The three things the Pa. Legislature did in 2021 to help older Pennsylvanians | Ray E. Landis

From tele-health to broadband expansion, lawmakers advanced critical pieces of legislation

January 4, 2022 6:30 am

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

There wasn’t been a lot to cheer about in the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 2021. And I have certainly expressed my grumpiness about the priorities of those who set the legislative agenda in the Commonwealth.

But last year did see the advancement of three pieces of progressive legislation designed to improve the lives of many Pennsylvanians. Making this even more miraculous is the fact these issues are being advanced on a bi-partisan basis.

The issue which has taken the biggest step forward is the establishment of a Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority. The House unanimously approved the bill on Dec. 13. It unanimously cleared the state Senate on Dec. 15; went back to the House for a concurrence vote on the same day, and was sent to the Gov. Tom Wolf,  who signed the bill into law on Dec. 22.

General Assembly sends Wolf bill creating new Pa. broadband authority

Rural areas have pleaded for action to increase broadband capabilities in hard-to-serve locations for years. But the General Assembly was finally spurred to action to improve internet access as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic increased the number of people working from home and children utilizing remote learning.

Another group that will benefit from improved broadband access are older Pennsylvanians. Isolation is a growing concern for seniors and as this video from Age-Friendly Pittsburgh demonstrates, digital access is a way to address this.

Social isolation is not the only issue better broadband service can address.

The use of tele-health has increased dramatically during the pandemic, but Pennsylvania is one of only seven states that does not address how health insurance should cover tele-health. There have been attempts to address this over the past few years, but anti-reproductive choice advocates have hijacked legislation in an attempt to prohibit physicians from prescribing abortion medication through a telemedicine visit.

The state Senate approved legislation, by a 46-4 vote in October, which would set standards for insurance coverage of telemedicine. This is the third session in a row similar legislation has been overwhelmingly passed by the Senate.

But what is different this year is the legislation has been referred to the House Insurance Committee, where the bill has a better chance of avoiding the poison pill anti-choice amendment pushed by the chairperson of the House Health Committee, where the legislation had been referred in the past.

Even if the bill advances without an amendment, an attempt could be made to alter the legislation on the House floor. If successful, it could doom the issue for another session, as Wolf vetoed a bill with the anti-choice provisions in 2020. But more legislators recognize the importance of telemedicine and there is a growing hope the divisive issue of abortion can be put aside so Pennsylvanians can access and afford the health care services they need.

The third issue showing positive signs of movement in the General Assembly would address the alarming lack of retirement savings among Pennsylvanians, an issue I previously discussed in a March 2020 column for the Capital-Star.

A new year can bring new hope. And with these three issues, there are reasons for Pennsylvanians to be optimistic about 2022.

A number of states have enacted state-sponsored private sector retirement savings programs to allow individuals who do not have access to an employer-sponsored program to save for retirement through paycheck deductions. These programs are beginning to show positive results as small businesses and employees have embraced them.

Former Democratic state Treasurer Joe Torsella convened a Retirement Security Task Force which produced a report recommending the establishment of retirement savings program for Pennsylvanians.

Current state Treasurer Stacy Garrity, a Republican, has continued the Treasurer’s Office advocacy for what would be called the Keystone Saves program.

In mid-December, Garrity held a press conference with a group of advocates and the House sponsors of a bill to establish Keystone Saves, Republican Representative Tracy Pennycuick and Democratic Representative Mike Driscoll. Each speaker touted the benefits of a retirement savings program to all Pennsylvanians, both individuals and businesses

There are many legislative hurdles before a Keystone Saves program could be established. But there are few issues today where elected officials from both political parties have shown a willingness to collaborate to create a new program, which could lead to a breakthrough in 2022.

Too many of our elected officials in Harrisburg have spent 2021 focused on making things more difficult for Pennsylvanians – making it more difficult to vote, making it more difficult to stay healthy, making it more difficult to tell fact from fiction. It is easy to be pessimistic as we move into what will be a contentious election year.

A new year can bring new hope. And with these three issues, there are reasons for Pennsylvanians to be optimistic about 2022.

Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.