Here’s how the Shapiro administration can best help older Pennsylvanians | Ray E. Landis
A new beginning in the executive and legislative branches provides an opportunity for a dramatic shift in focus
The new year will give Pennsylvania a new governor and new leadership in the General Assembly. As older Pennsylvanians contemplate this changing of the guard, what should they be hoping for and what can they expect?
The first indication of how the incoming Shapiro administration will address aging issues is the makeup of his transition advisory team.
Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro has structured this group differently than past incoming administrations. Instead of appointing a separate team for each state-level cabinet department, seven broad-based committees have been formed, with subcommittees serving to provide more detailed recommendations.
Although older Pennsylvanians will make up 25 percent of the Commonwealth’s population by the end of Shapiro’s term, a committee focusing solely on senior issues was not created. Instead, a Seniors Subcommittee is part of the larger Health and Human Services Committee.
The members of the Seniors Subcommittee bring a wealth of experience in aging issues to the group. Much of their expertise is in long-term care issues, an understandable focus given the impact of this concern on older Pennsylvanians, their families, and the state budget. A number of members also have backgrounds in advocating for adequate retirement incomes, another key aspect of importance as the Commonwealth’s population ages.
But as Pennsylvania’s demographic makeup changes, there is much more to “senior issues” than health care and pensions (or the lack thereof). The issues discussed by all the transition team committees will be impacted by Pennsylvania’s older population, and any ideas and plans which emerge from these groups must consider how seniors fit into these concerns.
Pennsylvania has long been an innovator in aging issues. Revenues from the state lottery have been designated for programs benefiting older Pennsylvanians since its creation in the 1970s.
Our Department of Aging came into existence around the same time as a voice in government for seniors. And the Commonwealth recognized the importance of helping older people to afford their medications long before the Medicare prescription drug program was established.
A common thread running through the approach of Pennsylvania toward its older population has been the burden seniors place on the Commonwealth, however. Lottery funds are extra money we need for older people. The growing Medicaid budget is a burden on Pennsylvanians because of the high cost of long-term care for seniors. Worker shortages are occurring because of the increasing number of retirees plus the need for an influx of employees to care for the elderly.
But what if Pennsylvania shifted its focus from the burden of having so many older people to the benefits of being a laboratory for what the inevitable change in demographics could be like?
A new beginning in the executive and legislative branches provides an opportunity for a dramatic shift in focus. Pennsylvania’s colleges and universities could become centers for the study of changing populations. Pennsylvania’s employers could become leaders in providing opportunities for older workers to continue providing their expertise to business and industry. And Pennsylvania’s government could create a tax system which asks the wealthy to pay their fair share, no matter their age or employment status.
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It will take innovation and advocacy to create this vision. It is a role a revamped Department of Aging could play. One of the first things older Pennsylvanians should look for from the Shapiro Administration and the General Assembly is how they envision the Department of Aging.
Recall that an early initiative of the Wolf administration was to merge the Department of Aging with the Department of Human Services. That idea never got off the ground, but it demonstrated how far the focus of state government regarding older Pennsylvanians has shifted toward Medicaid spending and the impact of the older population’s long-term care needs on state revenues.
Long-term care and how families navigate the system will continue to be a critical issue for Pennsylvania because we have never found the willingness to address the problem at the federal level. But we must not allow the importance of providing needed care to individuals to completely obscure all the other issues impacting older Pennsylvanians.
The Department of Human Services administers Medicaid and the long-term care system in the Commonwealth. The Department of Aging should not duplicate that role.
But the Department of Aging was originally created to serve as an advocate for Pennsylvania’s older population. It is time for the Department of Aging to return to that role as its core mission.
Whether it is through pushing employers to treat older workers fairly, pressing law enforcement to aggressively pursue scams targeting seniors, or encouraging the construction of affordable housing options, older Pennsylvanians need a representative voice inside government to remind other state agencies of the needs of older Pennsylvanians.
Hopefully, the Transition Advisory Team will make a similar recommendation.
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