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July 01, 2013

Common Ground on Older Americans Act Reauthorization

David Godfrey

On May 23, 2013, Senate Bill 1028 was introduced in the United States Senate to reauthorize the Older Americans Act of 1965. This is the first major step in reauthorization of the Act during this session of Congress. During recent budget debates, there was discussion among legislators about the propriety of continuing to appropriate funding for programs that have expired, adding additional emphasis to the need for action in this Congress.

There are a lot of differences of opinion on what could or should be included in updating the Older Americans Act. During efforts to reauthorize the Act during the last session of Congress, the focus among advocates for legal assistance in the Act seemed to be on the differences and individual goals. There is a lot that many of us agree on and in an effort to focus on this, I began early this year hosting calls for a broad group of aging advocates a couple of times per month to develop a statement that the largest group of advocates could agree on regarding legal assistance in reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. My goal was to be inclusive, inviting a wide array of participants, and to concentrate on a broad vision and principles all participants could agree on. The product is the following statement regarding legal assistance in reauthorization of the Older Americans Act.

Most of these elements are reflected in the reauthorization bill that has been filed. While advocates may differ in how some of the elements should be accomplished, focusing on what we can agree on should help us move forward.

The following organizations have agreed to support the vision and elements for legal services in reauthorization of the Older Americans Act: National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, National Association of Senior Legal Hotlines, National Association of Legal Service Developers, Legal Aid Justice Center (Virginia), and Bet Tzedek Legal Services.  

Our vision for legal assistance in reauthorization of the Older Americans Act is:
All older adults in the greatest economic and social need will have access to quality legal assistance through a coordinated delivery system to address their most critical legal needs in order to secure and maintain their rights, independence, and dignity.

We support reauthorization of the Older Americans Act of 1965, and view this as an opportunity for Congress to reaffirm commitment, refine and strengthen the Act. The following should be elements of reauthorization:

  • Legal assistance must remain a priority service in the Older Americans Act.
  • Legal assistance plays a vital role in helping older Americans resolve complex issues, protect their rights and maintain access to essential programs and services necessary to fulfill the goals of the Act.
  • The Act should ensure that legal assistance is provided through a coordinated, delivery system in each state, integrated with aging services providers. Delivery systems vary by state and can include the full spectrum of legal assistance providers, title IIIB funded legal assistance as defined in the Act, pro bono programs, legal helplines, law school clinics, systemic advocacy, community outreach, and training.
  • Expansion of the Act’s support for strong, independent, empowered, and fully dedicated state legal assistance developers is essential to provide statewide leadership that ensures the legal rights of older Americans are protected through a legal assistance/elder rights delivery system that is integrated with the network of aging services.
  • National Resource Centers should be continued.
  • The Office of Elder Rights should be empowered to provide essential support and oversight for the provision of legal assistance.
  • Outreach and targeting services to older adults with the greatest economic and social needs are critical to focusing limited resources where they will have the greatest impact.
  • Data collection, reporting, and program evaluation systems that support quality improvement for legal assistance and state legal assistance development should be enhanced under the Act.

This statement is not the policy or opinion of the American Bar Association. The statement is being reviewed based on existing ABA Policy by the ABA Governmental Affairs Staff. ■

David Godfrey

About the Author: David M. Godfrey is a Senior Attorney at the ABA Commission on Law and Aging.