As the population grows older, legislature’s Committee on Aging gains new stature

State Sen. Edith G. Prague took her accustomed place as co-chairman of the General Assembly’s panel on aging Tuesday, with one important difference: It is now a full-fledged legislative standing committee.

Edith Prague 1-11-11

Prague, Williams and members of the new standing committee

“We’ve been waiting a while to become a regular committee,” a grinning Prague said at a news conference afterwards.

The change means that the Committee on Aging can send bills directly to the House or Senate floor. As a select committee for more than a dozen years, it had been required to refer bills to other committees, which would then determine whether they moved forward.

“We lost some bills,” Prague, D-Columbia, said. “It didn’t get on their agenda. But now we are a regular standing committee and we’ll be able to develop policy legislation and get it out there for a vote.”

State Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said the move is important as the state’s population ages.

“We’re ninth in the country in terms of the population over 65 here in Connecticut compared to other states, and the implications for not only the well-being of our senior population but also the budget for the state of Connecticut and the services that we provide to the seniors has never been more important than it is right now,” he said during a press conference to trumpet the change.

Prague, a longtime advocate for the elderly, called the committee “the focal point” for developing policy for that population. The state has a commission on aging, but it is an advocacy group, she said.

“You know, at one time, we had a Department on Aging,” she said. “And we don’t.”

It’s a history Prague knows well. She served briefly as Commissioner on Aging before being dismissed by then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1992. They had clashed over proposed budget cuts that Prague said would hurt the elderly.

Weicker later eliminated the department. But Prague, now 85, is still around, an outspoken advocate for safety net programs and other progressive causes. She was elected to her ninth term in the state Senate in November, narrowly defeating Republican Sean Sullivan with help from votes cast for her on the Working Families Party line.

The committee’s agenda this year includes efforts to expand home care programs to help seniors stay out of nursing homes, something supporters say could bring the state significant savings.

Prague introduced a bill that would require nursing homes to provide air conditioning in residents’ rooms. A heat wave last summer drew attention to the lack of air conditioning in some facilities and prompted complaints from residents’ families.

“If you’re going to be in the business of taking care of frail elderly people, you better take care of them right so that they’re not suffering,” Prague said.

According to a survey by the Department of Public Health, most nursing homes already have air conditioning throughout their buildings or in patient rooms. Many of those that do not said it would be too expensive to install it, and some said their electrical systems were not capable or that the facility designs prevented air conditioners from being used.

The Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which represents nursing homes, supports the concept behind the bill, although Executive Vice President Matthew V. Barrett said there are questions about details and costs.

“For some homes, there may be substantial costs that are today not reimbursed by the state and should be while nursing homes remain in a period of financial distress,” Barrett said.

Another bill calls for enhancing background checks for people working for homemaker-companion agencies and home health agencies.