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ABA Urges Congress to Bolster Legal Services Provisions in Older Americans Act

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With the Older Americans Act of 1965 coming up for reauthorization this year, the ABA is working with other organizations to make sure that meeting the critical legal needs of the nation’s most vulnerable elderly citizens gets the attention of Congress.

“Legal services can be a key access service that makes it possible for older Americans—especially the lowest-income older Americans and seniors who are geographically, socially or culturally isolated—to attain and retain essential services and supports,” stated Thomas M. Susman, director of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office, in a June 9 letter (PDF) to the Senate Special Committee on Aging in conjunction with its hearings on reauthorizing the act. “These services and supports will allow them to live independently in their communities and remain free from abuse and exploitation.”

Under the Older Americans Act, the federal government provides funding for legal assistance to the elderly to the states, which in turn funnel the money to area agencies on aging. This approach has resulted in more than 1,000 separate agreements with legal services providers nationwide delivering nearly 1 million hours of legal assistance per year, but the need for legal assistance is estimated to be at least four times greater than the current system is capable of providing.

Moreover, states Susman’s letter, “the agreements lack uniform standards, contracts, and reporting or accounting standards, resulting in an undue administrative and reporting burden for the legal services providers.”

In August 2010, the ABA House of Delegates adopted a policy urging Congress to use the reauthorization process to amend the Older Americans Act.

The ABA policy urges Congress to replace the current fragmented system with a coordinated legal assistance system in each state directed by a single entity designated by the federal Administration on Aging. That approach would “allow for application of uniform standards for selection of the best-qualified provider, service agreements, and reporting and accounting standards,” states the ABA’s letter.

The ABA policy urges that states maintain funding for legal services to at-risk older people at least at current levels. In addition, the policy recommends that national support centers be continued, and that a national legal advisory committee be created to develop standards for the distribution and use of federal funds at the state level.


Reauthorization of the Older Americans Act also was a priority topic at the 2010 National Aging & Law Conference, which was co-sponsored by the ABA Commission on Law and Aging and other national organizations that advocate on behalf of senior citizens.

Since then, the commission has coordinated a series of discussions involving representatives of 15 organizations that have resulted in four consensus priorities. Those priorities were outlined by Susman in a letter (PDF) sent July 12 to key administrators at the Administration on Aging in the Department of Health and Human Services:

• Target scarce resources under the Older Americans Act to meet the critical legal needs of older individuals who are least able to advocate on their own behalf.

• Develop and maintain high-quality, high-impact legal assistance systems at the state level that give priority to the legal needs of target groups, and that coordinate resources for maximum impact and cost efficiency.

• Strengthen the entities responsible for developing and coordinating each state’s legal services and rights programs for older people.

• Provide funding at adequate levels.

Susman’s letter expresses the hope that coordinated efforts will achieve “the preservation of elder rights through legal assistance, with the goal of assisting older Americans, particularly those in greatest need of assistance, to live healthy, safe and independent lives in their communities.”

This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.

Rhonda McMillion is editor of ABA Washington Letter, a Governmental Affairs Office publication.

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