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Advocates Speak Out: Bob Blancato (Part 2)

In preparation for the 2015 White House Conference on Aging starting today, Seniors Speak Out’s Nona Bear spoke with Bob Blancato, a long-time advocate for older Americans who has been involved in the past three White House Conferences on Aging, twice in leadership roles. Below is the second part of the two part conversation. To read the first, click here.

Part Two

Nona Bear (NB): What is the greatest challenge for these Conferences?

Bob Blancato (BB): In 1995, the political tone was a bit different than previous Conferences and many felt the aging programs were being threatened, which made the delegates that came much more defensive of the programs. It was sort of a battle of wills, but as a result the number one resolution became to preserve Social Security now and for the future.

NB: Since you have had the unique position of being an executive director of the Conference and an attendee, can you tell us a bit about how you think we can make sure the gains and achievements from each year are implemented and not lost?

BB: In 1995, we developed a policy that said no more than 50 resolutions would be adopted and we would have a distinct “Top 10” group that delegates would vote on. That same year, we also committed to doing a series of post-Conference grassroots activities to help move recommendations forward. We’ve been fortunate in the past to have bipartisan legislators that have taken recommendations from the Conferences and translated them into policy. I’m confident, now that the aging advocacy world is far bigger than it used to be, we’ll be able to move the things that emerge from this year’s Conference into something more concrete.

NB: What would you like to see come out of this year’s Conference?

BB: In the broad sense, we’ve got to deal with issues surrounding long-term care. We’ve got to step up on a bipartisan basis to come up with ideas and solutions that address the greatest fiscal liability that is confronting the boomer generation. I think the potential is there.

In the healthy aging space I would like to see us start getting practical about the basic things you can do throughout your lifespan to improve aging, such as developing good nutrition, the importance of education, maintaining the ability for older workers to be properly trained so they can continue to contribute and understanding from a preventative health standpoint why Medicare Part D is as important as it is. It isn’t just that older people have access to prescription drugs; it’s that they now have access to a better way of living because they have medications to help them. Within that we also have to make sure we tackle the growing concern about medication adherence.

In the long-term services category, I’d like to see an honest conversation about what we need to do. In terms of elder justice, I’d like to see us put the necessary resources into place to prevent elder abuse.

NB: One thing I know will come up is Medicare, and how it has improved the lives of seniors. How should we frame the discussion both at the Conference and afterwards?

BB: The important thing is to have a framework about what in Medicare has to be modernized. When I talk to older individuals, I tell them that when Medicare first started it was the best program to treat you once you were sick, but it didn’t do a lot to prevent you from being sick in the first place. That’s the new direction of Medicare. There have been more preventative measures added to Medicare in the past 10 years than in the past 40 years of its history. I think the focus on offering preventative benefits will save money down the road.

I would also like to see this Conference come out with a strong reaffirmation on the importance of Part D and particularly with a strong statement assuring the protection for low-income seniors moving forward.

To learn more about this year’s White House Conference on aging, visit their website.

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Dear White House: Nutrition is Critical Component of Healthy Aging

The 2015 White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA), to be held this summer, is a work in progress with great and promising potential. It will be the sixth Conference on Aging in history, the second one held this century, and aims to shape aging policy for the next decade.

One of the four issue areas of focus for the Conference is healthy aging. The WHCOA website says that this includes exercise, health screenings, and immunizations, as well as not smoking—in short, a greater focus on prevention. Prevention is a topic which I often discuss, though my focus is more on nutrition. I recently had the opportunity to address this at an Ohio forum hosted by the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, which was held as a lead up to the listening forum held in the area by the WHCOA. The main point I made was that good nutrition practiced throughout the lifespan can lead to healthier aging.

This summer, we also celebrate a number of anniversaries of key programs, including the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act (OAA). The OAA’s largest program focuses on nutrition and encompasses the congregate and home-delivered meals programs as well as education. It is documented that the OAA reduces food insecurity and isolation, but there is another benefit yet undocumented: how much it saves Medicare and Medicaid.

Why is resolving the nutrition issue so important? For one thing, the three major chronic diseases that impact 87 percent of seniors—diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol or some combination—can be prevented and/or managed with appropriate nutrition interventions. Overall, lack of good nutrition drives up health care costs.

And the problem is only getting worse. For example, the number of food insecure seniors has more than doubled since 2001, from 2.3 million to 5.3 million. We spend $157 billion per year overall on disease-related malnutrition in the United States; a malnourished patient’s medical costs will be 300% higher. A National Health Interview survey of 10,000 adults with chronic illness found that one in three reported being unable to afford food, medicines or both. In fact, typical medication non-adherence (not taking medications as instructed) is 50 percent. Fortunately programs like Medicare Part D help ensure seniors can access their medications, but we are not doing enough to address hunger and malnutrition.

Thus, these problems of food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition and growing number of older persons affected must be addressed. Some solutions and ideas to consider: 

  • Declare food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition as domestic emergencies, which could allow greater resources to be applied to their reductions. Calculate the overall cost to government of these three.
  • Expand access to healthy foods in all federally funded nutrition programs; reduce price disparity between cheap bad food and expensive good food.
  • Add basic nutrition screening, interventions and other information into the electronic health records of the future.
  • Modernize the locations where older adults get their meals and offer related health services.
  • Expand medical nutrition therapy to include diabetes.
  • Expand Affordable Care Act Essential Health Benefits to include nutrition screening and therapy.
  • Reexamine goals of Healthy People 2020 and build in a stronger emphasis on malnutrition prevention.

In the end, the WHCOA must produce a stronger call to collective action on healthy aging and determine what individuals, families, communities, and the private sector can do to help solve this rampant problem. This is a critically important topic to address as a society which accomplishes healthy aging is stronger in all regards. I commend the WHCOA for including this as a goal, but would like to ensure that good nutrition is also a central focus.

To learn more about the WHCOA, learn more about the four focus areas, and get involved, visit the website.

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Speak Up! The White House is Listening

In February, the White House Conference on Aging kicked off the first in a series of regional forums ahead of the national conference in Washington, D.C. scheduled for later this year. The once-a-decade conference has been held since the 1960s with the main goal of improving the quality of life for older Americans. It also serves as an opportunity to discuss policy solutions to common obstacles including: healthy aging, long-term care, retirement security and elder justice.

White House, garden and fountains in foreground

White House, garden and fountains in foreground (h/t Huffington Post)

The aim of the regional events, the first of which was held in Tampa, is to give senior advocates an opportunity to highlight key policy areas that are critical to older Americans and address the most pressing challenges related to aging.

As a longtime advocate for the aging, I am truly excited for these forums. Any opportunity to generate ideas for action that improve the lives of older Americans is worthwhile. Here are some ways for you to get involved:

  • Make sure advocates in your area know what obstacles you are facing and what matters most to you as a senior. YOU may not be able to attend the forum but some advocates will be invited and can better address your issues if they are aware of your priorities and problems. 
  • Watch the forum live on webcast.
  • Stay informed as more events around the conference get scheduled. Join the mailing list to learn about listening sessions, webinars and opportunities for public engagement.
  • Check out the White House Conference on Aging website to share your own stories and speak out about programs that make your life easier.
  • Use social media to speak out on what is important to you as a senior using hashtag #SeniorsSpeakOut or #WHCOA.

The many events planned in conjunction with the White House Conference on Aging are a great opportunity to get involved, and I look forward to raising important issues surrounding aging including the importance of elder justice, nutrition, long-term care, legal services, and elder abuse prevention, as well as the importance of senior health and well-being. I encourage you to strongly voice your support and create momentum around the upcoming discussions on improving seniors’ lives.

Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the next White House Conference on Aging forum, which will be May 28 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Seniors are the most important voice in the fight to enhance and protect what works for them, so don’t miss an opportunity to work with your advocates to speak out!

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Small Increase in Social Security Benefits Announced, Good Thing We Have Part D

Bob Blancato-webThe Social Security Administration (SSA) recently announced that Social Security benefits will only rise by 1.7 percent in 2015, or an average of $20 per beneficiary. This low cost of living adjustment, or COLA, for 2015 marks the third year in a row that Social Security beneficiaries will receive an increase of less than two percent. By law, the increases are based on inflation, and this year has seen low inflation rates.

However, many older Americans face hefty price increases not measured by the government’s inflation index—health care costs. Older adults are more likely to spend more of their income on medical care. And, some retirement health insurance programs will be hit with increased costs; federal retirees will see their premiums rise by 3.8 percent next year, more than twice the percentage increase in COLA for Social Security.

There is one notable program that will not be facing substantial increases next year: Medicare Part D. Average Part D premiums are projected to increase by only $1 for a basic plan next year to up to $32. Eighty-five percent of seniors say that Part D has an affordable monthly premium, and nearly nine out of 10 seniors are satisfied with the program. Part D, a crucial part of our health care system, is vital to continuing to provide millions of older Americans with the affordable health care they need at a quality level they deserve. Though we may not like the low COLA increase for Social Security beneficiaries, we can be pleased that Part D premiums are one place that seniors aren’t having their wallets hit.

When new issues like this pop up that impact our health and wellness, make sure to check back in with the Seniors Speak Out blog. I encourage you to explore the rest of the site as well to learn about your options during open enrollment and please share any hurdles you face in accessing health care. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.