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Congress Reauthorizes the Older Americans Act

Both chambers have approved a bill (H.R. 782) to reauthorize the Older Americans Act (OAA). The Senate approved, 94-0, the measure on October 26; the House vote of 405-2 came on October 25. The President is expected to sign the bill into law.

The OAA provides the federal framework for a variety of services for elderly citizens, including employment assistance, health screening and treatment, exercise and recreation, and nutrition programs such as Meals on Wheels.

H.R. 782 reauthorizes for five years the OAA, which has not been reauthorized since its last authorization expired in 1995. In addition to continued funding for existing programs, the bill authorizes $125 million for a new Family Caregiver Support initiative proposed by the President. The program will establish grants for states to provide information, counseling, support groups, caregiver training, respite services, and adult day care services to those who care for elderly relatives. Funds will be distributed under a formula based on each state’s share of the total national population of individuals aged 70 or more.

The bill expands the OAA’s emphasis on assisting minority senior citizens to include those in rural areas. It also directs states to establish telephone hotlines for seniors seeking information and assistance with pensions (see The Source, 9/17/99, p. 3).

The House originally was scheduled to debate H.R. 782 last year, but it was pulled from the floor calendar due to controversy over employment services for the elderly. Under the OAA, ten organizations receive federal funds to help senior citizens find and train for jobs. Although the OAA does not define a distribution formula, 78 percent of the employment funds have traditionally been appropriated to the ten organizations, while 22 percent has been appropriated to programs run by state governments.

Originally, H.R. 782 would have phased-in a change to that formula, with organizations receiving 55 percent and states receiving 45 percent. However, an agreement was reached to replace the committee-approved language with the approach taken in an OAA reauthorization bill (S. 1536) approved in July by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (see The Source, 7/21/00, p. 5).

As approved by the House, H.R. 782 contains the Senate committee’s “hold harmless” provision to guarantee that all organizations and states will receive adequate funds to maintain FY2000 levels of operation. The groups and the states will split any excess funds at a ratio of 25 percent to 75 percent, up to $35,000. Any excess funds over $35,000 will be divided equally.

The bill authorizes $475 million annually for the employment program. In addition, H.R. 782 establishes new performance measures for the employment programs, which are run by the AARP, Green Thumb, the National Center on Black Aged, the National Indian Council on Aging, the National Urban League, the Associacion Nacional Pro Personas Mayores, the National Council on Aging, the National Council on Senior Citizens, and the U.S. Forest Service.

During the House’s consideration of the measure, members from both sides of the political aisle praised the bill. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chair Bill Goodling (R-PA) described it as a “bipartisan, bicameral” bill. Rep. Bill Clay (D-MO) said it will enable the OAA to continue “to help older people live longer with dignity and independence in their communities.”

In comments submitted for the record, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) said, “By linking the seniors with a variety of existing federal, state, and local home- and community-based services, seniors now have the ability to remain in their homes and communities as they grow older.” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said, “I can think of few pieces of this carefully crafted legislation that have such a tremendous impact on older Americans.”

While offering support for passage of the bill, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) submitted remarks for the record to indicate that she intends to introduce follow-up legislation in the 107th Congress. Noting that the formula for distribution of most of the OAA’s funds is based on 1987 population statistics, Rep. DeGette stated: “Only 15 percent of funds are actually distributed based on current population statistics.” She cited a report by the General Accounting Office, which found that the formula “underfunded 10 states by more than $1 million each” in FY2000, while it “overfunded 7 others by more than $1 million.”

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