In keeping with its broad mandate to protect older Americans, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging kicked off the 116th Congress with a series of hearings into the serious risks of financial scams, retirement savings shortfalls and the high cost of prescription drugs.
The Committee, led by Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Bob Casey (D-PA), plays a unique role in Congress. As a special committee, it does not have specific legislative authority. Instead, it studies the full range of issues that impact seniors, conducts oversight of governmental programs, and investigates reports of fraud and waste by federal agencies and organizations that serve older Americans.
For longevity organizations seeking to draw attention to specific issues, the Committee on Aging is often a good place to start. The panel has served frequently as a springboard for major legislative initiatives. It has been likened to the Senate’s own “think tank,” providing the background research needed to move legislation forward.
“As a Senator representing the oldest state in the nation by median age, I believe it’s critical that the issues affecting older Americans receive the attention they deserve,” Collins told Stria. “As Chairman, my top priorities include combatting scams that target seniors, improving retirement security, boosting investments in biomedical research for diseases that disproportionately affect older Americans such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes, and reducing the costs of prescription drugs.”
“The Aging Committee’s role is more important now than ever, with 10,000 people turning 65 every day,” Casey told Stria, noting that top issues for him include strengthening Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. “After working for years to build our middle class, no one should worry about how they are going to afford food, medicine or a safe place to live in their golden years.”
Casey is also on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Both Collins and Casey also sit on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, whose jurisdiction encompasses many other issues impacting seniors.
Staffed by specialists in aging issues, the Committee’s work often begins with personal stories—learning from the ground up at roundtables and meetings around the country, and then through testimony before the Committee. For the recent hearing on prescription drug prices, for instance, the panel invited seniors from Maine, Indiana, Alabama, Florida and Pennsylvania.
At its January hearing, when the committee examined elder fraud. It heard from Ericka Flavin, whose 76-year-old father lost more than $80,000. Flavin told the committee that a man posed as a lawyer for her son and urged her father’s financial assistance to avoid a DUI prosecution while swearing him to secrecy. “It breaks my heart that the faith and trust, that my parents placed in people, was taken advantage of in such a despicable manner,” Flavin told the panel.
The panel also released an updated report showing that an expanding array of financial exploitation scams now cost seniors nearly $3 billion annually.
Elder justice consultant Judith Koslowski testified that with “the explosion of technology and growing older population we have little time to waste in developing and implementing strategies to address what is now an increasingly global issue.”
Reflecting a commitment to bipartisanship that is all too rare these days, Collins and Casey joined together in March to introduce the Guardianship Accountability Act. The legislation addresses many of the recommendations in the Committee on Aging’s report released at a November 2018 hearing following a year-long investigation.
The bipartisan Senior Safe Act, also sponsored in the Senate by Collins, Casey and more than two dozen others, was signed into law by President Trump last May. That bill provides support to regulators, financial institutions and legal organizations to educate their employees about how to identify and prevent elder financial exploitation and protects them from being held liable for disclosing private information.
At a February 6 hearing on “Financial Security in Retirement: Innovations and Best Practices to Promote Savings,” Collins said there is a $7.8 trillion gap between what Americans have saved for retirement and what they will actually need.
“As Americans live longer, the risk that they will outlive their savings only increases,” Collins said in opening the hearing. She pointed out that the typical working household in Maine has just $3,000 saved for retirement. “For those living paycheck to paycheck, it can be difficult to cover the heating bill or afford much-needed medications, must less save for the future.” To help spur additional retirement savings, Collins has joined with Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) to introduce the Retirement Security Act of 2019.
The Committee on Aging was established in 1961 on a temporary basis to examine issues affecting older Americans. It was granted permanent status in 1977 and it has a long history of support for a wide range of issues of concern to seniors.
A similar panel—the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging—was active between 1974 and 1993, but was disbanded during fights over the Congressional budget. Despite strong support by aging advocacy groups, it has not been reestablished. A resolution introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) in 2016 attracted 63 cosigners and was supported by dozens of aging advocacy and service organizations. But it was not taken up.