Congressman James Langevin Discusses his Life, Career, and Pressing Issues for the Home Care Community with NAHC’s President
July 18, 2013 03:00 PM
Extended versions of the following article and interview can be found in the most recent issue of CARING Magazine.
James R. Langevin is one of the most highly respected members of the U.S. Congress. This is a consequence of his unusual catalogue of gifts. He is known for his intelligence, good judgment, and ability to always do the right thing at just the right time. Similarly, he is revered for his integrity and ethics, having lived his life in conformity with the highest values. His word is his bond, and he is consistent in thought, word, and deed.
When most people meet him, they do not think of him as disabled. Instead, they view him as a man of passion, energy, and accomplishment. They also realize that he is a genuinely nice human being whose kindness masks an amazing strength of character. What Congressman Claude Pepper said of President Franklin D. Roosevelt applies equally to Jim Langevin. Pepper, who was the president’s friend and confidant, said Roosevelt had “a soul sweetened by suffering.” The president had told Pepper that his fight with polio prepared him to endure the stresses of simultaneously dealing with World War II and the Great Depression. “After you spend a year trying to move your big toe,” Roosevelt explained, “anything else is easy by comparison.”
Congressman Langevin’s trials were not the results of polio or any other disease. They occurred because of a freak accident that left him wondering if he would be okay. “I was 16 years old,” the congressman recalls. “I was a young police cadet in the Explorer Scout program, much like a Boy Scout program but we learned about law enforcement and had the opportunity to work in the police department. I was well on my way to a career in law enforcement. I loved police work. And, as often happens, life doesn’t turn out the way you think it’s going to. I was in the locker room of the police station one afternoon getting ready to go on my shift. Two police officers were looking at a new weapon that one of them had purchased. Not realizing the gun was loaded, one of the officers pulled the trigger and the bullet ricocheted off the locker and went through my neck and severed my spinal cord. I have been paralyzed ever since.”
The injury ended his dreams of working in law enforcement, but it didn’t paralyze his will. “My inner drive would not let me sit idly by in self-pity. And neither did my family and friends,” he recalls. “After my accident, the tremendous outpouring of support I received from my community made me want to give something back. Their generosity and concern inspired me to run for office in 1986, which began a long and fulfilling career in public service that has included a seat in the Rhode Island General Assembly, two terms as secretary of state, and my eventual election to the United States Congress in 2000,” when he became the first quadriplegic in the House.
Langevin serves as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the House Committee on the Budget. In addition to his committee work, Langevin has become a national leader on cyber security, stem cell research, and health care reform issues. During his time in Congress, he has introduced measures to help businesses provide health care for employees, advocated for stricter computer security, and championed steps to provide respite care for family caregivers, protect the environment, and increase federal funding for lifesaving research. Most recently, he became a front runner in the reignited debate on gun control. Last February, he convinced dozens of House Democrats to bring victims of gun violence to the State of the Union speech. “I organized the effort,” Langevin says, “because I wanted to put a human face on the tragedy that gun violence has taken in our country.”
He has also put a face on the disabled as founder and co-chair of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus, where he stresses the potential of the disabled. “My life experiences have taught me that great challenges present us with great opportunities,” Langevin says as he recalls his journey from paralyzed teen to powerful member of Congress. “Individuals with disabilities remain one of our nation’s greatest untapped resources. I truly believe we can achieve fiscal balance while investing in education, health care, and employment assistance to achieve a higher level of independence, productivity, and inclusion within our society,” Langevin says.
Rep. Langevin has played a key role in the full implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since 1990, when the ADA was passed, “court decisions have increasingly narrowed the definition of disability to exclude many Americans who are discriminated against in the workplace based on a legitimate disabling condition,” Langevin explains. “Together with House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer and many others, I worked tirelessly to pass the ADA Amendments Act, which was signed into law on July 25, 2008. This landmark legislation reaffirms the ADA’s protections and upholds the ideals of equality and opportunity on which this country was founded.”
To further strengthen these ideals, Langevin advocates for more access to community services and supports. “Home and community-based waivers in Medicaid,” he says, “have provided greater flexibility, independence, and community integration for children and adults with disabilities who receive care outside of more costly and restrictive institutional settings. By further exploring and supporting home and community-based programs, as well as other community supports like respite care, we can reduce costs to the system and improve the quality of care for individuals with disabilities across their lifespan.”
Their loved ones also need help, Langevin knows, so he supports respite services for full-time family caregivers of the disabled and aged. “Family caregivers provide approximately 80 percent of long-term care needs to the chronically ill,” Langevin notes. “In fact, there are over 65 million family caregivers in the U.S. and reports estimate the annual economic value of uncompensated family caregiving to be about $450 billion, more than total Medicaid spending in 2009. That is why I plan on reintroducing the Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act to streamline the delivery of planned and emergency respite services, decreasing the need for professional long-term care that results in significant savings for the health care system and taxpayers.”
And Langevin cares about all the taxpayers he serves. “You should know,” he says, “that in my service in government I’ve never made disability issues my primary focus. Just as being disabled is a part of who I am, it is not who I am. That is reflected in my service here in Congress. I am working on so many issues, and disability issues are just one of them. I don’t seek to be the sole spokesman for disability issues or in a sense the poster child for these issues. I do recognize that I have a unique perspective on those issues and I have a responsibility to help further the cause. I do take those opportunities when they are presented to me or I seek them out from time to time, but again it is not the sole focus of who I am or what I do here. I have many other responsibilities that I take very seriously.”
Prominent among them are the retirement security issues that concern many American seniors. So Langevin has strongly opposed proposals to privatize Social Security and end the Medicare guarantee. “Social Security and Medicare have been highly successful in keeping seniors out of poverty and providing access to quality health care. We can and must take steps to control these programs’ costs to maintain the promise of a secure retirement for our seniors,” he says. “We must not weaken programs on which so many depend. Seniors are still recovering from the economic recession that decimated private retirement accounts and erased trillions in wealth while Social Security didn’t lose a dime during the financial crisis. By phasing out the Social Security payroll tax cap that benefits wealthier individuals and building on the future health care savings passed in the Affordable Care Act, we can continue to ensure Social Security and Medicare work for everyone, both the seniors of today and those of tomorrow.”
To mark the 20th anniversary of the passage of the ADA, Rep. Langevin became the first lawmaker in a wheelchair to preside over the House. As he took the speaker’s rostrum, he recalled how a bullet killed his dreams of joining the police. “Having had my whole world shattered,” Langevin said he “looked to the achievements of other disabled people for inspiration.” Their example taught him that you can turn challenges into chances for building new dreams and giving back. He hoped some other young person struggling with doubt and despair would see him before the House “and know they’re going to be okay.”
Below are excerpts from an interview between Congressman Jim Langevin and NAHC President Val J. Halamandaris. The full interview can be found in the most recent issue of CARING Magazine.
Excerpts: Interview: Congressman Jim Langevin in His Own Words
VJH:What advice would you give to America’s seniors?
JL:I would advise our nation’s seniors to share their experiences and wisdom, especially with the younger generation. We must help young people to understand that the road is not always easy but everybody can make a difference. I would tell older people to please get involved, stay involved, and be politically active. There are so many things worth fighting for, like preserving Social Security and Medicare. Obviously, these programs are vitally important not only to our current seniors but also to future generations of seniors who will come along. Social Security and Medicare in many ways are under attack right now, and I’m concerned for both of these programs. I’m a staunch defender of Social Security and Medicare, but I can’t fight for them alone. This is a team effort so the more people who rally to the cause the better. I think advocacy is an area where seniors can clearly play an important role. You can’t sit back. You must be vocal and defend those programs which help others and hopefully keep them strong for future generations…
VJH:Mother Teresa helped us create the Caring Institute. What does caring mean to you?
JL:Caring means empathy, being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to understand what they are going through. Caring is also about wanting to make a difference in others’ lives. I think that's an important message for us all. If you really care and you want to help, you must get involved and understand what those around you are going through and try to be a positive influence on the world…
VJH:Congressman, what can you tell us about your experience with home care?
JL:Home care is incredibly important to me. It means independence and living a full life in my own home. All my life I have observed that we all will need help along the way. Nobody gets through life without it. For some, it’s a little bit of help; for others a lot. For me, it has meant having people assist me in the morning and evening, and because of them I’ve been able to live a very full and independent life. Without home care, I might very well have been placed into institutional care. My experience with home care has been so positive that I have developed a passion for making sure that independent living programs are supported and continued. I want to ensure that all Americans, including those with disabilities, can to the greatest possible extent live in their own homes and enjoy full and productive lives.
VJH:Like you, I believe that everybody should have the ability to enjoy the maximum degree of the freedom that our forefathers guaranteed us. You’ve spoken out against new regulations that would delete the companionship exemption. What reasons did you give the regulators at the Office of Management and Budget for opposing these changes?
JL:I was concerned and I remain concerned about the unintended consequences of the proposed rule change. I’m concerned both for the people receiving the care and for the people who are giving the care. I believe in and I value greatly the services of the people who have assisted me over the years. But I understand that without greater reimbursement reform and more resources, it will be very difficult to see a change in the rule. I say this because I think what would wind up happening is the people who now receive care would not be able to afford it under the rule change that’s being proposed. They would have trouble paying overtime and so hours would be cut back or you would have to get a third person in the mix or yet another person in the mix to assist with care. I think you would potentially see less care for the persons who need it and hours cut back for the caregivers who provide it. Neither patients nor caregivers would benefit from the rule change, and it might actually put them both at a disadvantage.
VJH: What do you believe should be done to improve care?
JL:Well, I would agree that one of the best things we can do is to preserve Medicare and make sure we're stretching our health care dollars as far as they'll go to make things more cost-effective. We need to offer more preventive care and ensure we have better coordination of care and a continuum of care through patient-centered medical homes. I believe that greater use of home care ultimately will result in better and more cost-effective care.