5 Ways for Congress to Back Retirees

By Jennie L. Phipps · Bankrate.com

posted Thursday, January 15, 2015

  • Being old and poor in the U.S. isn’t easy — or uncommon.

In 2010, about 26 percent of people 65 and older had individual incomes that were between the federal poverty level — $10,458 — and 200 percent of the poverty level — $20,916. Another 9 percent had incomes below the federal poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That adds up to more than a third of people 65 and older living on less money than it takes to enjoy a secure retirement.

The National Council on Aging points to five actions it believes Congress ought to take — most of them low cost — to support older Americans and ensure that more of them have health and economic security.

Protect Medicare beneficiaries with modest incomes. One of the biggest challenges for lower-income people is paying Part B Medicare premiums and other out-of-pocket health care costs. The Medicare Qualified Individual program or QI, helps people with incomes between 120 percent and 135 percent of the poverty level —  $14,000 to $15,750 per year — pay their Part B premiums — not co-pays or deductibles. It is a modest program that saves lots of people with limited incomes at least $1,200 a year. The program expires March 31. Howard Bedlin, vice president of public policy and advocacy for the National Council on Aging, says persuading Congress to continue this program and fund it permanently is a vital step. “If people don’t get this kind of help, they don’t have access to a doctor,” Bedlin says.

Renew the Older Americans and the Elder Justice Acts. Together these programs provide help to older people in search of jobs and offer funding to senior nutrition programs, senior center staff and caregivers. They also provide legal assistance for those facing elder abuse and fraud. These acts have expired. “Previously these programs have received bipartisan support, but now they are floundering,” Bedlin says.

Increase funding for transportation and housing services. These community services for older Americans were hard hit by budget caps and sequestration. They are currently funded at 15 percent below what they were in 2010, although aging boomers are escalating the number of people in need of these services. “Sequestration must be replaced with a balanced approach that doesn’t increase poverty, hunger or income inequality,” Bedlin says.

Reform Medicaid’s long-term-care provisions. Congress’ own long-term-care commission recommended directing more Medicaid money to home care and away from nursing-home care, Bedlin says, a step that could save money if only Congress would push Medicaid to take it. “We think there is bipartisan support for keeping people at home.”

Fund chronic disease management programs. Teaching people to avoid falling and to better care for themselves when they have chronic diseases like diabetes could save Medicare millions of dollars, Bedlin says. “We aren’t asking for a lot of money. We can do a lot with a little, but we need Congress to commit to the investment.”

Bedlin urges seniors to talk to their congressional representatives. “Now is the time to strengthen and expand aging services to meet the needs of all seniors, but especially those who are struggling. There are actually a lot of tax dollars that could be saved by modernizing and making existing programs more effective,” he says.

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