As we await the outcome of consideration of the Build Back Better Act, one part of the bill—which constitutes only 0.3 percent of the total proposed cost—hangs in the balance: $4 billion in funding for elder abuse prevention and response programs, also known as elder justice programming. This comparatively small amount should not even be in question when we consider the gravity of the national scandals of both community and institutional-based elder abuse in the U.S. today.
This elder justice proposal was first introduced as legislation in August, the Elder Justice Reauthorization and Modernization Act, by two powerful committee chairmen: Rep. Richard NealRichard Edmund NealThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by ExxonMobil – Political earthquake rocks Virginia; New Jersey too close to call Democrats considering five-year repeal of SALT cap in spending bill Bottom line MORE (D-Mass.) and Sen. Ron Wyden
The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the urgency of increasing funding for elder justice programs. For example, the shocking percentage of COVID-19-related deaths in long-term care settings revealed deep-rooted and long-standing issues in nursing homes, including staff shortages and a severe lack of infection control procedures.
Further, the almost 98 percent of older adults who live in community settings may fall victim to a range of scams directly tied to the pandemic, such as fake cures, fake COVID-19 testing, vaccine access scams and contact tracing scams that seek to acquire victims’ personal information. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in 2020, older adults lost at least $100 million to COVID-19-related fraud.
The proposed elder justice legislative provisions in the Elder Justice Reauthorization and Modernization Act, which were carried into the current House draft of the Build Back Better Act, would address these issues by providing significant resources for:
- Nursing home workforce recruitment and retention programs
- Adult Protective Services (APS) programs, which address abuse, neglect and exploitation in communities nationwide
- Long-term care ombudsman programs to assist them in their important work of preventing and detecting abuse in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
- Legal hotlines for older adults and medical-legal partnerships to embed legal resources into health care providers’ offices
The bill also has a novel grant program for community-based organizations to address an issue that directly relates to elder abuse: social isolation, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. However, even prior to the pandemic, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) found that nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated.
This social isolation is a huge risk factor for elder abuse and neglect; many perpetrators rely on silence and lack of observation in order to abuse, neglect and exploit older adults, including “romance scammers”: the FTC estimated that in 2020 alone, romance scams resulted in losses of at least $139 million. They also found that frauds reaching older adults via social media more than doubled in 2020.
Further, pandemic-necessitated limits on gatherings in person for older adults, such as at senior centers and in health care settings, have also harmed the ability of outside parties to observe, detect and report elder abuse and neglect.
The Elder Justice Reauthorization and Modernization Act was developed with direct input from the key stakeholders on the ground such as APS, long-term care ombudsmen, local aging services providers who monitor older adults and nursing home resident rights groups. This makes the legislation and the funding more authentic and more capable of making a difference.
Ultimately, retention of the elder justice funding in the Build Back Better Act would demonstrate an understanding by Congress that money invested in elder abuse prevention today ultimately saves money and lives in the long run. We owe it to our nation’s older adults to invest in stopping this preventable crisis.
Bob Blancato is the national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition.