Washington — As she sits in a bright blue dress at the witness table, Rose Affayroux is just the kind of person that several members of Congress think should get more help from the United States government. She is a retired American who is just barely keeping afloat financially. Monday three senators got together to consider the plight of elderly Americans like her. The occasion was a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Aging.
But whether Mrs. Affayroux and other elderly Americans in financial need will wind up with more government assistance is a question thus far unanswerable. No major move is under way in Congress, and, given the huge federal budget deficits, no one should expect more government aid in the near future.
Affayroux's testimony before Sens. John Melcher, Harry Reid, and Alan Simpson is both compelling and spunky. (``Before you ask how old I am, I'm 71,'' she says.)
Monthly rent for the Baltimore apartment she and her husband share has just been boosted $25 to $475, utilities are $122, private health insurance $96. They have no car: Insurance is too expensive. ``I have no savings, whatsoever,'' she says.
This leaves approximately $100 a month for food, clothing, transportation, and all other expenses. How do they eat, a sympathetic Senator Melcher wants to know. ``We eat no breakfast,'' have lunch weekdays for 75 cents at a senior-citizen center (where she serves as a volunteer 40 hours a week). For supper they often have just a bowl of soup: ``Our big meal is on Sunday,'' when she splurges and buys meat at the supermarket.
This January Congress and the Reagan administration approved giving all social security recipients, including Affayroux, a 1.3 percent increase in their monthly checks. At the same time, medicare took $2.40 of that increase from everyone, for higher fees. For Affayroux, the result was what she calls ``a $3 raise.''
How does she feel about size of the raise, which was based on the increase in the federal government's consumer price index for employed Americans? ``The only thing I hope is that the next time they come up with a price index, that they use the same one the Congress and the [federal] judges used when they gave themselves a raise'' of several thousand dollars several months ago.
Melcher, the Montana Democrat who chairs the committee, says he thinks the index used to determine what the elderly receive is, indeed, part of the problem. He and others say it doesn't take into account the special needs of the elderly. On average, they use much more medical care than the nonelderly, and the cost of this care last year rose five times faster than the overall cost of living. Melcher proposes that a special index be developed that more accurately will reflect the expenses that elderly Americans have.
Sen. John Heinz, the Pennsylvania Republican who is the committee's ranking minority member, agrees that medical expenses are a serious problem. ``Older Americans devote more than 16 percent of their income to out-of-pocket medical expenses,'' he says.
He has a different solution: Expand coverage by medicare, the government program that provides some medical assistance for the elderly, so that more needs are met, such as long-term care in nursing homes. At the same time, he backs experimenting with a special consumer index for the elderly.
Senator Simpson, the Wyoming Republican who is the minority Senate whip, says, ``We have to be very careful to see that we take care of people like this lady.'' At the same time, he says, the sizable number of elderly who are relatively affluent should not be given more assistance simply because of their age. He favors a means test for medicare.
If the US did not provide so much money to those who do not require it, says Senator Reid, a Nevada Democrat, the federal government might have enough funds to do more for people in need.