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What About Seniors?

Published in the March 2012 issue of The Fifty Plus Advocate

In all the hoopla surrounding the release of Gov. Deval Patrick’s Fiscal Year 2013 state budget proposal, we heard about ways to increase revenue, provide level funding for several programs and services – from local aid to education – and use of the rainy day fund to make ends meet. These are all important and worthy objectives; but, what about seniors?

With five consecutive years of state budget revenue shortfalls, programs that serve seniors in this commonwealth have been hit hard; many have been cut to the bone. At the same time, need continues to increase due in part to the tough economy – but also because of the growing number of seniors in the Bay State.

Today, almost one in five (19.4%) Massachusetts residents are age 60 or older; this is the most rapidly expanding segment of the state’s entire population. Now more than ever we need leadership to meet the needs of this changing demographic.

Instead, Gov. Patrick proposes cutting the Elder Nutrition Program by $1.5 million, which translates to 250,000 fewer meals, or subsidized lunches, for vulnerable seniors. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, the governor’s budget also does not adequately fund the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which supports food banks in Massachusetts. The Center writes, “Over time, though, the cost of food has increased, which means that the food banks will actually be able to buy less food this year than last, even with the same number of dollars.”

To propose cutting back on nutrition assistance is not even penny-wise and pound-foolish. It is an outright insult to elders – especially when, each and every day in this great commonwealth, more than 140,000 older adults risk going hungry; when the economy drives more and more seniors to food banks; when we know good nutrition is a key to healthy aging.

Making matters worse, Project Bread’s 2011 Status Report on Hunger finds more than 700,000 people in the commonwealth are struggling to put food on the table – the highest number recorded in Massachusetts since this data was first collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1995.

And, then there is long-term care.

What about the nearly 1,000 older Massachusetts residents who are still waiting to receive home- and community-based services? Gov. Patrick did not propose to rebalance long-term care funding to end home care waiting lists. Instead, the state continues to place an over-reliance on institutional care, like nursing homes, as the first point-of-entry for elders requiring long-term care services. Even though we know the vast majority of seniors want to remain in their homes and communities as they age.

Or, what about the more than 11,000 vulnerable seniors who count on adult day health services to maintain their independence and stay out of more expensive institutional care? There is no specific funding allocated for these services in the governor’s budget, services that include preventative health care, chronic disease management, assessment, and ongoing medical and therapeutic services in a community-base setting. The seniors who rely on these services are often dealing with a variety of chronic conditions, and without adult day health services the majority would require immediate nursing home care.

The governor’s budget proposal also has no specific funding noted for nursing home leaves of absence, commonly called “the bed hold.” This program ensures nursing home residents can return to their own bed, should they require a short term absence, such as for hospitalization.

Sadly, it’s easy to see why Massachusetts ranked in the bottom half of all states when it comes to the cost and quality of long-term services and supports, according to a recent report from the AARP Public Policy Institute, the Commonwealth Fund, and the SCAN Foundation.

The commonwealth is a known leader in reforming health care – and long-term care is an important part of the health care continuum. AARP calls on policymakers to include long-term services and supports as part of the ongoing health care payment reform discussion – and to shift more funding to home and community based services.

As the commonwealth’s leaders craft the budget for Fiscal Year 2013, which takes effect July 1, 2012, we understand that they continue to face challenges due to the still-recovering economy. But, with tax collections outpacing estimates and the state’s rainy day fund up to $1.5 billion, AARP urges Gov. Patrick, and Members of the House and Senate: Let’s not forget about our seniors.

Let’s treat our elders with dignity and respect.

Deborah Banda is the state director of AARP Massachusetts, which serves more than 800,000 members age 50 and over in the Bay State. This editorial appears in the March 2012 edition of the Fifty Plus Advocate, the statewide mature market newspaper.

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