Bill aims to untangle complex web of federal programs that help seniors modify their homes as they grow older
WASHINGTON, D.C. – As more Americans are choosing to grow older in their own homes, U.S. Senators Angus King (I-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) today introduced legislation that will help make independent living less burdensome.
The Senior Home Modification Assistance Initiative Act would establish a process to better coordinate the many existing federal home modification programs and provide more consumer-friendly information on how those programs can benefit older Americans. By helping older adults take advantage of federal programs to modify their homes, the legislation achieves the dual goals of helping people age more safely in place and creatively expanding the supply of accessible housing.
Helping seniors age more safely at home may have important federal budgetary implications as well; by making low-cost, discretionary investments in improving home accessibility for older adults, these federal programs may help reduce costs in mandatory health care programs as senior health care outcomes improve.
“This is classic case of government bureaucracy: there are well-intended programs that can help Maine seniors stay in their homes as they grow older, but they’ve become so complicated to the point that no one knows how to use them or even how well they work,” Senator King said. “And when that happens, those programs no longer benefit Maine seniors or serve the taxpayer’s interests. This legislation is an important step forward in cutting through the bureaucracy to get back to the heart of the program: ensuring that Maine seniors have the tools they need to live where they are most comfortable as they grow older.”
“Understandably, the vast majority of seniors would prefer to stay in the comfort, security, and privacy of their own homes as they age,” said Senator Collins. “In addition to allowing seniors to remain near friends, family, and loved ones, home modifications that increase accessibility are also highly cost effective. Our bipartisan legislation cuts through the unnecessary complexity that surround existing federal programs, helping more seniors to live independently and safely right where they want to be—at home.”
“Our bill will make it easier for seniors to live independently in their own homes and communities without taking on debt or sacrificing safety,” said Senator Schatz. “Close to one in five Americans will be over the age of 65 in the next decade, but right now we’re not on track to meet the need for safe, affordable housing for these seniors.”
Last year, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report called Healthy Aging Begins at Home that identified numerous federal programs, benefits, or waivers spread across least five federal departments that can be used to pay for modifications, rehabilitations, or weatherization efforts on homes to help older Americans age in place. However, not all of those resources dedicate 100 percent of their funding to modifications while others may only narrowly target specific populations, like rural seniors or disabled veterans. The convoluted mix of programs and requirements is difficult to understand for older Americans, meaning that many of the programs may not be utilized to their best extent. Meanwhile, it’s unclear how much federal funding is actually spent annually on home assessments and modifications for seniors.
To help, the Senior Home Modification Assistance Initiative Act would:
- Establish a cross-cutting initiative, to be carried out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Assistant Secretary for Aging, to coordinate federal efforts and programs that provide home modification resources and assistance for older people. By coordinating existing programs and reporting annually on key data points, as the legislation would require, this initiative would be able to provide a better understanding of how federal programs are helping seniors live independently and safely and how those programs could be improved.
- Require the Assistant Secretary to publish an educational, consumer-friendly brochure to provide easily accessible information that could help older adults better understand and take advantage of federal programs.
These proposed changes are particularly important because they come at a time when a growing number of older adults have expressed a preference for aging in their own homes. A 2014 AARP survey of Maine residents older than 50 found that nearly 80 percent of respondents indicated that it was extremely or very important to remain in their home as they age, with 73 percent saying that support for funding services that enable seniors to remain in their homes should be a top or high priority.
Furthermore, they come as the price of home modifications – even for relatively simply changes, such as the cost of putting grab bars in the shower, let alone significant changes like widening doors to allow for wheelchair access – can drain limited budgets. However, not making those modifications also runs the risk of being costlier in the long run. For example, a serious fall, which is the leading cause of injury for older adults, can result in large costs, both for the senior and for Medicare and Medicaid.
Senator King introduced a similar bill last Congress.