Commentary - December 27th, 2013
1:59 pm
Fri December 27, 2013

Funding Impacts on Senior Services

Good evening.  I’m Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services; the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli counties. As many of you know, Congress has come to an agreement on the major budget issues that have delayed finalizing the funding for fiscal year 2014, which started October 1.  Because Congress has only partially offset sequestration with this budget deal, I want to talk tonight about why it is important that we advocate on behalf of vulnerable older adults. 

The budget deal now approved by both houses of Congress finally gives appropriators the overall spending level needed to begin negotiating specific funding levels of each federal program.  The current continuing resolution expires January 15, which means House and Senate committees have only a few weeks to negotiate details of 12 separate appropriations bills.  Their goal is to create an omnibus bill by January 6. That single document would package together several measures and be accepted--or rejected--in a single vote by each legislature.

Given the tight timing, some larger appropriations bills, like the Older Americans Act and the bill funding Senior Corps volunteer programs, may not get the full level of line-by-line scrutiny. They may instead end up looking like a slightly tweaked continuing resolution, with across-the-board adjustments. This could put these programs in a dangerous position. If appropriators make difficult choices about which programs to invest in, not all programs will see a boost in funding. Some may even be cut in order to restore or invest in preferred programs. Thanks to political stalemates, this traditional approach to the appropriations process has suffered in recent years.

A plus for Montana is that Senator Tester serves on the full Senate Appropriations Committee.  A simple phone call to his Washington, DC office or one of his local offices across the state asking for his help is a good first step. Here are a few points you could make.

With our increasing number of older adults, we need funds to subsidize those who can’t afford to pay for supportive services. By 2025 Montana will rank fifth per capita in the country in terms of our aging population. Most older adults will need some type of assistance not supported by Medicare or other insurance. People will need to pay out-of-pocket for meals, respite support for family caregivers, personal care services like bathing and dressing, transportation and long-term care consultation—all areas offered by programs under the Older Americans Act. We know that living at home with appropriate supports like these is far less expensive than living in an assisted living or nursing facility. If we can’t offer subsidies to people who are unable to afford in-home supports and services, they will end up going to an institution and quickly spending down to Medicaid. Ultimately this will cost taxpayers far more money.

The Senior Corps programs including Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and RSVP are comprised of older adults who share their expertise with many local nonprofits, hospitals, schools, daycares, food banks, libraries and programs like Meals on Wheels and Adult Protective Services across the state. Besides providing this important support to other essential programs, Senior Corps gives many older adults a sense of purpose and helps reduce the risk of depression.

I’d like to share the story of a man named Al.  He had a long career in theater, toured with the National Shakespeare Company and even worked in Hollywood. Then a life-threatening car accident wiped out his savings and left him on the verge of homelessness. He came to Missoula Aging Services where he was assisted by our nutrition program. Now as a Foster Grandparent he receives a small stipend, which is helping his financial situation. Most importantly, he has found joy again by inspiring young people to share his love for the theater.

Without your advocacy, Senior Corps programs or those provided by the Older Americans Act run the risk of being overshadowed or ignored. We can all think of an older person who has been touched by poverty, hunger or difficulty remaining independent or finding meaning in life. As Al’s story illustrates, these programs do make a difference.

His is just one example of how Area Agencies on Aging across Montana can help our older population and those who care for them. I hope it motivates you to pick up the phone and call Montana’s Congressional Delegation. Urge them to make it a top priority to fund the programs that help older Americans get the support they need to age successfully at home and in their communities.

This is Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services.  As always, thanks for listening.