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By Thomas Goldsmith

The 65-plus population in North Carolina will keep growing like daffodils after a wet spring, no matter what the General Assembly chooses to do. That’s the message about ongoing demographic shifts that advocates for older people took to the legislature as work on the biennial budget begins in earnest.

By 2037, North Carolinians over 65 will outnumber those 17 and younger, Bill Lamb of Friends of Residents in Long-Term Care told Hudson McCormick, the legislative aide to Rep. Julie von Haefen (D-Apex), in her office.

“You’ll have more older people than you’ll have children,” Lamb said. “We’re thinking about building schools —  we ought to be thinking about building senior centers.”

Activists including Lamb, Ana Pardo from North Carolina Justice Center and Chanelle (C.C.) Croxton of the National Domestic Workers Alliance put forth this message throughout General Assembly building earlier this week.

“For the most part we talked to the legislative assistants,” said Laura Hagman, a graduate student at Meredith College who was getting a master class in advocacy from Alan Winstead, executive director at Meals on Wheels of Wake County.

“A good chance”

However, Hagman said, the advocates had rewarding face time with members including Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Republican representing Alexander and Wilkes counties, and Sen. Mujtaba A. Mohammed, a Mecklenburg Democrat.

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Groups of advocates worked dozens of offices as word spread that any new state revenue would likely go to typically higher-profile needs: school construction, the opioid epidemic, disaster relief and maybe even Medicaid expansion. Senior-oriented priorities such as an increase in the homestead exemption for older people — which can exempt a portion of the value of some older people’s homes from property taxes — community-based services and statewide adult protective services appeared less likely to get budget writers’ attention, however badly needed.

“Counties that have a lot of tax base can afford to address adult protective services,” Pardo told Ralph Belk, legislative assistant to Rep. Mary Belk (D-Charlotte).

Smaller counties have been facing increasing costs for Adult Protective Services. State law requires counties to use their own human services staff to investigate and resolve cases of abuse, exploitation and neglect of older people and disabled adults.

“APS stands a good chance if the governor has it in his budget,” said Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, a Democrat representing residents of Pitt and Wilson counties.

Gov. Roy Cooper, no longer facing veto-proof majorities in both state chambers, is expected to roll out his budget proposal early next week.

Aging population to swell

Those out to convince budget writers to fund the goals of groups including the North Carolina Coalition on Aging and the Senior Tar Heel Legislature have also made known their support of expanding Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of state residents. As they talked to legislators or aides, they acknowledged that a small projected revenue surplus would create requests from many corners.

“It sounds like the state budget’s pretty good this cycle,” said Ben Popkin, a lobbyist representing the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of Residents in Long Term Care.

However, Popkin and others at a Feb. 22 Coalition on Aging planning meeting said that a goal they also endorsed — reducing the state’s health-insurance disparity — could easily consume a projected $158 million state budget surplus given the multi-billion dollar cost of Medicaid.

The realization of how hard it may be to add funding for older people’s care came in the context of a projected increase of nearly two-thirds of people older than 65, from 1.6 million to 2.6 million by 2037. The 85-plus population will increase even faster during the same period, at 111 percent, from a smaller base, 181,695 to 382,686, according to figures from the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management.

Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...