Here is a political mystery: At least 44 million Americans are caring for aging parents or other relatives and friends. That’s more than one of every six adults in the US—an enormous voting block. Yet, their interests are largely ignored both in Washington and in state capitals.
Now, the Altarum Institute, a non-partisan, Washington-based research organization, has come up with a new way to get caregiver issues on the political radar. The initiative, called the Family Caregiver Platform Project , is aimed at getting families who help their loved ones with personal care involved in writing the policy platforms of the political parties.
By themselves, these platforms don’t matter much anymore. More often than not, presidential candidates ignore their party’s issue statements, which generally reflect the views of their most committed, but most ideologically extreme, base. State party platforms get even less attention.
However, Altarum may be on to something. The process of drafting these policy statements is often the one time when politicians, party officials, activists, and ordinary citizens get together in a room to discuss issues. It is an opportunity for family caregivers to raise concerns that are often ignored by lawmakers (at least until they have had first-hand experience caring for a family member of their own). Says Anne Montgomery, a former US Senate staffer who is now a senior policy analyst at Altarum, “It’s a wedge into a whole new set of conversations.”
Take Medicaid, a topic of intense controversy across the country. States are debating whether to include more working-age adults in the program under the Affordable Care Act. In Congress, some Republicans want to the open-ended federal entitlement into a block grant.
But for the most part, these debates are focused on the portion of Medicaid that provides health care for working-age adults and children. Lawmakers give barely a thought to the 15 million older adults and younger people with disabilities who receive medical or long-term care benefits through the program. Nor do lawmakers think much about whether there are better ways to use the $120 billion Medicaid spends annually on this population.
There is no shortage of organizations that advocate for older Americans or causes that are important to them. There are disease-oriented groups, trade associations representing senior service providers, and even groups that lobby explicitly on the needs of caregivers.
But these outfits are focused on ongoing political advocacy. Altarum does not lobby and is not pushing a specific agenda. Rather, it has in mind a one-time, grass-roots initiative aimed at achieving a single goal: Getting caregiver issues on the radar in political season.
Think of it as issue-oriented crowd-sourcing for elders, younger people with disabilities, and their families. And, who knows, it might work.