By Bob Jackson, AARP Texas state director
I know you all have been patiently waiting for our post-session update. And I’m pleased to tell you that it’s finally here.
The 2013 legislative session showed that important victories can be achieved on both offense and defense, that is, by advancing legislation that helps Texans 50+ and stopping potentially harmful bills in their tracks.
It’s been a busy few months to say the least, and we have a lot of ground to cover. So, pour yourself a cup of coffee, tea or even wine, and let’s get started.
Protecting Public Pensions
AARP worked with partner organizations like the Texas Retired Teacher Association to protect the defined benefit pension system that is essential to financial security. Prior to the session, some groups had argued that the pension programs should be converted to individual 401K-type programs, which would have been a disaster for Texas teachers and school district employees.
The final legislation preserves and strengthens the pension program for both state and school employees and grants cost of living increases to those who have been retired the longest. To help strengthen the system, both the state and active members will contribute a bit more to the pension system and newer active employees will have stricter requirements on when they can retire. Overall, this is good news for those relying on their pension to make ends meet.
Reforming Small Dollar Loans
At the start of the session AARP was optimistic about passing legislation that would put a stop once and for all to the abusive payday and auto title loans that threaten the financial security of not just older Texans, but all Texans.
Unfortunately, the payday lending industry flexed its muscle to make sure strong consumer protection did not become law.
But we have power too.
And this is a case where our defense shone. While we weren’t able to make the strides forward that we hoped for, we were able to prevent even greater disaster by stopping any form of pre-emption bill from passing. This means that cities that have already taken measures into their own hands -- Austin, Dallas, Denton, El Paso and San Antonio -- by enacting ordinances to rein in payday lending and protect their residents can continue to do so. It also means that other cities across the state are free to pass local level ordinances to protect their residents from predatory lenders.
Access to Health Care
AARP worked with partner groups, in support of two pieces of legislation designed to increase access to health care. One piece of legislation expands Texas’ ability to recruit, educate, and train our next generation of physicians. The legislation also establishes incentives for Texas medical schools to increase the state’s supply of primary care physicians, and encourages greater physician participation in Medicaid and the Texas Women’s Health Program through the Physician Education Loan Repayment Program.
A second piece of legislation expands the scope of practice for advance practice registered nurses by removing some barriers and making it easier for advance practice registered nurses to see patients and write prescriptions.
It shouldn’t come as news to you that Texas nursing homes don’t always measure up. A recent AARP report, “Raising Expectations – A State Scorecard on Long-Term Services and Supports for Older Adults, People with Physical Disabilities, and Family Caregivers,” ranks Texas nursing homes poorly when it comes to providing quality care.
Fortunately, we were able to work with Senator Jane Nelson’s office to get a number of consumer-friendly provisions included in Senate Bill 7.
Senate Bill 7 will move Medicaid-funded nursing home services under the STAR+PLUS managed care program. Since the STAR+PLUS health plans will now bear the full risk for a consumer’s nursing home costs, they will have greater motivation to provide quality community-based services to folks, enabling them to age in their homes, which is far less expensive than nursing home care.
The bill also contains a new requirement that more Star + Plus enrollees be enrolled in the managed care plans with the best quality track records, encouraging better performance. It also contains a requirement setting higher quality standards for nursing homes that participate in the STAR+PLUS program.
Finally, the bill mandates that the state publish quality data on Texas nursing homes, which will not only motivate providers to improve their quality of care, but will also help consumers find the best facilities for themselves or their loved one.
State Budget: Increases for Long-Term Care Services
AARP worked on three state budget issues that bear directly on the quality of care for seniors getting long-term care at home and for those getting care in nursing homes:
We were able to help secure a long overdue increase in nursing home rates. Texas has one of the worst levels of nursing home reimbursement in the country, which results in high staff turnover and poor care compared to other states. The final budget included a 6% rate increase for nursing homes. This is short of what’s actually needed, but a step in the right direction.
We also successfully lobbied for funding to decrease the waiting list for community-based services. These services help low-income seniors remain in their homes, which is cheaper than nursing homes and also where most seniors prefer to live. The final budget included $16.4 million to bring new individuals off the waiting list – again, that’s less than what’s needed, but still a significant step toward allowing more low-income seniors to age in place.
We also pushed for an increase in wages for community-based attendants – these are the folks that do the challenging work of taking care of frail seniors. The final budget included $216 million to fund an increase to bring the base wage for the lowest-paid attendants up to $7.86 an hour.
I’d like to end with two issues that clearly illustrate the power of your voice. In April, the House Insurance Committee came precariously close to taking up legislation that would have allowed insurance companies to penalize homeowners for filing just one valid insurance claim, even if the claim was due to weather damage. After one claim, an insurance company could immediately increase the homeowner’s premium or deductible. Following a second claim, the insurer could drop their coverage without warning.
AARP sent out an email to e-activists who are constituents of the committee members, asking them to tell their representative that this was a dangerous bill and unfair to all Texas homeowners. Within a very short period of time, hundreds of emails poured in to the members of the committee. Less than 48 hours later, the bill was withdrawn by its sponsor. It was never even heard in committee.
Power of Attorney
Powers of attorney are essential tools for delegating authority to someone else to handle your financial decision-making. The potential benefits are considerable, but today in Texas these broad powers can give dishonest people a license to steal.
AARP advocated on behalf of legislation that would require power of attorney forms to clearly detail the duties and responsibilities being authorized in the form. This bill would help protect older Texans from financial abuse. While the bill successfully passed out of the Texas House, we were running out of time, we only had a few short hours to get it on the Senate’s calendar.
In a last-ditch effort, we called upon our e-activists to ask Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst to calendar the bill. Nearly a thousand e-activists answered our call. You better believe the lieutenant governor listened -- the bill was put on the Senate calendar and went on to pass unanimously.
And that, volunteers, is the power of you.
Thank you for your hard work this session. Our victories are because of your perseverance and hard work. We’re grateful to have you as part of the team. Please, pat yourself on the back for a job well done.
By Kim Loop , June 05, 2013 10:03 PM
By Bob Jackson, AARP Texas state director