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6 Ways the Federal Budget Cuts May Affect You

We're starting to feel the impact of the spending cuts caused by the stalemate in Washington

Long line of people waiting outside an office

Budget cuts mean short staffing at the Social Security Administration, so be prepared to wait in line for office visits and be put on hold for telephone assistance. — Frankie Angel/Alamy

En español | The federal budget cuts that went into effect in March are beginning to have a noticeable impact on older Americans.

See also: Pay cuts to Medicare doctors hurt seniors' access to system

These cuts — known as the sequester — are the result of the inability of Congress and the White House to agree on a plan to reduce the federal deficit. The idea was that the prospect of cutting all government budgets would be so distasteful to both parties that lawmakers would be forced to compromise. But with negotiations still at an impasse, the cuts were instituted and now the effects are starting to trickle down.

Here are six ways you may be affected.

1. Social Security

Your benefits won't be cut, but the Social Security Administration, already short-staffed, will lose 3,400 workers. That may mean longer waits for office visits, telephone assistance and benefits decisions, added frustration and, sometimes, tempers that veer out of control.

Since 2011, threats against SSA employees have increased nearly 20 percent. "These service issues have created unfortunate and potentially dangerous consequences," Carolyn W. Colvin, the acting Social Security commissioner, told Congress this year.

The short staffing also will mean a backlog of 140,000 disability claims, adding two weeks to the wait on initial claims and an extra month for a hearing decision.

2. Meals on Wheels

Meals programs for older people are just starting to feel the cuts, which filter down to them through state and local agencies. Debra Furtado, the CEO of Atlanta-based Senior Connections, which delivers 3,000 meals a day, is trying to figure out how to pare 40 clients, and she's already got hundreds on the waiting list. "There are some people who are not going to have food," Furtado says.

Meals on Wheels programs from coast to coast face similar pressures. And Furtado worries the sequester will force some senior centers to close one day a week, leaving many older Americans without the lunches, nutrition counseling and companionship they look forward to.

3. Emergency Preparedness

Weather forecasters who work for the federal government will be furloughed just as the hurricane season is heating up. Employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, will each be furloughed four days between now and the end of September. Eric Christensen, a National Hurricane Center meteorologist and representative for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, pointed out that the furloughs come on top of a hiring freeze and that the center's computer-support team is already missing nearly half of its staff. "Without them," Christensen says, "our eyes and ears are diminished."

As Hurricane Sandy showed, weather forecasts are a critical element in warning the public to get out of the way of storms and help emergency planners get supplies and equipment in place before major weather events such as hurricanes.

Next page: Medicare, unemployment compensation and national parks. »

4. Medicare

The sequester doesn't affect Medicare benefits, but doctors who accept Medicare patients are getting a 2 percent pay cut. "Creating a larger gap between Medicare payment rates and the cost of delivering care will stifle innovation, reduce access to care and increase dysfunction within the Medicare program," says Jeremy A. Lazarus, M.D., the president of the American Medical Association.

A new survey by the Community Oncology Alliance shows that about half of the nation's cancer clinics surveyed are sending Medicare patients away because of the sequester. Because the 2 percent cut also applies to the drugs they use, the clinics must absorb a larger hit. "We are now seeing the cascading effects of sequestration," said Mark Thompson, M.D., an oncologist in Columbus, Ohio, who serves as the COA's president. "Many practices are now sending their Medicare patients to hospitals for chemotherapy, while others are laying off staff."

5. Unemployment Compensation

About 900,000 Americans have already gotten smaller emergency unemployment compensation checks, and the number will go much higher, according to Stephen Barr, a spokesman for the Department of Labor. Affected workers — those who already have been unemployed for at least six months — could lose up to $450 by the time the sequester ends on Sept. 30, Barr says. More than half of all unemployed Americans 55 and older have been out of work at least that long.

"If you've been out for six months you've gone through a lot of your savings," says Rick Ellis of Operation A.B.L.E., a Boston-based nonprofit that helps older workers with training and job searches. "Someone comes along and says you've got to cut that [unemployment compensation check] 12 percent, that is a hardship."

6. National Parks

Vacationers will need to check before setting off for national parks this summer, since some parts of them — such as campgrounds and picnic areas — may be closed. "Virtually every park is going to have some impact," says Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the National Park Service. "The grass is going to get a little longer between mowing and trash cans fuller before they are emptied." All told, the parks will be short by about 1,000 seasonal employees — many of them college students and teachers who help during the summer.

Each park is handling the cuts differently. Some facilities, such as the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, will have shorter hours. Others, such as Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia (home to the Liberty Bell), will close some buildings for the summer, including Declaration House, a replica of the building where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Other casualties of the sequester will include junior ranger talks and guided tours through the giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park's Mariposa Grove.

Tamara Lytle is a Washington-based reporter who has covered Congress and the White House.

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