Inside The Senior Alliance: Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (Ep 2.3)

Jason Maciejewski, CEO of The Senior Alliance, the area agency on aging serving Western and Southern Wayne County, talks with Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who has represented the 13th District encompassing much of the service area of The Senior Alliance since 2015. Listen as they discuss what Congresswoman Dingell sees as the most pressing issues impacting aging adults and hear her own story of why these issues are so important to her.

Transcription

Jason Maciejewski: (00:00)
Welcome to Episode 19 of Inside The Senior Alliance, a podcast exploring resources and issues in the field of aging. I’m Jason Maciejewski, CEO of The Senior Alliance, the area agency on aging, serving Western and Southern Wayne County. And today I’m honored to be joined by Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who represents Michigan’s 12th congressional district, largely located here in Wayne County in our service area. Congresswoman Dingell, welcome to Inside The Senior Alliance.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (00:25)
Jason, it’s great to be with you and to have the opportunity to talk about an issue that means a lot to me.

Jason Maciejewski: (00:31)
Yeah. Thank you. And you’ve been a frequent attender of our annual meetings and a big supporter of our agency and the things that we’re working on for older adults in Western Wayne County and downriver. You represent the 12th congressional district, which covers a large area and all types of people from different backgrounds. What do you see as the most pressing need and issues for older adults and people living with disabilities in your congressional district?

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (00:55)
So, the 12th district does cover a lot of Western Wayne, and unfortunately, I’m losing some of my communities, but I’m picking up some other communities in Western Wayne, like Plymouth and Plymouth Township, Northville, Canton, so I work with a lot of people throughout Wayne County. One of my biggest priorities in Congress, and that matters a lot to me right now, is fixing our very broken long-term care system, which is too complicated, it’s difficult to navigate, it’s underfunded, and people who need help can’t figure out how to make the system work. And you don’t really realize how broken it is until you are in it, trying to help someone. And as most people know, it’s a very personal issue for me. I was a caregiver to the man that I loved with my whole heart and soul. And while we were very lucky that we had insurance, and had worked, and had savings, you still couldn’t make the system work. I can remember when he first was hospitalized after he retired, and I would call all kinds of people to just know where to go, how to do it, and I would get…all I would get is recorded systems, and you’d punch numbers and couldn’t get through to anybody. And then you suddenly realize that when you’re sick, you’ve got 90 days and that’s it, and there’s nobody there to help you. So, I have been working very hard on putting a long-term care system so people can age in their own homes, in the community that they want to, and I think we’re getting closer to being able to do that. In addition, we need to be doing more to bring down the cost of prescription drugs and ensure that everyone does have access to quality, affordable healthcare. I just believe very deeply it shouldn’t matter what your age is, how old you are, your gender, your income, or your zip code. Healthcare is a human right. And nobody, no matter what your age, should have to worry about whether they can afford to go to the doctor, or whether they can find a doctor, or whether they can take the medicine the doctor thinks they need.

Jason Maciejewski: (03:03)
Thank you for sharing your stories. I know you you’ve done that many times in public in talking about your own family’s experience with Medicare and the healthcare system, and you’ve become an advocate for reforming our healthcare system, a leader in Congress, and strengthening and supporting long-term care and direct workers. And from this advocacy and leadership, you’ve created the Better Care Better Jobs Act. And can you explain what that is and what it means for people.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (03:28)
I’m really glad to do that because it is one of my top priorities. I worked with my partner in the Senate, Senator Bob Casey, and then my colleagues in both the House and Senate, Chairman Pallone of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s been very supportive to me, which would provide a historic investment in long-term care for America’s seniors, people with disabilities as well, and other beneficiaries. What people don’t realize, and it’s what I talk about, until you suddenly are trying to make the system work that currently long-term care coverage, eligibility and benefit standards provided, they vary by state to state, and it leads to very large gaps in coverage and caps on the number of individuals who can receive these critical services. And Medicaid is the largest provider of long-term care in the country. And it’s designed for institutional care, not for people to be able to stay in their own homes. So, the Better Care Better Jobs Act would strengthen and expand access to home healthcare by providing states with enhanced Medicaid funding. They carry out specific activities, and among those would be expanding financial eligibility for homecare-based services to the federal limits. It also would improve home healthcare for the workforce by providing states with Medicaid funding to raise what we pay care workers. I would have people that were working for me that were working two jobs and were still living below the poverty line. We need to be able to recruit direct care workers, increase worker compensation, and provide training for them. You know, all other care is possible, or all of the work is possible, if you’re not worried about those that you love and whether they’re being cared for. So, I think it’s a really important bill, and it also would put register for direct care workers to help connect workers so that seniors could be able to find them, if people with disabilities would be able to seek services as they need them.

Jason Maciejewski: (05:37)
Thank you for highlighting the direct care worker piece there. It’s a big advocacy point for us at The Senior Alliance, and you know, we need by some counts nearly 36,000 additional direct care workers.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (05:48)
Yes, we do.

Jason Maciejewski: (05:49)
Yeah, right now. So, we really appreciate your work on that. I want to touch on the appropriations process for a minute here. Fiscal year ’22 budget was just recently signed into law. It has many important services the Senior Alliance influence through the Older Americans Act, one of those being a program that we call MMAP here in Michigan—the Medicaid Medicare Assistance Program—which helps older adults understand their Medicare and Medicaid enrollment choices by explaining options in an unbiased way. But as a member of Congress, you’ve been advocating for the coverage of hearing aids under Medicare with the Medicare Hearing Aid Coverage Act. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’ve written into that act and how older and disabled adults would benefit from it?

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (06:33)
So yeah, this is something that means a lot to me too. I was at Henry Ford, actually, with John talking to the doctor who told me how many people could simply not afford their hearing aids. As we know, it’s not covered right now by Medicare. There are nearly 48 million Americans who suffer from hearing loss or can’t hear. And I want you to think about what it’s like as you get older to have that sense of isolation, to not be able to connect with people. And they’re also…We’ve been doing the research, so this, the first bill, one of the first bills I introduced when I first got elected in 2015, but I’ve been working with the researchers now and we know that left untreated, it can lead to dementia, depression into isolation. So, the average price of a hearing aid is now approaching $2,500. Just too many seniors are like, I’ll just have to live without it. So, the legislation that I have introduced, and there’s been more discussion of it in the last couple of years, would address this by expanding Medicare coverage so that hearing aids and services for seniors with profound, severe hearing loss would be available. And a version of the bill did pass the House of Representatives, but you know, the Senate is where bills, unfortunately, go to die. But, I’m continuing to work on this because I think is something that is very serious. I want you to think about the quality of life for anybody that can’t hear. It’s one of the most important things we do. It’s one of the most important senses we have. And if there’s something that can make an individual hear, listen, be part of a community better, I think we have a responsibility to try to make sure that they have that.

Jason Maciejewski: (08:12)
Yeah. Again, thank you for that initiative. We really appreciate it here at The Senior Alliance. And we did a recent podcast with the Alzheimer’s Association and know the importance of being able to hear on mental health as well. So in fiscal year ’23, which is quickly approaching, the President has put forward a budget proposal which invests in many Older Americans Act programs that we’ve been advocating for as an area agency on aging, and these include the different federal titles, 3(b) and 3(c), which is nutrition programs and family caregiver support program. And the President also recommended a nearly 50% increase in Older Americans Act-funded long-term care ombudsman program, which is, the ombudsman is the person that is out there in the nursing facilities, working with families and residents there on quality. And while the total amounts we’ve been advocating for aren’t in the budget at this point, how do you see the fiscal year ’23 budget process playing out?

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (09:09)
Well, thank you for asking me that question because I think it’s really important. We need to…you know, the pandemic has highlighted how isolated seniors can be, how alone so many of them are, and what we need to be doing just from a humanity perspective to help people in our community that have gotten older that need a little help, need that helping hand. So, robustly funding the Older Americans Act program is just something that is critical to me. And as we go into the appropriations process, I’m going to work with my colleagues to do everything we can to make sure that we are putting the money into these programs that need to be there. The House Appropriations Committee is beginning its markup and is supposed to report out all 12 appropriation bills by the end of the month, and so, hopefully, by the end of July, that is going to happen. We need people to be contacting. There are people listening here. You know, some of us, you don’t have to worry about, some of us you do have to worry about. You should be calling your member of Congress and telling them you care and why this matters to you. It’s not…I don’t know when we will vote on the appropriations bill on the floor, but when these bills are in committee is the most important time to say to people, you need to tell the committee, this matters to me. So, I’m gonna continue pushing for strong increases in Meals on Wheels. Think about it. There are so many older people that aren’t even getting the proper nutrition, and the only people they sometimes see is the person that brings them their Meals on Wheels. We’ve gotta make sure we’re supporting the National Family Caregiver Support program. Respite care really matters to people who are caregivers and they love the person that they’re taking care of, but they get tired and we can’t afford to get them..they can’t afford to get sick. And there are a lot of other things, as I’ve said, supporting long-term care needs of seniors is really critical too. Going to be fighting for all of that in the appropriation bill process.

Jason Maciejewski: (11:12)
Congresswoman, you mentioned how important it’s for people to call their members of Congress and advocate on these issues. And there are many people in our network that are new to the world of advocacy. What advice can you offer to them on how to be an advocate or ways that they can advocate on behalf of an older adult to a member of Congress?

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (11:30)
So, I’m gonna say to anybody listening, make your voice heard. You can do it in many different ways. You know, if it’s hard for you to get around, call the office, call their office, call their district office or the Washington DC office. I ask my office for a report every single day of who’s called me and what have they called about. Send an email. They also…I also get my mail counts every day. What are people writing me about? What do they care about? And then I will randomly pick people out and call them back. But, people look at who’s calling them and who’s emailing them, and what they’re emailing about. Then, you know, there are members that are out and about if you’re a veteran, if you’re a senior, invite the member of Congress to come to your senior center and say you want to talk about these issues. If you’re a vet, invite them to your veterans’ hall. Think of ways to get a group of people together and say to that member, we want to talk to you about this. And when you are able to connect with someone, don’t be afraid to share. Give your personal story. Tell them why it matters and how it impacts you. And don’t give up. You know, you may not be able to change someone’s mind, though. I do think for Wayne County, most of your members feel strongly as I do, but make it a point to talk to try to talk to everyone. Put the human face on it. Tell people while it matters and organize. Talk to your friends that have the same issues and build that coalition. That’s gonna make your voices heard. And if someone doesn’t agree with you, don’t give up. Keep pushing and get more people to join you in trying to send the message.

Jason Maciejewski: (13:10)
That’s great advice. Thank you. Congresswoman, I know you’ve put a lot of focus on bipartisanship and working across the aisle during your time in Congress. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of that in today’s atmosphere?

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (13:22)
I think it’s very important that we talk to everybody. I’m very worried about what is happening in this country, the demonization of each other, the fear and hatred that’s dividing us. I think people are trying to undermine people’s confidence in government. I believe that we should be willing to talk to anybody, listen to each other. I believe that civility is very important. You can respectfully disagree. And that’s what I have always done and plan on always doing.

Jason Maciejewski: (13:54)
Many of the programs and services that we offer as an area agency on aging assist many people to remain living in their own homes in the community where they want to be. Could you share a story with us about how your work in Congress has impacted the life of an older adult?

Jason Maciejewski: (14:08)
You know, I work with a lot of people and because I do try to get to the senior centers and the senior fairs, I think people feel comfortable talking to me. There were some really difficult, challenging stories during the pandemic of people that were in nursing homes. There were shortages of care workers, families weren’t allowed to visit them or weren’t visiting them, and just little things that we did like getting iPads so they could communicate with the family. You know, a lot of seniors are living on very fixed incomes and they couldn’t afford to even have a way to communicate with their families. I’ve done things like that, but I’ve also helped seniors get doctor’s appointments. I’ve helped seniors get their medicine. I’ve helped seniors join groups, so they don’t feel alone and isolated. I’ve gone to deliver Meals on Wheels and have seen some pretty lonely people who needed just someone to talk to them and care. And it’s something I try to work on every day.

Jason Maciejewski: (15:16)
Yeah. So much of the work of elected officials is that constituent work and connecting people with resources and clearing away barriers. Thank you for sharing those examples. And if a constituent wants to connect with your office, how can they do that?

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (15:30)
Well, there are lots of ways that you can connect. You can call the office. I’ve got offices in Woodhaven and Ypsilanti. And we’re, you know, we’re going through redistricting right now, so things are changing. So, if you want to talk to me this week, these days you can call either my Woodhaven office or my Ypsi office, and the numbers are posted on my website. And then, of course, I have a Washington DC office as well, and those phones are answered. And you’re welcome. I’d love it if you stopped in at Woodhaven or the Ypsi office. But you can also email me and my website gives you all the contact numbers as well. My website is Debbie Dingell–D-E-B-B-I-E-D-I-N-G-E-L-L–.house.gov. But, all you really have to do is go to your safari or to your search page and type Debbie Dingell and my website will come up and that will tell you how you can get to me. So…Then I’m out and I’m about. You can invite me if you’re active at a senior center, invite me to come to your senior center. I try to be at the farmer’s markets. It’s that time of the year where I try to hit them all. Every couple of weeks, I go to events. If there’s an event you want me to go to, if they’re people you want me to talk to tell me, invite me, because that’s what I’d like to do. I want to be accessible. I want to listen. I want to talk less and listen more, so I know what’s on your mind and how I help you. That’s very important to me.

Jason Maciejewski: (17:05)
Yeah. We’ve definitely seen you out at events that we’re at as well, and you’re definitely visible and able to connect with folks. Is there anything you would like to add to our conversation today that we haven’t covered?

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (17:15)
You know, we’ve talked about right now, these next few months, I’m very focused on long-term care. I think that people should be able to stay in their own homes if they want to, in the community where they know and care about people. And we’ve seen the impact of the last two years of this pandemic and people being isolated and feeling alone and needing help. I would also tell people that: think about your neighbor, just put out a reaching hand. A simple act of kindness can make all the difference in somebody’s day. So, adopt a senior in your neighborhood. Seniors, adopt a child, become an adopted grandmother or adopted aunt. We all need each other. So, I want to help support. We should be able to….age is a state of mind. We may begin to have, you know, see our body begin to creak a little more, but I think people should be able to be in the community where they’re known and loved, connecting with people. It keeps them active and strong for a very long time. And my goal is to support public policy that lets that happen.

Jason Maciejewski: (18:24)
Congresswoman Dingell, thanks for joining us today on the podcast.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: (18:27)
Thank you for having me, and I hope I see many of the listeners soon.

Jason Maciejewski: (18:31)
If anyone has questions about services or programs The Senior Alliance offers, you can call us at 1-800-815-1112, or you can email us at info@thesenioralliance.org. Information about our agency or the programs and services we offer can be found on our website at www.thesenioralliance.org. On Facebook, we can be located by searching for The Senior Alliance. Finally, our Twitter handle is @AAA1C. I’m Jason Maciejewski. Thank you for listening to this episode of Inside The Senior Alliance.

Speaker 3: (19:03)
Inside The Senior Alliance is a production of The Senior Alliance and Blazing Kiss Media.

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