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Feb 08, 2021
By Bob Blancato and Ellie Hollander February 8 at 8:30 PM

Bob Blancato is executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (NANASP) and Ellie Hollander is president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America. 

First and foremost, we commend President Biden for his commitment to addressing the economic crisis and hardship caused by the pandemic. We also give praise to his dedication to increase vaccination rates, especially for older adults who have been socially isolated and highly susceptible to infection during this pandemic.

However, the president’s proposal would be greatly improved if Congress added two provisions, both of which would significantly help this vulnerable population.

The first provision is to provide $200 million in dedicated funding to the national aging services network through Older Americans Act supportive services to allow community-based programs to support vaccine dissemination. This network serves millions of seniors each day with key social and human services, such as Meals on Wheels, case management and transportation, largely funded through the federal Older Americans Act. This same older adult population is anxious to be vaccinated. For example, in San Antonio, two senior centers operated by the WellMed Charitable Foundation were designated as vaccination sites; and Meals on Wheels San Antonio partnered with several local agencies to deliver in-home vaccinations. The WellMed centers alone received over 7.9 million calls from older adults seeking vaccines during the first week they opened and Meals on Wheels San Antonio was able to identify over 1,000 homebound clients ready to immediately receive the vaccines.

As these examples underscore, funding is needed for vital purposes, including allowing more senior centers and other congregate nutrition sites to be used as vaccination sites in communities nationwide, as well as “opening the door” to those seniors whose mobility prevent them from leaving home and/or providing transportation to vaccination sites for those who can. Finally, these funds are needed to help overloaded information and referral hotlines, also provided by the national aging services network. These hotlines have been providing timely information to older adults and their families during this pandemic, including assistance finding vaccination sites and scheduling appointments — particularly important for a population with decreased access to the internet and who lack the ability to schedule appointments online.

This increased funding is vigorously supported by a cross-section of national aging organizations, including NANASP, Meals on Wheels America, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a), and ADvancing States.

A second, equally urgent need is to keep emergency funding flowing into the Older Americans Act nutrition programs, including local Meals on Wheels. These programs have undergone wholescale conversions, adapting their senior centers to “grab and go” drive-through meal sites, while the demand for meals not only from existing but also from an entirely new population of seniors continuing to shelter-at-home has skyrocketed.

These operational shifts have resulted in increased food, transportation, safety and personnel costs that have outpaced the level of emergency funding provided. In fact, based on a recent survey, 91 percent of Meals on Wheels America members report serving more home-delivered meals than before the pandemic, with the average program serving 59 percent more meals in November 2020 compared to March 1, 2020. Virtually all programs surveyed have seen the cost of providing services increase, including food, labor and safety supplies, and 29 percent say they would need to double their home-delivered nutrition budgets to meet the existing need in their communities. Anecdotally, some programs have doubled or tripled their meal services.

To address this significant and sustained need, we need an additional $750 million in emergency funding for the Older Americans Act nutrition programs to ensure that these life-saving services are sustained. Losing these programs would be devastating, especially at a time when we are seeing dramatic increases in food insecurity and loneliness.

The amount of funding we are requesting here represents only 0.04% of the estimated $1.9 trillion in the original Biden proposal. However, the return on this investment is clear: more older adults can be vaccinated and receive vital daily nutrition services and social connection, both of which keep older adults healthy and out of costly, overburdened hospitals and nursing homes. We hope to see this modest adjustment made in the final spending package. Our seniors are depending on it.