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Stop the Cuts

Sometimes I think: I’m beginning to sound like a broken record. Stop cutting programs for older residents. Please stop now. But, today I say: It’s time to turn up the volume.

The state legislature is hard at work, with the House and Senate each in the process of developing their budget proposals for Fiscal Year 2011, which will begin on July 1, 2010. Although tax revenue is expected to grow slightly, the state still faces challenges with rising health care costs, high unemployment—and an increased reliance on safety net programs.

Gov. Patrick has already released his $28.2 billion version of the state budget for FY11. While sparing some big ticket items like tax incentives for the biotech and film industries, the governor makes more cuts to Prescription Advantage, the state’s pharmacy assistance program for seniors that works in tandem with Medicare Part D.

AARP’s message to legislators: It’s time to step up to the plate, stop the cuts, and protect your older constituents.

Yes, the commonwealth—like businesses and families everywhere—is trying to manage during tough economic times. AARP believes, however, that budgeting to the bottom line means more than taking out the ax. It means making every penny count, and looking at every single line item to trim the fat. It means shared sacrifice—perhaps reducing some of those incentives for the film industry—and not hitting our most vulnerable residents over and over again.

Right now, the safety net for seniors is in tatters.

Over the past three years, vital programs that vulnerable seniors in this commonwealth count on have been victim to budget cut, after cut, after cut. Programs such as Prescription Advantage, home care and protective services are now operating at bare-bones levels. And, let’s be very clear: The real victims aren’t the programs; they are the people. Too many older residents are hurting because of misplaced budget priorities.

More than 40,000 seniors have lost crucial coverage from Prescription Advantage. They no longer get assistance with premiums or help making co-payments for the medicine that keeps them healthy and out of more expensive care. As the old saying goes: penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Meanwhile, nearly 3,000 older residents across the state who are eligible for home care still wait for services—for assistance to bathe, walk, eat, go to the bathroom, manage their health conditions. How are they getting by day-to-day? Many are just an accident away from acute care. Or, even worse, they face losing their independence if they must leave their homes for institutional care. It’s like Russian roulette. And, it’s wrong.

As they develop the FY11 state budget, AARP calls on legislators to hold harmless the programs and services on which seniors rely—and provide funding at FY10 levels for Prescription Advantage, home care and protective services, as well as Councils on Aging and Senior Centers, the place in each community that provides the services that local seniors need.

But, we also urge our state leaders to seize an opportunity to provide help now. In February, Massachusetts received an almost $133 million budget windfall because the Obama Administration cancelled scheduled payments related to Medicare prescription drug coverage for low-income seniors. In turn, we believe seniors should see some benefit from this relief.

AARP continues to call on the Patrick Administration and the legislature to use a small portion of the windfall to immediately restore $5.6 million in funding to Prescription Advantage. This infusion will reverse last year’s emergency “9C” cuts, bring the program back to its original Fiscal Year 2010 level of $40 million, and most importantly, allow benefits—specifically premium assistance—to be reinstated for more than 40,000 Massachusetts residents.

While I believe this request is nothing but reasonable, at press time, three months later, still no action had been taken.

Furthermore, as the economy continues to inch towards recovery and revenues tick upwards, AARP calls for funding to be restored to all safety net programs that have been decimated over the past few years, so that these programs can again provide the assistance on which so many of our most vulnerable residents rely—no matter what their age. Yes, difficult decisions must be made. But let’s do so with compassion, not just with a calculator.

Other Resources

Fifty Plus Advocate

A New Decade Dawns

Deborah E. Banda is the state director of AARP Massachusetts, serving more than 800,000 members age 50 and older in Massachusetts. This editorial appeared in the April 2010 edition of the Fifty Plus Advocate, the statewide mature market newspaper.

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