Older American’s Month 2021 is unique in light of what seniors, their families and caregivers have been through this past year. The pandemic that began stalking senior communities in 2020 – and isolated them from their families—is only now abating, with more than 70 percent of seniors fully vaccinated. COVID brought into sharper focus the critical needs of seniors and those who care for them. It’s clear that our government leaders have much more work to do in ensuring older Americans’ well-being.
Seniors are not only a growing part of our population (10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day), they are an invaluable resource. Grandparents routinely step-up to help take care of grandkids, relieving working parents who lack affordable daycare. Seniors volunteer in our schools, churches, shelters and food banks. They are also a significant part of our nation’s workforce. By 2024, some 13 million seniors are expected to be employed—mainly in the service and retail sectors. As a Virginia newspaper recently observed, “Seniors are our mentors for the next generation, passing on family legacies, a lifetime of experience, and a career’s worth of knowledge.”
President Biden realizes that seniors are a crucial constituency—simultaneously lending their help to our communities while also needing our help to remain secure. His American Rescue Plan dedicated more than $1.4 billion for Older Americans Act programs. These includes Meals on Wheels, home heating assistance, and vaccine outreach for seniors.
The President’s American Jobs Plan, which has run headlong into Republican opposition on Capitol Hill, would devote more than $400 billion to expand access to home and community-based services (HCBS) under Medicaid. This is an overdue recognition of seniors’ preference to receive care in the comfort and familiarity of home, but cannot due to a shortage of in-home caregiving resources. Seniors in 41 states remain on years-long waiting lists for HCBS, even though this kind of care costs the government less than nursing home care and has better health outcomes for patients.
This Older Americans Month has seen renewed calls for action on an issue crucial to seniors’ financial and physical health—the soaring cost of prescription drugs. While the public is appreciative of the speedy development of COVID vaccines, Big Pharma continues to raise drug prices, inflicting further pain on seniors who can’t afford them. Some will literally die of high drug costs. A 2020 study estimated that the inability to fill prescriptions due to cost will result in 1.1 million premature deaths among Medicare beneficiaries over the next 10 years.
Unfortunately, the President did not include prescription drug prices in his second infrastructure proposal, the American Families Plan, though he did acknowledge “how outrageously expensive” they are. At the same time, he did endorse the key provision in the recently re-introduced Elijah Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3), which would finally allow Medicare to negotiate prices with Big Pharma. That would save the Medicare program $456 billion dollars in drug costs over ten years.
Seniors’ advocates had also hoped that with a Democratic President, House, and Senate, that Social Security would be strengthened and expanded. That hasn’t happened yet, and may not (before the crucial 2022 mid-term elections) without intense commitment by the White House and members of Congress who truly support seniors. (However, President Biden has begun undoing some of the more harmful rule changes by the Trump administration, mostly affecting Social Security Disability Insurance).
Social Security faces a significant funding shortfall. The program’s trust fund will become depleted in 2035 without pre-emptive action from Congress. While many Republicans have called for “entitlement reform” (i.e., benefit cuts), Democrats have proposed revenue-solutions (chiefly, adjusting the Social Security payroll wage cap so that the wealthy begin paying their fair share).
Current and future retirees need to know that Social Security will be strengthened. Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) wants to expand benefits to reflect current reality. The average Social Security benefit is a modest $1,543 per month—not too far above the federal poverty line. Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) do not keep pace with seniors’ true expenses. This year’s was a paltry 1.3% (or $20 per month).
Meanwhile, the cost of everything from housing to groceries to transportation have continued to climb, especially during the pandemic. Both Congressman Larson and President Biden have proposed benefit boosts for our most vulnerable seniors—and a more accurate COLA formula. Lawmakers who truly support seniors should enact these overdue changes to Americans’ earned benefits.
Older Americans cannot fill their vital role in society without basic security—the peace of mind of knowing that they can pay their bills and have access to affordable health care and prescription drugs. Thankfully, this Older Americans Month, many of us can once again hug our parents and grandparents. Now, Congress must fully embrace the proposed improvements seniors need to survive and thrive. It’s the right thing to do after all they have done for us.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare