Hanover Herald-Progress: Growing senior population needs our attention

Gaga, who is one of my best friends and also happens to be my 92-year-old grandmother, asked me about the open enrollment for last month’s new prescription drug benefit. “Chris, what should I do?” she asked.

Thinking that she may just be frustrated by directions to check an internet that she does not surf I hastily answered “No problem; I can help you.” When I visited the Web site and read her the written material I quickly realized that it was not all that easy to sign up for the proper program and that if I were 92 I could also feel helpless and scared that I might not be covered by a new system.

During that time with my grandmother, a few things came to mind. I learned that the new system is complicated to many including even those who are proficient with the Internet. Moreover, there are most likely others who need similar help. Most of all I understand that our society has a great responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves and we have a duty to give back to those who have left us such a wonderful inheritance in this state and country.

In this day and age, I believe that our elected representatives have a duty to the greatest generation to fix our confusing health care system. If you are a senior please don’t be discouraged. There is hope out there, and there are people who care about you.

My grandmother was an accomplished social worker with the National Institute of Health and the American Cancer Society. Gaga also gives me the senior perspective on important health care and aging issues. In addition to having helped care for my great-grandmother who lived with my mother and me, I believe that I have a unique life experience and insight into the aging.

If -- to paraphrase political thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan -- government is here to serve the people and not the other way around, then shouldn’t our government at a bare minimum be responsible for protecting our seniors?

Right now, one in seven Virginians is older than 60 years old. By 2030, though, it’ll skyrocket to one in four. So the number of elderly people age 85 and older – folks who clearly deserve the most care when they’re sick and lack the financial ability to pay cash out of pocket because of fixed incomes – will double by 2030 to more than 220,000.

Former Delegate Jay DeBoer, who is called Virginia’s Aging Commissioner, put it pretty harshly in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article on Nov. 15, 2005: “Our ability to meet the demands for future aging are nonexistent, basically,” he said. This prospect should be insulting not just to those who have done so much for us today but also for those of us working now who might have a much less rosey retirement to anticipate.

From a national level, Medicare doesn’t sound too stable. While 42 million elderly Americans will become eligible for a voluntary prescription drug program on Jan. 1, the system is so rife with confusion like my family experienced that most beneficiaries seem to be throwing their arms up in bewilderment.

So is our situation that grim? Do beloved seniors like my grandmother need help? Don’t panic quite yet.

If Virginia sticks to some simple priorities, and we educate our neighbors about the services that could literally save their lives, then we’ll be in better shape heading into the future.

First, we need to educate our friends, neighbors and families on our current health care situation, particularly locally and in other rural setting. The statistics for health care costs are startling and mind-boggling, to say the least. Over the last five years, insurance costs have increased at a double-digit pace.

I believe that with renewed energy we can make care more effective and affordable. Together we need to take a proactive approach to encourage the younger citizens to take earlier pro-active steps. Through a collective effort we may save the taxpayers of Virginia millions of dollars in health care obligations over the years to come.

So it is important that we educate our communities on the importance and the benefits of securing long-term health care and support our local community services. Seniors can play a big role in any education effort. Plus, we can encourage others in the community to support local programs and local agencies, as they work to solve this potential aging crisis.

Additionally, everyone should highlight how local communities can provide certain services close to home. For example, most people probably don’t know about Senior Connections - Capital Area Agency on Aging, Inc., which is dedicated to helping seniors maintain quality of life and independence as they age.

Senior Connections was established in 1973 as a private, non-profit, tax exempt, charitable organization. This organization serves the counties New Kent, Henrico, and Hanover. Bay Aging serves King William and King and Queen counties. It works at the community level to assure the delivery of efficient and appropriate services to older persons. The goal is to provide support to help senior citizens remain as independent as possible -- and for as long as possible. I understand this desire because I am currently helping my grandmother remain in her home. It helps her mental health and I believe enhances her quality of life. Services like these are invaluable to our community, and, as a community, we must encourage and support like efforts.

For those communities that are underserved or overburdened, I believe that we should try to bring in new health centers. Our state legislature can work to ensure that every distressed community in Virginia has a community or rural health center. Virginia’s spending on health and hospital issues per capita already ranks a miserable 27th in the nation. A staggering statistic like that can be solved easily, if our elected officials make it a priority. This is why we need to get behind a recently suggested proposal for a multi-million dollar investment in the Virginia Health Care Foundation. It’s a simple solution that’ll get us closer to that goal of making health care affordable for all our seniors and preserving our future. This single act could yield millions more in savings for Virginia’s taxpayers by providing uninsured individuals and families with health care access without the expansion of Medicaid.

The national goal across America is to open or expand 1,200 health center sites by 2006 to serve an additional 6.1 million Americans. The Virginia Foundation will also work to ensure that Virginia is leading the way in this federal initiative. New state and federal funding needs to be directed toward attracting doctors and establishing access to community and rural health centers.

While I may be able to love and serve my aging grandmother through confusing health care programs, there is undoubtedly a frightening amount of seniors right here in Virginia slipping through the cracks.

I am committed to work with families and create incentives to enable them to care for their aging family members. The vital importance of home healthcare cannot be overemphasized. I believe that every effort should be taken to have compassion and allow our elderly and infirm citizens to stay at home with families in a comfortable and familiar environment as long as practicable. At all levels, we must work with families to encourage them and enable them to provide care when possible. One way to get us there would be a long-term care insurance tax credit for families and employers. These incentives would be for families who, for example, need to remodel their home so elderly family members can move in.

It’s not news to anyone that we absolutely must reform Medicaid. Although Virginia’s Medicaid spending per capita ranks 38th in the nation and Medicaid spending per elderly recipient ranks even lower at 42nd in the nation, Virginia should not simply throw more money at a struggling system. We can make strategic investments as well as overdue reforms.

In the 1990’s, welfare was reformed successfully, and this decade we must be serious in our commitment to reform Medicaid. I believe we can work to reduce the incentives that send indigent patients to the emergency room for problems that might send the rest of us to the pharmacy. We can reduce the administrative inefficiency of Medicaid and bring Virginia’s low reimbursement rates to a level commensurate with the services provided. Each of these efforts should be considered first in order to make long-term care more affordable and practical for those who face the financial burden of long-term care.

It’s a daunting task, but with the proper planning and adequate support for those around our community already working toward a solution -- plus some common-sense legislation -- Virginia can protect the future for our families and our seniors. This scriptural advice resonates loudly, “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he …is worse than an infidel." I Timothy 5:8

--Peace is the founder and director of One Hanover and recently declared his candidacy for the House of Delegates.—