5 ways Congress can help seniors

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The National Council on Aging, a nonprofit whose mission is making life better for older Americans, has outlined five steps it would like to see Congress take to help people in  retirement — especially those who get by on low incomes. Marci Phillips, director of public policy and advocacy for the council, gives highest priority to the first two of these five issues:

Continue to pay Part B Medicare premiums for low-income recipients. Medicare automatically deducts the Part B Medicare premium of $104 a month from the Social Security checks of older people with incomes greater than $11,670 who are single, and married seniors with incomes greater than $15,730. People earning below that level are eligible for Medicaid and don’t pay Part B premiums or deductibles. There has been a federal program for a number of years that pays Part B premiums and deductibles for people earning  between 120 percent and 135 percent of the poverty level. If that program isn’t renewed — and Phillips says it may not be because it has been linked to other programs unlikely to pass — people earning at this level will face an income loss that puts their total spendable income at just about $9,000 a year. “We need a permanent fix,” she says.

Reauthorize and strengthen the Older Americans Act. This law provides money for Meals on Wheels and other food programs, job training, senior centers, caregiver support and senior buses and other transportation programs. It’s not glamorous stuff, but it keeps people who otherwise would be in deep trouble living reasonably comfortably in their homes. The 2014 budget provided money for a new program aimed at preventing falls, funds for helping people with Alzheimer’s and restored some money for nutrition programs that were cut by the sequester. The council says that more money is needed to modernize senior centers, provide preventive care and reduce elder abuse.

Restore money for food stamps. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, helps nearly 4 million older adults pay for food. The recently passed Farm Bill increases funding for food banks, makes the Commodity Supplemental Food Program for seniors only and adds a food delivery program for older people — all good things. But it also cuts $8.6 billion in funding over the next decade. The situation hits people in some states harder than others.

Fix long-term care. The number of older people who need long-term care is expected to double as boomers age. Current law places a big burden on family caregivers and requires seniors to impoverish themselves before they can get help from Medicaid. The council believes that long-term care insurance should be made more affordable and available to people with pre-existing conditions. It also believes that there should be more money available to teach people why their retirement planning should include a way to pay for long-term care.

Pass immigration reform. About 20 percent of caregivers are immigrants, so the council thinks that allowing more immigrants to come here and stay would expand the caregiving workforce. It also believes that immigration reform would increase the number of people who contribute to Social Security and Medicare, and that would give these pay-as-you-go programs more money.

In considering this legislation, Congress should remember that 25 percent of voters are 65 and older.