With barely four weeks left until the end of 2012, several key pieces of legislation affecting seniors’ health still wait to be addressed by the President and Congressional leaders. Among them, reauthorization of the Older Americans Act, vital support for nutritional, transportation and other key services for seniors since its inception in 1965.
“I don’t see the Older Americans Act being tackled until the next Congress goes into session,” said Brian Lindberg, a public policy advisor specializing in senior issues. He highlighted changes in leadership for several key committees when the new Congress begins in January and said that the delay in action was actually good news for seniors.
“Senate Democrats are in a better position now,” he said. “This may help to sway some bills in their favor when they come up for votes in the House.” However, he cautioned that Medicare and Medicaid will be on the table when it comes down to spending negotiations.
I spoke with Brian after his presentation at the Gerontological Society of America’s annual meeting in mid-November. He was one of many policy and health experts at the conference who are concerned that “grand bargain” under discussion will disproportionately affect seniors.
Cheryl Mathias, AARP’s senior vice president of public policy, reminded attendees that “almost every policy out there affects seniors in some way.” Of particular concern to her is the “doc fix,” which will reduce Medicare reimbursements to physicians by 27 percent. “We may see a rash of doctors unwilling to accept any more elderly patients,” she said.
Mathias thinks that any final deal on entitlements will not take place until the new Congressional session begins in mid-January. “The President is prepared to put the age of Medicare eligibility on the table, as well as cost-sharing for people with higher incomes.” she said. “I’m confident that he will keep his promise to not change this into a voucher system.”
As Affordable Care Act implementation moves ahead, more Republican governors may be willing to accept Medicaid expansion, she predicted. “They would be foolish not to, since the federal government picks up just about all the costs for the first few years.” It is another way to help seniors who are at or below 133 percent of the poverty level.
Lindberg challenged the notion that the “fiscal cliff” was as dangerous as the media has made it out to be. “they will come to some kind of modest agreement this year,” he said, then plan for more changes down the road.
As for the Older Americans Act, Lindberg is optimistic that Bernie Sanders, (I-VT) chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, will convince the Senate Health Committee to mark up his reauthorization bill, open it up for bipartisan amendments, and get a bill to the floor of the Senate.
This puts pressure on the House side, which “over the past several years has done almost nothing to try and reauthorize the Act,” said Lindberg. “Everyone knows this is a good bill for their constituents. I believe if we can get a Senate bill to provide that pressure, then House members will step up and write a bill over there.”
Until then, leaders in Washington continue to play chicken with seniors’ health.
Liz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy and freelance health journalist. She writes frequently on aging-related health issues.