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Activists Influence WHCoA Seattle Regional Forum

By Steve Kofahl, Pesident of AFGE 3937 and member of PSARA’s Executive Board

Starting in 1961, and approximately every 10 years since then, U.S. Presidents have convened White House Conferences on Aging (WHCoA) to address federal policy and program issues for the next decade. A number of important laws and programs grew from seeds planted at these Conferences, such as the 1965 Older Americans Act (OAA), Medicare, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income. President Obama called for a 2015 WHCoA in his 2014 budget request, as well as for re-authorization of the OAA that has funded all Conferences since the enactment of that law.

Although the OAA has still not been re-authorized, planning and listening sessions have proceeded over the past year, with financing provided primarily by AARP, and co-sponsorship by the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations. The WHCoA scheduled Regional Forums in Tampa, Phoenix, Seattle, Cleveland, and Boston for invited individuals to provide input. Breakout sessions dealt with Healthy Aging; Longterm Services and Supports; Financial Exploitation, Abuse, and Neglect; and Retirement Security.

PSARA activists and our labor and community allies had a disproportionately strong impact among the 200 or so participants in Seattle on April 2, with our primary focus on Retirement Security. Aware that those attempting to discuss Social Security and Medicare expansion in Tampa faced strong resistance and left frustrated, we met a few days ahead to discuss goals and strategies, and contacted our elected representatives who would speak at the Forum, to let them know what we hoped to hear from them.

WHCoA Executive Director Nora Super, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Senator Murray, and Representatives McDermott and DelBene, were among those who spoke to open the Forum. We were pleased that Suzan DelBene promoted “scrapping the cap” in her remarks.

Several panel discussions followed, addressing the subjects of the breakout sessions to be held that afternoon. Following each panel, a few questions submitted in writing by some of the 200 participants were directed to the speakers and panelists. Our preparation paid-off, with questions from two of our PSARA Executive Board members selected.

Robby Stern asked whether the WHCoA would consider/support creation of a long-term care benefit in traditional Medicare, lower the Medicare eligibility age to bring in a healthier cohort and reduce per capita costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prescription drug costs. Jackie Boschok asked whether the WHCoA supports protection and expansion of defined benefit pensions, given that defined contribution plans have proven to be failures as replacements because of two problems: low wages which make saving very difficult if not impossible, and volatile markets. We were disappointed, but not particularly surprised, that there were no straight answers provided to either question.

At the afternoon Retirement Security breakout session, we spread out among the tables to make sure that scrapping the cap and expanding benefits (not “improving” them, because to some that could mean cuts) got plenty of attention. We injected significant discussion of the underlying causes of insufficient retirement income, such as reductions in defined benefit pensions, stagnant wages, low pay for women, and the failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform. We offered as solutions a hefty minimum-wage increase, real income growth among those in the working class and middle class, more union organizing, and the benefit expansions outlined in “Social Security Works,” the recently-released Nancy Altman/Eric Kingson book. Although there were a few participants who disagreed, we had support from a solid majority of those present.

At the general session that closed the day, several of us had opportunities to reinforce our messages or introduce new ones by speaking from microphones on the floor.

On Friday, April 3rd, Nora Super, Executive Director of the White House Conference on Aging, met with 45 community and labor leaders at the Washington State Labor Council Office to gather additional input. The meeting was arranged jointly by the national office of Caring Across Generations, Washington CAN! and PSARA.

The message we delivered was consistently and forcefully progressive: expand Social Security and Medicare benefits, no privatization, address the growing need for long-term care and home care services.

PSARA member Diane Narasaki, Executive Director of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, made a powerful presentation describing the access and service problems that resulted when the Social Security Administration closed accessible community-based offices in Belltown and the International District, consolidating them into the ninth floor of the Jackson Federal Building, while aggressively pushing clients to fend for themselves on the Internet. She pointed out that the consolidation has had a disproportionately negative impact on people of color, poor people and people with disabilities. Ms. Super made a commitment to bring these issues back to the appropriate people in D.C. and assured us that the policy issues we raised would be a part of the discussion at the national WHCoA.

We learned that the national WHCoA will be held in the East Room of the White House on a date in July that has not yet been disclosed. Only 200 participants can be accommodated, a fraction of the number that have participated in past Conferences. Everyone is urged to submit individual and organizational input through e-mail messages, social media, and webinars.

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