With the election behind him, Barack Obama’s first item of business will be dealing with the fiscal cliff–that toxic combination of tax increases and automatic spending cuts that are due to kick in on Jan 2, unless Congress acts to delay or replace them with a long-term deficit reduction plan. 

Going over the cliff would mean deep cuts in a wide range of government programs. And even though Medicaid and Social Security are exempt from the spending reductions, dozens of other important senior services programs are on the block.

Overall, more than $54 billion would be slashed from non-defense programs for 2013. And many provide critical supports for people with long-term care needs who are trying to live at home. While Medicaid is exempt from the spending reductions, the rest of the infrastructure people need to stay in the community, such as transportation, personal assistance, subsidized housing, and adult day would all face deep cuts.

Many would hit programs operated under the Older Americans Act. According to the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations,  if Congress goes over the cliff and the cuts last through 2013, the consequences would be severe. Among them: A reduction in nearly2 million rides for seniors, a cut in case management services for 290,000 seniors, and a cut of 750,000 adult day slots. Caregiver supports would be cut by $12.6 million, social service block grants (which fund programs such as meals, transportation, and adult foster care), would be cut for 345,000 people aged 60 and over. More than 1 million seniors would lose homemaker services and 1.5 million would lose in-home personal care services.

Keep in mind that the  idea of the fiscal cliff was to make the tax hikes and spending cuts so draconian that Congress and the president would agree to a long-term budget deal to avoid them. So far, that strategy has failed miserably. The question now is whether Obama will find the key to unlock Washington’s frozen politics and avoid the automatic cuts.

Make no mistake, programs such as Medicaid and Medicare will be the focus of any long-range fiscal solution. But changes will come only after months of serious debate. They may themselves be very difficult for seniors and providers. But going over the fiscal cliff won’t prevent them. It might even make them more likely.

In the long run, an era of fiscal constraint may require communities to pick up some of these government programs, such as transportation. But that can’t happen overnight.  

It helps no-one if  by partisan inaction, Congress and the president hammer senior services with mindless, needless, across-the-board cuts that will come from toppling over the cliff.