The Pandemic’s Long-Term Impacts on Food Insecurity Among Older Adults, and the Benefit of Federal Help

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A tragic aspect of the pandemic’s prolonged economic downturn – the rising rate of food insecurity in the United States – could impact older, poorer adults and their families for years to come, according to a new study by researchers at the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston and the National Council on Aging.

Two groundbreaking issue briefs underscore the long-lasting effects of pandemic-related food insecurity among older adults, especially older women and people of color.

The research suggests that while enhancements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were likely effective in temporarily decreasing pandemic-induced food insecurity among vulnerable older adults, the increased SNAP benefits provided by the American Rescue Plan must be made permanent and reflect increased food costs to overtake the growing number of older households expected to face food insecurity.

“The findings highlight the positive impact of SNAP in combatting food insecurity, but the key to continued program effectiveness is to assure that the program meets the growing demands and rising costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, while putting a sharper focus on reducing racial/ethnic inequities,” said Dr. Marc A. Cohen, one of the researchers of the report and co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston.

“The past is prologue, and this analysis underscores that after a major socio-economic upheaval, such as a recession or pandemic, food insecurity among vulnerable older adults grows and remains higher than before the catastrophic event,” said NCOA President and CEO Ramsey Alwin. “We need to take hunger off older adults’ tables by making enhanced SNAP benefits permanent.”

The first issue brief, Food Insecurity Among Older Adults and the Role of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), highlights how the most recent recession in 2008 affected food insecurity among people over 60 and how those levels of hunger persisted even 10 year later.

“These findings are staggering because the COVID-19 pandemic has already had grave economic and health consequences, and we can reasonably expect that older women and people of color will continue to be the hardest hit in the coming decade,” said Susan Silberman, PhD, Senior Director of Research and Evaluation at NCOA and a report author.

The second issue brief, The Effectiveness and Adequacy of the Supplemental NutritionAssistance Program (SNAP) in Reducing Food Insecurity During an Economic Downturn, shows that although SNAP is effective at reducing food insecurity and skipped meals, SNAP benefits have not kept up with the rising cost of food and there are still a substantial number of older adults who are skipping meals despite being enrolled in the program.

It also underscores how the roughly $12 billion in new funding allocated to food assistance programs under the American Rescue Plan should remain in place permanently and be enhanced to reflect rising food prices.

“The findings highlight the positive impact of SNAP in combatting food insecurity, but the key to continued program effectiveness is to assure that the program meets the growing demands and rising costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, while putting a sharper focus on reducing racial/ethnic inequities,” said Dr. Marc A. Cohen, one of the researchers of the report and co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston.

Food scarcity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food. “It’s a lack of access to enough good, healthy food to eat,” said Cohen.

The researchers acknowledge that with the pandemic’s impact ongoing and little current data available, the impact of food scarcity in America remains uncertain. But using data on food insecurity from the country’s last economic downtown – the Great Recession of 2008 – UMass Boston researchers were able to show who was impacted. And even after a decade, the rates of reported food insecurity did not return to pre-recession levels.

The study, which focused on people 60 or older, found that those facing food scarcity after the historic recession were younger (60 to 70 years old), female, minority, less educated, in poorer health and living in poverty. The finding also found that many were still working while facing food scarcity during the recession, a pattern which is likely to emerge in the post-pandemic world as well.

Older women also had 1.2 times higher odds of reporting food insecurity than older men, according to the findings, while non-Hispanic Black older adults and Hispanic older adults had 1.6 times and 1.2 times higher odds of facing food insecurity than their white non-Hispanics counterparts.

“It is reasonable to assume that many of the negative impacts experienced during the Great Recession will occur on a larger scale during the current pandemic-related downturn,” the study states. “While all groups will experience increases in poverty and food insecurity during a recession, older women and racial/ethnic minorities as well as those with less financial resources will be hardest hit.”

Despite the long-term impact of food insecurity after the last recession, the study found rays of hope through federal and state intervention. The role of federal programs – specifically the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – was a strong tool in the fight against food insecurity.

Again, using data from the Great Recession of 2008, the study found that the intervention of SNAP “weakened the relationship between poverty and food insecurity.”

“It’s a critical safety net,” said Cohen, “and ensures that people who are struggling can benefit not only by getting the food they need, but by also eating healthier.”

The findings are evident in the Biden administration’s recent acceleration of an unprecedented campaign to bolster hunger relief. A recent New York Times article said the administration is temporarily increasing assistance by tens of billions of dollars while setting the stage for “what officials envision as a lasting expansion of aid.”

“This underscores the importance of policies aimed at increasing both the inclusion criteria and amount of government benefits during times of economic recession,” the study concluded.

WISH Act and UMass Boston’s Marc Cohen Hope to Transform American Elder Care

Marc Cohen and other academics and policy analysts saw the writing on the wall years ago. With roughly 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, a decades-old medical and financial storm is now on the horizon when it comes to how to provide and pay for long-term services and supports (LTSS) for elders.

The number of family members available to care for aging relatives is dwindling, most families can’t afford the time or expense of caring for an older relative, and divisive, uncompromising politics in the United States – despite these long-approaching clouds – have done little to tackle the issue head on. More than half of us will need LTSS in old age, yet less than 10 percent of us have insurance to help cover the costs.

“Everyone in their gut knows that there’s this issue out there,” said Cohen, co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center at UMass Boston, and research director of the Center for Consumer Engagement in Health Innovation at Community Catalyst. “But very little has been done about it.”

Marc Cohen, PhD

Marc Cohen, PhD

Cohen and his peers spent years working on an idea first put forward by academics and researchers that were part of the Long-Term Care Financing Collaborative, and then expanded on this idea in a paper presented at the Bipartisan Policy Center. At times, their suggestions gained traction, but not among the people who mattered most – the politicians who could enact legislation.

On June 30th, New York Congressman Tom Suozzi, a Democrat representing sections of Long Island and Queens, introduced the Well-being Insurance for Seniors to be at Home (WISH) Act, which addresses how to finance long-term care for older adults, the first new solution put forth in almost a decade.

“With the number of disabled elders expected to double in the coming years, fewer family caregivers are available for these aging Americans, and the market for long-term care insurance is not currently sufficient to address these demographic challenges,” Suozzi said in a press release when the legislation was released. “The WISH Act would save the Medicaid program and millions of Americans from financial ruin, would allow people to age at home with dignity, and would create millions of good-paying, middle-class jobs in the home health care industry.”

Private and public interests had always stood in the way of past legislation aimed at this issue. The WISH Act attempts to overcome this divide by creating a public-private partnership based on social insurance for catastrophic LTSS expenses, coupled with family help, savings and private long-term care insurance for early up-front costs.

The idea is that such a comprehensive insurance solution – built on well-defined public and private roles — would enable older adults to stay at home if they wish instead of needing to deplete their and their family’s life savings and enter Medicaid-funded nursing homes or access more limited Medicaid-financed home care services.

In addition, the legislation is aimed at helping low-income individuals and their families whose savings are often devastated when a loved one requires long-term care, forcing many to make tough decisions about work and incomes versus their relative’s long-term care needs.

In mending this dangerous trend, the legislation would also promote health equity by providing a financial parachute to those families that would suffer most under the current system – a system which leaves the Medicaid program financially stretched and unable to meet the needs of its beneficiaries and pay rates necessary to support a high-performing workforce.

Cohen also views the legislation through a feminist lens. For decades, working women – who are the primary family caregivers of disabled elders — have been forced to weigh their careers and income versus staying at home to care for an elderly relative. If successful, the WISH Act would empower more working women to stay in the workforce, because the costs associated with bringing in home care aides, for example, would be paid for through the insurance program.

The legislation would create a new Long-Term Care Insurance Trust Fund that would be used to pay for the “catastrophic” period of long-term care for adults requiring many years of help. At the same time, the legislation would have private insurance companies offer affordable coverage plans for older adult’s initial years of disability. And it would be paid for with a social insurance contribution by all workers and their employers, each contributing about 0.3 percent of wages.

The legislation was largely inspired by the 2018 paper written by Cohen, Judith Feder of Georgetown University and Melissa Favreault of the Urban Institute. Their work was funded in part by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, among others.

The way that work came about mirrors the political headwinds the WISH Act legislation will face on a very divided Capitol Hill.

“We went back and forth for two years,” Cohen said. He came to the issue with a perspective shaped by his work with the private insurance sector, while Feder came from the public policy side, a big philosophical divide concerning what private industry and the government could and should do when it comes to such a challenging and difficult issue like long-term care financing.

“Very early on when we butted heads, we both agreed that we would not let “the enemy of the good be the best” and that ideological purity would have to be put aside so that we could focus on a practical solution that could do a lot of good,” Cohen said.

Their paper was published in January 2018, got some attention, but then languished until just before the pandemic hit in 2020. In late November 2019, Dr. Joanne Lynn, a geriatrician and hospice physician who is a senior analyst at Altarum and who was working at Congressman Thomas Suozzi’s office, invited Cohen to fly down to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Congressman and his team, where the initial sketches of the WISH Act were discussed. Throughout 2020 and the first six months of 2021, there were multiple meetings which were led by Dr. Lynn responding to concerns of stakeholders and dealing with the minute details that come with developing a new and major piece of legislation.

After a career spent touting the rationale for such legislation, this was the first time Cohen played a direct role in helping to shape legislation. “During that process it became clear to me that this is not a rich versus poor or Democrat versus Republican issue, but rather, a human issue that affects us all and really needs to be addressed,” Cohen said.

Reinvesting in home and community-based services

How the Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion relief bill will impact Medicaid in Massachusetts

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) — a COVID-19 relief and recovery package — was signed into law by President Joseph Biden last month. Among the $1.9 trillion relief bill’s provisions is a temporary enhanced federal matching percentage (FMAP) for Medicaid home and community-based services. The FMAP is the proportion of every Medicaid dollar spent paid for by the Federal government. Massachusetts could receive as much as $409.2 million during the one-year period covered.

Prof. Miller discusses COVID-19 relief bill

“One of ARPA’s goals is to strengthen state efforts to help seniors and people with disabilities live in their homes and communities rather than in nursing homes or other institutional settings,” said Edward Alan Miller, PhD, a fellow at the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston and professor in the university’s Department of Gerontology. “The imperative to do so has been underlined by the COVID-19 pandemic which increased demand for safe, high quality alternatives to institutional settings where morbidity and mortality threats from the virus are greatest.”

Organizations serving vulnerable populations — AARP Massachusetts, the Dignity Alliance of Massachusetts and Disability Advocates Advancing our Healthcare Rights — gathered stakeholders statewide recently to look at how this new funding could be directed in Massachusetts and, in particular, expanding and strengthening home and community-based services. Miller was among the speakers to address the group.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) had already allowed states certain flexibilities in meeting the COVID-19 crisis through the option to adopt temporary changes to their Medicaid programs covering home and community-based services. Furthermore, prior legislation had increased the federal matching rate by 6.2 percentage points across Medicaid services for the duration of the Coronavirus emergency. ARPA increased the federal matching rate by an additional 10 percentage points for home and community-based services (HCBS), specifically. The federal government typically pays for half of Massachusetts Medicaid costs. Combined with the early increase, 66.2% of the Commonwealth’s HCBS costs would be paid for by the federal government under ARPA for one year.

“Key stakeholders see the value of the flexibility ARPA provides to address needs across a range of services and populations needing home and community-based support,” says Miller. “There is particular interest in improving the work conditions of direct care workers, including raising wages and benefits to increase their quality of life and improve recruitment and retention. These are issues that directly impact the quality of care delivered.”

In addition, care recipients and advocates view the ARAP legislation as an opportunity to fund the additional services and supports necessary to maintain older adults and younger people with physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, and severe mental illness at home and in the community, not just during the pandemic but beyond.

One key area the legislation does not detail is whether changes considered by states need to be shared, reviewed, or approved in advance by the federal government. The Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services is waiting for guidance from CMS before finalizing or implementing plans to take advantage of the enhanced federal match. Although the funding period began April 1, 2021, the state would not lose money if plans were not implemented by that date.

 “Developing strategies and processes that best enable states to take advantage of ARPA’s enhanced federal matching funds would give them a leg up should substantial additional resources become available through the American Jobs Plan and other potentially forthcoming federal legislation,” said Miller. Critical to success is consultation with community stakeholders to outline plans on how to expend the additional revenues in the most effective way possible to the greatest benefit of care recipients, their families, and the front-line staff who care for them.”