Readers agree: Older Iowans are not a priority

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Several weeks ago, I wrote an article that made the case that older Iowans are not a priority in the state Capitol.

I pointed to the recent session of the Iowa Legislature and the decisions made to cut funding for services provided by the Area Agencies on Aging and the Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman, and to take no action on the housing, transportation, health, safety and financial challenges faced by older Iowans.

I raised alarm about these decisions considering the size of the aging population in this state. Iowa ranks seventh in the nation in the percent of its population 65 and older.

One of every four Iowans is a baby boomer approaching their 60s and 70s. People 85 and older represent one of the fastest-growing segments of Iowa’s population.

The response I got from readers was loud, clear, and not what I wanted to hear.

I was hoping that readers would prove me wrong, with examples of where and how our elected leaders at the state level have made major commitments to Iowa’s aging population and their quality of life.

Sadly, none were provided. Instead, readers told me they agreed — that if you’re an older Iowan, you are NOT a priority.

And now comes the latest example that further validates the point. The Office of Long-Term Care Ombudsman had to tell its eight regional staff members that, because of budget cuts, they no longer can travel to nursing facilities.

Think about that. The Iowans charged with protecting the health, safety and rights of residents in Iowa nursing homes no longer can go to these places in person to thoroughly investigate complaints and fully advocate for residents.

Past budgets supported by Iowa’s elected officials consistently understaffed the ombudsman’s office and limited what it could do. The most recent cuts will have it do even less.

This is unacceptable. It’s a decision that needs to be reversed. I refuse to accept that there is no money available to fund such essential services.

If the state can find millions to pay consultants dealing with Medicaid issues, and to pay fees and fines to pursue or settle lawsuits, I think we can find the money needed to get long-term care ombudsmen back on the road to do the job we expect and need them to do.

Yes, I suppose lawmakers could make the case that all this work can be done by telephone and email, that we really don’t need staff going into facilities to see and hear firsthand what is going on, to talk face to face with residents who may be anxious, depressed or afraid, or to sit down with nursing home staff and administrators to deal with problems in an assertive yet constructive manner.

And yes, I’m sure that lawmakers could say: “Gee, we had no idea that making these cuts to the budget of the long-term care ombudsman would mean that they would have to cut back on important services. We thought they could absorb these cuts without any impact on Iowans.”

Yes, they could make that case and say those things. But their arguments would be incredibly weak, and time would be wasted debating rather than problem solving.

I call on legislators, state department administrators, and the governor’s office to find the money to get the ombudsmen back on the road and stop viewing issues affecting older Iowans as inconsequential.

Look at the data and the trend lines. An aging wave is moving across this state that is leading to an unprecedented demand for services and supports.

We’re at a tipping point on older Iowan issues. We can do what we’ve always done: relegate the issues and the budgets to the back burner. Or we can do something new — say and show that it’s time to give older Iowan issues the priority they deserve.

I know what I’d do. The question is what would elected officials, candidates for office, and state department administrators do?

Iowans want to and need to know.

l John Hale owns the Hale Group, an Ankeny-based consulting, advocacy and communication firm addressing aging and caregiving issues. Comments: hale_johnd@msn.com

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