W.Va. Democrats: Vulnerable state seniors need our attention and support

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Kackie Sherman Eller is 78 years young.  She has her husband, her health, and finds happiness in her family and community.  She retired from Kanawha County Schools two years ago, but often substitute teaches because she loves teaching. 

Kackie knows a fellow retiree who has significant health issues but must continue to serve as a substitute teacher for the money.  Her friend delayed a necessary operation to work, so she could pay bills while she was recuperating.  Kackie has another friend who is fighting cancer, but only misses the opportunity to substitute teach when he has treatments. She is concerned for her friends and angry with her state government.

Mary Dooley retired as a school counselor in 2004, but she substitutes often to make ends meet.  She thinks she and her fellow retirees deserve a raise.  They should be able to enjoy their retirement, not constantly worry about paying bills.

Ernest “Spud” Terry is a legend at the State Capitol.  In the twenty years since he retired from state government, he has been a volunteer lobbyist and spokesman for the Coalition for Retired Public Employees.  He has been fighting for a tax exemption for retirees of PERS and TERS, a cost of living adjustment for state retirees, and a stable funding source for PEIA.

Kackie, Mary and Spud, plus their fellow state retirees, are why West Virginia Legislative Democrats have introduced Senate Bill 757, which would provide a cost of living adjustment (COLA) for all state retirees.  Tied to the inflation rate, it would provide a modest, but greatly needed pension increase each year.  Retirees would spend that money locally, providing stimulus to our economy.

Of our 482,374 seniors, 25% live alone, 40% live with a disability, scores are raising grandchildren because of substance abuse, and 86,000 are threatened by hunger.  They do not know with certainty each day that they will have enough, or even get a chance to eat.  Yet senior centers, which operate senior feeding programs, are facing cuts while there is a waiting list of thousands who need help. 

West Virginia’s senior meal reimbursement rate per meal is $6.80, far below the $8.84 it costs the centers to produce them. The lack of funding has forced a reduction in meals provided, fewer hot meals, less home deliveries to shut-ins, and menus that lack fresh foods, according to the West Virginia Directors of Senior and Community Services.

In a recent AARP survey, 75% of voters 40 and older in West Virginia believe services that enable seniors to live independently are extremely or very important. This critical, lower-cost care includes visiting home nurses, personal care aides, light housekeeping, transportation and relief for caregivers. Yet, the Bureau of Senior Services has repeatedly told the Legislature that even if their budget were doubled, West Virginia would still have seniors waiting for services.

The survey also found that an overwhelming majority of voters support efforts to control the cost of prescription drugs. Senate Bill 689 would require drug manufacturers to provide accurate cost information and statistics to the State Auditor for publication on a searchable website.  This effort would allow greater transparency in the pharmaceutical industry.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.5% of West Virginians have diabetes, one of the highest rates in the country. As the cost of insulin has skyrocketed, many residents who need this life saving drug cannot afford it.  House Bill 4543 would cap the cost at $25 for a 30-day supply of insulin.

We must clear the waiting list of nearly 1,200 state residents who require assistance through the intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) waiver. Fully funding the waiver program will ensure that our citizens receive needed services so they may stay in their homes and live independently.

Many of the issues facing our seniors can be helped by focusing on our budget priorities.  We need to think of in-home and community-based services as a strategic investment that will save the state significant money. If we invest in services, we decrease trips to the ER, extended hospitalizations and lives lived out in nursing homes.

West Virginia seniors are not just numbers on the page; they are our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors and friends.  Most of us were lucky enough to have the unconditional love of a mamaw or papaw, a grandma or grandpa.  West Virginia Democrats believe we should put vulnerable seniors first.   At the Capitol, our votes are a reflection of our values.  As we make decisions for our fellow West Virginians, we remember Matthew 6:21:  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.