Sandra Reed’s Life Care Planning: The sequester is here: will seniors suffer?

Attorney Sandra W. Reed answers your life planning questions.

Attorney Sandra W. Reed answers your life planning questions. (Photo by Kathryn Jones/GR Current)

By Sandra W. Reed

Congress failed to agree on an alternative before March 1, so the $85 billion automatic across-the-board spending cuts that were so dire they would never come to pass are upon us. And these cuts are just the beginning because the terms of the sequester call for $1.2 trillion reduction in federal spending from March 2013 to March 2021.

The warnings have been dire. And the question in the minds of those over 65 is this: Will seniors suffer? The answer: Nobody seems to know the exact answer.

The consensus seems to be for those in the middle and upper income ranges, maybe not so much. But most admit that the sequester won’t be pain free. Unfortunately, the biggest impact will likely be felt by the most vulnerable.

Programs Cut Not Eliminated

After the initial 2013 cuts, the sequester cuts spending across the board by $109.3 billion a year from 2013 to 2021. However, the sequester merely reduces revenues to but does not eliminate any programs.

Social Security, Medicaid and Veterans’ Benefits Exempt But….

Some of the major chunks of the budget on which seniors rely – Social Security, Medicaid and veterans’ programs – are exempt from the sequester so that benefits will not be changed. However, the federal workforce that administers these benefits will be slashed, so seniors can expect delays and frustration.

For instance, those needing to visit Social Security field offices may have to drive longer distances because an office nearby has closed. Those who use the program’s “800” number can expect longer waiting times. First-time Social Security beneficiary checks will probably take longer to arrive. The backlog of Social Security disability claims is expected to increase.

Medicare Benefits Won’t Change, But….

Benefits from Medicare will not change from the sequester cuts, but payments to providers will be reduced 2 percent across the board. Because this reduction follows a series of previous deductions, it could result in fewer practitioners participating in the program. Thus, some seniors could find themselves not able to get treatment from their provider of choice.

The Real Pain Hits Those Who Need Federal Assistance for Energy and Nutrition

The White House budget office estimates that 400,000 households, seniors among them, will lose Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program benefits for heating and cooling bills. The senior director of public policy and advocacy at the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, Amy Gotwals, told Reverse Mortgage Daily that cuts facing nutrition programs for seniors such as Meals on Wheels will reduce the number of congregate and home-delivered meals they can provide by 18.6 million. According to the figures posted on the website, Texas will lose $3.56 million in federal funds allocated to provide meals for sick and homebound seniors.

There is more. Programs administered by the Area Agencies on Aging, such as rides to medical appointments or shopping and in-home support for daily chores like dressing, cleaning or cooling will be cut. And the White House reports that 2,100 Texas victims of domestic violence are expected to lose access to support services. Presumably, some of these victims are seniors.

Seniors are among those affected by infectious diseases. If disaster hits they are among those who need relief. The White House predicts that Texas will lose more than $2.4 million in  funding that covers these two areas.

Seniors Who Travel May Be Affected

Texas has some of the country’s busiest airports. Therefore, Texas seniors may face disrupted travel plans from furloughs from cuts impacting the Federal Aviation Administration.  For example, the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers issued a document stating that the arrival rate for planes at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport could drop from 126 aircraft per hour to 60 to 85 per hour and departures could be cut from 90 per hour to 60 per hour, according to a report by Dallas NBC affiliate Channel 5. Some have predicted long lines at airports and arrival times at three hours before scheduled flights as a result.

Retirement Investments at Risk?

This appears to be anybody’s guess. Those who are relying primarily on investments for their retirement income would seem to be in an unpredictable situation because analysts appear to be divided. Some have predicted that the stock market will tumble due to a decline in gross domestic product (GDP) that they see as inevitable from the sharp cuts. Others see no change, or even a long term upturn in the markets.

Timing:  When Seniors Will Notice the Cuts

Again, when seniors notice the cuts depends on where that senior sits in relation to one of the programs that is cut.  Some cuts will be phased in gradually and the effects not immediately felt. Federal offices have already begun advising entities with whom they contract, grant recipients and others how much they will lose.  The unemployment checks that go out around March 7 will be reduced by 9.4 percent. The first payments after March 1 that go out to doctors and others caring for Medicare patients will contain their 2 percent reductions.

Layoffs and furloughs of the Department of Defense civilian work force will begin on April 6 while furloughs affecting air traffic controllers, meat inspectors and others will begin sometime later in April.

 What Seniors Can Do   

Wait and see seems to be the advice most prevalent from the experts. Depending on the dollar and inconvenience from the sequester’s impact, advisors may propose more concrete avenues of action for citizens to take.

Organizations such as the AARP and others supportive of seniors and their issues have continuously recommended contacting one’s congressional representatives. This did not result in a movement by congress to avoid the sequester. However, Congress can act at any time to pass legislation that would eliminate or minimize the negative effects of it, so opportunity remains to attempt to influence those elected representatives who have the responsibility and the authority to act.

Sandra W. Reed is an attorney practicing in Glen Rose.  She is of counsel with the elder law firm of Katten & Benson in Fort Worth. If you have any questions, you may contact her by phone at 254-797-0211 or by email at

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