Latest from OWL

Saturday November 09, 2013

Brinegar Discusses Priorities with Senators

OWL-National Executive Director Bobbie Brinegar was one of a select group of leaders in aging advocacy invited to meet with Democratic Senators on Capitol Hill this week.  At a meeting convened by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee on Wednesday, November 6, Brinegar continued to advocate for a bipartisan approach to addressing the concerns of mid-life and older women.

Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), Committee Chairman, stated that their “discussion showcased the critical importance of the work we do to provide services for our nation’s seniors,” and expressed confidence that, “there are responsible ways to cut the budget without hurting our seniors.”

In written remarks submitted to the committee, Brinegar, commented upon the results of a recent NBC News/Esquire Magazine poll that found the majority of the electorate occupy what was characterized as “a new American center…. bound by a surprising set of shared ideas.”

Brinegar remarked that she believed that the poll pointed to a critical juncture in American politics. She observed that, “we are increasingly a nation of shared purpose. In fact, it is apparent that the most destructive division is not within the American people: it is between the people and those whom they entrusted with the responsibilities of public office.”

Brinegar expressed optimism that members of Congress could come together to protect Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the OAA and other programs that are vital to the health and economic security of millions of midlife and older women. She observed that “Rep. Ribble, (R -Wisc.) and Rep.  Mulvaney, (R-S.C. ) (had) earlier in the week expressed a willingness to consider a higher income cap as a means of addressing Social Security’s long-term viability—an option once considered anathema to conservatives. Perhaps this marks the beginning of a new era in which partisan hyperbole gives way to elevated discourse and a focus on coming up with reasonable solutions to people’s very real problems.”

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 12:04 PM

Thursday October 24, 2013

Considering “What’s Next: Wise Activism for the Future”

Over 80 enthusiastic OWL members and friends gathered at the JFK Library in Boston on October 24 to consider “What’s Next: Wise Activism for the Future”.  The featured speaker was Mary Catherine Bates, who drew on her latest book, Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom (Vintage Books, 2011). She discussed some of the opportunities offered by adding more relatively healthy years to adulthood, and encouraged all to be mindful of the ways we are composing our lives.  In addition, Margaret Huyck, the President of the OWL National board, reported on changes in structures made to preserve effective education and advocacy work on key OWL issues.

Shown in photo: (Standing left to right) Margaret Huyck, President of OWL National board of directors; Ellen Bruce, President, Eastern Massachusetts OWL; and (seated) Mary Catherine Bateson.

Posted by Margaret Huyck at 04:22 PM

Monday September 30, 2013

Puzzled about health-care costs? You’re not alone

By Jeanne Pinder
Founder, CEO of, bringing transparency to the health-care marketplace by telling people what stuff costs.

While the latest news cycles on health care have been dominated by the Affordable Care Act and questions about whether the health-insurance exchanges will open as scheduled on Oct. 1, for a lot of people that topic is a sideshow.

This is true because whether you are insured or not, the underlying costs of health-care procedures continue to rise, creating perhaps the biggest problem we face as a nation.

In our work at our mission is telling people what things cost in health care, a traditional mystery. Shouldn’t you know that your MRI could cost as little as $450 or as much as $1,900, or even $6,000, for the same procedure in the same city? Shouldn’t you be able to know other health costs, too? People are calling us the of health care and the Zillow of health care.

We’re using tools like shoe-leather reporting, crowdsourcing, curation and sourcing of pricing databases, and data visualization to help people with clear, actionable information about prices.

Not long ago, questions about prices were an abstraction. Most people had health insurance, often with a policy characterized by the $20 co-pay, where everything cost just that.

But now, the situation has changed dramatically. Insured people face higher deductibles, greater out-of-pocket costs, higher co-pays and more choices about insurance. As the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, comes into full effect, the demand for knowledge about prices will only increase – if people are choosing coverage of 60 percent, 70 percent or 80 percent coverage, they’ll want to know, 60 percent of what?
What’s my co-pay? Why isn’t it covered? What’s co-insurance? What do you mean I haven’t met my deductible? How much do you want me to pay, and why?

For people who are already insured, or people who are newly insured, these questions will be increasingly important.

Look at Massachusetts, where Romneycare extended coverage to many residents who had previously been uninsured, a goal that Romneycare shares with the Affordable Care Act.

And yet: one thing that happened in Massachusetts was that health costs did not go down. The growth in costs was fueled by price increases and distortions in the marketplace, according to a report by Attorney General Martha Coakley.
“Price increases, not increases in utilization, caused most of the increases in health care costs during the past few years in Massachusetts,” the 2010 report said.

Another thing we’ve learned in our work: women are more in tune with this issue than men. Women make 80 to 90 percent of the health care decisions in this country – for their spouses (be those spouses husbands or wives), for their kids, their parents and themselves. Women often are the ones paying the bills, and arguing with the insurance company. In their 20’s and 30’s, guys often just don’t go to the doctor unless there’s some emergency; women go because they own reproductive health.

So, are we suggesting that you go on a shopping expedition, to kick the tires on your emergency appendectomy and ask for the cheapest cancer care?

No, we don’t. We’re here to help people think like consumers in the health-care marketplace: Commonly, right now, there are things that are shoppable procedures, like a walk-in clinic visit or an MRI, which you could choose to have one place or another, for one price or another. That’s the core of our data set. We’re a startup, and for right now we focus on seven metro areas – New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin. We have price surveys in those areas, and nationwide we have data on what Medicare pays for procedures, the closest thing to a fixed or benchmark price in the marketplace.

And yet we can see a not-too-distant future where people shop for all kinds of health care, people like my friend “e-Patient Dave” deBronkart, a patient advocate and author of the new book “Let Patients Help.”  Dave wrote on his blog about shopping for a CT scan and checkup (here’s the link: He’s on a high-deductible plan, so it mattered: He got the cost down from $1,484 to $520. He’s the same guy who issued an RFP for treatment of his skin cancer. (here’s the link:

For many people, shopping for cancer treatment is unthinkable. But increasingly, such conversations will be common. We’re here to help.

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 11:09 AM

Tuesday September 24, 2013

The Broken System of Long-Term Care in America

Donna L. Wagner, PhD, OWL Policy Chair and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
College of Health and Social Services, New Mexico State University

If you’re helping an older parent or spouse meet long-term care needs, join the crowd. One out of five workers in the United States spends an average of 20 hours a week caring for elder family members. These unpaid services have an estimated value of $230 billion a year—$20 billion more than the $210 billion that Medicaid pays each year for long-term care.

Providing these unpaid services imposes high indirect costs on employers, in the form of reduced productivity, absenteeism, a workforce whose own health is compromised by neglect and stress, and higher turnover, as workers leave their jobs to devote themselves to caregiving. All told, these problems cost U.S. employers $33.6 billion a year.

ReACT (Respect a Caregiver’s Time) is a coalition of companies and organizations focused on employers and employed caregivers. In 2012 this organization commissioned the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) to examine “best practices in workplace eldercare.” The NAC studied the eldercare programs of 18 corporations in an array of industries with workforces ranging from 35 to 118,000 employees. The models were as ad hoc as volunteer programs managed by employees who had done caregiving themselves and as formal as paid time off for emergency eldercare situations. Interestingly, paid time off for caregiving was offered only by the smallest company (35 employees), which did so as a strategy for retaining valuable talent. Now ReACT is working with AARP to design a website with information and ideas for employers and employees.

Thirty years ago, Elaine Brody, a gerontologist, suggested that family caregiving was becoming a “normative” experience. Surveys confirm that increasing numbers of Americans care for an adult or elder with long-term care needs. As 70 million baby boomers lurch into late life, we can count on increasing demand for long-term care services for at least two decades. Absent a national system that provides high quality, long-term nonmedical and medical care, families will continue to underwrite the true cost of long-term care with time, money, and diminished retirement savings. Employers will also continue to subsidize informal caregiving indirectly, whether or not they also invest in support programs directly.

These facts prompt a host of questions and reactions. Do American families generally have even a basic understanding of how long-term care is delivered and paid for here? Many caregivers are stunned to discover that Medicare does not cover long-term care. Many find it repugnant that their elderly parents are required to spend all of their resources before they can qualify for help from the only public payer–Medicaid. And many caregivers pick up the costs of care themselves, regardless of the burden. Why is there no political demand for subsidized long-term care, given the large number of families coping with the fragmented system now in place? If care has become a normative activity, as Ms. Brody predicted, do families consider it only a personal matter—not a political one?

What about employers? How long will the nation’s employers subsidize the lack of a comprehensive system of long-term care?

This past January, Congress established a Commission on Long-Term Care, and gave it a 2014 deadline to develop a “comprehensive, coordinated and high-quality system” of long-term care. It’s time for a powerful partnership of voters, representing current and future caregivers, to join with employers to demand serious solutions for our long-term care problem.

This article originally appeared on the Sloan Center on Aging and Work Blog

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 02:13 PM

Wednesday September 18, 2013

When D.C. Gets it Right: a Victory for American Families

By Donna Wagner, Ph.D., OWL Public Policy Chair & Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at
New Mexico State University

Almost two million direct care workers who have been disenfranchised from the labor market by being categorized as “companion” workers and thus exempt from the Department of Labor regulations that protect the majority of American worker have won a victory.

Starting in January, 2015, these workers will now be afforded the protections of other American workers including minimum wage and overtime protections.  These workers are the nation’s long term care system; providing ongoing care and assistance to millions of disabled and frail adults.  Half of these workers are minorities and 90 percent are women.

The rule issued by the Department of Labor yesterday fulfilled a promise made by President Obama two years ago that American workers should be entitled to a fair day’s pay for their work.  Those workers who are employed directly by the household of the person needing assistance and not providing medical services remain exempt from the regulations.

Family caregivers rely upon the direct care workforce to provide services and care when they need help.  This ruling will go a long way to improve the quality of these services and increase the likelihood of consistent and reliable care.  In the US today approximately one out of every 4 households is or has been involved in helping someone remain living in the community.  Today most long-term care is provided in the community; less than four percent of older adults are in long term care facilities and many of those are short-term stays.  Living in the community is more than a choice – it is an economic reality.  And this reality requires family members to step up to the plate to ensure needs are met and that there are qualified and reliable direct care workers on hand to support their efforts.

This victory will ensure that our future looks a little brighter as increasing number of Baby Boomers lurch into late life.  For the women and men in the direct care workforce, it is an important recognition of their value and their importance to us all.

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 02:31 PM

Wednesday September 11, 2013

The Different Faces of Caregiving

By Robin Strongin, OWL National Board member (this post originally appeared at Disruptive Women in Healthcare.)

September 2013 marks not just one, but two important milestones.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  I would say it was Beshert. Disruptive Women turns five this month while my dad turns 80.

The prototypical New Yorker through and through, some of my fondest memories of my dad include him bringing me and my picket sign to Gracie Mansion in New York City during the big teachers’ strike in the 1960s when I was five; him rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers until they took their extended road trip to the West Coast and then laboring as a NY Mets fan (there was the Carvel ice cream cake in 1969, the year the Mets won the World Series); and his tireless devotion to his career of teaching kids and running schools in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

In addition to the standard aches and pains of a body that has weathered eight decades of life adventures, my father has struggled with Crohn’s disease most of his life and remained strong in the face of multiple other chronic diseases, a broken hip and a great deal of pain. For someone accustomed to mobility and self-sufficiency, his recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease has caused its share of humbling and frustrating situations. But he is not alone, as all of us – his children, my mother and their friends – have stood hand in hand experiencing these life changes with humility and frustrations of our own.

It is not only the big obvious frustrations but the seemingly little ones (which of course are anything but small) that have had an impact on us. Watching him accept the spectrum of loss melts your heart.  He is a man who has eschewed an email address all his life but has collected an enviable pen collection over the years, and now he can no longer write because of Parkinson’s.  Until recently, he made all of the family speeches at holidays and special events, but he no longer has the strength in his vocal chords to do so.  These weren’t just any speeches.  These were epic. Very few people could deliver a commencement address, a toast, even a eulogy like my dad. It didn’t matter who the subject or the occasion was, he always made that person seem like the classiest, most important human being.

But more frustrating than watching a loved one traverse the natural course of aging and multiple chronic diseases (with the aid of walkers, wheelchairs and special equipment) is the frustration brought about by the utterly dysfunctional caregiving system(s) that exist in this country.  As broken as the health care system is, I am even more disheartened by what we refer to as caregiving.

Without doubt, there have been and continue to be dedicated trailblazers working tirelessly to make things better. These trailblazers are not always the usual suspects, but they are artists, children, public servants, and everyday people who champion the rights of patients in their own way.  And, as I can personally attest, there are remarkable caregivers—both professional and the “amateur” family and friends, all to be cherished, thanked and acknowledged.

That said, something is terribly and unacceptably out of whack.

I can think of no better way to honor Disruptive Women in Health Care’s fifth anniversary than with a series on caregiving, and I am extremely proud to kick off that series today.  Each day for the next week, we will hear from our Disruptive Women experts, guest experts from a number of related fields, and firsthand experiences from patients and caregivers.

Each has a story to share and a solution to offer.

Here’s mine: I have been thinking about the challenges of caregiving as they relate to hurdles that our infrastructure creates for people with limited mobility and hindered access to the very support services they require, as well as the hurdles of functioning easily in public places.

These challenges are by no means new.  I think about the trials my father, and we as those who care for him, face when he is doing the most ordinary things: shopping, eating out, getting a haircut, going to the doctor (who only has steps, no ramp). In settings such as these, if there is no readily accessible companion care restroom, it creates monumental challenges for both dad and whoever is accompanying him. While we have taken a step in the right direction with the construction or retrofitting of more facilities that can accommodate people giving care to someone else – whether it’s an older generation or a younger one in need of assistance – there is so much more we could do.

Similarly, the way we allot handicapped parking spaces leaves something to be desired. These reserved spaces are too often inconvenient, too far away from entrances or accessibility ramps and too few in number.

My father, a lifelong champion of fairness and social justice, deserves to be treated with the respect he has always shown for those less empowered. He and others like him should be in the forefront of our minds, not afterthoughts when we see them struggling to get to a building’s entrance from a far-off “accessible” parking spot in a downpour.

Creatively disruptive ways of approaching access and mobility will help most of us at some point in our lives, as we confront our own physical challenges or as we give care and support to someone else. Admittedly, while I’m interested in the greater good, I’m also somewhat selfishly advocating for changes like these now, while they can help people like my dad. Disruptive Women has spent five years in the health care space thinking about ways to disrupt systems that, quite simply, are broken and inadequate. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 80 years my father has spent on this earth, teaching and molding other people’s lives, other people’s character – but it’s a drop that is making a significant splash.

Happy anniversary, Disruptive Women – and happy birthday, Dad.

Now, let’s get to work.  We have a lot more disrupting to do.  And you don’t want to get in the way of a Disruptive Woman – especially one pushing a wheelchair.

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 01:08 PM

Wednesday September 04, 2013

Women Like Me

By Susan Scanlan

I joined the feminist movement when I was young and ardent.  Forty-one years later, I’m still ardent.  And planning to model my Golden Years on Tish Sommers, who taught us to rage about a lot of things, including “the dying of the light.”

As a 20-something, I watched 60-ish Tish transform a NOW task force to the Displaced Homemaker’s Network to the Older Women’s League, bringing pride and recognition to a generation of discounted mothers and wives.  Because of her example, growing a movement or galvanizing the grassroots seems a perfectly suitable next career for this aging Baby Boomer.

Did you know Tish was a dancer?  Her life-long activism was sparked during a performing tour of Nazi Germany.  I’m thinking of a return to tap dancing to see where a heel-toe-shuffle might take me in retirement.

If someone had told me 40 years ago—or even 20 years ago—that American women would still be fighting for fair pay and affirmative action and reproductive rights, I would have accused them of smoking the drapes.  So I can’t abandon this agenda in my golden years.

But while passing the baton to a new generation ready for leadership, I hope to expand my horizons by embracing their skill sets.  Maybe I won’t take up Zumba, but yoga is definitely do-able. Time to try communicating with my thumbs in fewer than 140 characters.  Or join a Bocce league as well as a book club.

And as a third generation Washingtonian, I want to return the joy this shining city has given me.  I have a role model close at hand.  When Franklin Roosevelt put men to work building the Jefferson Memorial in 1939, the proposed site called for cutting down nearly half of the historic cherry blossom trees. My grandmother, Amelia King, a woman who did not suffer in silence, immediately organized her garden club in Southwest.  In their hats, gloves, and Sunday best suits, these middle-aged ladies marched the seven blocks from their homes to the Tidal Basin, joined hands, and chained themselves to the imperiled trees!

Next time you pass by, take time to appreciate the odd, jutting location of the Memorial, off to the southwest. That’s where humbled federal planners moved it in order to preserve those cherry blossoms—national treasures that just celebrated their 100th birthday last year.

My grandma and Tish Sommers taught me a really important lesson:  There is no one who can bring male politicians to their knees quicker than a middle-aged woman in a business suit.

We’re the only part of the population that grows more liberal as we age.  We’ve raised children, divorced husbands, buried parents, gotten short-changed on our careers, endured cancer and chronic diseases or sat with sisters who have. By the time we hit our 50s and 60s, there’s very little you can frighten us with!

So I plan to grow old on an endless “Have Outrage/Will Travel” tour.  Aging bones might dictate southern protests in the winter and Midwestern action in the spring and fall, but you’ll find me on the picket line, at the rally, in the Letters to the Editor section—wherever voices are raised for justice.

Tish would expect no less.

Susan Scanlan helped found the Women’s Research & Education Institute (WREI), to provide nonpartisan data and policy analysis to the women of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in 1977.  In 2005, she was elected chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, a bipartisan coalition of 240 progressive women’s groups representing 12 million American women.  She is retiring from both positions on December 31, 2013.

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 10:34 AM

Monday August 26, 2013

50 years later…who knew?

By Bobbie Brinegar, Executive Director, OWL National

50 years ago…half a century… five decades… and as so many of the speakers at the March on Washington reminded us this past weekend, the dream of equality and justice in our country is still far from realized. Who knew it could take so long for that “bright day of justice” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned 50 years ago to emerge?  We had less experience then. Some of us were there. Some of us were there in spirit. Some of us were just little children. Some of us weren’t even around yet. Later, as we grew to know that world of which our leaders spoke, and as we ourselves began to watch so many face those same barriers of hatred, intolerance and bigotry, we realized that while our motivation was strong and our goals clear, we didn’t really know how long the struggle would go on. After all, Dr. King had told us that very day, that “…it would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” We believed then that the dream would soon be realized, and if not, we would no longer be able to call our country great and free. Dr. King had made real the centuries of suffering of African Americans and other minorities to a majority that had not been listening; and his eloquence illuminated the road to success. We owned the hope, the strength and the will that the great women and men of the civil rights movement had asked us to adopt and had modeled for us. There was no question that victory had to be just around the corner. Who knew how long a struggle could take? “ I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’.” For the past 50 years, whenever there is a quest for justice and equality, the words of Dr. King’s dream ring out – from people of every national origin and color – from women – from people who are aging—from people with disabilities – and from people who come to America for new hope.  The words inspire us and give us the strength to run head-on into the many fights we fight every day, not knowing when the struggle will end, but keeping our eyes on the prize.  One of the most important places we have taken those words of equality and justice over the years is to the voting booth. During the civil rights movement, women, African-Americans, older Americans, students and all kinds of allies fought together to gain access to the vote for all citizens. They got the Voting Rights Law passed in 1965 and strengthened in 1975 and over the years since. Now, we have seen women and minorities move into places of political and societal power. We have watched these new participants stand beside the traditional power structures and challenge them to build a better tomorrow, without yesterday’s boundaries.  We have seen the world open its eyes and make room for diversity beyond any Dr. King might have imagined. As women, we have voted, we have educated and we have led; and we have helped other women to get to the polls, vote, educate and lead. We have held meetings and invaded the meetings of others; and we have spread the word about the incredible value women bring and the intrinsic place women hold in society. We have worked to strengthen Social Security, Medicare and other policies critical to ensuring a secure aging experience for everyone. Who knew how many trips to the polls it would take? It’s not surprising that since 1984 women have made up the majority of the total vote in every presidential election. We understand what is at stake. Every year, millions of women play a role in deciding who will serve on local commissions, in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress. We weigh in on issues especially important to women, like domestic violence and equitable pay, and on issues that affect all families, like accessible health care and economic security.  There is a reason people fought so hard for the right to vote. It represents power. But what happens when the ability to use that power is stripped away? Lately, a number of state legislatures have introduced and passed restrictive laws that could mean widespread voter suppression and the disenfranchisement of women, people of color, students, older citizens, low-income voters and people for whom English is a second language. Laws have passed that: • Create new restrictions on voter registration drives • Reduce absentee voting opportunities • Cut out or reduce early voting periods • Require voters to produce a current and valid state issued photo ID • Eliminate Election Day registration According to the Brennan Center for Justice at least 180 bills restricting voting rights had been introduced in 41 states in 2012. Sixteen states succeeded in passing such laws; and that was all before this year’s Supreme Court decision that opened the door even wider for such laws. If these restrictions continue to spread, millions of eligible voters will be turned away at the polls. These restrictive tendencies are not new. It’s just that the bias is a little quieter, and a little broader. The laws aren’t so blatant as to single out women or African Americans. Who knew how long a struggle could take? We do know how devastating the loss of early voting days can be. For many voters, such as older Americans and people with disabilities who may face transportation challenges, and low-income voters whose hourly-wage jobs don’t afford them time to get to the polls, the choice is between early voting and not voting at all. We know, according to the same Brennan Center study, that in 2012, approximately one in ten (21 million) Americans did not have valid government-issued photo ID. Many of those voters were women whose last names changed with marriages; and many were older people who may not have been born in hospitals or whose birth records have been lost over the years. We also know that eliminating same-day registration and out-of- precinct voting imposes hardship and silences people’s voices. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last week that it will file a lawsuit against the State of Texas over its strict voter photo identification law (SB 14); and the Supreme Court’s June decision left the door open for Congress to update the Voting Rights Act. This is a start. But it will be up to all of us to support the DOJ and put pressure on Congress to find the right way to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. Who knows how many trips to the voting booth it will take? How many visits to the offices of our members of Congress and state legislators to protect our ballot access?  We don’t know. What we do know is that we will be there as long as it takes.

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 02:45 PM

Monday August 26, 2013

Women’s Work

By Ann Lewis, Former Director of Communications for President Bill Clinton; Co-Chair, President’s Commission for Celebration of Women in American History

As we celebrate Women’s Equality Day, 2013, we think of powerful images, like the massive parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC in 1913, and two years later on Fifth Avenue in New York, ensuring the issue of women’s suffrage got national attention; suffragists with banners, outside the White House gates, reminding President Wilson that while America was fighting a war for democracy in Europe, American women were denied democracy at home.

Other images deserve attention as well – women in rural communities who traveled miles to hear Susan B Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton speak, and then went back and told their neighbors what they’d heard. Women with no legal right to money of their own, who saved pennies and nickels to give to suffrage. Women who were told that politics was so corrupt they couldn’t win – but went on organizing precincts, lobbying , and working the polls.

When mobs attacked the 1913 parade, the suffragists kept marching. When the 1915 suffrage referendum fell short in New York, Carrie Chapman Catt called a meeting two days later to announce the next campaign –and this one they won!

The success of the suffrage movement on August 26, 1920 represents the single greatest expansion of American democracy in our nation’s history .  It was won by women, and the men who were their allies, working with courage, imagination , and determination .

The suffragists gave us a powerful legacy: our rights as full and equal citizens– and their example of how to make change. Facing different challenges today, can we do any less?

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 12:13 PM

Friday August 23, 2013

Where the lines blur: thoughts on aging, disability and equality

By Janna Starr, OWL National Board Member

Somewhere along the line in my career of working around and with many people with many different kinds of disabilities, we began to say candidly, “It’s always open enrollment for disability” – meaning of course, that as far as any of us knows, we could encounter something in life – an accident, an illness or an event of some kind – that could put us among the ranks of those with disabilities at any time.  And we frequently followed the “open enrollment” statement with something like “… and if we are fortunate enough to be around so long, we will likely all experience some level of disability at some time in our lives,” especially as we grow older. At that point, thoughts switch from “Gee, I hope I don’t ever get a disability” to “Gee….really? ….all of us?” We knew we wanted to live long lives, but is this really part of the bargain?

Aging, it seems,is where the lines blur. The “able” begin to learn what the “dis” in disability means. The “able” begin to learn what people with disabilities mean when they talk about the challenges in their lives. We learn about the inaccessibility of, well, what sometimes feels like most everything. How have they managed all these years?

Truth be told, after nearly 25 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and 4 decades of the Rehabilitation Act, the world looks very different to the people with disabilities, now aging, who sweated and toiled for passage of those landmark pieces of legislation and who still celebrate every curb cut, every power wheelchair, every braille elevator button and every job that exists that will freely provide an accommodation. The world looks accessible, certainly by comparison to the former world, mostly because people with disabilities have learned how to live their lives, and how to turn the paradigm upside down and make the world accommodate them.

So the those of us who are aging are taking a free ride in a world we didn’t create, where our new walkers or our recently acquired blindness don’t mean a life behind four walls, where our deafness actually means we can enjoy a Broadway musical as much as the next person and where someone at the doctor’s office gives us a tiny electronic timer for our pocket to remind us when to take our medications.  It’s a world where we can program our house to turn on it’s own lights, heat, AC and entertainment, a world where nearly everyone carries around at least one powerful computer (a smart phone) in their pocket, and a world where the rest of the people are no longer freaked out by things like wheelchairs and people who may look a lot different from them.

At the same time, no one knows better than those with disabilities that the battles for the human and civil rights of older Americans and those with disabilities are most definitely not over. They know when our Voting Rights are at risk due to seemingly thoughtless state and local “reforms,” and they alert the world. They know when a landlord discriminates for some transparently ridiculous yet perfectly legal reason, and they blow the whistle to let us know.

Those of us who are simply growing older, maybe with some acquired disability, cannot quite get used to the looks of casual disdain from the mainstream who, while not exactly freaked out, can still convey with a glance the inconsequential-ness of our presence in their world. Newly disabled people who are aging won’t know what to make of it at first. People who have had disabilities for a long time just see it as more of the same and can show us how to deal with it.

That said, I, for one, am glad to be growing older; and if I am lucky, life will bring me disabling experiences that I will weather 100% better than I would have had I not had hundreds of friends and family who experience disability, some who have experienced it forever. I’ve already been fortunate enough to learn what incredible resources people with long-term, even lifelong, disabilities are. They know the ropes and the short cuts. They know the battles that are yet to be won and how to fight those battles. The disability community sometimes talks about riding the coattails of the aging community; and the aging community sometimes talks about riding the coattails of the disability community (depending on the issue), and both communities talk about alliance and coalition.

In life, disability and aging are Great Equalizers of the human experience. In public life, and in the world of advocacy and politics, we seek nothing more than equality. And today, as we celebrate Women’s Equality Day and remember the work of great women like Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt fighting for civil rights and equality, to great scientists like Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin and Jane Goodall fighting for equality in societal and intellectual achievement, it’s clear that women will be leaders, yet again, in marking the way to new and exciting victories for the alliance of people who are aging and those with disabilities.

When we make that alliance happen, when we acknowledge and build on that coalition and march forward, we feel power like no other. And luckily, those of us experiencing both aging and disability have front row seats!!

Janna Starr is a Policy Analyst for the Oregon Health Authority, working on health care transformation for Oregon’s Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) populations and state implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act. Before returning to Oregon in 2007, Starr was Director of Disability Rights, Technology, and Family Policy for The Arc and United Cerebral Palsy Disability Policy Collaboration in Washington, DC.

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 09:22 AM

Monday August 19, 2013

New OWL Ready to Take Action!

Thanks to all of you who participated in the vote on OWL’s by-laws revisions.  We are happy to report that it was the largest return of votes OWL has had for quite a while!  Moreover, the revised by-laws were approved by a large margin, 88 percent.

Now a streamlined OWL is moving forward to fight even more effectively for greater economic security, better access to affordable health care and an enhanced quality of life for the nation’s 74 million women over 40.

And even though it’s August, traditionally the slowest time in D.C., we’re too excited to wait for fall to kick-off our new membership drive, “Two Like You.” Please take a few minutes today to invite two friends to join the OWL community. With your support, we will make sure the voice of midlife and older women is heard loud and clear in the halls of power!

Margaret Huyck, National OWL Board President

Joan Bernstein, Chair of the Bylaws Revision Task Force

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 11:54 AM

Wednesday August 14, 2013

Honoring 78 Years of Bringing Dignity and Well-Being to Millions

We hail the signing of the Social Security Act legislation 78 years ago by FDR. Often thought of as a program for the elderly, it is that and much more. It is the first line of defense of the American family, including babies and children, when death, disablement or retirement curtail income. It is the mainstay of the majority of families receiving benefits. It stands almost alone among retirement programs in adjusting benefits yearly to preserve benefit buying power. That also makes it a boon to millions of American businesses and their employees.

The great majority of the American people value Social Security highly and disapprove proposals to lower benefits. It has stood the test of time because tens of millions of Americans families have experienced how essential it is to their dignity and well-being.

Joan Brodshaug Bernstein, National Board Member of OWL and Merton C. Bernstein, Coles Professor of Law Emeritus, Washington University in St. Louis. They are the co-authors of Social Security: The System That Works

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 10:37 AM

Wednesday August 07, 2013

Healthcare and the IRS: Time to Fix the Problem, Not Fight About it

Carey Anne Lafferty, MHSA

On Friday, August 2, shortly before leaving for a five week recess, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 232 to 135 to deny the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) an enforcement role in the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare”.

It was the 40th vote by the Republican-dominated House to prevent, postpone, or limit the implementation of the ACA.  Observers note that, like its predecessors, the bill stands little chance of passage in the Senate. Many have dismissed it as another act of partisan political theatre.

In focusing on the role that the IRS will play in the implementation of the ACA, the House hoped to have identified the legislation’s Achilles’ heel. Uncertainty over the agency’s ability to fairly and effectively fulfill the additional responsibilities it has been assigned under the ACA could pose a serious threat to the program’s success.

A Taxing Issue

In June of last year, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the constitutionality of the ACA on the basis that the penalties it established for non-compliance were a tax justly instituted under Article 4 of the Constitution. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that, “(t)he Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax. Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.”

The scope and nature of the role which the IRS will play in the implementation of the ACA has been contentious and debated since the outset.  Under the ACA, the IRS is responsible for collecting information from employers regarding whether or not employees have health insurance. It is charged with confirming the provision of minimal essential coverage by businesses with more than 50 employees. The agency also assumes a critical role in confirming individuals’ eligibility for coverage under Medicaid or the purchase of insurance through an exchange.  This is all in addition to imposing penalties for non-compliance with the individual mandate.

While the IRS has no plans to add anywhere near the 16,000 new employees that conservatives once referenced in opposing the ACA, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has stated that it is reasonable to expect that the agency will hire an additional 2,000 agents in the next fiscal year.

Organizational Capacity

There are signs that the IRS may not be able meet its increased responsibilities under the ACA in a full or timely manner. Last month the agency all but admitted as much. Writing on the Treasury Department’s “Treasury Notes” blog on July 2, Mark Mazur, the assistant secretary for tax policy, quietly announced that the implementation of the ACA’s so-called “employer mandate” (the requirement that businesses with over 50 employees offer affordable healthcare insurance options) would be delayed from 2014 to 2015. Three years after the passage of the ACA and six months before it was scheduled to take effect, Mazur acknowledged that the agency needed additional time to “simplify reporting requirements” and “publish proposed rules”.

While many in the business community saw this as a welcome reprieve, cynics characterized it as a political maneuver—especially in light of the fact that the implementation of the individual mandate was not similarly delayed.  Still, if it was a result of the IRS’ inability to establish succinct guidelines and regulations for the implementation of the employer mandate, it calls into question the agency’s ability to meet additional deadlines.

A GAO report in 2012 noted that the IRS is also facing a big challenge in establishing and maintaining the significant increases in information technology required under the ACA .  Interfacing with other state and federal agencies as well as individual state exchanges may prove particularly daunting.  In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services recently cited “system limitations” that will delay for one year graduated premium increases for smokers depending upon age.

Public Trust

Few organizations, public or private, are held in higher disregard by the American public than is the IRS.  Acting IRS Director Daniel Werfel acknowledged this in testimony before the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on June 3. Referring to a “fundamental failure” of the agency, Werfel stated that his “primary mission (was) to restore trust” in the agency.  This will not be an easy task.

Many Americans already have their own horror stories of entanglement with the IRS. Some who questioned whether the agency deliberately exercises its power for political purposes were vindicated by revelations in May that the IRS had targeted certain conservative non-profits applying for tax-exempt status.  Werfel himself characterized the additional scrutiny imposed upon these groups as “unlawful and unjust.”

Solving the Problem

The success of the ACA depends in large part on public participation. Confusion as to the specifics of healthcare reform has the potential to erode support.  Matters become more complicated as the ACA and the IRS become more closely associated in public opinion. Conservatives in Congress are seizing upon this confusion as they threaten to shut down the federal government in October over Obamacare funding. In the meantime, the nation’s healthcare system has real and significant inefficiencies. It is time for the political squabbling to end.  Opponents must recognize that the ACA is law. Supporters must admit that the law is imperfect.  All sides must work together to address its weaknesses.  An honest effort to ensure that the IRS is capable of carrying out its additional responsibilities seems like a very good place to start.

Posted by Bobbie Brinegar at 01:21 PM

Sunday August 04, 2013


    OWL was founded more than 30 years ago because no distinctions were being made between how policies impact women compared to men. Nor was enough attention being paid to how to solve the problems stemming from the combination many women were facing of a lifetime of underemployment, low wages and time out of the workforce to serve as unpaid caregivers.

    And despite the progress that has been made, policy makers today still need to be reminded that:

      *The wage disparity between women and men – 77 cents to the dollar – increases as women age

        *Women hold only 24% of STEM jobs,  one of the best-paying and fastest growing employment sectors

          *Women are far more likely than men to spend time out of the paid workforce to care for family

            *Underemployment is much higher among older women than men.  The rate for men between 55-61 is 7.2%; for women in the same age group the rate is 20.5%

              *The media income for women over 65 is $15,000 a year

              It is critical that these and other facts be part of the discussion on all national policies that impact midlife and older women.

              OWL—the voice of women over 40—is the only national organization that focuses solely on issues affecting women as they age.  As the preeminent resource at the intersection of aging and women’s policies, it is well respected for the quality and integrity of its work, access to decision makers and nonpartisan, problem-solving approach.

              Those principles of non-partisanship and problem-solving have defined OWL from the beginning. When we were founded in 1980, our first national agenda included access to health insurance; the introduction and passage of COBRA was a direct result of our education and advocacy work.  For more than 30 years, OWL has been amplifying the voice of midlife and older women, testifying before House and Senate committees, serving on the Congressional Study Group on women’s retirement income, and advancing the Elder Justice Act. OWL is also known for the leadership role it plays with other organizations and coalitions, including:

                *Independent Sector

                  *Leadership Council of Aging Organizations

                    *National Alliance of Caregiving

                      *National Bone Health Alliance

                        *National Council of Women’s Organizations Older Women’s Economic Security Task Force

                          *National Women’s History Museum

                            *National Women’s Law Center Health Task Force

                              *Stop Obesity Alliance

                                *Leaders Engaged on Alzheimer’s Disease (LEAD)

                                  *National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life

                                  Posted by Pat Lewis at 01:06 PM

                                  Sunday August 04, 2013

                                  Missing: 22 Million Women

                                  National policies have an inordinate impact on the quality of life for women: they are much more likely than their male counterparts to be underemployed and to take time out of the workforce to serve as unpaid caregivers. They live longer, dealing with more chronic illnesses, while making less money. They sit squarely at the intersection of the personal and the political. The actions – or in the case of the current U.S. Congress, inaction—by elected officials can be life choices to women.

                                  Yet while women register and vote in higher percentages than men, 22 million women who were eligible to vote sat out the November 2010 election.

                                  Getting more women to the polls in 2014 – and beyond—has the potential to transform our political environment.

                                  A September 2012 survey by Celinda Lake found that regardless of political affiliation, 80 percent of women agreed on 80 percent of the issues. They also tended to support efforts to build consensus, solve problems and bring private and public interests together. Multi-taskers themselves, they expect elected officials to have multiple priorities. These are the qualities that are sorely needed at all levels of government.

                                  Where are the missing women? Recent research shows that a growing number are online. After all, 75% of women online say they use social networking sites. On Facebook, 70% of users claim to get most of their news from friends and family. And 64% of online gamers are women

                                  There is also research demonstrating that people are more likely to register and vote when asked by a friend. This makes the growing online connectivity an efficient and effective way to reach and engage the missing.

                                  As Nancy Pelosi often says, “Nothing is more wholesome to the governmental and political process than increased participation of women.”

                                  Stay tuned for more from OWL and the missing 22 million women, and how we’re going to find them.

                                  Posted by Pat Lewis at 12:11 PM
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