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Taking Coronavirus Concerns to Capitol Hill

State leaders, volunteers meet with members of Congress — virtually — during AARP's Lobby Week

Capitol building

Getty Images/AARP

Bob Edwards:

This week, AARP held a Virtual Lobby Week, where state leaders and volunteers met with members of congress via videoconferencing apps, social media and phone.

AARP urged more help for those age 50+ and their families as they face growing challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. Federal lawmakers across the country were called on to protect nursing home staff and residents, address serious budget shortfalls, and fund assistance programs for food-insecure older adults.

Today, we’ll hear from AARP state directors in Florida and California to find out how they are fighting for these protections on behalf of older Americans, and what other unique challenges their states are facing amid this crisis.

Hi I’m Bob Edwards with An AARP Take on Today.

Bob Edwards:

Though they would usually meet on Capitol Hill or in state capitals, advocates for the 50+ spoke with their U.S. congressional representatives from their kitchens and living rooms this past week -- both to avoid the spread of coronavirus and to address the pandemic response.

Nancy McPherson:

Typically this time of year all leaders from all the states go to DC to visit with our members of Congress and bring our priority issues to them and we're doing this virtually all across the country. In California we have 53 members of Congress because we have 53 congressional districts, and two US senators. All of our staff and volunteers have really rolled up their sleeves and been scheduling virtual visits.

Bob Edwards:

That’s Nancy McPherson, AARP California’s State Director. She and her team have a long list of urgent priorities for their representatives to help the 50-plus population in these current times.

And, twenty-five hundred miles away, so did AARP Florida’s State Director, Jeff Johnson.

Jeff Johnson:

Florida has unique demographics. We are one of the oldest states in the country and the only of those older states that is still growing in population. It's no surprise to the folks listening to this that people move to Florida in retirement, although plenty of people move to Florida long before that. What that means is we have a much larger percentage of our population that are in that vulnerable at-risk category. That means we have to be responsive to their needs in a different way.

Bob Edwards:

At the top of both of their lists: more personal protective equipment, or PPE, for workers in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Jeff Johnson:

We have been tracking the impact of coronavirus on Florida's long-term care facilities really since the beginning. Right now it's about 35% of fatalities in Florida are in these long-term care facilities, which only have about 1% of the population. Our focus has been throughout that it's critically important that we find adequate testing so that we can test people who are coming in and out of the facility and make sure that we don't have people with the coronavirus who may be asymptomatic spreading it with this vulnerable population. But then it's also really important that the facilities have the equipment, the PPE, the personal protective equipment that everybody's talking about, so that just as it's true in hospitals that in this high risk setting that people have, whether it be gloves and masks and gowns that prevent the spread of the virus to the vulnerable population as well.

Nancy McPherson:

With staffing, we want to ensure that nursing homes are adequately staffed to meet the current demand. Nursing home facilities and assisted living facilities have not been top tier to receive personal protective equipment and we think that needs to change, that they need to be able to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among staff and residents. And the availability of testing for residents and staff, not just in California, this is an issue all over the country, but we want to see an expansion of the availability of testing.

Bob Edwards:

One of McPherson’s biggest concerns is visitation technology. She says nurses often have to use their own devices to coordinate videoconferences between residents and their loved ones.

Nancy McPherson:

Something that AARP is working on that's very important in California too, is to ensure that during this time when physical visits are prohibited, that nursing facilities allow and help to make possible virtual visitation and our telephone communication between residents and their families. We can't just rely on the individual devices that staff have. That's what's happening in my mother's facility, which is so kind, but probably not appropriate for staff to have to do this. They're using their own personal telephones, their cell phones to make sure that residents can talk to their family members. But this is something we think ... there needs to be an institutional structure to support this.

Bob Edwards:

Providing funds to these facilities can help address these issues, but the challenges don’t stop there. McPherson and Johnson say that it’s critical for nursing home administrators to alert the public whenever there are coronavirus cases in their buildings.

Jeff Johnson:

The issues around transparency and nursing homes, that's been a really key focus for AARP here in this state because we know that if you have a loved one, if you have a spouse or a mom or a dad who is in a nursing home, it's really important to know whether there are coronavirus cases in that facility so that you can make decisions and just so that you can have peace of mind that there aren't.

Nancy McPherson:

We believe in California, and this is always a high priority for us, that California system of longterm services and supports needs to be more coherent and transparent. I can talk and probably might be helpful to talk a little bit about some of the things that are specific to what our asks are. But I wanted to say too that this is really a personal issue for me...

Jeff Johnson:

From the beginning of the process, from the beginning of this crisis, there really wasn't a lot of information and slowly the state would release how many cases there were in facilities in a particular county, which is not really terribly helpful. Thankfully through lobbying on our part and certainly a lot of work on other folk's part and continued conversation with the state, we've been able to get them to the point that they are now releasing pretty detailed information; which facilities have cases, how many have active cases and how many active cases they have, of those cases, how many of them are staff and how many of them are residents. And just recently how many have had fatalities, which unfortunately is a significant number, but it's important to have that transparency again, for family members to have the peace of mind, but also for people who are working in those facilities to know whether they've been exposed to the virus and are at risk of transmitting it to other places, whether it be their home or to other facilities where they work.

Nancy McPherson:

Our parents are at the age now where they are receiving care, either home based care or care in facilities. This is really a personal issue that a lot of people on our team feel passionate about; our volunteers and staff. And so in particular we're calling on California's elected officials and state regulators right now to reject a nursing home industry proposal that would allow for reduced staffing and it would create blanket immunity from liability for nursing homes. We think this is just completely unacceptable.

We want to know which nursing facilities have confirmed COVID-19 cases and we want to see that made public. We want family members of COVID-19 positive residents to be alerted of any plans to transfer these residents to other facilities. We've seen some things in California that have really created concern. One particular case where workers didn't show up to work and the residents of a particular nursing home facility had to be transferred unexpectedly because there wasn't adequate staffing.

Bob Edwards:

Unfortunately, the challenges in nursing homes and other care facilities don’t paint the entire picture when it comes to issues older adults are facing due to coronavirus. Older Americans everywhere are experiencing problems getting the food they need, prompting advocates to call for the expansion of food assistance for the most vulnerable. One solution, AARP leaders say, is for federal lawmakers to increase the maximum benefit for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Jeff Johnson:

A lot of people think about Florida as a place where it's more of a playground and people come and retire and live happily and certainly many do, but there are a lot of older Floridians who don't have what they need in order to make it through the month financially. And certainly the SNAP program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps as it used to be called, is a critical piece of the puzzle in helping people stay healthy and get the food that they need.

AARP has advocated at the federal level for expanding the SNAP program so that more people who already qualify for the program can receive the maximum benefit, which is still not a whole lot of money, but also that we don't make people who are in the midst of all of the trials of this pandemic also get re-certified if their time on SNAP is up and they have to re-certify that they need that assistance. Fortunately we currently are in a situation where that maximum benefit has been expanded and the process has been streamlined. We need to make sure that continues because even though there are some states like Florida that are beginning to let up some of the restrictions, we certainly don't expect the hardships of this pandemic to pass overnight.>

Bob Edwards:

In California, McPherson says that access to food for food-insecure older adults is a big concern as well. Fortunately, there’s been progress, but, like Florida, there’s still a long way to go.

Nancy McPherson: What we need in California in all of our 58 counties is a willingness to find solutions that link public and private partnerships and that volunteers have a strong role because volunteers are actually responsible for really getting food out in many of these places that will sustain some of the solutions we were able to stand up immediately because of the crisis.

There's some examples that might be helpful for listeners to know about. We really need to see removal of tele-health barriers so people can still receive medical care through virtual programs. We need federal approval. This is something that our state's working on right now and so are advocates for people on CalFresh, which is our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program or SNAP, that's what we call it in California to use their electronic benefit transfer card, it's called an EBT card, to purchase food delivery through Walmart and Amazon because lots of people can't get out and they also can't get food deliveries. That's a common sense approach to taking care of this. We need to continue services to people who were homeless before the pandemic or because of it.

We are seeing some really amazing things happening. The Governor announced the support to fund what he's calling the Great Plates Delivery program, which is going to be administered at the local level. It's designed to meet the needs of the middle income older adults impacted by COVID-19. These are people who aren't served through existing programs like Meals on Wheels for example.

We are seeing already, it's going to take a while to stand up the Great Plates Delivery program, but there's some counties and cities like Oakland, Long Beach and Los Angeles that are already collaborating with local restaurants. They're putting people back to work and they are helping deliver hot, nutritious, prepared meals for low income individuals. Volunteers are needed though because one of the big problems is having enough volunteers to actually deliver the meals.

We are seeing the World Central Kitchen for example, is working now closely with the City of Oakland in providing meals there. These are chefs who know how to do this kind of stand up and they're bringing the restaurants back to work and getting organized. They're already delivering hot meals, so we're excited to see some things like that happening.

Bob Edwards:

AARP advocates also called on Congress to protect older adults and their families throughout the election cycles this year. Each state has different vote-by-mail laws and procedures, which meant that each state’s lobby day looked a bit different.

Jeff Johnson:

Florida was fortunate in many ways in that our presidential preference primary happened just at the beginning of this process and before there was the level of spread that happened later in the month. And our congressional primary, our regular primary is not until August, actually late in August so we have a little bit of time. But we're even more fortunate because decades ago Florida changed its laws so that it was much easier to vote by mail and request an absentee ballot. There are many states where you have to jumped through a lot of hoops frankly in order to be able to vote by mail and Florida's not one of those.

My hope is that as we head towards the primary in August and a general election in November, that that vote by mail option, which has been growing in popularity cycle after cycle will continue to do so and that there'll be concerted efforts even if there haven't been before to get everybody to at least consider whether voting by mail is an option they want to take in order to make sure that they don't have to go into a crowded polling place in order to cast their ballot.

Nancy McPherson:

Voter access is going to be a top priority for AARP in California with the election coming up. California has already been implementing more options when it comes to voting because of the California Voters Choice Act. Counties have already been conducting elections under a new model and it provides greater flexibility and convenience for voters. This new election model allows voters to choose how, when, and where to cast their ballot by mailing every voter a ballot, by expanding in-person early voting, and by allowing voters to cast a ballot at any vote center within their county.

There were a few glitches when it was implemented. We would like to see California continue to work on mitigating some of those problems. But in the face of COVID-19 we need to keep it as simple as possible for people to vote by mail. We also have to recognize that we're facing a deficit and we have to be realistic about being able to pay for an all vote by mail election, but we think it is possible. It's important for voters to continue having options to mail in ballots, but we would have to urge state to consider waiving costs of postage and ensuring that there are guidelines in place to help with physical distancing so we don't see some of the pictures we saw in a couple of other places in the country when people were voting and there weren't those protections.

Bob Edwards:

Johnson and McPherson say there are other ways state and local governments can improve the lives of the 50-plus. It might sound tiresome, but they’re fully committed to ensuring their states are places where older adults feel their health and financial security is protected.

Nancy McPherson:

We have some other priorities in California that we think are really important. One right now is an age discrimination issue that has to do with the crisis care guidelines that the California Department of Public Health has issued.

What are crisis care guidelines? These are guidelines that provide a framework by which hospitals decide who gets care and who doesn't when they reach a critical mass in delivering service in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Right now the ones in California, even though they're listed on the California state website as a draft, they explicitly outline how age will be the determining factor and will be a tiebreaker for who gets treatment. Our office along with AARP nationally is advocating strongly to remove the age discrimination language from the guidelines and revise them to ensure that all people are treated equally.

Jeff Johnson:

Because our population is older, our workforce is also older. And so as Florida begins the process of defining what reopening means and bringing people back to work, one of the things that AARP is really focused on is how do we make sure that those who are in the categories that the CDC identifies as being more vulnerable aren't discriminated against so that if they're unable to go back to work in an office but they can continue to tele-work successfully as they may have been doing for the last six weeks or so, how do we make sure that employers continue to value that. Because otherwise we, in the face of already seeing high numbers of unemployment are at risk of a second wave of those who are older and financially vulnerable, being disadvantaged just because they're doing what they're supposed to do to take care of themselves and prevent the spread of the virus.

Nancy McPherson:

We want to see increased support for family caregivers. A huge concern in California with over 4 million people who provide unpaid family caregiving in California. Full practice authority for nurse practitioners. And that's something that's coming out of the COVID-19 situation is that we want to see every health professional practice to the full scope of their education and authority, but certainly focused on nurse practitioners. And then housing affordability, really top issue in California. It's not going away. With increased access to transportation and then designating California as an age friendly state. So barring the age discrimination issue that I mentioned, we see California as a place where people can age successfully throughout their lifetime.

Bob Edwards:

Thank you to our guests, Nancy McPherson and Jeff Johnson. If you want to learn more about AARP’s state and federal efforts to fight for older Americans amid the COVID-19 crisis, visit AARP dot org slash advocacy.

If you liked this episode, please let us know by sending an email to: News Podcast at AARP dot org.

A big thanks to our news team.

Producers Colby Nelson, Danny Alarcon and Madison Daniels

Production Assistant Brigid Lowney

Engineer Julio Gonzales

Executive Producer Jason Young

And, of course, my co-hosts Wilma Consul and Mike Ellison.

Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

For An AARP Take on Today, I’m Bob Edwards

Thanks for listening, and stay safe.

This week, two state directors update us on AARP’s Lobby Week, where state leaders and volunteers virtually met with members of Congress to advocate for those 50-plus and their families as they face growing challenges due to the pandemic.

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