The Jewish community has scored a legislative victory in its effort to develop programs that allow the elderly to live at home while receiving vital services.
Congress passed legislation last week to create a new federal grant program for development of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, the brainchild of United Jewish Communities that provides an alternative to nursing homes for many elderly Americans who would prefer to live at home.
Under the deal, part of the five-year reauthorization of the Older Americans Act, the Department of Health and Human Services would issue grants for community groups to develop services specifically for seniors who live at home, ranging from transportation to medical treatment. While the funds would not solely go to Jewish organizations, many Jewish federations and community groups have established NORC programs in recent years and are likely to see a large portion of the funds.
Officials at UJC said the measure gives the program permanence, and is a validation of its achievements from both houses of Congress.
“The key here is that this program in the federation system, which has been the vanguard of institutions, now has congressional approval from both houses,” said William Daroff, UJC’s vice president for public policy and Washington office director.
The new legislation comes at a time when many Jewish groups are complaining about cuts to federal social service programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, and seeking alternate funding for their own efforts. No NORC programs received federal funds last year.
Today’s seniors are more active. While they require services from the government and community groups, many strongly prefer to live in their homes rather than in a nursing facility. The idea of the NORC initiative is to deliver services — including nurses and social workers, transportation, home repair and community engagement — to apartment complexes and neighborhoods in which the population has aged naturally or has grown more elderly as a result of migration.
The NORC program is expected to play a larger, more important role in the next decade, because the vast number of seniors will be more than the nursing home and assisted living infrastructure can handle.
“Even if we all end up moving into a facility, there’s never going to be enough facilities,” said Mark Olshan, associate executive vice president and director of senior services for B’nai B’rith International. “The concept of bringing services to the community is going to be overwhelming.”
The number of older Americans is projected to double to 77 million people beginning in 2010, when the baby boomer generation retires. At that point, seniors are expected to account for 20% of the population.
Since 2002, UJC and other Jewish groups have been seeking money for NORC programs through legislative earmarks, a term used to describe direct funding to communities inserted by lawmakers into appropriations bills. But with some congressmen seeking to end all earmarks, which can be used by lawmakers to anonymously push money to home-district projects, UJC was seeking a more permanent mechanism for its program.
“This will allow for the NORC program to be sustained through national administration so that we are not constantly at the beck and call of individual members of Congress to help out,” Daroff said.
The language in the OAA does not include a funding amount for the national program. HHS officials would determine the amount distributed under the grant program each year.
The federation system will continue to seek the earmarks, as well, with UJC currently lobbying for $6 million to fund nearly 20 NORC programs for fiscal year 2007. The NORC program has been particularly well received in the Jewish community, which has more seniors than the general population, but it also has been utilized in some non-Jewish circles.
Daroff said he envisioned that more religious and nonreligious groups would be able to replicate the NORC program now that it is federally administered.
“The Jewish community has been at the cutting edge of these programs, and we have shared our knowledge and lessons learned with the aging community generally,” he said. “This allows us to spread the great success stories more broadly.”
The legislation, which President Bush is expected to sign, also reauthorizes the National Family Caregiver Support Program, which provides services and support to people caring for ill or aging family members. Under the deal, the program would receive $187 million over the next five years.
Matthew E. Berger is a correspondent for Congressional Quarterly.