March 24, 2013

Congress fiddles while sequester burns seniors

Gerard L. Queally

Before the 2012 election, the president wanted it. The leaders of both political parties in Congress wanted it. And on March 1, sequestration arrived.

The crux of the problem with sequestration is that arbitrary, across-the-board cuts to any organization, let alone a country, is always a bad idea. It is simply counterproductive. Unfortunately, it's a bad idea whose time has arrived to wreak havoc upon us all.

People who say sequestration is necessary because federal government spending is out of control and our national debt is an unconscionable liability to future generations are simultaneously right and wrong. People who say that a larger government is the answer to our nation's woes and increasing taxes is the only solution are both right and wrong.

What bothers me most about sequestration, and should bother all of us, is that it is a complete abdication of leadership by those who were voted into office to lead us. No one in Washington is brave enough to address the size and shape of government head on, department by department and spending line by spending line. Instead, both sides of the aisle have settled for the easiest solution, an automatic cut, which allows them to blame the other for the outcome.

Maybe planes aren't falling out of the sky and we can still field a military, but the bottom line is that sequestration is having negative consequences throughout this country.

Those who are being asked to suffer the greatest burden are our mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. Yes, the greatest generation and those who immediately followed are being told that they now have to wait. Wait for help.

On March 1, mandatory 5 percent cuts across all programs supported by the Older Americans Act took effect. That equates to a $325,000 impact to Maine alone.

What does that mean in Maine?

* Longer waiting lists for Meals on Wheels because agencies can't meet the demand beyond the 5,200 seniors and disabled adults already being served.

* An estimated 8,500 fewer people will receive Aging and Disabilities Resource Counseling that would have provided them with information and referral assistance with issues concerning health insurance counseling and prevention of Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

* Dozens of evidenced-based health and wellness classes will no longer be available to help seniors combat costly illnesses.

* More than 400 family caregivers will not receive the help they need to keep their loved one at home, aging in place.

It would be one thing if these cuts affected only programs that have been funded to keep up with inflation; perhaps that would be absorbable. But Older American Act funding has been almost stagnant over the last eight years; a near 10 percent behind the rate of inflation.

What is ironic about sequestration is that it is supposed to save the country money. When it comes to seniors and disabled adults, however, it will have the opposite effect.

Instead of aging in their own homes under the care of their family and neighbors, Maine seniors will be sequested into more costly admissions and/or continuous readmissions into hospitals and skilled nursing facilities.

No one -- Republican or Democrat -- can argue that aging in an institution and long stays in the hospital are less expensive than living in one's own home.

Research has shown that for every $1 spent to help people care for loved ones in their homes yields savings of $4.62 in nursing home costs.

Cutting the Older Americans Act is not a smart way to go about effecting a reduction in the country's health care costs, which happens to be the biggest driver in causing our national debt (more than 17 percent of GDP).

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