A need for reauthorization of the Elder Justice Act
Just over 10 years ago, President Obama signed the landmark Elder Justice Act into law as part of the Affordable Care Act. It was viewed then as landmark legislation — according to the Congressional Research Service, it was “Congress’s first attempt at comprehensive legislation to address abuse, neglect and exploitation of the elderly at the federal level.”
We are approaching a critical juncture with respect to the future of the Elder Justice Act. The Act expired on Sept. 30, 2014, but Congress continues to appropriate funding for authorized activities — approximately $12 million per year.
That is not good enough. A law of this importance should not continue to be in legislative limbo. It needs to be renewed and made stronger. Elder abuse continues to impact our nation. According to the Department of Justice, 10 percent of those 65 and over will be victims of elder abuse of some kind. The FBI estimates that in 2019 alone, older Americans suffered losses of over $3 billion from financial fraud and abuse. Further, the extent of elder abuse has the potential to increase as the older adult population grows and as individuals live longer.
The impact of the pandemic heightens the urgency to renew the act. For example, an estimated 39 percent of all COVID-19 deaths have occurred in nursing homes. A renewed Elder Justice Act can also include some critically needed nursing home reforms, including providing adequate staffing and strengthening the role of long-term care ombudsmen.
One of the more serious consequences of the pandemic is the rising incidence of social isolation among older adults. That can leave them vulnerable to self-neglect or being victimized by faceless scam artists. We must also be prepared for an expected increase in reported cases of elder abuse and neglect after the pandemic is controlled; currently, many home and community-based cases of abuse and neglect are hidden due to social distancing. In fact, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services has already noted a “spike” in elder abuse and neglect during the pandemic.
To prepare for these increased reports and to be able to respond appropriately, we need to provide dedicated and adequate funding for the national network of adult protective services (APS) agencies. This was a key element of the original act. The need for this dedicated federal funding is more critical today since over 90 percent of older adults live in home and community-based settings and APS often is the first to respond to those situations. Currently, 14 states do not provide any dedicated federal funding for APS agencies through the Social Services Block Grant, the sole source of federal funding for APS agencies.
Another important reason to renew the act is to allow the important work of the Elder Justice Coordinating Council (EJCC) to continue and expand. The Council brings together 14 different federal agencies, all of which are committing existing resources to the fight against elder abuse, to develop a more comprehensive and coordinated approach. This has resulted in important initiatives to help reduce elder fraud through effective use of law enforcement resources. Going forward, the work of the EJCC is needed to crack down on the proliferation of pandemic-related scams and to do a better job of emergency preparedness, especially in long-term care facilities.
Important progress has been made toward reauthorization of the Elder Justice Act. The House passed an updated HEROES Act in October which contains a one-year reauthorization of the Elder Justice Act with important funding, including $123 million for APS programs and $18 million for long-term care ombudsmen program grants and training. This provision was included by Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, following a November 2019 hearing, Caring for Aging Americans, where I testified on behalf of the act.
On the Senate side, the leading proponent for reauthorizing the Act is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who also held an important hearing on the subject in July 2019 where I also testified. Elder Justice Act reauthorization is also supported by Senate Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
What happens next? The House and Senate are finalizing language on a full-year omnibus funding bill to replace the continuing resolution. Neal has indicated his support for retaining the one-year reauthorization in a final bill, a position also supported by House leadership. Grassley has indicated his support as well and is working to secure the support of Senate leadership.
The original Elder Justice Act was the product of great bipartisanship. Reauthorizing it will require the same level of bipartisanship, which has been harder to achieve in this Congress. We are especially heartened by President-elect Joe Biden’s support for reauthorizing the Elder Justice Act and we look forward to working with the new administration toward a longer-term commitment to this important law.
In this most difficult of years, when our nation’s older adults have more uncertainties than at perhaps any time in their lifetime, we need to remove the fear of elder abuse from their lives. A funded reauthorization of the Elder Justice Act will be an important step in demonstrating that Washington sees this concern as real and is responding to it.
Bob Blancato is national coordinator of the 3,000-member nonpartisan Elder Justice Coalition.
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