New York’s paid family leave program has entered its second year and continues the phase in of benefits as well as length of time a worker can take the benefit. Starting January 1st, 2019, benefits expanded from 8 to 10 weeks of leave at 55% of wages up to $746.41 per week. The employee contribution goes up to a maximum of $2.08/week, and many workers will pay less than this amount. These benefits will grow and be further phased in until 2021 when they will reach 12 weeks of leave at 67% of wages up to a cap.
The program provides job protection to return to the same or a comparable position. There is also protection against discrimination or retaliation for taking the leave and a continuation of the same health insurance policy for workers taking paid family leave as long as employees continue paying their cost sharing. For more detailed information on how the program works, here is a link to the state’s website https://paidfamilyleave.ny.gov/
I am trying to get some data on the number of persons who used the program in 2018, the first year of operation. It will be interesting to see how many persons used the benefit for caregiving for a sick relative as well as those using it for caring for a newborn and care when a family member went on a military assignment. Paid family leave is also available for parents adopting a child and can be available for “pending” adoption when needs before the adoption require a parent to be out of work.
On Friday night, Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill passed by the Legislature in June that would have added bereavement coverage to the state’s Paid Family Leave law. That law went into effect one year ago on January 1, 2018 after being passed in 2016. The bereavement leave would have allowed employees to access up to 12 weeks of paid leave. Advocates who supported the original bill were opposed the bereavement bill passed because it had no cost estimates and that added costs could drag the entire program down which is paid for by workers through the New York State disability program.
A Better Balance, an organization that led the campaign for Paid Family Leave noted that there is no state or city in the country which has paid bereavement leave paid for by workers. The state of Oregon and the City of Tacoma, Washington have laws that employees can use up to five days of paid sick leave which is paid by employers.
The state’s paid family leave program is being phased in and by 2021 will provide up to 12 weeks of paid time at up to 2/3 of salary to a statewide average for persons caring for a newborn, a seriously ill relative or to care for family members because of military deployment.
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The 2019 New York State legislative session will get underway in less than a month with a major change in the cast of characters including the new Democratic Majority in the Senate. Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins was elected the Majority Leader and she will have a big job trying to set the tone with fifteen new members of the Democrats 40 members. They will be able to move many bills that have been stopped by the Senate Republicans in the last several years. The Majority Leader will have to make key decisions about who will lead various committees. Senator Sue Serino who had been chair of the Aging Committee will be replaced by a Democrat. Long-time Senator Kemp Hannon who chaired the Health Committee for many years was defeated. Senator Gustavo Rivera was the ranking Democrat on that committee but it is unclear if ranking members will all take over to chair their committees.
A big concern for lobbyists and advocates will be the new faces on the Senate staff. There is a big turnover of staff who are the people they have been dealing most on a day to day basis. Many staffpersons who have worked on the Senate majority staff are losing their jobs and Democrats have to quickly hire many new staffpersons for committees and for central staff including budget and finance staffpersons.
Democrats will continue to have the majority the Assembly and there will be just the normal turnover with some new members. Program and budget staffpersons in the Assembly do not know now who all their counterparts will be on the Senate staff who they will need to interact with on a daily basis.
Advocates and lobbyists as well as the media and public are trying to figure out how the Assembly, Senate and Governor Cuomo are going to interact, especially if the two houses stake out more liberal positions than the Governor. Cuomo will be tested to see if he will support many of the reform measures new members and both majorities in the houses want including voting and ethics reforms. Democrats are expected to push for legislation to enact early voting and ending a loophole allowing corporations to donate huge amounts of money. Democrats led by Assembly Health Chair Richard Gottfried will again push hard for a state single payer health system with his NY Health bill.
What is the relationship between artificial intelligence and emotion? That is a big question that is the subject of much discussion in Silicon Valley as big technology companies are on the cusp the next sweeping change in society that could transform everyday life as much as the computer and internet did in the 1980s and 1990s. This subject was also discussed by a group of seniors and professionals in Albany recently following a workshop some had attended at the national meeting of the Village to Village Network in San Diego in October. Presenters there described how robots in the form of pet animals are keeping older people company as well as other robots providing reminders throughout the day to take medications at certain hours and other inquiries. Nursing homes are beginning to use the robots too to assist with some tasks.
Of course, the most recognizable form of artificial intelligence for many persons is the personal assistant such as Alexa from Amazon which answers questions and gets information with a voice command. Robots though can be super Alexas and personal assistants who have the ability to be programmed to do things that humans sometimes can’t do, such as helping an immobile older person in a wheelchair being able to more quickly retrieve something or finding something for a person with limited vision.
The issue of emotion though is one that is getting a lot of attention. In the group discussion in Albany, some were uncomfortable with the idea that a robot would replace human contact. After all, a robot cannot assess a living environment or a person’s full social and service needs. Yet, many older persons who have been using the robot animals became attached to them as they would a pet because the robot was always there and had been programmed to provide conversation.
Many of us want to learn more about this evolving technology and it is probably a good idea in every community to arrange workshops with local health providers and technology companies representatives to discuss issues. We probably should all keep an open mind. We probably are all uncomfortable with the idea that machines will be able to replace humans with many tasks but human contact and human direction remains most important while using technology as an aid not a master.
Today is Giving Tuesday, a day of charitable giving that was developed in recent years to follow Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In a few short years, giving has topped $300 million nationally to national and local charities which are now gearing their publicity and outreach to the event. The Albany Times Union is running two full pages of ads for local charities that paid for them. The ads ran in the paper on Monday and Tuesday. The paper is also running ads on December 13 and 14 for year end donations to charities.
Charities are concerned though about the first year of impact of the federal tax bill passed last year which significantly raised the standard deduction to $24,000. This change is a disincentive to charitable giving since previously, charitable donations were able to be deducted with a lower standard deduction if they were itemized. Now that the standard deduction has been doubled, taxpayers would have to give substantially more money to itemize deductions. And, with the change limiting state income and property taxes to $10,000, there is less likelihood most taxpayers will be able to reach the new $24,000 standard deduction. So, most middle and upper income taxpayers will simply be taking the new standard deduction and giving to charities without a tax benefit. Wealthy taxpayers will still probably itemize if they have been giving substantial amounts to charity.
Despite the threats to fundraising, charities are getting more adept at using email and social media to push for volunteers and donations, setting goals online and promoting the drive. Online fundraising has become the key medium for charities. And political candidates like Beto O’Rourke who ran for the Senate in Texas have proven the ability to raise huge amounts of money online.
We are in the Medicare open enrollment period until December 7th and seniors and persons with disabilities are getting a barrage of advertising in their mail, email and in television and newspaper ads. Medicare has become more profitable for these private and nonprofit health plans in Medicare with the government boosting their payments by 3.45% for 2019. There are now 3700 such local and regional plans across the nation. The Trump Administration is predicting up to 50% of beneficiaries will soon choose these plans. About 23 million Medicare beneficiaries are predicted to be in Medicare Advantage in 2019. This has become a very confusing exercise for many beneficiaries unless they decide to simply stay with original Medicare and can have their choice of doctors and providers.
The Advantage plans though are trying to entice beneficiaries with $0 monthly premiums, gym memberships and some dental and hearing aid costs covered along with other perks. How do they do this? They try to attract healthier persons and have a restricted network of providers. They also have prior authorization rules for some treatments In fact, a recent report from the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services says it has found “widespread and persistent problems related to denials of care and payment” in the Medicare Advantage program. It found that 75% of appeals were overruled though most people do not appeal or know how to.
The Medicare Care Advantage market nationwide is dominated by Aetna, Humana and United Healthcare but there are many smaller and more regional insurers. 10,000 persons are turning 65 every day and they are more accustomed to having managed care coverage from private employers. With government funding increasing many insurers are entering the Medicare market and the three dominant companies plan to expand into 97 more counties nationwide. The for profit companies are reportedly making a profit margin that is double that of other nonprofit Medicare Advantage plans.
Progressive activists are continuing to push for a Medicare for All single payer plan nationwide to extend health coverage to all Americans and cut into the overhead and profit of private insurers.