States aid senior citizens at cash register

Not even her husband's enthusiasm could convince Claira Monier that her state needed a program of retail discounts for senior citizens. Why bother? she thought. Surely there were other things they needed more than that -- like better transportation facilities.

But now Mrs. Monier, who is director f the New Hampshire Council on Aging, admits she was wrong. She began to see the light when her husband, who is president of the state Senate, lent his own signature to legislation for just such a program. But it was the many "seniors" who lobbied and testified for the bill who finally persuaded her.

"It's really their program," she says. "Their response has been very positive. They view inflation as their No. 1 problem. This is something they want."

So, apparently, do senior citizens in a growig number of other states that -- like New Hampshire -- are planning to begin such programs this spring or summer. Much of their motivation comes from studies in Ohio, which has had this type of program since 1976, that show a senior citizen who takes full advantage of it could save as much as $300 a year.

Local discount programs for seniors have been in effect across the United States for years. But until Ohio did it, apparently on one saw the value of pulling them all together under a central agency.

The idea works like this: The state agency that works with the elderly sets up the program, issuing laminated ID cards to applicants who can prove they are residents of that state and meet a minimum age requirement -- usually 65. Sign-up centers are established in city halls, public libraries, banks, Nursing homes, and the like.

Retailers are sought who would be willing to offer discounts on common items or services. The merchant remains free to choose which items to offer and to set the discount rates, although some states insist that they be at least 10 percent.

The state pays the start-up and ongoing administrative expenses, gives the program a name and symbol (Ohio's is called the "Golden Buckeye." New Hampshire's is known as the "Golden Granite State"), promotes it, and publishes and distributes a directory of participating merchants.

The merchant, who also may regulate when he will honor the ID cards -- and many limit them to off-peak hours or traditionally slow business days -- gets a traffic-builder for his store and considerable public relations value. The card-holder gets some needed product or service for less money. The news tends to spread around a state like wildfire once it becomes known that such a plan is in the works, spokesmen for commissions on aging around the country say.

Thomas Milligan of the Ohio Commission on Aging, who has been with his state's program from the start, says it works equally well in urban and rural areas. Some 903,000 persons have signed up for the ID cards to date, and the number of new applicants averages 2,500 a week. Participating merchants now number 31,000, he adds, offering "everything from auto repairs to zoos -- except for liquor and cigarettes."

What if a merchant is found to be abusing the program with bait-and-switch tactics -- that is, luring senior citizens into his store for a particular item and then substituting a more expensive one?

"We simply withdraw him from the program -- and make that fact public," Mr. Milligan says. "But there have been very few incidents, and we find that heartening."

Unlike most other states offering the program, New Hampshire intends to charge each applicant ($2) for the Id card and to place his or her photograph on it. The golden Granite State program is expected to go statewide in April.

Mrs. Monier says there are about 80,000 persons in New Hampshire who are 65 and older. But in the 60-and-older category the number increases to 120,000. Not surprisingly, she says, participating merchants are already asking that the minimum age be lowered to 60.

Wyoming already is experimenting with what it calls "Wyoming Pioneer Discounts." Pennsylvania's "Golden Keystone" program, with a potential for reaching 1.5 million elderly persons, is expected to begin after July 1. West Virginia's "Golden Mountaineer" plan, it is hoped, will get under way in September, according to Ray Leinbach, executive director of the state commission on aging. Mr. Leinbach also sums up the approach of most participating states to the problem of preempting popular local discount programs:

"We don't want to push anyone aside," he says. "We would attempt to interface with them with a minimum amount of disturbance."

Says Mr. Milligan of the Ohio program: "We've had inquiries from, I would guess, 45 states -- many of them in just the last few months. Not all of them are going to go with it immediately. But it seems to be growing."

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