OLDER AMERICANS ACT AMENDMENTS OF 2006 -- (Senate - September 29, 2006)
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Mr. DeWINE. Mr. President. I am extremely proud to come to the Senate today to recognize the passage of a very important piece of legislation for our Nation's seniors. Democrats and Republicans came together over the past 2 years to reauthorize the Older Americans Act and that's simply good news for seniors across the country.
I thank Chairman ENZI and our Democrat colleagues Senators MIKULSKI and KENNEDY for joining me in this effort. This bill is an excellent example of the positive things we can accomplish when members of both parties work side by side towards a common goal. Over the past 2 years, as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Retirement Security and Aging, I have worked with my colleagues--particularly Senator MIKULSKI--to bring together experts in the aging community at hearings, roundtables, and listening sessions. We have listened to the problems facing our seniors and to ideas about what we can do to make their lives better. I rise today with my colleagues on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee as we join in passage of the Older Americans Act Amendments of 2006, a bill which we all believe will make the lives of seniors better.
Senator MIKULSKI and I worked together to draft and pass the Older Americans Act Amendments of 2000. I am proud to have worked with her again to improve and update these vital programs for seniors. Her hard work and experience has been invaluable.
This bill comes about through the dedication and compromise of members in both the Senate and the House. I would like to take this moment to thank everyone on both sides of the aisle who worked on this bill--particularly my colleague from Ohio, Representative TIBERI. They have been dedicated to the passage of this important legislation, and I thank them for their hard work.
The Older Americans Act is so important for my home state of Ohio. More than 2 million persons over the age of 60 in Ohio are eligible for services under the Older Americans Act. Let me say that again, there are over 2 million Ohio seniors who will have the opportunity to take advantage of the programs in this bill. The bill will bring more than $44 million to programs in Ohio. This vital funding will go to wonderful organizations such as Meals on Wheels, which provides important nutrition programs at senior centers and in senior's homes.
This funding will also help programs preventing injury and illness to seniors, as well as programs supporting families who are caring for disabled loved ones, including the elderly and adult children with disabilities, and grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren. So many Ohioans need these services. In my state 87 percent of those in need of care by a family member are at age 50 or older. Seventy percent of those persons are women. Ohioans caring for a disabled family member spend an average of 4.2 years in this role--time impacting their job, their emotions, and their health.
The Older Americans Act also provides funding and support for the 12 Area Agencies on Aging that serve older Americans living in Ohio. These 12 agencies do a wonderful job of organizing the services I just described, as well as many more. They serve all 88 counties in Ohio and work with State and local providers of services to ensure that all seniors in their areas maintain proper health and nutrition and are aware of the services available to them.
Nationwide, older Americans are a vital and rapidly growing segment of our population. Over 36 million people living in the United States--about 12 percent of the population--are over the age of 65. The Census Bureau projects that 45 years from now, people 65 and older will number nearly 90 million in the United States and will comprise 21 percent of the population.
The Older Americans Act is an important service provider for these Americans, and I strongly believe that the reauthorization bill we just passed updates and strengthens the Act in so many ways. Plans to prepare for changes to the aging demographics will be incorporated into the Act. A Federal interagency council responsible for ensuring appropriate planning for baby boomer-related needs and population shifts across agencies will be created. And grants and technical assistance will be provided to local aging service providers to plan for the baby boomer population.
Our bill will also increase the Federal funding levels for the National Family Caregiver Support Program over the next 5 years. This important program helps families care for loved ones who are severely ill or disabled, yet want to remain in their homes and community. Our bill expands this program so that all of those caring for loved ones with Alzheimer's become eligible for support services. Our bill also clarifies that this program will serve elderly caregivers who are caring for their adult children with developmental disabilities and expands that provision to include all adult children with disabilities who are being cared for by an elderly parent. Lastly, it clarifies that grandparents caring for adopted grandchildren are covered under the National Family Caregiver Support Program and lowers the age threshold for grandparents to 55 years old. These important changes will improve the quality of life for so many who are struggling under the pressures of caring for loved ones--including more than 1,700 Ohioans annually.
Other provisions of the bill encourage seniors to make voluntary contributions to help defray the costs of these programs if they want to which will allow the program to reach out to even more seniors. This will help programs such as Meals-on-Wheels to expand their activities and will enable them to more effectively take contributions from those older Americans willing and able to pay for services. Annually, more than 125,000 Ohioans are served nearly 10 million meals by these important programs. The number of seniors in our population is increasing--and as it does, we need to modify our programs to ensure that they are economically sustainable and equipped to grow.
We know that most Americans wish to live independently in their own homes as they age. Our amendments will help them do so by providing funding so that the Department of Health and Human Services can award grants for the improvement of assistive technology that will allow older Americans to monitor their health while they remain in their homes. This bill also creates a new program awarding grants for the creation of innovative models for the delivery of services to those who remain in their homes. The need for this grant program was discussed at length in a hearing I held on models for aging in place--specifically, Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities or NORCs. NORCs are areas in which large concentrations of people live and stay as they age. Essentially, NORCs allow individuals to grow old while living in the communities they love. Programs like NORCs will allow Americans to remain in their homes and communities, the places where they believe they will stay happier and healthier. As I stated before, Americans want to stay in the places they love as they age. This bill will help them do just that.
Further, this bill creates a new momentum towards the provision of consumer-driven choices with respect to long-term care. As we all know, too many older Americans become disabled without the ability or the insurance to pay for their care. Too often, their only choice is to live in a nursing facility away from home. This ends up being more costly and ultimately not what the person would prefer--which is to remain in their home and their community. This bill will facilitate access to long-term care choices and opportunities. It will also enhance the ability of local providers and area agencies on aging to provide advice on the range of options they have available. Older Americans will then have the flexibility to decide for themselves which is the best place for them to age.
The Senior Community Service Employment Program is a federally funded jobs program geared specifically for older Americans. In Ohio alone, it provides more than 2,000 jobs for low-income Americans age 55 and older. Our bill updates this program to ensure additional stability in those who provide these services for older low-income Americans. This stability will limit the disruption for seniors employed in the program and will also help low-income older Americans get the training they need to move on to better paying jobs.
The Senior Community Service Employment Program has a dual nature, containing provisions that address both community service and job training for low income individuals. Our bill provides a Sense of the Senate supporting this dual approach. Furthermore, our bill limits the time period of participation in the program to 4 years, with an exemption for certain hard to serve individuals. This provision balances the need for a limit to the time a person spends in this employment program with the recognition that certain populations have special needs.
Of great importance to me, this bill also amends the Older Americans Act to focus attention on the mental health needs of older Americans. The amendments establish grants for the mental health screening of older Americans and for increased awareness of the effects of mental health needs on the elderly population. Too often the mental health needs of older Americans are overlooked--but they can be as serious and life-threatening as any other illness. The mental health needs of our seniors must be taken more seriously. We must deal with them more aggressively. I believe that these provisions move us significantly forward in this struggle.
Finally, this bill will help address the terrible problem of seniors who suffer abuse in their homes or while in nursing homes. Elder abuse is a serious problem that we know exists but is not well documented. This bill increases the profile of these issues while providing important resources for improving the data collection of incidents and outreach to those who may be suffering abuse. I believe that these new grants will move us forward tremendously in our fight against elder abuse. I know that this was an important provision for Chairman ENZI, and I am glad that we were able to include this important program for at-risk seniors.
Once again, I want to thank Senator ENZI and Senator KENNEDY for making this reauthorization a priority for the HELP Committee. Over the months we have negotiated this bipartisan bill, I have greatly appreciated their thoughtful and steady work to get the Older Americans Act to this point. Together, we have worked to get it done.
Today's passage of the Older Americans Act Amendments of 2006 is incredibly important to older Americans, both in Ohio and across the Nation. I would like to commend everyone involved.
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