The Older Americans Act (OAA) is one of the most important pieces of legislation that you probably never heard of or at least know very little about. You know Meals on Wheels? The OAA funds it, and also essential services for seniors like job training, caregiver support, transportation, preventive health services, and protection from abuse and financial exploitation.
This Wednesday, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, along with Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, will offer a 5-year reauthorization of the legislation to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. If the legislation is to pass the Senate and the House, it will need strong bipartisan support from the Committee.
OAA programs aren’t means tested, so they serve as a safety net for many seniors living just above the poverty line, and prevent other seniors from falling deeper into poverty. The programs also save money over the long-term. One clear example of cost-savings is the Meals on Wheels program. A study by the Center for Effective Government found that for every $1 in federal spending on Meals on Wheels, there is as much as a $50 return in Medicaid savings alone. However, the program currently reaches less than 10 percent of low-income seniors who need access to meals programs.
“During this terrible recession, there has been a growing demand for meals for seniors at a time when budgets are being slashed,” Senator Sanders told me. “There is clear evidence that some of our poorest seniors are simply not getting the food they need.”
Fall prevention programs funded by the OAA also protect seniors from needing to go to the hospital or into nursing homes—where too often they spend every last dime and are then forced to turn to Medicaid. One in three seniors falls every year, and falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for people ages 65 and older. The resulting injuries are projected to cost the nation $60 billion in 2020. Research has shown that several OAA-supported programs have reduced falls by 30 to 55 percent—which saves both money and lives.
The OAA’s Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) allows very low-income seniors to get job skills while also providing community service for non-profits. Nearly 90 percent of participants live in poverty (on less than about $11,000 annually), and one-third are homeless or at risk of homelessness. While the job training helps these seniors return to the labor force and in some cases prevents homelessness, participants also perform millions of hours of community service for local organizations struggling with their own budget cuts. Howard Bedlin, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Aging, said SCSEP has “a value to states and communities estimated at over $1 billion.” But due to a lack of resources, the number of seniors served by the program has declined by 34 percent since FY 2010, and the program now has waiting lists in many cities.