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Opportunities for Older Adults in the 116th Congress

Joe Franco January 7, 2019
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The diverse new Congress offers policy opportunities to support older adults. Here’s how aging services businesses and organizations can seize the moment.

Every new Congress brings change and opportunity. With more women, African Americans, Latinos and non-white lawmakers, as well as a wide variety of religious beliefs represented in the 116th Congress, change may be on the horizon. Here’s what advocates need to know:

Prioritizing Caregiving

Some evidence is emerging that attention to caregiving and its related issues could get a higher priority. Newly elected California Democrat Katie Porter, a single mother of three who is juggling long-distance childrearing with representing her constituents in D.C. observed recently, “Congress wasn’t built for members like me… there’s no template for how to do this as a single mom,” according to Politico. That, in turn, helped to spur longtime Florida lawmaker Debbie Wasserman Schultz to create an informal ‘Moms in the House’ caucus, Vice reports, to ease the new elects-and-moms’ transition. As University of Virginia political science professor Jennifer Lawless commented, “…rules don’t change until someone needs them to…We now have the kind of diversity that requires … changes.”

The growing discussion around caregiving and the time, cost and emotional demands associated with it provide an opening for those of us in aging services. More policymakers who share characteristics of traditional caregivers—women, people of color—could result in greater receptivity to our issues in the 116th Congress.

Supporting New Members

Almost 25 percent of the members of the 116th Congress will be new—a significant change from previous years. The departure of longtime policymakers like Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (24 years) or Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (28 years), means the loss of hundreds of years of institutional knowledge. Educating newcomers early on, as committee leaders set their agendas and establish policy priorities for the coming session, is crucial.

Every new member-elect must understand the critical role of our country’s ‘social safety net’ programs—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, affordable housing—to older adults. Not just now, but in the years to come. About 10,000 people turn 65 each day in the U.S., a phenomenon that began in 2011 and will continue until 2030, when the last of the Baby Boomers reaches 65. Someone turning 65 today has almost a 70 percent chance of needing some type of long-term care services and supports in their remaining years. Few Americans have saved enough to cover the projected costs of care—even if they are enrolled in Medicare, which does not pay for long-term care.

Leveraging New Roles

In addition to newly elected members, returning policymakers who are moving into new roles will need to understand the importance of our issues. Avenues for advocacy are emerging as leadership of key House Congressional committees shifts. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), an opponent of privatizing Social Security and supporter of such improvements to Medicare as eliminating the Part D ‘donut hole,’ takes chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee, which controls government spending.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) is the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees health and aging services programs. Last May, Congressman Pallone—moved, in part, by his experience helping to care for his aging father—unveiled a draft Medicare-based long-term services and supports (LTSS) proposal.

In addition to keeping on the pressure about the need for a new approach for LTSS funding and delivery, we must help lawmakers understand how affordable housing, as well as housing with supportive services, allows older adults to age in place and—in the case of housing plus services—can reduce health care costs.

In the Senate, Charles Grassley (R-IA), a lawmaker with a sustained interest in issues concerning older adults, takes the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, whose jurisdiction includes Medicare and Medicaid. He’s hinted that his committee will continue to push on prescription drug pricing and may also address quality of care in nursing homes.

We need to show why more regulation is not necessarily the route to ensuring the level of care we expect for our loved ones. Indeed, as LeadidngAge’s nonprofit members’ experience with the CNA lockout rules illustrates, too much can impede providers’ efforts to do the right thing.

Storytelling as Advocacy

We know that members of Congress legislate based on stories and ideas, not facts and stats. Look no further than the influence of Ryan White on the AIDs movement decades ago, or the traction gained by country music star Glen Campbell, who as part of his Farewell Tour, personally lobbied Congress for more funds to research Alzheimer’s—a disease he lived with. Now is the time for all of us in aging services to mine those stories that will help us succeed on key issues.

  • Nursing homes: They provide essential care for people with long-term needs. What would we do without them? How can legislators work with providers to ensure that they have what they need to deliver quality care to our older adults, now and in the future?
  • Housing: We succeeded in procuring more funds for affordable housing in 2018, but demand is great. Typical waiting lists are years-long. An aging population with meager retirement savings will almost certainly translate into even more need.  How do we convey the urgency for more affordable housing?
  • Workforce: To meet the needs of older adults, our country will need 2.5 million LTSS workers by 2030. An unstable workforce means higher provider costs, concerns about access to workers and quality care, and difficult working conditions for existing workers due to staffing shortages.

Our aging population brings opportunities and resources like we’ve never seen before, but concurrently raises real challenges. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid weren’t designed to meet the needs of people who are living into their 80s and 90s with chronic illnesses.

Let’s change the narrative from a punitive ‘no more spending’ approach to one that—regardless of political belief—demonstrates our readiness to step up and accommodate the needs of an aging population and embraces the richness this demographic shift brings to our nation. After all, we are all growing older.

Want more from Joe Franco? Here’s the book he recommends to longevity market professionals.

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Joe Franco

Joe Franco is Vice President, Grassroots, for LeadingAge, the association of nonprofit providers of aging services. A member of LeadingAge’s advocacy team, Joe leads the organizations’ grassroots efforts, partnering with LeadingAge’s 6,000 plus members and 38 state partners to generate awareness of and spur action around key issues to older Americans, including housing, healthcare and related services at the federal and state levels. Joe graduated from University of Colorado, Boulder, and received a Master’s of Political Management from George Washington University, where he currently serves as an adjunct professor.

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