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July 01, 2011

ABA Cites Importance of Legal Services to the Elderly

The Older Americans Act (OAA), originally enacted in 1965, is up for reauthorization again this year, and the ABA is urging Congress to amend the act to improve the delivery of legal services to the elderly.

In a June 9 letter to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which held a hearing on OAA reauthorization May 26, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman emphasized that legal assistance assures access to essential income, programs and benefits for seniors who are at the greatest risk of being institutionalized, abused, exploited or neglected. Such at-risk seniors include the more than 5.2 million seniors living at or below the poverty level and 3.3 million seniors who are geographically, socially or culturally isolated.

According to the letter, the most recent annual data gathered by the Administration on Aging in 2008 shows that OAA legal assistance helped an estimated 87,000 seniors to navigate complex systems that provide income, health care, nutrition and housing and to resolve numerous other legal problems ranging from debt collection to advance care planning. An examination in 2010 of the need for legal assistance for at-risk seniors and the current service delivery capacity revealed that the need is at least four times greater than the ability of the system to meet the need.

“Reauthorization presents an opportunity to utilize the lessons we have learned from more than three decades of experience in supporting legal assistance under the OAA and to improve its efficiency, focus and quality,” Susman wrote, providing the committee with nine principles developed by the ABA for consideration by Congress.

The principles include: creating a high-quality coordinated legal services system in each state that prioritizes services for individuals with the greatest social economic need as well as those at risk of institutional placement; funding national support centers composed of national organizations with expertise in law and aging and utilizing a national legal advisory committee; utilizing uniform standards and procedures that build on the ABA Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid; and strengthening state legal assistance developers.

The principles also urge that Congress give states the flexibility to engage providers of legal services without imposing advocacy restrictions on the providers who are not funded by the Legal Services Corporation.

Senate Special Aging Committee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) emphasized during the hearing that OAA programs serve more than 10 million older Americans nationwide and that OAA funding was cut by 17 percent this year even though the need for the programs has increased.

He said his priorities for reauthorization of the act will address services for the 44 million family members who provide care for elderly relatives. He added that he will seek to strengthen the act’s Long Term Care Ombudsman program.             

Those testifying during the hearing included former First Lady Rosalyn Carter, who founded the Rosalyn Carter Institute for Caregiving in 1987; and Kathy Greenlee, assistant secretary for the Administration on Aging in the Department of Health and Human Services. Greenlee emphasized the importance of helping older individuals manage chronic diseases, improving the Senior Community Service Employment Program, and combating Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse.

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