by Seth Rowe

St. Louis Park resident Deb Ohotto spends time writing appointments on a calendar and strategizing. But the work isn't for a job; it's for her parents.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., visited Lenox Community Center in St. Louis Park Aug. 7 to unveil elder care legislation she plans to introduce. The proposed bills would establish a National Caregiving Resource Center and strengthen an existing program.

Tax credits for families who provide care to family members outside their home is also a key provision of the legislation, as well as initiatives to investigate how long-term care insurance companies determine when to pay for services.

In Ohotto's case, she and her siblings take turns caring for her parents so they can remain in their Edina home.

Doctors diagnosed Ohotto's mother with cancer last year. Her father is oxygen-dependent. Both have physical limitations that make leaving the house difficult.

"We don't think of ourselves as caregivers," Ohotto said. "There was never a thought of not being there no matter what was involved."

Fortunately, she comes from a large family; her parents have one daughter for each day of the week and three sons to help. Still, she said the amount of work involved is staggering.

"I don't know how smaller families juggle it," she said. Jokingly, she added, "It makes me wish I had more children."

And costs for grocery shopping, parking fees for doctor appointments and other "hidden costs" add up, Ohotto said.

The stress of care giving can take a toll on a person physically and economically, said Lee Graczyk, issues director for the Minnesota Senior Federation, which supports the bills.

Caregivers throughout the state have talked to Klobuchar about the tough decisions they've had to make, said the senator, who has been traveling in Minnesota during a congressional recess. Many parents who are taking care of their children also have to take care of parents, leading to competing commitments.

More people will likely face those same issues in coming years as a quarter of the state's population is projected to consist of senior citizens by the year 2030, she said. In some areas, the senior population has already exceeded that level.

"Providing for seniors at home is far less expensive than the alternative," Klobuchar said.

Seniors also cherish being able to live at home independently, she added.

One of her bills, which she dubbed the AGE Act (America Giving care to Elders), would allow families to qualify for up to $1,200 each year to offset a wide range of care-giving costs. Currently, families can claim a dependent care credit only if they are caring for a relative living in the family's home.

A proposed National Caregiving Resource Center would allow caregivers to access one center that would provide information about available public and private organizations that could help them. Under Klobuchar's plan, the center would also provide updates on best practices and innovations, and organize Red Cross caregiver training classes.

The bill would strengthen the National Family Caregiver Support Program by better equipping it to keep pace with inflation and the increasing need for caregiver support, according to a summary of the legislation by Klobuchar's office.

A separate bill would allow holders of long-term care insurance policies to appeal denials of benefits to a third party review board rather than having to go through a lengthy and expensive court appeals process. Federal employees already have this protection.

"If it's good enough for all federal employees, including all members of Congress, it's good enough for everyone else," Klobuchar said.

She also wants the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate industry practices.

"Senior citizens have earned and deserve that protection," said Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson at the Lenox announcement.

The insurance business can become prone to abuse because of its intangible nature and its ability to determine when to pay a claim and when to hold onto the money, Swanson said.

"It's been said that insurance is the only business in America where you're rewarded for having crummy customer service," she said.

Swanson's office has opened investigations into insurance companies, she noted.

AARP Minnesota President Skip Humphrey congratulated Klobuchar on the proposal.

"On behalf of 700,000 members of AARP, I want to thank you," Humphrey said. "I'm sure you'll hear from the other side, and they'll moan and groan about how this will cost too much, but I want to thank you."

A spokesman for Klobuchar's office said some of the proposals' estimated financial impacts are still being calculated.

Klobuchar plans to introduce the legislation in September after Congress reconvenes.