Although we don’t know everything about the novel coronavirus, one thing is abundantly clear: COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on older adults.
Due to weakened immune systems and chronic conditions, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the virus, and if they get it, they are much more likely to have a severe or fatal outcome. Early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the majority of fatalities have occurred among those age 60 and over.
As we try to protect the health of older Americans during this unprecedented crisis, we must also remember that COVID-19 poses more than just a medical threat.
The unfortunate truth is that America’s welfare and health systems have been failing our older adults for decades. As a result, according to the National Council on Aging, 2 in 5 older adults are economically insecure. What’s more, according to the PAN Foundation, 1 in 5 struggles to pay for prescription medications each month.
The economic downturn caused by social distancing will only make things worse for those most vulnerable. Many workers over 60 will soon find themselves forced into retirement — and those who have already retired will likely see significant damage to their nest eggs.
While Medicare covers many coronavirus-related expenses as well as out-of-pocket costs, there are other financial barriers that older adults face when accessing care. Finding and paying for transportation to critical doctor visits can be particularly challenging for many — especially now that there’s risk relying on friends and family who might normally offer a ride.
Older adults are self-isolating at home, and having groceries or ready-made meals delivered may be well beyond their financial means. Even a bottle of over-the-counter fever or cold medication can pose a financial challenge for some of the older Americans with whom we work every day.
These expenses may sound small, but for vulnerable older adults they can be a factor in the decision to seek — or not seek — medical care. A recent Commonwealth Fund study found that when determining whether to seek medical help for COVID-19 symptoms, 3 in 5 people age 65 and older consider potential out-of-pocket costs to be a very or somewhat important factor.
The nation’s aging network — federal, state and local agencies that provide services to help older adults live independently in their homes and communities — has responded quickly to this crisis. They have found ways to continue providing meals to those who are now homebound and are offering telephone reassurance and virtual health programs to keep people engaged and physically active.
To help ease the financial burden for older adults nationwide, many organizations, including the PAN Foundation and the National Council on Aging, are creating assistance programs to help Americans who are fighting COVID-19 or are forced to quarantine because of the virus. Older adults in need are turning to the National Council on Aging’s free BenefitsCheckUp website to see if they’re eligible for benefits programs that can help them pay for medications, as well as food, rent, utilities and other daily needs.
This assistance, however, is merely a stopgap. We urgently need a comprehensive public health response that reflects the underlying medical and economic challenges confronting older Americans.
The recent federal stimulus bill provides some funding for these key initiatives, but there needs to be an even greater focus on supporting research and treatments for our country’s older population, as well as increased support for community-based organizations that are continuing to serve older adults every day.
Above all, we need systemic change that goes beyond the immediate response to the pandemic. Now more than ever, we need to think about the health and financial needs of older Americans and take actions to help them, such as providing additional relief from hospital and physician cost sharing for Medicare beneficiaries struggling to afford them, capping monthly prescription drug out-of-pocket costs, and ensuring that those Medicare costs are spread more evenly throughout the year.
We need to care for the generation that cared for us. We need to fix a system that has failed them for decades, so that America emerges from this crisis a healthier, safer and more caring place to grow old.
Dan Klein has served as the president and CEO of the PAN Foundation since 2014, and previously, he served as senior vice president for the Cystic Fibrosis Services specialty pharmacy at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
For more than 35 years, James Firman, EdD, President and CEO of the National Council on Aging, has been a leading force for innovation in services, programs, and public policies for older persons.
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