You have a voice: Get to know your elected officials and make them listen

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Jennifer Fairbank, chair of the Rhode Island Health Care Association and administrator of Kindred Health Care and executive director of South County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Jennifer Fairbank, chair of the Rhode Island Health Care Association and administrator of Kindred Health Care and executive director of South County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

It’s not surprising that a recent Pew Research Center survey found that the public is highly engaged in the 2016 presidential campaign — much more so than the last two elections. Seniors reported that they are watching the debates and many have found them helpful in understanding issues, though most say they haven’t found them “fun to watch.” That being said, becoming informed is important at the national level as well as closer to home.

Each year health care is one of the most ardently debated issues facing state and federal policy makers, in large part because so much of it is government-funded. In Rhode Island, for instance, the Medicaid budget accounts for approximately 30 percent of the state’s expenses, and elder care is a significant component of that cost. As a result, our legislators are continually coming up with new ways to redesign the Medicaid system with an eye toward decreasing cost. Unfortunately, when not carefully vetted, that cost reduction may not be based on efficiency, but decreased services.

The good news is that with the number of Americans joining the ranks of those 65 and older at an unprecedented rate, the senior demographic has clout. Now more than ever, older citizens have the capability to influence the positions of our elected representatives on specific issues or bills.

How do you know what conversations are happening at the Statehouse that could impact you? You can get information from numerous associations, groups and agencies that advocate for seniors on legislative issues. For example:

• The Long-Term Care Coordinating Council chaired by Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee meets monthly to develop and coordinate state policy pertaining to the delivery of services. The meetings are open to the public. Contact the office of the lieutenant governor for more information at www.ltgov.ri.gov.

• The Rhode Island Health Care Association (www.rihca.com) monitors and advocates for legislation and regulations that allow the residential skilled nursing care and rehabilitation community to provide accessible, high quality health care.

• The Rhode Island Partnership for Home Care (www.riphc.org) monitors regulatory rules and laws that affect the delivery of home care services.

• The Rhode Island Assisted Living Association (www.riala.org) is a federation of assisted living facilities that advocates for consumers on issues affecting the delivery of services in such centers.

While that is by no means a complete list, it should provide a start about where to access issues pertinent to you. Also, you can find background information about a number of senior-related issues as well as the state’s goals in regard to health care delivery to older people in The State Plan on Aging on the Rhode Island Department of Elderly Affairs website at www.dea.ri.gov/insurance.  It notes opportunities for input should you wish to discuss the issues included or omitted from the plan.

Once you’re armed with information, here are some simple and effective ways to participate in our governmental process that will allow your opinion to be heard.

• Develop a personal relationship with your local legislators and elected officials. Contact them by letter, email or phone. If you need to find out who your legislators are, visit the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s website atwww.rilin.state.ri.us. The site also provides the latest information on the legislative initiatives and activities of House and Senate members, biographical and contact information and committee assignments.

• After contacting your legislators, make them care about your cause, what you believe and what you want. If possible, share a personal story that helps to make your point.  Don’t assume that your legislator understands the issues that concern you. Provide background information as well as facts and figures to back up your position.

• Write to newspapers. Garner support by writing brief and concise letters to the editor. Elected officials and decision makers scan such letters to follow public opinion on current issues.

• Support and elect officials who address your concerns. Attend community election forums and town meetings where candidates discuss their views and find out how they stand on local, regional, state, national and global issues. Monitor a candidate’s voting record and where he or she has stood on specific issues of importance to you.

• Don’t be intimidated.  You are their constituent. What you have to say is important and could help shape policies that will affect Rhode Island’s senior citizens for years to come. 

I will endeavor to keep you informed of upcoming pertinent issues.

Jennifer Fairbank is executive director of the South County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Kingstown. Contact her at Jennifer.fairbank@genesishcc.com or (401) 294-4545.

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