• Don’t throw seniors over the cliff
    December 23,2012
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    Community services for seniors would suffer from the $109 billion in “sequester” cuts that could be implemented in January.
    Without congressional action, an obscure budgeting gimmick will soon slash supports for seniors in our community. Called a “sequester,” this wave of $109 billion in automatic cuts will take effect in January unless Congress calls its own bluff.

    The sequester is a “stick” Congress created to make itself do its job of finding appropriate ways to tackle our nation’s deficit and is not rational budget-making. It avoids making actual choices about which federal programs provide the greatest return on investment and reflect the current and future needs of our country. Instead, it cuts roughly 8 percent from all federal discretionary programs, from military spending to food safety to education.

    Although we are concerned about the total impact sequestration will have on this country, we are particularly mindful of the potential effect a sequester would have on Vermont’s most vulnerable older adults. A sequester means cuts to senior meal programs across the state — an important service that helps thousands of Vermont seniors to remain independent and living in their own homes.

    If the sequestration goes into effect, seniors will lose access to other essential Older Americans Act services such as rides to doctor’s appointments, assistance with public benefits, health insurance counseling, as well as the ability to participate in exercise and injury prevention programs that have proven their worth in helping seniors avoid unnecessary and costly hospital and nursing home stays.

    Family caregivers who are doing their best to help Mom or Dad continue to live at home would also be hurt by sequestration. Funding for the National Family Caregiver Support Program would also be cut. Reduced services mean more work, financial strain and worry for them. These are services that help family caregivers care longer for their loved ones. Given that family caregivers are the single largest source of long-term care, we must find every possible way to support their efforts, not undermine them.

    While deficit reduction is a worthy goal, arbitrarily cutting critical programs to the most vulnerable population groups does not always result in savings, and can cause great pain and anxiety to those who can least handle it. Often, when at-risk older adults don’t get the help they need to remain in their homes and communities, the next available option is nursing home care.

    Nationally, home- and community-based services cost, on average, about one-third as much as nursing home care. Few older adults have the resources to fund institutional care privately for very long, which means that even middle class seniors often end up spending down their resources and going on Medicaid, which is paid for with federal and state dollars.

    If there are fewer rides for seniors to the doctor or fewer nutritious meals delivered to the homebound elderly, the negative health outcomes will not only be suffered by these vulnerable older individuals and their families, but also felt by taxpayers in the form of higher Medicare and Medicaid expenditures.

    Congress must do whatever it takes to avoid the sequester, and, instead, take a responsible and balanced approach to solving our nation’s deficit problem. An automatic and thoughtless hit to critical programs will cause real pain to seniors and families in Vermont and across the country.

    Ken Gordon is president of the Vermont Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
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