Hit hard by COVID-19, Wolf, lawmakers can’t forget older residents in budget talks | Ray E. Landis

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COVID-19 has impacted the health of older Americans more than any other group. The virus has proven most deadly for those over the age of 65, particularly those residing in long-term care facilities. But this impact goes beyond the tens of thousands across the country who have lost their lives. A significant part of the older population is now living in fear.

The gradual reopening of Pennsylvania heightens the fear of older people who feel they are more at risk of a potentially fatal outcome should they contract COVID-19. These individuals are likely to remain isolated in the coming weeks and months and will be reluctant to re-engage in society. This poses problems not only for them and their families, but for everyone in the Commonwealth.

Consider the economic consequences. Discretionary spending by well-off older Pennsylvanians is a significant factor in Pennsylvania’s economy.

With the perceived risk of contracting COVID-19 highest among the older population, we should anticipate many of these individuals being reluctant to engage in the type of activities they enjoyed without a second thought in the past. The ripple effect of this on Pennsylvania’s economy, both through the impact on businesses and the reduction of tax revenue to the Commonwealth, will exacerbate the dire state budget situation – which could have an outsized impact on many other older Pennsylvanians.

Economic inequality is pronounced among older people.  According to the Social Security Administration, half of married couples over the age of 65, and 70 percent of those who are unmarried, rely on Social Security for more than half of their income.

With an average monthly benefit of $1,503, that means nearly 1.5 million retired workers and their dependents in the Commonwealth have an income of $36,000 or less.

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These individuals rely on many state programs, such as prescription drug assistance, property tax and rent rebates, and long-term care services to get by on this limited income. A decimated state budget puts this assistance in jeopardy, which in turn jeopardizes the well-being of those older Pennsylvanians who need it.

Social isolation among the older population is already a significant problem. Mental health issues are likely to increase should individuals not engage with family members or friends. Physical health issues will become more acute if individuals are afraid to visit their physicians.

And a deepening fear of how COVID-19 has impacted long-term care facilities will make families more likely to try to keep older relatives who need long-term supports and services at home.

We do not know how the next month, six months, or year will play out. Even as the number of reported cases of the virus begins to drop, the fear of a re-emergence will linger, and it will be a particular dilemma for older people. Assistance for this population will be critical – but will it be available?

Pennsylvania must pass a budget by June 30 in the midst of diminished revenues and with representatives of every special interest in the Commonwealth clamoring for their industry and cause. You could say that older Pennsylvanians are just another one of those special interests and the need to control state spending and ensure that businesses that employ Commonwealth residents get back on their feet should be our main priority.

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These businesses have strong allies in Harrisburg and will be loudly proclaiming their importance. But in the haste to ensure the business community’s economic survival we can’t overlook the vulnerable individuals who have had their lives threatened by this virus and are now not quite sure how their future will unfold in whatever the “new normal” turns out to be.

Talk of a partial year budget is a logical approach for our elected officials at this point. We cannot make a reasoned judgement on a year-long spending plan when we cannot predict what the impact of COVID-19 on state revenues and the needs of Pennsylvania residents will be six months from now.

But one thing we do know is the services Pennsylvania provides to its older residents are likely to be more important, and more impactful, than ever over the next few months.

The General Assembly and Wolf administration must recognize this budget situation cannot be solved solely by cutting necessary programs. We cannot jeopardize the health and welfare of our vulnerable older population in their time of need.

Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis, the former outreach director for the AARP of Pennsylvania, writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @RELandis.