LGBT, HIV advocates testify before state aging officials

    Pennsylvania Secretary of Aging Brian Duke this week heard directly from LGBT and HIV advocates about the need for the state to provide services to the aging community in an inclusive way.

    A coalition of community representatives was among those who offered testimony at a public hearing on the proposed State Plan on Aging on Monday, calling on the state to include specific language to address the needs of LGBT elders and those with HIV/AIDS in the plan.

    The list of witnesses that addressed LGBT and HIV issues included LGBT Elder Initiative co-chairs Heshie Zinman and Terri Clark and communications chair Ed Bomba, William Way LGBT Community Center executive director Chris Bartlett, Public Health Management Corporation researcher Lee Carson, Mazzoni Center executive director Nurit Shein, SeniorLAW Center executive director Karen Buck and Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly executive director Diane Mennio.

    “There were quite a number of us, so clearly it was a critical mass for the secretary to hear,” Shein said. “We had a very strong presence and very strong testimony. I was pleasantly surprised to see the secretary himself was there. He was really listening and I hope he was also hearing us.”

    The advocates strategically crafted their testimony to each address a different aspect of the need for and means to achieve full inclusion, discussing everything from cultural-competency training to LGBT representation on state aging boards and councils.

    “It doesn’t mean much to just include the language in there if there’s no other action,” Zinman said. “It’s meaningful to have real representation from these communities at the table.”

    Shein focused her testimony on the need for gathering information on the LGBT aging community.

    “The state of Pennsylvania does not collect any data that is specific to LGBT older adults,” Shein said. “So how can we address the barriers and the needs of this population if we don’t know how many there are, where they are? How can we create competency within our institutions if we don’t even count this population? If we don’t count the population, the population and our needs are invisible.”

    Some of the advocates also addressed the overall context of the state’s aging-services system, which they said is being shaped by Act 22, legislation passed last year that allowed the Department of Public Welfare to institute cost-cutting measures without the usual regulatory-review process.

    The changes that will go into effect July 1 include cuts to reimbursement rates for home-care providers and other new policies that advocates say would make it more challenging for the elderly to transition into home- and community-based services from a nursing-home facility.

    “The primary goal of the State Plan on Aging is to improve ‘access to care at the right time, with the right intensity and in the right setting’ and I find that ironic considering the system is just being decimated by the changes being made to long-term living and home- and community-based services,” Mennio said. “The changes in homecare services are going to force more people into institutions. No one wants that to happen and, if it does, we simply don’t have enough open nursing-home beds. We are at a crisis point right now, and it’s not going to get any easier for any older adults, including LGBT people.”

    LGBTs could be even more impacted because of a lack of sensitivity and inclusion, which Mennio said should be addressed through the State Plan.

    “Service providers often do not have programs that are accessible to a wide range of people, so some older individuals may not feel comfortable accessing services,” Mennio said. “We know from our work that many longterm-care facilities have a real lack of understanding about people who may be of different sexual orientations. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, and this is something we’re very concerned about. The system that’s created needs to be accessible to all people.”

    Zinman said the coalition will continue to meet and press the state to adequately address the needs of all older-adult populations, specifically the LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities.

    “We need to create a movement,” he said. “People need to have an understanding of what is going on in the system so that we can advocate on behalf of all older people in the state.”

    The draft State Plan on Aging can be viewed at www.aging.state.pa.us. Comments on the proposal must be submitted by June 29 to [email protected] or to David Gingerich, Acting Deputy Secretary of Aging, 555 Walnut St., Fifth Floor, Harrisburg, PA 17101.