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Senators Intro Bill to Improve Federal Programs for Aging in Place

Echoing recent bipartisan proposals to improve financial security for American retirees, two U.S. Senators introduced new legislation last week to enhance federal programs that facilitate aging in place solutions for the nation’s senior population.

The Senior Home Modification Assistance Initiative Act, sponsored by Senators Angus King (I-Maine) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), would establish a process to better coordinate existing federal home modification programs and provide more consumer-friendly information on how these programs can benefit older Americans.

By helping seniors take advantage of federal programs to modify their homes, the legislation intends to achieve the dual goals of assisting people as they age in place and expanding the supply of accessible housing that permits them to accomplish this.

The legislation, says Sen. King, is an important step forward in cutting through the bureaucracy to ensure federal programs that assist with aging in place are accessible to seniors living in his home state of Maine, as well as the greater U.S.

“This is a classic case of government bureaucracy: there are well-intended programs that can help Maine seniors stay in their homes as they grow older, but they’ve become so complicated to the point that no one knows how to use them or even how well they work,” Sen. King said in a statement issued Thursday. “And when that happens, those programs are no longer benefitting Maine seniors or serving the interests of the taxpayer.”

The Senior Home Modification Assistance Initiative Act would establish a “cross-cutting initiative” to be carried out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Under this initiative, the HHS Secretary for Aging would coordinate federal efforts and programs that provide home modification resources and assistance for older adults.

By coordinating existing programs and reporting annually on key data points, the Senators intend for the Assistant Secretary to provide a better understanding of how federal programs are helping seniors live independently and how those programs could be improved.

The Act would also require the Assistant Secretary to publish an educational, consumer-friendly brochure to provide easily accessible information that could help older adults better understand and take advantage of federal programs.

King’s and Ayotte’s legislation aligns with recommendations released in the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) latest report, Healthy Aging Begins at Home, which offers policy options aimed at integrating the health care and housing needs of American seniors.

The report identified various federal programs, benefits and waivers across five different federal departments that can be used to pay for things like modifications, rehabilitations and weatherization efforts on homes to help older Americans age in place.

Not all of these resources, however, dedicate 100% of their funding to modification, and others may only narrowly target specific populations, like rural seniors or disabled veterans.

“The convoluted mix of programs may not be utilized to their best extent,” reads the statement issued by Sen. King’s office. “Meanwhile, it’s unclear how much federal funding is actually spent annually on home assessments and modifications for seniors.”

The importance of the proposed changes are amplified, especially when considering the vast majority of older Americans intend to continue living in their current homes as they age. Of those who are nearing or are currently in retirement, 83% wish to stay in their home for as long as humanly possible, recent research indicates.

At the same time, the cost to implement universal design elements—such as grab bars, no egress doorways and access ramps—can drain budgets, especially if seniors are living on limited retirement incomes.

“Today, most Americans pay for home modifications out of their own pockets,” said BPC Senior ADvisor Dr. Anand Parekh in a statement issued Thursday, following the introduction of King’s and Ayotte’s legislation.

With numerous federal programs and waivers supporting home modifications spread across multiple agencies, Parekh said it’s almost impossible for families and individuals to figure out what resources are available.

“BPC’s Senior Health and Housing Task Force commends Senators Angus King and Kelly Ayotte for their bipartisan collaboration and introduction of the Senior Home Modification Assistance Initiative Act of 2016,” Parekh said. “This will contribute to a better understanding of the effectiveness of Federal programs at enabling older individuals to live more independently at home.”

The BPC report, released by the organization’s Senior Health and Housing Task Force last month, outlined specific policy recommendations for reverse mortgages, including the need for a lower-cost product and greater involvement from the Federal Housing Administration to promote education and awareness of the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage product.

“BPC believes that greater integration of America’s housing and health care systems is essential to improving health outcomes, reducing costs and enhancing the quality of life for America’s aging population,” Parekh said.

Bill text for King’s and Ayotte’s legislation was not yet available as of this writing, so it remains unclear if the legislation will include mention of reverse mortgages or the HECM program.

Written by Jason Oliva