BY LIZ SEEGERT
The Older Americans Act (OAA) expires on Sept. 30, 2019, and there’s still no bill ready for either a House or Senate vote. Traditionally, this legislation receives wide bipartisan support, but legislators are still attempting to work out some differences between what the Trump administration wants and provisions Democrats and advocacy groups would like to add.
The Senate is at an impasse regarding funding authorization levels and the funding formula, including “hold harmless” provisions. The House Education and Labor Committee announced on Friday that their OAA bill will be introduced on Monday and the committee will mark it up and likely pass it on Wednesday.
U.S. senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bob Casey (D-Penn.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Aging Committee, are leading the bipartisan coalition of senators working on the reauthorization, which includes Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) as well as senators Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). In the past year alone, OAA programs served more than 700,000 caregivers; and provided seniors across the country with 358 million meals, according to the Aging committee.
“I am committed to ensuring that the Older Americans Act continues to match the goals we set to permit seniors to age with dignity, respect, and community,” Collins said in a statement. “My chief goal is to get across the finish line, on time, a robust and bipartisan Older Americans Act that will strengthen support for its bread and butter programs, while providing more flexibility for states to meet local needs. By enriching the lives of seniors, the Older Americans Act improves the lives of all Americans.”
“The Older American’s Act represents our commitment to the generations before us who helped build our country, and it lifts up seniors who need our help now,” Casey said. More than 400,000 Pennsylvanians rely on programs funded by the Older Americans Act, according to the Senator. “We must ensure it is re-authorized before it expires.”
At a hearing in May, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), chair of the Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee, reaffirmed her commitment to providing basic services and compassionate care to vulnerable older adults. “As the number of older Americans continues to increase, Congress must strengthen our support for OAA’s proven, long-standing programs.”
Bonamici is leading the House’s bipartisan effort to update and reauthorize OAA, which serves roughly 11 million older Americans through social services and community-based programs like Meals on Wheels.
Several Democratic-sponsored OAA-related bills are sitting in committees, awaiting further action. HR 3782, the Supporting Family Caregivers Act of 2019, would amend the Act to strengthen support for family caregivers. This legislation was referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor. Doug Jones (D-Alabama), introduced S.1671, the Aging Together Act, which would amend the OAA to provide opportunities for older individuals to participate in multigenerational and civic engagement activities that contribute to health and wellness. Targeted caregiver support services are among the provisions in S.1017, Supporting America’s Caregivers and Families Act , introduced by Richard Durban, D-Illinois.
Vital services at stake
Congress passed the Older Americans Act in 1965 to provide community social services for older adults. It gave states authority for community planning and social service, research and development projects, along with personnel training in the field of aging, according to the Administration on Community Living (ACL). It also established the Administration on Aging (AoA) to administer the newly created grant programs and to serve as the federal focal point on matters concerning older persons.
The OAA provides a majority of social and nutrition services to older adults and their caregivers. It authorizes a wide array of service programs through a national network of 56 state agencies on aging, 629 area agencies on aging, nearly 20,000 service providers, 244 tribal organizations, and two native Hawaiian organizations representing 400 tribes. It also offers community service employment for low-income older Americans; training, research, and demonstration activities in the field of aging; and vulnerable elder rights protection activities. The legislation was last reauthorized in 2016.
Elder advocacy groups, such as the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and Leading Age along with dozens of local social service organizations, have stepped up efforts to ensure Congress passes legislation that is so vital to millions of adults 65 and older. Op-eds, letters to the editor and commentary have appeared in local publications like The Daily Press in Eastern Virginia, The Joplin Globe (Missouri) and Madison.com (Wisconsin).
“I am anxiously optimistic that Congress will achieve a reauthorization of the OAA. All sides and both the House and Senate have been working in good faith so far. On a bipartisan basis the value of the OAA is known. Its passage is more relevant today because of the Act’ proven record of addressing isolation among older adults,” Robert Blancato, executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Service Programs, said in an email. “The advocacy message is simple. Get it done. Get it done right. Get it done on time.”
A 2019 report from the AARP Public Policy Institute highlights how funding has failed to keep up with inflation and increased demand from our aging population. “As effective as the Act has been, it is falling short,” wrote Wendy Fox-Grage, a senior strategic policy adviser for the AARP Public Policy Institute.
According to Grage, OAA funding has increased only 1.1% annually on average from FY 2001 to FY 2019 (from $1.68 billion in FY 2001 to $2.06 billion in FY 2019). After adjusting for inflation, she said appropriations actually fell by 16%, although the older population has increased by 63% since 2001, and continues to grow.
Should Congress fail to reauthorize the OAA by September 30, the program will just continue, as many expired programs do, according to Blancato, without incorporating any of the proposed legislation which could strengthen and enhance this vital effort to help older people and caregivers.