While some may criticize the bipartisan gridlock in Washington, Congress is looking to pass amendments to improve the effectiveness of the venerable Older Americans Act. It's unclear how many people have heard of the OAA, but many see its impact on the well-being of seniors without realizing where it comes from.
Established in 1965, it was the first federal initiative set up to provide comprehensive services for older adults. Most people are familiar with Meals on Wheels, but the OAA also created the Administration on Aging and the National Aging Network, the foundation for creation of Area Agencies on Aging known as AAAs.
Utah has 12 AAAs, all of which benefit from the Older Americans Act. It provides funding for nutrition, home and community-based services, health and disease prevention programs and caregiver support programs. Because these services are provided locally, many may not realize they are federally funded through the OAA.
To help seniors find resources at a single entry point, the OAA created Aging and Disability Resource Centers to help consumers learn about services.
The act was part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reforms, which include the Civil Rights Act and the Economic Opportunity Act. One special feature of the OAA is that it provides federal funding for community-level service-delivery systems so that local areas can tailor programs to meet these needs. It also has provisions to help elders find home-and-community-based care, prevent elder mistreatment and promote elder justice.
The OAA helps seniors receive adequate services related to health care, housing, transportation, and long-term care. While these objectives are being met, improvements are underway through amendments proposed by independent U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont. The act was reauthorized in 2006, but only through fiscal 2011, so seniors need congressional action and full funding to ensure uninterrupted services.
First, the amendments reauthorize all programs though fiscal 2018. They expand the category of "vulnerable adults" who may benefit from additional outreach, including veterans, LGBT individuals, Holocaust survivors, and people with Alzheimer's disease. Core programs would be strengthened through data collection and improved coordination.
Of particular interest to AARP is the focus on how to calculate the cost-of-living adjustment so that it better reflects expenses particular to seniors, such as medical and health expenses and other age-related costs that impact older people disproportionately. This would help seniors keep up with expenses without sacrificing other basic needs.
Other amendments address funding for demonstration projects on care coordination and programs to prevent elder abuse.
So who benefits the most from this act? In fiscal 2008 nearly 3 million people received services, with 27 percent of this population below the poverty line. Recipients are twice as likely to be rural, live alone, and on average have less income, education, and healthy lifestyles than the general population age 60 and over.
Given Utah's large rural population and growing older population, the Economic Opportunity Act is important to the state. The Utah Department of Adult and Aging Services can provide much more detailed information at http://www.utah.gov/daas.
The OAA provides a crucial safety net for the most vulnerable older people in America. Amid all the talk about federal overreach, this act addresses the most critical needs of seniors, with state and local flexibility about how services are delivered and where they are most needed. Let's make sure it stays strong for generations to come.
Dana Wilson is a Salt Lake City physician and member of the executive council of AARP Utah.