Transcript of Live Chat - October 17, 2002

On Thursday, October 17, Gotham Gazette held a live chat with Gretchen Dykstra, Commissioner of New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs and Donna Tessitore, Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Senior Assistance and Benefits from the Department for the Aging. Find out what they said as they answered questions about prescription drugs, housing, noise, and more.

Gotham Gazette: Good afternoon everyone. Commissioner Dykstra and Commissioner Tessitore, good afternoon and thanks for coming.

Gretchen Dykstra: This is to be here.

Donna Tessitore: Hi, thanks for inviting us.

GG: Commissioner Dykstra, could you give us a brief description of your agency and how your work relates to the city’s older residents.

Dykstra: The Department of Consumer Affairs works to foster an honest marketplace that consumers can trust and in which businesses can thrive. Seniors are an essential part of our audience, and seniors as seasoned people are sometimes our best source of information. However we have targeted several issues this year that have particular relevance to seniors. The Department of Consumer Affairs is focusing attention on the high price of drugs for seniors and predatory lending.

GG: Commissioner Tessitore, there are over a dozen different benefits and programs that seniors may be eligible for. What is the best way for someone to learn about these services and to find out if they qualify?

Tessitore: There are a number of ways to find out about our services. You can call our Information and Referral Helpline at 212-442-1000. You can visit us at our main office at 2 Lafayette St. in Manhattan. You can stop into any of our 340 senior centers around the city and ask for information. Finally, you can visit our web site at Our website includes descriptions of programs, benefits, and services and includes an assessment program called Benefit Check which allows you to check and see what you may be eligible for.

GG: Commissioner Tessitore, when you say "our" senior centers, do you mean those that exist in New York City or those run by the Department for the Aging?

Tessitore: The Department for the Aging contracts with locally based community organizations to operate the senior centers. We think of them as "ours."

GG: Is there a list of the senior centers anywhere?

Tessitore: Check our very informative website! Or call 212-442-1000.


GG: Commissioner Dykstra, your office recently issued a report that found that the price of prescription drugs varies widely from neighborhood to neighborhood and from store to store. For example, your survey of stores on the Upper East Side found that pharmacies charged four different prices - ranging from $50 to $98 - for the same osteoporosis medicine. Why does this happen? Can the city do anything to prevent it?

Dykstra: Our survey focused on 12 Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (which are called NORCs) throughout the city. We surveyed all the drug stories that surround those Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. Some 28,000 senior citizens live in those 12 areas, and we found wide disparities among the prices of 14 drugs that are bought most often by seniors. Why? A set of complicated reasons: some probably based on real estate values, some based on deals that the pharmacies cut with the distributors and third party payers and some just out and out competition among the stores. We were particularly surprised that the independent pharmacies often were cheaper than their big box competitors.

Denise: Commissioner Dykstra, could you tell me how I may get a copy of your survey, please?

Dykstra: Check out our website at

GG: Don’t most seniors have insurance plans that make the drugs cost the same?

Dykstra: I am so glad you asked that question! First, Medicare does not have drug benefits. New York State has a very good program, called Elderly Prescription Insurance Coverage, for seniors with incomes of less than $35,000, but there are approximately 110,000 seniors in New York City with no drug coverage and they are paying full retail prices. Of course many seniors do have drug benefits from their own pension plans, like retired city employees.

Tessitore: Many seniors do have drug coverage as part of their insurance plan, but no plans fully cover the high cost of medications. However, even more seniors do not have coverage. I see that Commissioner Dykstra has just recommended a very useful program for seniors in New York State. The Elderly Prescription Insurance Coverage program can be used on its own or in conjunction with other drug coverage benefits. The application process is simple and virtually all drug stores accept it. You can call our department for more information or you can call the Elderly Prescription Insurance Coverage office at 1-800-332-3742.

GG: Is there anything the city can do to make sure pharmacies are not price-gouging?

Dykstra: Well, it's hard to know what price gouging is. However we are doing a lot and plan to do more. First and foremost is providing information and our survey was only one step in that. Second is to remind people that they can call pharmacies and ask for the prices without walking to each and every pharmacy. The Department of Consumer Affairs is exploring other disclosure obligations and we are going to continue to look at price differentials in order to give New Yorkers the best shot at finding the best prices.


GG: Matthew Ancona from the Woodside Senior Center asks: "Some seniors who have raised large families in a New York City Housing Authority apartment and have now been notified that they must relocate to smaller one bedroom apartments. Sometimes they are forced to move out of their neighborhood where they have deep roots in their community, membership in senior centers, churches, as well as friends, families, and doctors. Do you have ideas for how seniors can find an apartment in their own neighborhood?"

Tessitore: The Housing Authority's practice is to make every effort to keep the person in their development or community when possible. The Housing Authority's Senior Services offices can be of help in clarifying or assisting with specific cases. Their phone number is 212-306-8623. The Department for the Aging publishes housing listings that indicate the types of senior housing available around the City - lists are available on-line or by calling 212-442-1000. In addition the Department of Housing Preservation and Development maintains a hotline of affordable housing that is in the leasing stage - available to all age groups - you can call them at 212-863-5610.

Dykstra: For starters I would be sure to call your local city councilmembers as they often have lists of available apartments whether they be private or City-owned and operated.

GG: Bobbie Sackman from the Council of Senior Centers and Services asks: "I thought that sometimes New York City Housing Authority just kicks out names and apartments from a computer date base with no regard to where a person lives."

Tessitore: I have no specific knowledge of this practice.

Bobbie Sackman: There is a shortage of affordable housing for seniors in NYC. A recently released report by Congressman Anthony Weiner shows that over 200,000 seniors are on waiting lists for Section 202 federally subsidized senior housing. There is virtually no affordable assisted living in NYC. Market rate assisted living costs $40,000 or more. What is the city's plan for affordable housing for the elderly?

Tessitore: We continue to explore new sources of funding for housing for seniors, particularly affordable housing, and we advocate at the Federal and State levels for increased funding to existing programs. We have a number of programs funded by the City to help people stay at home who are aging in place. The Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption Program (SCRIE) helps defray rent increases for seniors living in rent regulated housing with a household income of $20,000 or less. In Fiscal Year 2002, the Department's Senior Housing Initiatives unit administered 41 service contracts, totaling almost $5 million for Naturally Ocurring Retirement Communitites (NORCS), home repair/modification, home sharing and other housing related services. Except for health care issues, housing is the most critical and complex problem for many older New Yorkers.

GG: Speaking of home repair, Commissioner Dykstra, your agency works to inform people about deceptive home improvement contractors. What advice would you give to people who are going to have work done on their house?

Dykstra: First, check with Department of Consumer Affairs to find out if a home improvement contractor is licensed. That phone number is 212-487-4444. Then if the contractor is licensed -- and only use a licensed one -- make sure that the contractor has good references and call them. Be sure that there's a contract that addresses issues of cost, cancellation and timing. Keep all written notes between you, and remember that if you run into problems, Department of Consumer Affairs can help you. But we can best help you if you use a licensed contractor.

For instance, we have the Home Improvement Trust Fund. If a consumer uses a licensed contractor who goes belly up or disappears in the middle of a job, the Department of Consumer Affairs can reimburse you up to $15,000, but ONLY if you used a licensed contractor. So that's a number one priority. If they're not licensed, they're not legal. We are updating our website and soon all licensed contractors will be there, too.


GG: We have two questions about nightclubs.

Lappert: While I think this happens in many neighborhoods, it's a constant complaint where I am (especially with seniors) -- all those noisy bars and nightclubs that have been popping up with loud noise, open doors and taking space on the sidewalk. Now I hear Commissioner Dykstra wants to make it easier for MORE sidewalk cafes?

Dykstra: Glad you asked that...the big news is that we are asking City Council for authority to speed up the process. But in our proposals we are also asking for the authority to padlock a restaurant whose sidewalk cafe continually breaks the rules. This will, we believe, stop illegal activity very quickly, but that is not the same for nightclubs and cabarets. Those are more complicated issues. Just yesterday we convened our consumer council, made up of 12 people from many different perspectives, including a producer from MTV and cabarets and night clubs were on our list of items.

LESGal: Why have you met privately with the NY Nightlife Association regarding the Sidewalk Cafe issue/Cabaret Law enforcement but not with community groups? This issue affects older New Yorkers who want to sleep at night!

Dykstra: I met privately? I thought I met with anyone who wanted to meet. However you should know that the Department of Consumer Affairs padlocked a cabaret which we had shut because three people were dancing. There is a big problem with the law. We believe that no nightclub or cabaret should be allowed to disturb its neighbors but the law doesn't say that. The courts have said that noise cannot be the litmus test for a license, so we are trying, and have just begun thinking about how we can address the real issues.

Lappert: Why keep giving permits when there are more and more problems? It's not only a question of those who break rules, it's also a density issue and keeping sidewalks open for pedestrians. Shouldn't there be a review of minimum clearance and noise generated by those places with open doors? These days restaurants and clubs overlap all the time.

Dykstra: If you mean sidewalk cafes, if the sidewalk café encroaches on more sidewalk than allowed -- three times the Department of Consumer Affairs proposals -- that would allow the department to padlock the restaurant for up to thirty days.


GG: Matthew Ancona asks, "For many people just hitting age 60, a senior citizen center is a foreign concept. Is there way the Department for the Aging and Department of Consumer Affairs could join forces to educate the public about senior centers and the services they provide."

Tessitore: The Dept. for the Aging and Consumer Affairs have recently partnered on an issue of senior safety - particularly fraud prevention. We expect to continue collaborating on issues that concern older New Yorkers. Of course, we welcome expanding our outreach efforts and Consumer Affairs could be a great partner in this effort.

Dykstra: We try to work together on many issues and will continue to do so.

GG: Gail asks, "I have been looking at assisted living facilities in the city. Does the city regulate these homes? And are there things I can do to protect myself and my parents from poor care?"

Dykstra: I just heard yesterday that American Association of Retired Persons is going to focus on the quality of assisted living centers in New York State next year. I would suggest calling them. Their website is

Tessitore: The City does not regulate assisted living facilities although specific services such as home care may be regulated. The Department's Alzheimers and Long Term Care unit have expert information and advice on choosing a long term care facility. Call them at 212-442-3086.

GG: The City Council is considering legislation that would require people who work at nursing homes to undergo background checks, much like day-care workers. Do you think this would improve safety and care?

Tessitore: I have not seen this particular piece of proposed legislation so I would prefer to withhold comment.


GG: We have not had time to ask about specific requests for aid from the participants. Where can they go to get help?

Dykstra: You can visit the Dept. of Consumer Affairs web site at or call our hotline at 212-487-4444 seven days a week, 24 hours a day to file a complaint, check on a licensed business or request consumer information.

Tessitore: Visit our website at Call our information and referral helpline at 212-442-1000. Stop in at our offices at 2 Lafayette Street in Manhattan or visit our network of community partners in your community.

GG: Thanks everyone for participating in our online chat. Thank you Commissioner Dykstra and Commissioner Tessitore.

Dykstra: Thank you.

Tessitore: It was a pleasure - thanks.