Secretary off to a running start

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Carol Sorgen

Rona Kramer, former Maryland state senator and a Democrat, now serves as Maryland’s Secretary of Aging in the cabinet of Republican Governor Larry Hogan. An attorney and businesswoman, Kramer brings a variety of skills to the state’s Department of Aging, which she heads.
photo courtesy of the maryland department of aging

During her eight years as a state senator, Rona Kramer’s efforts on behalf of Maryland’s older residents garnered not only the gratitude of those she served, but also the attention of her fellow legislators from both sides of the aisle.

During Governor Robert Ehrlich’s administration, she came to know the then-Secretary of Appointments, Larry Hogan. So it wasn’t completely out of the blue when, after last year’s election, then-Governor-elect Hogan called Kramer and asked if she would be interested in serving in his new administration.

“I was honored,” said Kramer, and she accepted — after making a request. Offered one position, Kramer said she replied that “my preference would be to serve our seniors,” whereupon the Governor appointed her Secretary of Aging, a member of his cabinet and head of the state’s Department of Aging.

Despite the difference in their political affiliations — Kramer, 60, is a lifelong Democrat and Hogan is a Republican — Kramer said she has no qualms about serving in the Governor’s cabinet.

“He has made clear that his administration is not going to be about politics, but about making important changes that will strengthen Maryland and bring our spending in line with our revenues,” Kramer said. “I agree completely with those goals.”

One of Kramer’s primary goals as Secretary is to keep Maryland’s aging population as healthy as possible for as long as possible, so that their need for services will come later in life. “That will improve both individual quality of life as well as the State’s fiscal health,” she said.

When it comes to promoting a healthy lifestyle, Kramer practices what she preaches. For years, in her business office, she has used a treadmill desk, walking as she works.

Even when not, she stands as often as possible, since the latest health research indicates that what is now referred to as “sitting disease” is responsible for numerous serious health conditions that can lead to early mortality.

All in the family

It was during Kramer’s second four-year term in the Senate that she became particularly involved with issues affecting Maryland’s older residents, working closely with her brother, Ben Kramer, who serves as a delegate in the Maryland House.

“One of my brother’s main focuses was the protection of our state’s seniors,” said Kramer. Working as a team — she sponsoring bills in the senate and he in the house of delegates — they were responsible for passing numerous pieces of legislation, ranging from prevention of financial exploitation to protecting older adults in nursing homes and assisted living communities.

“My brother and I worked together very successfully and made a great team,” said Kramer, adding that her brother continues to serve in the House and to work on legislation to protect seniors.

The Kramers have politics in their blood. Their father, Sidney Kramer, served as Montgomery County Executive from 1986 to 1990, and as a Maryland state senator from 1978 to 1986.

A lifelong resident of Montgomery County, Kramer received her undergraduate degree in law enforcement from the University of Maryland and a law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1979.  After joining the Maryland Bar and working briefly in a private firm practice, she joined her family’s commercial real estate business, Kramer Enterprises, as senior vice president and general counsel.

Throughout her business career, Kramer has always been active in community affairs, serving in the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and as a board member of many organizations, including Holy Cross Health, the Maryland College of Art and Design, and the Montgomery County Friends of the Library.

Over time, the pull to public service grew stronger.

“I was always aware of what was happening in Montgomery County from both a business and a legislative standpoint,” Kramer said. So when a Maryland Senate seat became available in 2002, Kramer decided to run for it.

“I disagreed with the philosophies of the two men already in the race,” she said, “and I was raised to believe that I had no right to complain if I didn’t get involved.”

Kramer won that election and the next one. During her tenure, in addition to her work on behalf of the aging, she was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, chaired the Joint Committee on Pensions, and served on more than fourteen subcommittees, including Health and Human Services, Public Safety, Transportation and the Environment, and Capital Budget. 

“I had the opportunity to see everything the state was involved in,” Kramer said. It would help prepare her for her next major assignment.

Improvements from day one

As Secretary of Aging, Kramer is concerned that while Maryland’s older population is growing dramatically, the Department’s funds — which come from the state as well as the Federal Older Americans Act — are basically stagnant. To wit: the 2015 budget was $51,874,423, while the 2016 allowance calls for only a slight increase to $52,149,990.

“Funds are not increasing, so we have to operate more efficiently if we’re going to serve growing numbers of people,” Kramer said.

The Department’s funds are mostly passed through to the state’s 19 Area Agencies on Aging (known as AAAs), which are supervised by the Secretary and her staff. The AAAs use Department funds to carry out most government programs for older adults in their territory: transportation, meals, senior centers, subsidized housing, information and referral, etc.

Within days of arriving at the Department, Kramer found a glaring inefficiency in that process that needed to be addressed.

Each year, every AAA must submit a detailed plan to the Department of Aging indicating what programs they will be operating for the coming year, and how every dollar will be spent. Until a AAA’s plan is approved, state and federal funds are not released to be spent.

The problem, Kramer discovered, is that these plans have traditionally been prepared and submitted for review during the first quarter of the fiscal year, which starts July 1, and have typically not been finalized until just before the second quarter begins.

As a result, AAAs have been squeezed for funds throughout the first months of every fiscal year, frequently needing to borrow money to pay salaries and manage operations. The stress and inconvenience affects not only AAA staff but all the local nonprofits and seniors who rely on the programs.

So, within days of arriving at her new office, Kramer announced that this had to change at once. Adjusting the schedule so that AAA plans were to be submitted during the last quarter of the preceding fiscal year was “one of the first things I knew we needed to tackle.”

While it meant an immediate and radical shift in planning for all 19 AAAs, they recognized the immense benefits that would come from having their funds ready at the start of a new year, so everyone stepped up to the plate. “We did it successfully,” she reported with satisfaction. “ All plans were completed by June 30,” so funds were available the day the new fiscal year started.

It was a bold stroke on Kramer’s part, and one that immediately telegraphed throughout the state that this was a Secretary who both understood and meant business.

Volunteers needed

Since funds for increased numbers of staff people are not forthcoming, Kramer hopes to broaden the State’s volunteer base.

“I’d like to have an ‘army of individuals’ with many skill levels who can provide a range of direct and consultative services,” she said. “I’d like all of us to think of how we can use our time, and would like to create a volunteer commission that would include individuals representing different areas, such as the medical and legal fields, to name just a few.”

Those interested in volunteering with the Department of Aging may call (410) 767-1100 and leave their name and contact information. A work group to explore various volunteer programs and services is being formed this summer. “I’d love to hear people’s ideas,” Kramer said.

Since her confirmation by the State Senate this past March, Kramer has been working closely with aging advocates and professionals throughout the state, meeting with regional and jurisdictional groups, nonprofit organizations, senior residences, and members of the business community.

From her new perspective as Secretary of Aging, Kramer believes that Maryland compares favorably with other states in its efforts to provide for its aging population.

“The state partners with so many volunteers, nonprofit groups and private organizations,” she said. “Everyone has the same goal — to support Maryland’s senior citizens.”

Kramer also feels fortunate that her staff — most of whom were already on board when she became Secretary — are so dedicated to the mission of the Department. “They’ve made my job much easier,” she said.

Despite the learning curve of the new position, the hectic schedule, and her daily round-trip commute from Montgomery County to the state’s offices in downtown Baltimore, Kramer — single, and the mother of two grown daughters — said she looks forward to getting to work each day.

“It’s fascinating, challenging and exciting!” she said.