MIDDLETOWN TOWNSHIP >> U.S. Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) and Matt Cartwright (PA-08) on March 30 introduced the Senior Legal Hotline Act. The bill would authorize the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to create a competitive grant program for statewide legal hotlines serving seniors. The grant program would be authorized at $10 million per year for five years.

“Our seniors need our help, now more than ever. All of them are vulnerable to COVID-19, and forced to self-isolate, away from friends and family,” said Rep. Fitzpatrick. “By expanding the network of senior assistance hotlines, and providing federal funding, we can protect them from scams and misinformation. Thank you to my friend, Congressman Cartwright for his leadership, and I look forward to working to ensure that our seniors are safe and healthy.”

“The need to protect seniors during this difficult time is something both Democrats and Republicans can agree on. Sadly, there are dishonest people out there using this public health emergency to scam older Americans and con them out of their savings,” said Rep. Cartwright. “As millions of seniors remain in their homes to stay safe during the coronavirus outbreak, there are few places they can turn to for help. Legal hotlines give older adults a way to get legal advice or referrals, but they’re seriously underfunded all across the country. This legislation is one important step toward ensuring seniors can access the help they need and deserve.”

The Congressmen held a video press conference to discuss their legislation, and they were joined by the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Aging Robert Torres and Pennsylvania SeniorLAW Center Executive Director Karen Buck, both of whom support the legislation.

“As older Pennsylvanians follow the directive to stay home during the COVID-19 outbreak, those that are alone or limited in their social interactions may potentially feel isolated. The anxiety, confusion and uncertainty of this time could make them more susceptible to being scammed, abused or exploited,” Pennsylvania Aging Secretary Robert Torres said. “The Wolf Administration has worked hard to serve and protect older, vulnerable Pennsylvanians. The passage of the Senior Legal Hotline Act would support another tool in Pennsylvania’s arsenal to help older adults and ensure that their rights are being protected.”

“SeniorLAW Center is on the front lines of serving our older veterans, parents, grandparents and older Americans every day. Senior legal hotlines like ours are a critical lifeline for older people, especially now during this crisis,” SeniorLAW Center Executive Director Karen Buck said. “Despite the powerful impact and urgent need for these services, there is no federal funding for senior legal hotlines, no consistent support. This is a time that calls for leadership to focus on the most vulnerable citizens of our country. We are grateful to Congressmen Cartwright and Fitzpatrick for demonstrating that leadership now for older Americans who are at the epicenter of this crisis.”

The COVID-19 outbreak has made the need for accessible legal services for seniors even more vital. As millions of older Americans on fixed incomes follow social distancing guidance and remain home, they require free and remote legal assistance to deal with issues including medical, shopping, investment scams and app fraud; devastating financial exploitation; emergency protection from abuse; emergency custody for grandparents raising grandchildren; and urgent housing and health care questions and needs.

Due to funding issues, legal hotlines in many states have closed, and others operate on reduced hours. SeniorLAW Center, the senior legal hotline that operates in Pennsylvania, is generally only open Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. These hotlines provide seniors with free legal advice and referrals. The bill ensures older adults are provided access to a robust network of support and referral services, including from aging organizations, other legal aid agencies, and private attorneys providing pro bono legal services.

It also encourages the use of technology, like video conference systems, web-based platforms, or e-mail to deliver legal assistance to older adults, helping expand reach during crises like COVID-19.

This bill is co-sponsored in the U.S. House by Reps. Vern Buchanan (FL), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Jan Schakowsky (IL) and Darren Soto (FL).

A Senate companion to this bill has previously been introduced by U.S. Senators Thom Tillis (NC), Bob Casey (PA) and Patrick Leahy (VT).

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