Reagan cutbacks and elderly: local officials see problems

President Reagan, and many of those in charge of various programs for the elderly at the state and local level, may be on a political collision course over his proposed fiscal 1984 federal budget.

The administration has given assurances that the new spending plan, which begins Oct. 1, will leave the nation's growing senior citizen population, especially the most needy, better off. But budget critics are convinced not enough funds will be provided.

Of particular concern are not only the potential impact of the proposed six-month delays in the cost-of-living increases on social security, supplemental security income (SSI), and food stamps, but also various changes in eligibility requirements involving both medicare and medicaid.

Without major changes, President Reagan's proposed $848.5 billion budget ''can't help but cause tragedy for many elderly persons,'' says Lou Glasse, director of New York State's Department on Aging.

Mrs. Glasse, whose state has 2.2 million residents 65 or older, holds that proposed cuts in funding for medicare, medicaid, SSI, food stamps, energy assistance, meals, and other programs will make it harder for the elderly to get by. Particularly hard hit, she warns, would be the older Americans, including some 700,000 in New York, whose only income is from social security and who are already facing a possible six-month delay in cost-of-living adjustments.

Reagan administration officials vehemently deny that their proposals, except for the delays in social security and food-stamp cost-of-living increases, would have more than a minuscule impact on the elderly.

''Don't confuse the trees for the forest,'' cautions Edwin Dale, a spokesman for the White House's Office of Management and Budget, adding that ''all basic benefits are retained.'' Some $234 billion, 27.6 percent of the total budget, would be for programs serving the senior citizens, he emphasizes. According to Mr. Dale, this compares with an estimated $218.5 billion, or 27.1 percent of the budget in fiscal 1983 that ends Sept. 30.

Somewhat more optimistic than New York's Mrs. Glasse are officials in the Department of Aging in Pennsylvania. They note that a substantial portion of revenues from their state lottery goes to programs for older citizens. Some $186 million of these funds were so committed in the current fiscal year, and ''we hope more will be made available in fiscal 1984,'' says Hugh Jones, the state elder affairs agency's deputy director.

Although declining to speculate what the dollar impact of the Reagan budget might be on the elderly, especially the poor and needy, Martin Corry, legislative representative for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), suggests ''it would be significant.''

Besides the decrease in income through the proposed six-month delay in both social security and SSI cost-of-living increases, which ''is bound to cause hardship for many, there would be a dramatic increase in out-of-pocket costs for health care,'' he warns.

The proposal that medicare-covered seniors be required to pay 8 percent of the hospital costs for the first 28 days and 5 percent thereafter up to the 60th day, instead of having to foot only the bill for the first day, would be quite burdensome, Mr. Corry says.Federal budget analysts for the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governors' Association also conclude that domestic spending proposals would have an adverse impact on senior citizens.

The Reagan 1984 budget would underfund medicare by at least $1.7 billion, energy assistance to the needy by $600 million, food stamps program by $750 million, meals to the low-income by $32 million, and medicaid (medical assistance to the needy) by more than $300 million. This would be in addition to the six-month delays in cost-of-living increases in the food stamp and SSI programs.

Although several of these programs serve other low-income citizens, a substantial portion are elderly, notes Robert Greenstein, director of the Center for Budget Policy Priorities. He notes that other budget proposals would restrict the eligibility of many senior citizens for health care, food stamps, and rental assistance.

Florida officials, whose state has the highest proportion of elderly in the nation (17.3 percent), are apprehensive as to the potential effects on its growing population of retirees. Of the $733 million being spent on medicaid there this year, about $375 million is being spent on senior citizens, many of whom subsist at well below poverty levels, says Robert Sharpe, the program's administrator.

Demands for various nonhealth care programs, such as meals and food stamps, could substantially squeeze that state's treasury, cautions John Stokesberry, Florida's director of social services for the the aging.

In California, the state with the largest number of senior citizens, John Riggle, director of the commission on aging, reports ''the outlook is pretty grim.'' He adds that the state is already struggling with a $1.5 billion shortfall in revenue in the current fiscal year.

A similar deficit situation in New York makes it unlikely a way could be found for officials there to absorb even part of the impact on the elderly of the proposed Reagan budget, Mrs. Glasse emphasizes. Her agency, she reports, faces a budget cut that could force some scaling down of its operations.

Arizona and its low-income elders could be less hard hit by some of the proposed budget cuts, especially in medicaid since the state has not had that program, explains Miole Slattery of the state's administration on adults and aging. Other spending curbs or reductions, he cautions, would have a greater impact on senior citizens there.

With Arizona facing its first deficit since the 1940s, Mr. Slattery doubts the state will fill gaps in funding of programs for the needy.

William Hanna, director of the Department of Aging in Colorado, reports that the proposed federal budget would place his state ''in the uncomfortable position of having to determine which of the elderly poor are most needy.''

Noting that Colorado lawmakers are grappling with a deficit in the current fiscal year, he foresees ''no way there will be additional state funds for serving the elderly. . . .''

Richard Rowland, secretary of elder affairs in Massachusetts, views the Reagan budget as causing potential hardship ''on a lot of older poor people.'' Especially adversely impacted, he warns, are the many senior citizens who are provided meals, either in their home or at a community center.

Despite the President's intention that there will be no reduction in those fed, Mr. Rowland questions whether sufficient economies could be made in the administration of the program to prevent cutbacks.

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