Older and younger Pittsburghers work together at Vintage, a human services agency in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood.
John Heinz’s Legacy
Leadership for older Americans
From his earliest days in the House of Representatives, John Heinz fought on behalf of the elderly. In fact, it was an issue that remained uppermost on his agenda for his entire 20-year Congressional tenure.
What spurred Heinz as a young man to have such an interest in senior citizens was quite simply seeing the quality of care available for his own elderly family members. It wasn’t a matter of whether one could pay for the care, it was that good care was unavailable. His great-aunt Vira Heinz lingered for six years in a hospital after a long illness, and his maternal grandmother, who was stricken with dementia, had few choices for appropriate care in her later years. As a result, Heinz worked to ease difficulties in finding care and to fight against poor treatment being foisted on unwitting patients.
Beginning with his service on the House Government Operations Committee, he headed an inquiry in Allegheny County demonstrating how some federal programs and regulations were adversely affecting the elderly.
After being elected to his first full term in the House, Heinz drew a seat on the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee and its Public Health and Environment Subcommittees. In that capacity, he was able to, among other things, work on issues directly affecting the elderly. He called for property tax relief for aged homeowners and renters; elimination of means testing for eligibility in programs such as homemaker services and senior citizens’ lounges; nursing home reform; coverage of the cost of prescription drugs under Medicare; and removal of the age ceiling from job discrimination laws.
In his second term, Heinz helped establish the House Select Committee on Aging. As Ranking Minority member, he pursued legislation to strengthen programs related to long-term care, to establish a commission on Mental Health and Illness of the Elderly, and to protect veterans’ pensions from being reduced when there are increases in Social Security benefits. In addition, he served on the House Republican Task Force on Health and the House Republican Task Force on Aging.
Once elected to the Senate, Heinz continued his work for the elderly on the Senate Special Committee on Aging. From 1981 to 1986, he chaired the committee and was ranking minority member from 1987 to 1991. During those ten years, he worked to make Medicare and Medicaid run more efficiently. He published numerous reports outlining solutions to problems from second opinions to home health care standards, many of which were adopted and passed into law.
In 1981, Heinz was appointed to the National Commission on Social Security Reform. This team, chaired by Alan Greenspan, was tasked with finding a solution to the very real possibility that the Social Security System would be insolvent by 1983. Their report, issued in January 1983, became the basis for the 1983 Social Security Amendments, which resolved the short-term financing problem and made many other significant changes in Social Security law.
Concerned with the practice of companies duping seniors out of their retirement funds, Heinz introduced the Deceptive Mailing Prevention Act of 1990. Its purpose was to prevent government “look-alike” mailings for solicitations for the purchase of goods or services unless such matter contained an appropriate, conspicuous disclaimer. His language for such a measure was incorporated into another piece of legislation and was passed into law in November of 1990.
His last effort on behalf of our nation’s elderly was an investigation into fraudulent Medicare billing for medical equipment. Angered and alarmed at the inflated billing practices, he was on his way to Philadelphia to hold hearings when his plane crashed. After his death, many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill and in Pennsylvania commented on his tremendous record on senior issues and how much his leadership would be missed. Said Rep. Matthew Rinaldo, “In my role as ranking member of the House Select Committee on Aging, I had the honor of working closely with him to eliminate employment barriers for older Americans. John Heinz knew that this country needs the experience and skills that older Americans can offer… . Senator Heinz left his imprint on a wide array of legislation, but I would especially like to honor my friend and colleague on behalf of the millions of senior citizens whose lives will be better because of his efforts.”
Heinz used the power of philanthropy to aid the elderly as well. Upon assuming the chairmanship of the Howard Heinz Endowment, he focused extra attention on the special requirements of our region’s growing elderly population. Through his efforts, an old motel was converted into a reasonably priced personal care facility; Woodside Place, an innovative residential program for people with Alzheimer’s disease, was established; and Just-Inn was developed to offer private efficiency apartments and other amenities to older residents in a converted elementary school.