Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Washington Focus More on Light Than Heat | Advocates Hope President Pushes for Policy Reforms for Social Security, More

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Washington Focus More on Light Than Heat | Advocates Hope President Pushes for Policy Reforms for Social Security, More

Article excerpt


This year's White House Conference on Aging, a presidential ritual observed roughly every 10 years, will be a one-day gathering of 200 invited guests on a shoestring budget, a faint echo of the first conference in 1961 that gave rise to the Older Americans Act.

While the agenda for the session Monday is restricted to four talking points -- with an added panel discussion on "technology and the future" -- aging specialists still hope that President Barack Obama will use the occasion to push for policy reforms they say are needed now more than ever. These should include, some believe, a retooling and expansion of the Social Security program that will prove so vital to future generations of elders.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Social Security, as well as the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act. But Congress has failed to reauthorize this act, and with it provide funding or a framework for the White House conference -- against a backdrop of shifting demographics that will make baby boomers the largest cohort of elders in national history. So the executive branch decided to put on its own show, relying on social media, five regional forums and a limited, one-day national event that organizers are encouraging Americans to watch online.

A few "watch parties" in Florida -- including one in North Port - - have registered with the conference website. News coverage of the effort has been muted, hampered by a lack of access. Expectations for real policy change are low.

"I don't blame the media generally for ignoring it," says Larry Polivka, director of the Claude Pepper Center on aging at Florida State University. "I don't see many major issues being articulated and defined."

Polivka attended the last Washington gathering of this kind in 2005. It was a more extensive and ambitious affair than this year's, but he was unimpressed.

"What came of the conference, that you can recall?" he asks. "It was largely organized to not address anything of any controversy. My perception was that it wasn't really meant to do much."

If Obama plans to propose any major policy initiatives on Monday, Polivka adds, "I'd be very interested to hear it."

Intertwined issues

The conference agenda items -- healthy aging, long-term care, elder abuse and retirement security -- have the effect of creating distinct categories for issues that are intertwined, and must be tackled together, elder advocates point out.

"When you're spending a third of your income on health care, you're having to make tough choices about other things," says Debra Bailey Whitman, chief public policy officer for AARP, who contributed to a special edition of the Gerontological Society of America's Public Policy and Aging report in advance of the conference. …

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