Organizing Seniors To Protect The Health Safety Net: The Way Forward

With the midterm elections looming, health care remains a top issue for voters, and particularly for older adults. In the last two years, we have seen the critical role that senior advocacy played in resisting attacks on the social safety net, particularly Medicaid. But this is nothing new. Over the past century, the organized voice of seniors has been critical in building and protecting programs that support vulnerable people.

Center staff recently authored an article in the Journal of Aging and Social Policy, which shares a brief history of senior advocacy and an overview of the current senior organizing landscape. Drawn from our years of work in philanthropy, advocacy and campaigns strengthening the ability to organize seniors – particularly low-income seniors – we identify several areas to focus on to turn the current senior organizing movement into an effective political force advocating for Medicaid and other safety-net programs. They are:

  • Focus on building a grassroots state and local infrastructure with national cohesion

We believe that a model of local organizing as part of state-based systems of advocacy and a national infrastructure where information, messaging and strategy can be shared will be important for catalyzing development of a new generation of older adult and senior advocates.

  • Adapt digital organizing strategies

Despite stereotypes of seniors as being technology-illiterate, social media adoption by older adults has increased in recent years. Online platforms undoubtedly can create new opportunities for seniors, including those with limiting health issues, to engage in advocacy. It will be important for those who are working to build a progressive senior voice and influence to pay attention to the use of technology and to consider specifically how to design online platforms that encourage senior participation.

  • Define a proactive policy agenda

The longer-term success in organizing lower-income seniors to become a strong voice for further progressive reform of our foundational health programs (Medicare and Medicaid) will hinge on its ability to define, galvanize and fund support for a coordinated pursuit of a proactive aging policy agenda. That said, we believe that in addition to defense of Medicaid, Medicare and other health safety net programs for low-income seniors, there is potential for new issues - such as development of healthy, age-friendly communities and public services; antipoverty initiatives; and support for caregivers and the care workforce - to become part of a defining platform embraced by a revitalized senior movement.

  • Build coalitions

To be effective in advocating for a strong Medicaid program, older adults and seniors will need to build and maintain coalitions and alliances with other organizations and constituencies that share an interest in a strong Medicaid program: those focused on children’s health, people with disabilities, behavioral health organizations and health care provider organizations.

  • Address intersectionality

Senior organizing, which historically has been most successful when conducted nationally with a predominantly middle-class and White constituency, will need to engage head-on with the ways in which identities intersect and consider the intersectional effect of policies and programs. Building support for “senior” programs will require cross-constituency organizing and cross-sector coalitions, like in the recent defense of Medicaid that brought together diverse constituencies and stakeholders ranging from seniors to adults with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities and from low-wage workers newly enrolled in Medicaid expansion to educational leaders and state governors.

  • Ensure a sustained investment for senior advocacy

To build an effective grassroots-based movement of engaged seniors working for progressive health as well as other social policy change, there will need to be a renewed effort on the part of philanthropic organizations and other funders supportive of progressive social policy to dedicate funding and coordinate efforts around priorities that include building an advocacy voice from affected constituencies.

The entire article can be found here (Subscription/Purchase Required).