Access to transportation, particularly for elderly in rural Minnesota, will be a top priority when the Older Americans Act (OAA) comes up for reauthorization next year, Sen. Al Franken told a gathering of elder care advocates in Minneapolis over the weekend.
“Seniors want to stay in their homes as long as possible. That’s why transportation becomes such a big issue,” Franken said, speaking to a dozen elder service executives gathered at a senior housing facility operated by the Volunteers of America.
He was in town reporting on the results of 17 meetings his office held across Minnesota examining the effectiveness of the OAA, which funds such services as Meals on Wheels, senior centers, senior employment programs, caregiver support and prevention programs for elder abuse and neglect. OAA programs are designed to help seniors stay in their homes, get proper nutrition and have access to transportation services to get to medical appointments and other destinations.
Franken serves on two committees, the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging and the Subcommittee on Retirement and Aging of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, both of which will take up the five-year reauthorization legislation next year.
Franken said he will use findings from what his office described as a listening tour “to develop and introduce legislation in the coming months to ensure Minnesota seniors’ priorities are included in the reauthorization.” Franken also plans to hold a formal field committee hearing sometime this month to take testimony from Minnesota elder care advocates and others.
The reauthorization bill focuses on how the programs are administered and what services are provided, while funding for the programs is handled separately, according to Franken’s office. Nevertheless, the need for adequate funding came up at the session.
“It’s difficult trying to get funding for things that we need when we’re funding two wars, and several of my colleagues [in Congress] want to extend tax cuts for people who are very well off,” Franken said, referring to the expiring Bush-era tax cuts that are the subject of partisan debate entering the midterm elections.
In 2010, OAA funding nationwide topped $2 billion, with Minnesota receiving more than $19 million, which provided services to nearly 330,00 elderly, according to the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging in St. Paul.
Lack of adequate transportation for elders was cited in all 17 meetings across the state, according to Franken’s office. Rural elders in particular have little or no access to transportation because of a lack of funding. The report cited Hubbard and Clearwater counties receiving grants to purchase buses for elderly transportation, but they sat idle because no funds were available to hire drivers.
As an example of another barrier faced by rural residents, Franken mentioned current guidelines that prevent reimbursement of volunteers who drive “no load” (i.e., with no passenger) long distances to pick up an elderly passenger in a rural area, further limiting availability of transportation.
In addition to rural transportation access and increased funding, the report also cited many other issues, including increased access to adult day care and respite care for family caregivers, increased coordination among federal, state, local and non-profit agencies to reduce duplication of services, and increased flexibility in reimbursement requirements for volunteers. The report also said that seniors need more information about the impact of health care reform on Medicare services.
One observation in Franken’s report hearkened back to so-called “death panels,” the moniker that opponents to health care legislation used last year to describe doctor-patient conferences involving terminal illnesses. That rancorous debate succeeded in excluding continued Medicare funding for such conferences from the final health care legislation.
Franken’s office reported that “seniors were disheartened that end-of-life issues were excluded from health reform.”
Marc Kimball, a Franken press spokesman, said the senator has no current plan to include a provision concerning end-of-life counseling in the OAA reauthorization. The report was merely reflecting concerns that seniors had raised during the meetings, he said.