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Older Americans Act Reauthorization Examined by House Subcommittee

On May 2, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Select Education held a hearing on the Senior Independence Act of 1996, draft legislation to reauthorize the Older Americans Act (OAA). First enacted in 1965, 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. The law was reauthorized for five years in 2000 (see The Source, 10/27/00).

In his opening remarks, Chair Patrick Tiberi (R-OH) stressed that the proposed legislation was a “discussion draft,” and that the hearing was intended to solicit feedback so that “we may introduce an agreeable, bipartisan bill later this week.” He summarized the proposal: “With this reauthorization, we aim to promote the development and implementation of comprehensive, coordinated systems at the Federal, State, and local levels to streamline access to program benefits and help individuals avoid institutional care; we advance the mission of evidence-based programs to assist older individuals and their family caregivers in learning about and making behavioral changes intended to reduce the risk of injury, disease, and disability among seniors; and we support and strengthen endeavors by the aging services network to expand services to care for the aging baby boom populations by allowing for private pay opportunities while maintaining important safeguards to ensure that local providers adhere to the public purpose mission and targeting provisions of the Act. Chair Tiberi added, “Among other things, this draft bill encourages providers to deliver services in a manner responsive to the needs and preferences of older individuals and their family caregivers, including improved program access to individuals with limited English proficiency; it recognizes the critical link between nutrition and prevention of chronic disease, and supports efforts to reduce the incidence of obesity, which is a growing problem among all segments of the population, including the elderly.”

Ranking Member Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX) spoke specifically about his elderly constituents in South Texas, saying, “As with the Hispanic population across the nation, many of our seniors are low-income and rely on their families for their primary care. Many are more comfortable in Spanish than English and need assistance navigating our health and social service systems.” He added, “This region is a model for best practices on how to serve older Hispanic Americans. We will be looking for your suggestions and recommendations about how we can make improvements and expand the reach of these programs.”

Assistant Secretary for Aging at the Administration on Aging (AoA) Josefina Carbonell discussed some of the accomplishments since the last reauthorization: “More recently, through the National Family Caregiver Support Program (NFCSP), the OAA brought recognition and support to family caregivers, who to this day account for some two-thirds of all of the long-term care provided to elderly and disabled people across the U.S…One of the most significant accomplishments of the OAA is the emergence of a community-based, cost-effective, nationwide network that is now one of the largest providers of home and community-based long-term care for the elderly in the U.S. In addition to administering OAA investments in long-term care and related State and community-funded programs, this network also administers and manages over 60 percent of the funding made available under Medicaid home and community-based waiver programs for the elderly and disabled.”

Ms. Carbonell outlined the administration’s vision for long-term care, and applauded the committee’s inclusion of these concepts in the proposed reauthorization legislation. She discussed the president’s 2001 New Freedom Initiative, which has provided tools to states and local communities to establish a system of care that focuses on “choice, control, and independence.” One of these tools is the Choices for Independence demonstration, known as “Choices,” which targets non-Medicaid eligible elderly in an effort to educate them about how best to avoid nursing home placement through more effective use of their assets. Choices promotes strategies developed through best practices identified over the past several years, “empowering consumers to make informed decisions, including streamlining access to needed care; helping high-risk individuals avoid unnecessary nursing home placement; and, assisting older people with lifestyle and behavioral changes proven to reduce the risk of disease and disability.” The AoA has partnered with CMS and other HHS agencies in launching the “Own Your Future Campaign” in 2005 and the Aging and Disability Resource Center in 2003 to encourage and assist people in better planning for their long-term needs. Other programs include the Community-Living Incentive and the Evidence-Based Prevention Program.

Representing the Employment Training Administration (ETA) at the Department of Labor (DOL), Deputy Assistant Secretary Mason Bishop discussed the department’s administration of the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), authorized under Title V of the Older Americans Act. He explained that “the changing demographics of the labor force, in combination with the ever-increasing skill demands of employers, have made it more critical that every available worker, including older Americans, be able to join or remain in the workforce to enable the continued competitiveness of American businesses in the 21st century.” With large numbers of women in the workforce, more older workers caring for their grandchildren, and many choosing to work at least part-time during their retirement years, Baby Boomers are very different from past generations. Mr. Bishop identified “limited opportunities for flexible work schedules, outdated technology skills, pension plan disincentives, and a reluctance by some employers to hire older workers” as some of the challenges facing these workers.

Mr. Bishop explained that the workforce investment system, including SCSEP, helps older workers attain the skills necessary to allow them to continue working. SCSEP participants currently must be 55 years of age or older with incomes no higher than 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The program provides placements in part-time community service work at non-profit organizations to give participants job experience that will prepare them for paid employment. During their program experience, participants are paid the highest applicable minimum wage or the prevailing wage paid to similar occupations by the employer. Mr. Bishop praised the proposed reauthorization bill for its inclusion of several administration priorities, including increasing the minimum age of SCSEP eligibility to 65, while still providing services to some individuals facing barriers to work between ages 55-64; expanding the focus on employment outcomes and training by adding a two-year time limit for participants’ unsubsidized employment; “expanding the capacity of the One-Stop Career Center system to serve older workers; strengthening performance accountability, and streamlining the program structure.”

After the first panel completed its testimony, Rep. Hinojosa expressed his concern that the amount being spent today on programs in the Older Americans Act is half of what was spent in 1980, while participation in the program has grown by 50 percent. He urged additional resources be dedicated to the Act.

Reps. Hinojosa and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) questioned the proposed increase in the eligibility age for SCSEP from age 55 to 65 and the two-year time limit for participation in subsidized employment. Mr. Bishop explained that the program would be able to serve more people with a two-year time limit, and participants would likely receive higher wages in the unsubsidized market. In addition, employers would have more incentive to train those workers for unsubsidized work. He also contended that a more targeted program for workers beginning at age 65 would be a better use of limited resources, but assured panel members that the same number of participants would be served. Reps. Hinojosa and Van Hollen asked that a transition period be phased in for the age eligibility change and requested more data to support the changes in SCSEP supported by the administration and included in the proposed legislation.

The subcommittee also heard from South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer; President and CEO of the Benjamin Rose Institute in Cleveland, Ohio Richard Browdie; Executive Director of Meals-on-Wheels of Johnson and Ellis Counties in Texas Vinsen Faris, and Ling Cheung, who coordinates the Chinese American Senior Service Association, a non-profit coalition of five Chinese senior groups in the Washington, DC area.

Chair Tiberi closed the hearing by expressing his intention to move the reauthorization bill this year, although it may be difficult with the large number of competing priorities in Congress. He stated that no legislation has yet been introduced to reauthorize the OAA in the Senate.

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