The Older Americans Act (OAA) is up for reauthorization (it’s actually been up for reauthorization for a couple of years now…) and tomorrow 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.
The OAA is one of the most important pieces of legislation there is, but unfortunately it’s also one of the most unheralded as well. You know Meals on Wheels? That’s funded by the OAA, as well as essential services for seniors like job training, caregiver support, transportation, preventive health services, and protection from abuse and financial exploitation. This critical legislation has been underfunded for several years since it is discretionary funding and must be approved in the annual budget every year.
The programs funded under the OAA are some of the most cost-effective and efficient within the federal government as shown by a study done by the Center for Effective Government. It found that for every $1 in federal spending on Meals on Wheels, there is as much as a $50 return in Medicaid savings alone. Unfortunately, this critical program reaches less than 10 percent of low-income seniors who need access to meals programs. That’s a tragedy.
There are research proven fall prevention programs funded by the OAA which protect seniors from hospital stays or long-term care admission—where too often they end up spending 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. Injuries from falls are projected to cost $60 billion in 2020. Research shows 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) which partners with the Department of Labor help find very low-income seniors employment and provide retraining and job skills training 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.” Again, however, 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. In fact, because of the required match to operate the program, many organizations are no longer to offer it.
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 for Community Living 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. This is a long-term goal of the Elder Justice Coalition. It also strengthens the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which provides ombudsmen to serve all residents of long-term care facilities, regardless of age. Significantly, the bill specifies that all residents of a long-term care facility must have private, unimpeded access to ombudsmen, so there are no other parties that are interfering, intimidating, or somehow preventing candid communication.
If you are represented by Senators on the HELP Committee, please 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. These are safety net services that are cost effective and which make a huge difference!