Governor’s Budget is a Start But Doesn’t Go Far Enough for Poor Seniors

In releasing his proposed budget today, Governor Brown recognized that too many seniors and people with disabilities living in our communities are living in poverty. But the proposals he offered provide only limited relief to those Californians struggling to afford rent, food, heat and other necessities. More action and bolder policies will be needed to lift seniors and people with disabilities out of poverty. California is a wealthy state with a strong economy, and a large budget surplus, but its benefits are not equitably distributed.  For low-income seniors struggling on fixed incomes, we can and must do more.

A small but welcome step in that direction was the Governor’s surprising announcement to restore a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to the state portion of the combined federal/state Supplemental Security Income/State Supplemental Payment (SSI/SSP) program. He joins leadership in the legislature—including Senate President pro tem Kevin de León, Assemblymembers Cheryl Brown, Tony Thurmond, and others working to increase the SSP grant—in recognizing the urgent needs of elderly Californians and people with disabilities who are facing homelessness, hunger, and worse as a result of cuts to the SSI/SSP program back in 2006. Unfortunately, the Governor’s proposal does not go far enough. We and partners in Californians for SSI (CA4SSI) will be working over the next several months to educate the Governor and legislature on just how great the needs are in this community. We will push for increases that will provide a path out of poverty for all of California’s seniors and people with disabilities.

The Governor also signaled his commitment to important health programs that seniors and people with disabilities rely on, but the future of those programs is far from certain. His budget fully funds assessed In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) hours and commits to continue to improve the Coordinated Care Initiative (CCI). In both cases, however, the budget ties the future financial health of these programs to passage of a new proposed tax on Managed Care Organizations (MCOs).  We join the Governor in calling on health plans and the legislature to act on that proposal to ensure that seniors and people with disabilities have access to services they need and providers they trust.

Summary of Key Budget Proposals for Low-Income Older Adults:

SSI/SSP

More than 1.3 million seniors and people with disabilities rely on Supplemental Security Income/Supplemental Security Payment (SSI/SSP) benefits to pay for food, rent, transportation and other necessities. The Governor proposes to use $40.7 million from the General fund to provide a 2.96% cost-of-living increase to the SSP portion of the benefit effective January 1, 2017. This would be the first COLA to the SSP since 2006. The Governor’s budget projects a cost-of living adjustment to the federal (SSI) portion of the grant individuals receive. Combined, the SSI/SSP monthly grant levels would increase by $17 and $31 for individuals and couples, respectively. The SSP cost-of-living increase would account for about $4.67 of that increase. While we welcome this proposal, we will be pushing for full restoration of the SSP and cost-of-living adjustments so that we can lift all seniors and persons with disabilities out of poverty.

Additional Year Restoration of the Cuts to In-Home Supportive Services

IHSS is a Medicaid program that pays for services that help poor seniors remain at home. The cost of the program is shared by federal, state, and county governments. The Governor’s budget includes another one-year restoration of the recession-era 7% cut to IHSS hours, with a commitment to use general funds for that purpose in 2016-2017. The budget proposal falls short of permanent restoration of needed services, however, since future funding would depend on passage of the MCO tax referred to above. To ensure that IHSS consumers have stable access to home care that they trust, the next step is to make the restoration permanent and to improve administration of the program.

California’s Coordinated Care Initiative (CCI)

The CCI is a pilot program that aims to coordinate the complicated care needs of low-income Californians who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. The Governor’s budget for 2016-2017 guarantees that the CCI will continue to operate for at least another two years. The Administration proposes to continue implementation of the CCI throughout 2016, while seeking ways to increase the cost effectiveness of the program through improved participation and an extension of the MCO tax. If the tax is not approved and participation in the program is not improved by January 2017, the program will cease to operate one year later in January 2018. The best path to improving participation in the program is ensuring a positive beneficiary experience in the program. Now is the time to focus on program changes that will improve that experience and increase access to coordinated, integrated,  quality care, especially home and community-based services.

About Justice in Aging

Justice in Aging is a national non-profit legal advocacy organization that fights senior poverty through law. Formerly the National Senior Citizens Law Center, since 1972 we’ve worked for access to affordable health care and economic security for older adults with limited resources, focusing especially on populations that have traditionally lacked legal protection such as women, people of color, LGBT individuals, and people with limited English proficiency.