October 23, 2014
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Gridlock threatens elder programs, services
Herbert Weiss

As of press time heated partisan bickering continued on Capitol Hill that threatens to unravel a fragile economy, along with putting the brakes to an economic upturn that slowly was pushing the nation out of its financial doldrums. With this standoff, a partial shutdown of the federal government continues. The Republican-controlled House, captured by the ultra-right Tea Party, has refused to budge, opposing the passage of a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government agencies past Sept. 30. House Republican leadership has demanded that passage of the CR must be tied to either the repeal or partially dismantling of President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The Democratic President along with a Senate Democratic leadership say no.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a “clean” CR to provide funding through Nov. 15, not putting ACA on the GOP’s chopping block. Even if both legislative chambers sort out differences and hammer out a compromise agreement to open the doors of the federal government, this would not shield the nation from the disastrous impact of the impending second round of sequester cuts and a Oct. 17 deadline for the government to raise the debt ceiling. No action means a first-ever default on the nation’s debt that could send the stock market tumbling and push the nation’s and the world’s economy into a tailspin.

Treasury officials say that congressional deadlock and no action will result in the federal government running out of cash to pay its bills if Congress does not act to raise the nation’s debt ceiling this month.

Get Your House in Order

With the debt crisis looming, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond called on Congressional lawmakers to settle the debt ceiling debate to avoiding default on the nation’s debt, specifically to protect the retirement of seniors and future generations.

In her letter, LeaMond expressed concern that any delay in raising the nation’s debt limit may unnecessarily increase borrowing costs, negatively impact retirement savings accounts and harm the nation’s fragile economy.

“Our members are worried that the benefits they have earned may be cut as part of a deal to reduce the deficit, fund government operations, or increase the debt ceiling, and they are increasingly worried that if there is no agreement very soon, they may not receive their Social Security checks and may lose access to their health care,” noted LeaMond.

Ten days ago, the nation entered a government shutdown, forcing furloughs of 800,000 workers, without pay, and suspending services. The last time this occurred was 17 years ago during the Clinton administration. The Congressional impasse has closed national parks and monuments, federally owned museums, such as the Smithsonian, offices overseas that give visas to foreigners hoping to visit the United States, and even many federal regulatory agencies.

So, how does this impact programs and services for older Americans? Simply put, impact on programs and benefits may vary throughout the federal bureaucracy.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services will furlough more than 40,512 of its 78,198 employees. The largest percentage of these employees comes from “grant-making and employee-intensive agencies,” such as the Administration for Community Living. This federal agency would not be able to fund the Senior Nutrition programs, Native American Nutrition and Supportive Services, Prevention of Elder Abuse and Neglect, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, and Protection and Advocacy for persons with developmental disabilities.

As reported, Social Security checks will be mailed, Medicare and Medicaid benefits will continue to be paid out, because these are considered mandatory programs, not discretionary ones. Benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food Stamps, will continue in October, despite the federal shutdown.

Food Program Takes

Budgetary Hit

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Bertolette charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Heather Amaral, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island, agrees, noting that her Providence-based nonprofit program, has already lost $70,970 in 2013 federal funds due to last year’s sequestration cuts.

Amaral says that as a result of these cuts, to maintain meal delivery at the same numbers as last year (360,299 meals), she had to reduce menu items that were once offered. “Although the government shutdown doesn’t have an immediate impact on our program, I am concerned that it could lead to additional cuts,” she says, noting that should the shutdown continue until year end, the nonprofit agency will be forced to rely on donations and reserves to maintain service levels.

“We provide a safety check along with each home delivered meal and are often the only contact our client has that day, adds Amaral, who stresses that her program may be the only thing keeping a senior at home. “If we are forced to reduce the number of meals we serve, these people may be forced to live with a family member or enter a nursing home,” she warns.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency will be unable to fund additional payments to public housing authorities, many providing shelter to older Americans. HUD expects the 3,300 Public Housing Authorities it funds to have enough funding to get through the month of October. But, if the shutdown continues, some public housing authorities will not be able to maintain normal operation.

Also, quarterly formula grants will not go out for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), or the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG).

Nutrition programs serving older adults face a double whammy with no FY14 appropriations and no reauthorization of the Farm Bill. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program expired along with the Farm Bill on Sept. 30. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) requires appropriations to continue operating.

According to well-known Aging Advocate Susan Sweet, this is a partial shutdown that hasn’t really hit aging programs yet. There are funding reductions in programs for older people, but that is due to the sequester, which will have another round of cuts in October, she says.

Sweet predicts that the negative effects of the shutdown itself will become worse with every passing day. For example, there is doubt that veterans benefits and social security will be paid in or after October absent a funding bill. Death benefits, including burial subsidies, have not been paid to the survivors of fallen armed forces members, she notes. Because of the public outcry regarding this outrage, a private charity has stepped up to pay the benefits with the promise of reimbursement when the government re-opens.

“Reduced to its true absurdity, the United States of America has lost the ability to rationally govern,” said Sweet. “The sequester cuts, previously characterized as “cuts for dummies”, have been implemented, we are in a war yet cannot bury our dead from that war, can’t even agree on a temporary fix, and are arguing whether the US should pay its bills or default,” she adds.

“It is perplexing, and we have heard many, many concerns from Rhode Island members, “ said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Since the U.S. government has never failed to meet its financial obligations, we don’t know what payments it could make if the President and Congress fail to reach an agreement.

“One cannot help but wonder what effects this uncertainty has on people – many of whom struggle enough with health and financial issues,” Connell added. “We’re doing whatever we can to urge Congress and the President to act responsibly.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.


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