Senators discussed the “human toll and budget consequences” of senior hunger at the Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging Tuesday. Arguing for increased funding for the Older Americans Act of 1965, Sen. Al Franken and committee chair Bernie Sanders said that the act saves money. “It allows seniors to stay in their homes, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to stay in their homes,” Franken said. Sen. Rand Paul countered that “only in Washington, D.C., can you spend two billion dollars and claim that you’re saving money.” His solution: Letting charities deal with senior citizens.
Paul, the Kentucky Republican, continued, saying, “Here’s a thought. Perhaps the two billion dollars we spend on OAA, if we subsumed that into another program and didn’t spend it, that might be saving money.”
That set Sanders off:
Senator Paul has suggested that only in Washington can people believe that spending money actually saves money. And I think that is the kind of philosophy which results in us spending almost twice as much per person on health care as any other country on earth, because we have millions and millions of Americans who can’t get to a doctor on time. Some of them die, some of them become very, very ill. They end up in the emergency room, they end up in the hospital at great cost rather than making sure they have access to a doctor. Maybe it’s the same reason why we have more people in jail than any other country on earth including China, tied to the fact that we have the highest poverty rate among children than any other major country on earth.
So the point is, and I think we have a bit of a difference here, I believe — I think Senator Franken has spoken to the fact — that prevention, keeping people healthy, taking care of their needs at home does actually save money. And that if you deny those resources, if you leave a senior citizen home today, alone, isolated, confused about medicine, not getting the nutrition they need, you know what happens to that person? That person collapses, that person ends up in an emergency room, that person ends up in a nursing home, at much greater cost to the system.
Franken then asked Kathy Greenlee, the Assistant Secretary for the Administration on Aging, point blank whether the Older Americans Act would save money by keeping seniors in their homes instead of in costlier nursing homes.
“Yes, Senator,” Greenlee responded.
Paul’s response, about the Republican philosophy that “private charity,” instead of government, should “cure these problems,” gave Franken room for a quick yet solid zinger:
PAUL: I appreciate the great and I think very collegial discussion, and we do have different opinions. Some of us believe more in the ability of government to cure problems and some of us believe more in the ability of private charity to cure these problems. I guess what I still find curious though is that if we are saving money with the two billion dollars we spend, perhaps we should give you 20 billion. Is there a limit? Where would we get to, how much money should we give you to save money? So if we spend federal money to save money where is the limit? I think we could reach a point of absurdity. Thank you.
FRANKEN: I think you just did.
In the hearing, Sanders noted that five million senior citizens in America face the threat of hunger, three million more are at the risk of hunger and one million go hungry because they cannot afford to buy food. He also noted that many seniors have food insecurity because they don’t have assistance in making food decisions or transportation to purchase it.