use the skills they have acquired over the years, or to develop new skills, in such areas as home renovation and tutoring. In our part of western New York, RSVP-trained volunteers are active in leading Bone Builders groups, staffing food pantries, providing home-delivered meals and medical transportation, serving as Reading Buddies in elementary schools, and offering tax counseling. Senior Companions, also sponsored by the Senior Corps, assist other seniors who need help in performing the daily tasks of living.

These programs so important to seniors account for less than one-tenth of one per cent of federal spending. They are being attacked for ideological reasons rather than for any savings that might result from cutting them. If they are cut, our society will be the poorer for it, and seniors will suffer. So if you’re attending a town hall with your member of Congress, or if you feel moved to make a call to a Senator or Representative’s office, please be sure to speak up for these programs that mean so much to us.


Another Straw in the Wind

Here’s another straw in the wind suggesting that the times are becoming unfriendly to seniors.

House Republicans have unveiled preliminary outlines of their health care reform agenda, with the intention of moving forward with major changes in coming weeks. Changes to Medicaid are a high priority, and Republicans are considering either (1) giving states a fixed amount for each person enrolled in Medicaid or (2) giving states block grants to carry out the Medicaid program as each state sees fit.

Either choice could be a serious problem for the 4.6 million seniors with limited incomes who have dual eligibility for both Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare pays for their hospitalizations and physician services, but Medicaid is vital to these seniors for coverage of nursing facility care, prescription drugs, eyeglasses, and hearing aids.

The cost of skilled care in a nursing home or assisted living facility is a great worry for seniors and their families. Many simply do not have the resources to pay for either. Others have some resources, but not enough to pay for long term care. Typically, a senior in this situation who falls ill may be sent to a rehab facility after a hospital stay for the 100 days that Medicare allows, and then have to stay on or move to another facility at their own expense. With the average cost of a nursing home at $6,235 per month, and assisted living at $3,500, it doesn’t take long for even middle class seniors to deplete whatever savings they may have.

But the saving grace today is that once their resources are depleted, seniors can enroll in Medicaid. They are allowed to keep their house, if they have one, and they don’t have to bankrupt their children to pay for their care. Medicaid will take care of them.

If Congress limits the Medicaid amount available per person, or limits the states to block grants, Medicaid may no longer be able to meet its promise to care for seniors. According to the New York Times, “About 60 percent of the costs of traditional Medicaid come from providing nursing home care and other types of care for the elderly and those with disabilities.” With the percentage that high, seniors are almost certain to be hit by any reduction in Medicaid resources.

Seniors are worried about what the Republican Congress might eventually do to Medicare, and rightly so. But for the moment, Congress and the President don’t seem ready to take on that popular program. They may never be ready. Nonetheless, seniors should be alert to the dangers the Medicaid program faces. They could be hurt by these changes, and their children could be hurt as well.



Finances: Seniors Must Be Ever-Vigilant

The political changes that have taken place in the united States heighten the need for seniors to be vigilant with respect to their finances and their retirement savings.

In April 2017, an Obama-era Labor Department regulation known as the “fiduciary rule” had been slated to take effect. Under that rule, financial advisors, when advising clients on their retirement savings, would be required to put the interests of the clients first. Many sell financial products, such as annuities, on which they earn commissions, but the new rule would forbid advisors from receiving commissions that create a conflict of interest with their fiduciary responsibility to their clients.

However, on February 3, President Trump called for a review of the fiduciary rule, and the expectation is that his administration will prevent it from coming into force. Fortunately, many seniors have already moved their retirement savings into index funds at Vanguard and similar firms, where management fees are very low and commissions are not an issue. Moreover, some financial services firms are moving to fee-only advisory services and giving up on commissions altogether. Nonetheless, the Obama administration estimated that conflicts of interest on the part of financial advisors take an estimated $17 billion per year out of the IRAs and 401(k)s of American citizens.

The fiduciary rule would have offered an important protection to retirement savers, but since it will likely not come into force, seniors are going to have to fend for themselves, as ever. They will have to take care to seek out a truly independent financial advisor — one who charges a fee and earns no commissions from the products he or she recommends. This means asking tough questions at the outset, but the results will be worth it.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are moving to do away with or sharply restrict the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This is the watchdog agency that uncovered the scam at Wells Fargo Bank.  As the Bureau put it, “Spurred by sales targets and compensation incentives, [Wells Fargo] employees boosted sales figures by covertly opening accounts and funding them by transferring funds from consumers’ authorized accounts without their knowledge or consent, often racking up fees or other charges.” Many, including Senators Susan Collins and Clair McCaskill of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, suspect that the bogus account scheme specifically targeted seniors.

The Consumer Protection Bureau also took action against the Navy Federal Credit Union, which had been “making false threats about debt collection to its members, which include active-duty military, retired servicemembers, and their families.”

How can seniors protect themselves against these sorts of scams if the Bureau disappears or is weakened? That’s going to be tough, but if you suspect something fishy, complain loudly and be sure to let your representatives in Congress know.

Republicans in Congress are also trying to prevent California, Illinois and other states from taking measures to help workers at companies that don’t offer retirement plans to set up their own retirement accounts. In California,for example, according to the New  York Times, “participating employees would have a small percentage of pay deducted from their paychecks, unless they opted out. Those amounts would be pooled and managed by investment professionals chosen by the state in a bidding process; the plan would be overseen by a board of government and business leaders appointed by the governor and the Legislature.” Some financial firms seem to see this as an encroachment on their turf.

These are just some of the straws in the wind indicating that the times are unfriendly to seniors.  We must be vigilant to protect our interests.




AARP Conservative Courtship is Contrary to Seniors’ Interests

Seniors love AARP, and with good reason. Its website and magazine offer useful information for seniors on a host of subjects. Through AARP, discounts are available on everything from travel and dinner at Bonefish Grill to renting a truck. Medi-gap insurance or a credit card can be purchased through AARP.  The organization advocates for seniors and particularly, as it asserts at its website, for keeping Social Security strong — although it always insists that it is strictly nonpartisan.

That’s why seniors were surprised to learn recently that AARP was a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization with links to the Koch brothers. ALEC advocates for the privatization of Social Security and Medicare and takes other positions contrary to the interests of America’s seniors. As Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times points out, “ALEC has pushed for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which has saved Medicare enrollees millions of dollars by closing the Medicare drug benefit ‘donut hole.’ ALEC has opposed Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. It has targeted public pensions, pushing to cap benefits and shift workers toward defined contribution plans, which layer more market risk on individual workers’ shoulders.”

On August 5, following a public outcry, AARP announced on Facebook that it was leaving ALEC, while maintaining that ” We would never work against the interests of older Americans and our engagement with ALEC was NOT an endorsement of the organization’s policies, but an opportunity to engage with state legislators and advance our members’ priorities.”

AARP’s ALEC courtship may have roots in the attacks mounted by conservatives against the organization because of its support of the Affordable Care Act. Angry conservative members reportedly left AARP, and rival right-wing organizations saw their numbers grow. Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee issued a report critical of AARP, claiming it would benefit financially from passage of the ACA. By joining ALEC, AARP had not only an “opportunity to engage,” but also the chance to build bridges to powerful conservatives it had offended.

AARP may now have broken with ALEC, but here in New York’s 23rd congressional district, where Common Sense for Seniors is headquartered, we are represented by a Republican House Ways and Means Committee member, Tom Reed, who is still benefitting from AARP’s conservative courtship.

At its website, AARP features a heartwarming story by Reed about his childhood hardships and how important Social Security was to his family after his father died of a heart attack. (Only two members of Congress are featured here. The others are ordinary citizens.) In March, AARP issued a statement praising Reed for co-sponsoring the Credit for Caring Act, which would offer a tax credit to those who care for family members. This is a nice idea, but the bill has languished since its introduction in March and has little chance of passage in a Republican House devoted to budget cutting.  On August 5, AARP’s New York Director Beth Finkel hosted a “tele-town hall” conference call on Social Security and Medicare with Tom Reed as her “special guest.” Earlier, Finkel and AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond had offered effusive praise to Reed for sponsoring portions of a transportation bill that seem to benefit pedestrians and cyclists, but amount to little more than exhortations and recommendations.

Despite AARP’s assertions that it is nonpartisan, voters could easily draw the conclusion that it is endorsing Tom Reed. A perceived de facto endorsement is not in the interests of seniors. As long as Reed’s Republicans control the House, the expansion of Social Security and the improvement of Medicare are going nowhere. Neither program will be put on a sound, long-term financial footing.

Seniors are right to fear that AARP has been intimidated by conservatives — another case in point, its current Take a Stand campaign, which asks that the presidential and congressional candidates state their positions on Social Security but fails to articulate what AARP’s positions are. This is not advocacy in the interest of seniors.

In New York’s 23rd, senior voters would be right to wonder if AARP has not only been intimidated, but also snookered by Tom Reed. Their interests would be best served by the election of a Democratic majority in the House. Democrats created Social Security and are its strongest defenders. Voters in the 23rd have an excellent Democratic candidate in the distinguished veteran, John Plumb.



Obama Acts to Protect Regulations That Protect Seniors

In April, the Department of Labor — after years of deliberation and public comment — issued regulations requiring that financial advisers act in the best interests of their clients in giving retirement investment advice. Once the regulations take effect, advisers will no longer be able to steer clients to investments that generate high fees for the advisors and lower returns than investors might get with other investments.

Under the regs, advisers will have a much harder time selling their variable, fixed, and equity annuities — and all the complicated combinations thereof — and will have to focus on lower-cost investments such as stock index funds. These are investments that buyers can actually understand.

The regulations are just common sense, but the Republican-controlled Congress, under pressure from the financial industry, sought to thwart them. On April 28, the House passed a resolution of disapproval, and the Senate passed the same resolution, H.J. Res. 88, on May 24.

Thankfully, on June 8, President Obama vetoed the resolution, and now, the regulations can come into force. In his veto message, the President said,

“The outdated regulations in place before this rulemaking did not ensure that financial advisers act in their clients’ best interests when giving retirement investment advice. Instead, some firms have incentivized advisers to steer clients into products that have higher fees and lower returns — costing America’s families an estimated $17 billion a year.”

If you want to see how your House member or Senator voted on H.J. Res. 88, click here and here. A vote in favor of H.J. Res. 88 is a vote for the industry; a vote against is a vote for seniors. Take note, and remember in November.



Regs To Protect Seniors Finally Issued

Here’s some good news for seniors. The Department of Labor has finally issued new regulations to protect the trillions of dollars Americans are saving for retirement from unscrupulous financial advisers. Advisers will have to put our best interests first! To quote the New York Times

“The Labor Department, after years of battling Wall Street and the insurance industry, issued new regulations on Wednesday that will require financial advisers and brokers handling individual retirement and 401(k) accounts to act in the best interests of their clients.”

Sounds good to me, but let’s not shout “Hallelujah!” just yet. The new regulations are not expected to take effect until next spring and who knows who will be in the White House or in control in Congress by then. Also, the financial industry may challenge the regulations in court.

Here are some details on what the new regs may mean for you.

Fraud Warning for Seniors

Thanks to Michelle Singletary of the Washington Post for an article warning seniors against financial fraud. A recent survey, Singletary reports, finds that seventeen percent of Americans over 65 have been taken advantage of by such practices as being persuaded to make inappropriate investments, being charged excessive fees for financial advice, or outright fraud. When children are asked, 20 percent believe that their parents have been swindled.

That’s all the more reason why we seniors need to surround ourselves with a “protective tribe” when it comes to finances, particularly as we get up near 80. We should consult that tribe before making investment decisions, taking out a reverse mortgage, or accepting the free trip to Bermuda that nice lady on the phone just offered.

Meanwhile, it’s long past time for the US Department of Labor to go ahead and issue its proposed rule requiring that financial advisers act in the best interests of their clients. Lobbyists from the financial industry have been flocking to Washington over the last few weeks to weaken the rule or to prevent it from being promulgated altogether. The Obama Administration should resist. It’s a legacy seniors will be grateful for.

Medicare and Hearing Aids: An Old Prejudice

We’ve been reading in Pat Thane’s book, A History of Old Age, that as hospitals developed in the nineteenth century, the ailing old often found themselves kept out. Doctors and hospitals wanted to cure their patients, and the old were regarded as having an incurable disease — old age — with a known pathology of slow but steady decay. The general view was that the old are inevitably going to loose their teeth, their eyesight, and their hearing, just as they are going to suffer impairments of the mind, digestion, and the heart; and nothing was to be done about it. There was no sense in trying to treat the problems of the old.

Such a primitive view, the reader thinks. Thank heaven we live in a time when so many of the infirmities of old age can be cured or treated and held at bay. We have our medications for gout, glaucoma, indigestion, and high blood pressure. We have our cataract surgeries and our knee and hip replacements. And we’re thankful for it.

But the attitude that the old must endure their suffering prevails in the exclusion of hearing aids, eyeglasses, and dental care under Medicare. Back in the 1960s, when the Medicare law was drafted, hearing loss, declining eyesight, and loss of teeth were regarded as routine accompaniments to aging, not conditions that should be corrected.

Let’s just take the problem of hearing loss. According to a recent New York Times article,

“Congress banned Medicare coverage of hearing aids 50 years ago because ‘people thought hearing loss was just a normal part of aging,’ said Dr. (Christine) Cassel, one of the authors of a recent JAMA editorial on hearing health policies. ‘They didn’t see it as a disability or a medical problem.’”

The hearing aid exclusion is a big problem for America’s seniors. AARP notes that 9 million people over 65 are afflicted by hearing loss, yet according to another source only 30 percent are actually using hearing aids. Cost is a major factor. Estimates of the average cost of a hearing aid range from $1,300 to $3,000, and most people need two of them.

Uncorrected hearing loss is more than annoying to the victim and those close to the victim — it’s dangerous. Drivers and walkers need good hearing in order to avoid accidents. Studies show that those with hearing loss have more falls, more hospitalizations, and more physical and mental problems overall.

Worst of all, hearing loss is associated with dementia and abnormal brain shrinkage. Dr. Frank Lin of Johns Hopkins has found that the brain’s “temporal gyri,” involved in hearing, are particularly affected by shrinkage among the hearing impaired; but these structures also “play roles in memory and sensory integration and have been shown to be involved in the early stages of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Hearing loss is anything but a routine aspect of aging that can be safely ignored. Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan recognizes this and has introduced H.R. 1653, the Medicare Hearing Aid Coverage Act, to end the Medicare hearing aid exclusion. Florida Democrat Alan Grayson has gone her two better with H.R. 3308, the Seniors Have Eyes, Ears, and Teeth Act, requiring coverage of eyeglasses and dental care as well.

Meanwhile, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is recommending federal actions to decrease the cost of hearing aids and to make a basic model available over the counter.

Congress fell victim to a primitive view of old age in 1965, when it excluded hearing aids from coverage under Medicare. The time for action to correct this mistake is long past.