As the demographic wave known as the “silver tsunami” crests, aging issues are at the top of the agenda in Congress. The challenging finances of Medicare and Social Security permeate all serious budget discussions, including those about the “fiscal cliff.”
In Congress, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging has been an influential platform for important legislation on myriad issues affecting seniors. Formed in 1961, the committee was the incubator for health insurance ideas that grew into Medicare. Since then, it has launched important bills and conducted oversight on issues such as nursing home care, pension protection, age discrimination in the workplace, and Medicare and Social Security fraud.
What’s flummoxed advocates for seniors in Washington state is that there are no legislative committees on aging. With baby boomers retiring in droves, there ought to be at least one. Twelve percent of the state’s residents are 65 or older. In 2030, the elderly population is projected to reach 20 percent.
Among the main legislative committees, the Senate Health & Long-Term Care Committee comes to the closest to filling the need, but it’s focused narrowly on health care. Among the joint and select committees of both houses, there are panels for Advanced Tuition Payment, Bail Practices, Gang-Related Crime Evaluation, Family Leave Insurance and HVAC/R, which delves into the details of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration. There aren’t any related to aging.
The problem for the elderly and their advocates is that their concerns cut across many subjects, and there is no central go-to committee that builds and retains knowledge of those issues. Members of various committees come and go, leaving behind scant institutional knowledge, little continuity and few passionate advocates.
As public policy consultant Gerald Reilly told The Spokesman-Review editorial board, “We’re everybody’s third issue.”
Contrast that with education, which has a constitutional mandate for basic education funding and a Supreme Court watching the Legislature’s every move. There are committees on Education, Early Education, Higher Education and Education Finance.
The committee makeup of the Legislature ought to reflect the fact that a growing proportion of its constituents are elderly facing a variety of challenges. Some examples:
How will the state proceed with the managed care of those eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid? How will health care reform impact the payment for services? Should the state expand aging and disability resource centers? Are home-health caregivers adequately paid? Do the elderly need beefed-up consumer protections? Do mobile home dwellers need more rights? Are mass transit options considering the needs of the elderly?
The list goes on, and will probably grow longer. The Legislature could more effectively address these issues if it gave them a home.