Congress is slowly starving senior services programs. 

In the 2012 budget it passed as it was leaving town last weekend, Congress froze or cut spending for a broad range of government programs aimed at seniors and their caregivers–everything from Meals on Wheels to long-term care ombudsman training to information and referral services. 

Most of these cuts were not dramatic and only a handful of programs were killed outright. But few received additional funding, despite the growing needs of the elderly and their families. For many programs, this was the second year in a row their budgets were frozen.  And chances are good  they’ll be frozen again when Congress approves their 2013 budgets a year from now.  

The funding changes were just part of what has been a steady pattern—one likely to accelerate as Congress and the President confront significant budget shortfalls.  The good news for these programs is that, in face of fiscal gridlock, much bigger budget reductions have been delayed. The bad news is this gridlock won’t last forever and many senior services will  face deep cuts in coming years. Much, of course, will depend on the outcome of the 2012 elections.   

Advocates and providers should think of what’s been happening as a temporary reprieve. But they will still feel the effects of  what was esentially a freeze in federal spending for senior services. Overall, the 2012 Administration on Aging (AoA)  budget was trimmed by about $23 million from last year, or about 2 percent.

A few programs suffered actual cuts. These included aging network supports (such as the Eldercare Locator, the ombudsman program, the National Center on Elder Abuse, and several counseling programs aimed at helping seniors enroll in benefits programs).  An Alzeheimer’s Disease demonstration program was cut by almost two-thirds.

Several new White House initiatives were not funded at all by Congress, including a new family caregiver program and $120 million to design and market the CLASS Act, the national long-term care insurance program that has effectively been abandoned by the Obama Administration.

Programs run outside of  AoA were also either frozen or trimmed. The $1.1 billion National Institute on Aging budget was held at 2011 levels. However, a big subsidy program aimed at helping poor families pay for home heating costs was slashed for the second year in a row. And funds to provide low-cost housing for low-income seniors were cut by about 15 percent, although a new program to provide counseling for the elderly seeking affordable housing was funded. The National Council on Aging has a nice summary of these spending changes.

It is important to remember that these changes come in the context of the higher-profile debate over the futures of Medicaid and Medicare. Those programs were not addressed in this budget bill, but they face major challenges of their own. Just this week, for instance, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) proposed a far-reaching plan to remake Medicare. More about that in a future blog.