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How Congress Is Addressing Elder Justice in America

What recent hearings and upcoming legislation could do to help

By Bob Blancato
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As the national coordinator of the national and grassroots advocacy group, the Elder Justice Coalition, I believe the need to address elder justice has become even more urgent recently. Congress appears to think so, too.

Elder justice is the holistic approach of preventing and handling elder abuse, neglect, financial exploitation and maltreatment for older adults. Lately, there has been a new and disturbing dimension of elder mistreatment: the disproportionate number of nursing home and assisted living residents dying from COVID-19 and the extent to which neglect and poor care is contributing to these deaths.

What's more, social isolation and heightened financial stresses of the pandemic have likely increased elder abuse and decreased family and community members' ability to spot and report it.

What Congress Has Been Doing and May Do About Elder Justice

Important Congressional committees have been looking into this and the entire Congress is likely to soon approve legislation to help.

The critical missing piece in Congress addressing elder justice is the need to reauthorize the landmark Elder Justice Act of 2010.

On June 25, the House Ways and Means Committee's Health Subcommittee held a powerful hearing examining the COVID-19 crisis in nursing homes.  Prior to that, the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus held its own hearing discussing the root of the virus' spread into nursing homes and possible courses of action.

In addition, last month, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, sent an important letter to the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) which led CMS within days to mandate the reporting of COVID-19 cases by nursing homes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Two pieces of important elder justice legislation have been introduced in the Senate in recent weeks as well. The Promoting Alzheimer's Awareness to Prevent Elder Abuse Act and the Protecting Seniors from Emergency Scams Act take important steps to limit targeted scams through training, educational materials or data collection.

Similarly, the Stop Senior Scams Act would establish an advisory group charged with educating retail and financial employees on elder financial exploitation. This bipartisan bill passed the Senate via unanimous consent this month and is being considered by the House.

Another bill, the Senior abuse Training and Offense Prevention (STOP) Act, would create a grant program awarded by the Department of Justice to support activities preventing, identifying and eliminating elder abuse. It's pending in the House.

Additionally, the House's Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act would authorize $500 million for states to set up "strike teams" assisting nursing homes. It would also create incentives for high quality nursing homes to create COVID-19 units and require CMS to provide guidance to nursing homes and data on case numbers.

And What's Missing

However, the critical missing piece in Congress addressing elder justice is the need to reauthorize the landmark Elder Justice Act of 2010, the first comprehensive legislation to address the abuse, neglect and exploitation of older adults at the federal level.

There's ongoing activity to move a comprehensive reauthorization bill forward, but it seems to lack the urgency the situation demands.

Congressional analysts expect that the bill, once introduced, will call for dedicated and increased funding for Adult Protective Services, a vital front-line essential service in the fight against elder abuse.

The bill will also likely strengthen the act's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program. It initiates investigations into abuse in nursing homes but has been essentially halted by the Trump administration during the pandemic. And the bill would continue the important work of the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, whose 15 federal agencies work together for a coordinated federal approach to fighting elder abuse and fraud.

The reauthorization might well also provide federal support for coronavirus testing of older Americans and PPE (personal protective equipment) for nursing home staff, visitors and residents as well as for ombudsmen and Adult Protective Services workers.

Finally, the bill will probably lead to improvements in Nursing Home Compare, a website from Medicare designed to help people make wise choices when selecting a nursing home. It has fallen woefully short lately. One example: the nursing home in Kirkland, Wash. with the first widespread outbreak of the coronavirus virus had the highest 5-star rating from Nursing Home Compare.

The best chance for Congress to meaningfully address elder justice will come with the next emergency package to deal with the pandemic. That package may well include the Elder Justice Reauthorization Act and nursing home reforms.

Doing so will not only note the need for elder justice funding but provide the money for it, too.

Elliot Kelly, an intern at the Elder Justice Coalition, assisted in contributing to this article.

Bob Blancato is national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, a national advocacy voice supporting elder justice in America, and president of Matz Blancato and Associates. He is a 2016 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging and the 2023 winner of the Generations United Jack Ossofsky Award for Lifetime Achievement in Support of Children, Youth and Older Adults. Read More
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