Editorials

Kansas must correct national fall in rankings on health of seniors

Margaret and Charles Kozlovsky retired from driving an 18-wheeler. Afterward he drove a school bus in Waxahachie, Texas. America’s Health Rankings Senior Report 2016 shows strengths and challenges in states so seniors stay healthy and active.
Margaret and Charles Kozlovsky retired from driving an 18-wheeler. Afterward he drove a school bus in Waxahachie, Texas. America’s Health Rankings Senior Report 2016 shows strengths and challenges in states so seniors stay healthy and active. The New York Times

When the election dust is finally settled in November and the new Kansas legislators are sworn in, they will find they have a lot of work to do to help the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Those Kansans have lost a lot of ground since Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican-dominated Legislature pushed through tax cuts in 2012 for the wealthiest residents and limited liability companies in hopes of generating a cornucopia of jobs. The experiment has failed miserably, and the burden of balancing Kansas’ cash-starved budget has fallen heavily on kids with cuts to education and programs affecting low-income families and senior citizens.

America’s Health Rankings Senior Report 2016 details where Kansas has fallen dramatically in how it ranks with other states for people age 65 and older just since last year. The effects of the cutbacks are beginning to show up, and fortunately people are noticing.

“The (Johnson County) Commission on Aging is concerned about the negative trend in senior health care indicated by the change in data from 2015 to 2016,” the commission said in a statement after the release of the national report. And indeed everyone should be outraged. In the overall ranking, Kansas was 32nd in 2016, falling eight places from last year.

Kansas placed ahead of Missouri in 2016 and 2015. But that’s nothing to brag about. Missouri ranked 40th in the 2016 report, down two spots from 38th last year.

The Johnson County Commission on Aging is correct to be concerned over a greater percentage of Kansans experiencing food insecurity, or hunger among seniors. That pushed the state down from 22nd in the nation in the 2015 rankings to 34th this year.

Senior poverty also worsened. Kansas fell from eighth last year (when 7.4 percent of seniors were living in poverty) to 15th in 2016 (7.9 percent). In addition, Kansas ranked 31st in senior obesity, compared with 16th in 2015. In physical inactivity, Kansans slipped while many states fared better, meaning Kansas fell to 35th place nationwide from 20th in 2015.

The Johnson County Commission on Aging points out that statewide the Senior Care Act suffered a 30 percent funding cut. In Johnson County the program was reduced by 38 percent, losing $296,000. “We were cut deeper than the rest,” said Dan Goodman, director of the Johnson County Area Agency on Aging. It affects seniors’ ability to maintain a quality of life at home.

America’s Health Rankings Senior Report gauging nearly three dozen measures of senior health is supposed to enable states to better prepare for the rapid growth in the population of seniors as baby boomers age. That’s no small matter.

In 2011, the oldest of the more than 70 million baby boomers born from 1946 to 1964 turned 65. The U.S. population of people over age 65 is projected to grow 49.5 percent from 2016 to 2030. By 2056, it is expected to surpass those younger than age 18.

“Each day through 2030, 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65, which will place a heavy burden on the health care system,” the report said. Keep in mind that adults 65 and older are the largest consumers of health care. Kansas and Missouri need to better prepare for the growing hospital and nursing demands from older residents.

“This surge along with the increasing rates of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases are poised to overwhelm our health care system,” the health rankings report notes. By showing states their strengths and challenges, the report should enable lawmakers to address the major concerns and keep potential problems in check.

“Alaska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania saw the greatest improvements in rank from 2015, while Kansas, Michigan and Ohio dropped in the rankings,” the report said.

Kansas and Missouri are not prepared, and lawmakers need to do a better job of providing funding for programs to benefit seniors. Both states’ legislatures can start by expanding Medicaid so more people receive health care coverage.

Programs also must address food insecurity, diabetes, inactivity, preventable hospital stays, falls and tobacco use among seniors. Lawmakers have to see that greater efforts on preventing problems among the growing elderly population will result in huge cost savings for Missouri and Kansas and enable seniors to live healthier, more productive lives.

That should be a unifying goal when the legislatures in both states convene.

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