What the Sequester's Cuts Will Mean for Seniors

As a consequence of congressional gridlock, $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts are starting to take effect. We’ve heard the dire warnings about the impact: air travel delays, 70,000 children forced out of Head Start, cutbacks in food inspections, understaffed fire departments, 700,000 fewer jobs created . . .  the list goes on.

How will programs that seniors rely on be affected? The good news is that big chunks of the budget are exempt from the sequester’s cuts, including Social Security, Medicaid, and veterans’ programs.  But while there will be no change in benefits for these programs, the federal workforce that administers them will be slashed, leading to delays and frustration. 

In the case of Social Security, for example, visitors to field offices or callers to the program’s 800-number will have longer waits, and some offices may close altogether.  Checks for first-time Social Security beneficiaries will take longer to arrive and the backlog of Social Security disability claims will start ballooning again.  

Medicare benefits will not change either, but there could be more crowded waiting rooms and fewer practitioners participating in the program because payments to Medicare providers will be cut by 2 percent across-the-board.  Doctors and hospitals say the Medicare reductions will cost their industries more than 200,000 jobs this year alone.  The 2 percent cut for doctors follows a series of previous reductions, which may translate into more doctors refusing to take Medicare patients.

Where the Real Pain Would Be

The harshest impact will be on seniors who rely on federal programs to keep fed, stay warm (or cool), perform basic tasks like dressing and bathing, and keep in contact with the outside world. 

Senior nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels face cuts resulting in 18.6 million fewer congregate and home-delivered meals, according to Amy Gotwals, senior director of public policy and advocacy at the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.  Meanwhile, an estimated 400,000 households will be severed from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which assists low-income seniors and other households with their heating and cooling bills.

Other vital services administered by Area Agencies on Aging will be cut, including rides to medical appointments or shopping trips, and in-home support for daily chores like dressing, cleaning, or cooking. 

“All of those programs are at very grave risk,” Gotwals told Reverse Mortgage Daily. “Any ‘savings’  from the sequester would pale in comparison to the added costs from premature nursing home placement for seniors who can no longer remain in their homes and communities; poorer nutrition and health consequences; increased falls and other avoidable crises that put vulnerable seniors at risk.”

The $85 billion in cuts on March 1 is just the beginning. Under the terms of the sequester, federal spending would be cut by $1.2 trillion from March 2013 to March 2021 in this same blunt fashion.

For AARP’s “What the 'Sequester' Could Mean for You,” click here.

For “Questions and Answers About the Sequester” from The New York Times, click here.