Skip to content Skip to navigation

Health, housing focus of new task force

March 30, 2015
by Lois A. Bowers, Senior Editor
| Reprints

Vin Weber’s 86-year-old mother moved to a retirement community a year ago, the Republican former congressman from Minnesota relayed this morning.

Vin Weber“We had a vision consultant meet with her last week. I didn’t know what that was,” he said. “I thought, ‘She has already seen an ophthalmologist.’ That’s not what a vision consultant is. It’s someone who would try to help her cope with the different problems in terms of her physical space, if you will, that arose from the fact that she was suffering from dry eye and macular degeneration. And it just made me think about the fact that there is this constant linkage between the health of our seniors and the physical space in which they live.”

Weber is bringing personal perspectives such as this one as well knowledge gleaned from 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives to bear as he begins work on the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC’s) new Health and Housing Task Force. Joining him in leading the one-year effort are former U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Henry Cisneros (D-TX), former HUD Secretary and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) and former Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA). They detailed the entity’s expected work in a call with select members of the media today.

Henry Cisneros“All of us…have parents or grandparents who are in that age group and who are confronting these kinds of questions right at the juncture of health issues and housing questions,” said Cisneros, who has participated in BPC’s task forces on debt reduction and immigration as well as its Housing Commission. “It means everything to those individuals, it means everything to families, to communities, and, indeed, has massive implications for the country from a budget standpoint and a commitment, a recognition of what we owe our elders.”

By 2030, the U.S. population of 65-year-olds as well as the population of 85-year-olds will double, he noted.

Starting with the viewpoint that stable, affordable housing can improve health outcomes for individuals and reduce costs for the healthcare system, the task force expects to release in the first quarter of 2016 recommendations designed to help Congress and the administration meet the needs of the country’s aging population, the majority of whom wish to “age in place” in their homes. The task force will craft additional recommendations for state policymakers and senior housing and services providers. To get to that point, group members plan to meet quarterly in person, hold regional conversations about successful state models and form an advisory council of technical experts to consult on housing, healthcare and transportation matters.

The issues

Some of the issues the task force will examine:

• How to cost-effectively modify homes and communities—or develop new, affordable housing stock—to make independent living for seniors safe and viable. Identifying potential funding sources will be critical.
Surveys indicate that the majority of seniors wish to age in place in their existing homes, “but many of those homes are not appropriate—either in size or cost or accessorizing—for a graying population,” said Cisneros, the co-author of the book Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America.

Mel MartinezMartinez, who co-chaired BPC’s Housing Commission and is a former ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, added: “Whether it’s the steps of entry, wider hallways, accessible electrical controls, strong grips in the bathroom shower areas—so many of these things are really designed simply to assist seniors to live in place [and] just do not exist” in current housing stock. “Our communities are not designed and built for that same type of living, with lighting, sidewalks and transportation options,” he added. Walkability is a concern, too, Schwartz said.

Katherine Hayes, BPC director of health policy, said: “Our hope is that if you, as within the duals project, look at some sort of captivated system of care in which a managed care plan, for example, is given Medicaid funding and Medicare funding, that they could demonstrate enough savings on the Medicare side to be able to finance at least some minor home modifications in some of these models.”

Allyson Schwartz• Ways to overcome barriers to offering home- and community-based services (HCBS) and supports through Medicaid.
“Being able to find the solutions that would enable state support and state expenditures on the appropriate long-term services and supports [LTSS] and long-term care to support the families and to reduce the barriers between state programs and federal programs between housing and health will be extremely important if you’re going to get the services that are necessary for seniors at a cost that both families and the government can afford,” said Schwartz, a 10-year congresswoman and a 14-year state senator.