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October 28, 2019

Bipartisan Bill Adds To Focus On Medicare Beneficiaries’ Loneliness

Credit: Inside Health Policy, Chelsea Cirruzzo

A bipartisan, bicameral bill aimed at reducing social isolation for seniors was introduced Wednesday (Oct. 23) amid a recent focus from both Medicare Advantage plans and Medicare advocates to battle the problem.

Reps. David Trone (D-MD) and Tim Walberg (R-MI) introduced the Protecting Older Americans from Social Isolation Act of 2019, a bipartisan bill aimed at reducing social isolation among seniors, on Wednesday. Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) introduced a Senate companion.

The legislation would amend the Older Americans Act to support screening for the prevention of social isolation and loneliness, as well as the coordination of supportive community services; increase the focus by the Assistant Secretary for Aging on social isolation and; allow states to pursue grant funding for projects that address social isolation.

Funding for the Older Americans Act expired Sept. 30, but the Dignity in Aging Act, which is expected to be voted on in House next week, would fund its programs for five years. Trone and Walberg say that they plan to bring up their bill when the House considers additional funding for the Older Americans Act.

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, Medicare spends $134 more per person per month for every adult experiencing social isolation. The AARP Public Policy Institute says this is comparable to Medicare spending on chronic illnesses.

Seniors advocates including the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the Coalition to End Social Isolation & Loneliness applauded the legislation.

According to a statement from the Coalition to End Social Isolation & Loneliness, social isolation leads to an increased risk of mortality, comparable to increases from obesity and smoking. The group estimates that Medicare spends $6.7 billion annually as a result of social isolation.

The bill comes amid a push to recognize and tackle social isolation in Medicare beneficiaries. Medicare Advantage plans, which are allowed to offer supplemental benefits for beneficiaries with chronic illnesses starting in 2020, took this into account when developing benefits for next year.

Some plans announced earlier this month that they will tackle social determinants of health, including social isolation, by offering companionship benefits. For example, Humana, Aetna, Priority Health and Alignment Healthcare partnered with a digital health company to provide a program called “grandkids-on-demand,” designed to bring college-aged students to the homes of beneficiaries to provide light housework, technology help and friendship.

Medicare advocates have also recently pushed for dental, vision and hearing benefits to be added to Medicare as a critical way to fight social isolation.

At a House Ways & Means Committee hearing earlier this month, Catherine Alicia Georges, national volunteer president at AARP, praised aspects of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) drug price negotiation plan which proposes reinvesting savings into providing these new Medicare benefits.

Georges said that worsening dental care, hearing or vision does little to help people foster relationships or fight off social isolation. She also said social isolation can hasten the onset of dementia, which AARP estimates costs Medicare $6.7 billion a year, and added that Medicaid and some Medicare Advantage plans benefits aren’t enough to cover the people who need them.