Will a Safety Net for Seniors Win Bipartisan Support?

  • submit to reddit

We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

Seniors congregate at the Council Center for Senior Citizens, in Brooklyn's Midwood neighborhood in New York. (AP Photo/Jon Gerberg, File)

Seniors congregate at the Council Center for Senior Citizens, in Brooklyn's Midwood neighborhood in New York. (AP Photo/Jon Gerberg, File)

The Older Americans Act (OAA) is one of the most important pieces of legislation that you probably never heard of or at least know very little about. You know Meals on Wheels? The OAA funds it, and also essential services for seniors like job training, caregiver support, transportation, preventive health services, and protection from abuse and financial exploitation.

This Wednesday, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, along with Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, will offer a 5-year reauthorization of the legislation to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. If the legislation is to pass the Senate and the House, it will need strong bipartisan support from the Committee.

OAA programs aren’t means tested, so they serve as a safety net for many seniors living just above the poverty line, and prevent other seniors from falling deeper into poverty. The programs also save money over the long-term. One clear example of cost-savings is the Meals on Wheels program. A study by the Center for Effective Government found that for every $1 in federal spending on Meals on Wheels, there is as much as a $50 return in Medicaid savings alone. However, the program currently reaches less than 10 percent of low-income seniors who need access to meals programs.

“During this terrible recession, there has been a growing demand for meals for seniors at a time when budgets are being slashed,” Senator Sanders told me. “There is clear evidence that some of our poorest seniors are simply not getting the food they need.”

Fall prevention programs funded by the OAA also protect seniors from needing to go to the hospital or into nursing homes — where too often they spend every last dime and are then forced to turn to Medicaid. One in three seniors falls every year, and falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for people ages 65 and older. The resulting injuries are projected to cost the nation $60 billion in 2020. Research has shown that several OAA-supported programs have reduced falls by 30 to 55 percent — which saves both money and lives.

The OAA’s Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) allows very low-income seniors to get job skills while also providing community service for non-profits. Nearly 90 percent of participants live in poverty (on less than about $11,000 annually), and one-third are homeless or at risk of homelessness. While the job training helps these seniors return to the labor force and in some cases prevents homelessness, participants also perform millions of hours of community service for local organizations struggling with their own budget cuts. Howard Bedlin, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Aging, said SCSEP has “a value to states and communities estimated at over $1 billion.” But due to a lack of resources, the number of seniors served by the program has declined by 34 percent since FY 2010, and the program now has waiting lists in many cities.

All of the OAA programs have been severely underfunded, failing to keep pace with inflation and population growth for decades. Senator Sanders and eighteen cosponsors previously attempted to reauthorize the OAA with a funding increase of 12 percent over FY2010 levels, but in this political climate that proved to be a non-starter, despite the fact that the programs save money. This bill is a scaled back version of the previous legislation. It does not set a cap on current funding levels, and it leaves appropriators with the flexibility to increase funding in future years.

Other important aspects of the legislation prevent and address elder abuse. Elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation are all too common in the US and have long been overlooked. The bill directs the Administration on Aging to include training for state and local agencies on elder abuse prevention and screening, and it promotes data collection at the state level to help assess the scope of this problem. It also strengthens the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which provides ombudsmen to serve all residents of long-term care facilities, regardless of age. These advocates address issues ranging from complaints over a scheduled wake-up time, to concerns about quality of care, or abuse. Significantly, the bill specifies that all residents must have private, unimpeded access to ombudsmen, so there are no other parties that are interfering, intimidating, or somehow preventing candid communication.

In contrast to the National Council on Aging, which has been a steady supporter of a strong OAA, one powerful advocacy voice that was missing during earlier attempts at reauthorization was AARP. Although it is late to the party, AARP is endorsing the legislation now, and its support is critical to passing a strong bipartisan bill.

If you are represented by senators on the HELP Committee, now would be a good time to let them know that you expect strong support for the OAA — from the Committee markup on Wednesday through passage on the Senate floor — and that the legislation needs more funding.

If we truly think it’s important to respect our elders, here’s a simple way to prove it.

Greg Kaufmann is a frequent contributor to BillMoyers.com. He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and editor of TalkPoverty.org. Follow him on Twitter: @GregKaufmann.
  • submit to reddit