No matter who was elected on Nov. 6, the 112th Congress still has work to do. If Congress fails to act we will all pay and “sequestration” is not the answer.
Earlier this year, Congress used an obscure budgeting gimmick that will impact our community’s older adults this January. This gimmick is called sequester, which is a $109 billion in automatic cuts that will take effect in January unless Congress calls their own bluff.
The sequester is a basically a strategy Congress created to force itself to do its job of finding appropriate ways to tackle our nation’s deficit. Unfortunately, this is not rational budget-making. Sequester avoids making actual choices about which federal programs provide the greatest return-on-investment and reflect the current and future needs of our country. Instead, it whacks roughly 8 percent off all federal discretionary programs, from military spending to food safety to education.
As an area Agency on Aging director, I’m most concerned about the sequester’s effect on Arizona’s older adults’ ability to remain independent and healthy at home. A sequester means seniors currently receiving home-delivered meals five days a week may be reduced to three days a week – for most, this means going hungry in between.
Seniors will lose access to other Older Americans Act services to help them live at home safely and independently, such as rides to the doctor, in-home aides and chronic-disease self-management programs at senior centers. If sequestration goes into effect in January and the agencies on aging lose an additional 8 percent on top of the almost 15 percent cuts since 2008.
Almost 23,000 seniors will be at risk of losing critical services that keep them at home and out of costly nursing homes.
The family caregivers who are doing their best to help mom or dad continue to live at home would also be hurt by cuts. Reduced services mean more work, financial strain and worry for them. Given that family caregivers are the single largest source of long-term care, we must find every possible way to support their efforts, not undermine them.
And while deficit reduction is a worthy goal, arbitrarily cutting programs does not always result in savings for taxpayers. When at-risk older adults don’t get the help they need to remain in their homes and communities, the next step is usually a nursing home at several times the cost. Few older adults have the resources to fund this care for very long, which means even long-time middle class seniors often end up spending down to Medicaid, which is paid for with federal and state dollars.
If there are fewer rides to the doctor or nutritious meals delivered to the homebound, the negative health outcomes will not only be suffered by the individuals, but also felt by taxpayers in the form of higher Medicare expenditures.
Congress must do whatever it takes to avoid the sequester, and instead take a responsible and balanced approach to solving our nation’s deficit problem. An automatic and thoughtless hit to critical programs will cause real pain to seniors and families in Arizona and across the country.
(Murphy is CEO of the Pima Council on Aging.)