Reauthorizing OAA: Maintaining flexibility, addressing demographic changes

Maintaining program flexibility and addressing demographic changes within the U.S. population should be two priorities during discussions to reauthorize the Older Americans Act (OAA), witnesses said during a Feb. 11 hearing on the matter.

The OAA is the major federal statute governing the organization and delivery of nutrition, health, social and transportation services for elderly Americans, as well as referral to home care, to enable them to age in place at home and in their communities. The hearing was held to give subcommittee members a closer look at the programs and services provided under the act as well as to determine priorities for reauthorization.

“To ensure that this federal program meets the wide array of needs of older adults and caregivers across the country, the OAA establishes a critical level of authority and leadership within each state, then turns over key planning and services development roles to [area agencies on aging] to customize services according to local needs and preferences,” witness Lynn Kellogg, CEO of Region IV Area on Aging, St. Joseph, Mich., told the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, part of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Education and the Workforce Committee. “This ‘bottoms-up’ planning results in a wide range of services and provider efforts being administered under the act, which allows consumers to select service choices that best meet their individual needs.” The set-up, she added, has been an “incredibly effective system for planning, developing and delivering vital supports and services to older Americans.”

Witness Denise Niese, executive director, Wood County Committee on Aging Inc. (WCCOA), Bowling Green, Ohio, said that the flexibility enabled by the act “permits service providers such as WCCOA to meet the unique needs of our communities while maintaining the high standards set by the act.” She recommended that Congress, “in honoring the genuineness of the [OAA] of 1965, focus on opportunities for the [OAA] to be used as the seed money for programs that will allow service providers to leverage other dollars to further develop services to meet the needs of the older adults in their communities.”

One challenge facing providers of services for older adults, said witness Carol V. O’Shaughnessy, is the graying of America. “As the U.S. population rapidly ages,” said the principal policy analyst for the nonpartisan National Health Policy Forum at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., “the sheer numbers of elderly will continue to present challenges to communities across the nation and to the aging services network.”

Changing demographics are not limited to age but also include ethnicity, race, sexuality and other issues, witness Yanira Cruz, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Council on Aging in Washington, D.C., pointed out. “In recognition of current demographic changes, the provision of services in a culturally and linguistically competent manner should be made of priority of the law. Additionally, LGBT older adults and people with HIV/AIDS should be identified as a population in greatest social need.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairwoman of the subcommittee, noted that some people are concerned that the OAA “cannot effectively meet the needs of the rapidly growing senior population—especially amid current fiscal constraints.”

The committee, she added, seeks to find ways to “enhance program coordination and efficacy so that we may better serve those with the greatest social and economic needs. Equally important is preserving the law’s federalist structure, which balances a national framework of programs and funding with significant local flexibility in order to effectively meet the needs of local seniors.”

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