Point Man in Congress' Battle for Needs of the Aging

Times Staff Writer

Fernando Torres-Gil has his work cut out for him: problems of Social Security and its reform, national health care, minorities, veterans of three wars--and all the rest of the public policy puzzle having to do with America's aging population.

Fortunately Torres-Gil will be in the right place at the right time with, he hopes, the right expertise to influence the right decisions: He is the new staff director of the Select Committee on Aging of the U.S. House of Representatives. As such he will work with a longtime California congressman, Rep. Ed Roybal (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the committee.

Three Main Duties

Torres-Gil, 36, sat amid bare bookshelves in his office in the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC, where he has been assistant professor of gerontology and public administration, on his last day last week before moving to Washington and spoke of the work of the Select Committee and his aspirations--for the aging, for Latinos, for Los Angeles, all of which in turn may have a substantial impact on his own future.

He will have three main duties, he said.

"The first will be to work with Congressman Roybal as the chief staff person responsible for the activities of the committee and to provide expertise and resources on aging issues," he said. "My job will be to serve the congressman.

"The second will be administration of the committee's activities. It is the largest committee in the House, with 66 members, 42 staff members and four subcommittees.

Planning New Programs

"My job will be to provide leadership on initiative legislation, to do the research, to represent the aging throughout the country, to be a resource for the entire House of Representatives. The Select Committee cannot introduce legislation but it can help draft legislation to be introduced through standing committees, such as Ways and Means, Banking and Urban Affairs.

"We are the only Select Committee in the House. It has a great deal of influence."

Torres-Gil will work with organizations on aging "and I have the best of all worlds. Congressman Roybal also is on the House Appropriations Committee; with his dual role he can bring a great deal of influence to bear on causes for the aging."

Aside from serving Roybal well--Torres-Gil noted that the previous Select Committee chairman, Claude Pepper, gained national fame with the help of committee activities--the new staff director plans to concentrate on initiating programs to serve the aging better, including especially minorities.

"We will look into Social Security and its reforms," he said, "and a national health care system--one of Roybal's major objectives. We need a system that assures coverage for everyone, that has a measure of social equality and is not a two-tier system. But it has to be cost effective also.

"We will look into aging problems in ethnic and minority groups, especially the Hispanics."

After the year 2000 Latinos will be the largest minority group in the country, Torres-Gil said, and while "we do more for our aging in our community" there are changes in the Latino life style, "in families, more working couples," just as there are in the rest of American society.

Needs of Older Veterans

He also expressed concern about America's veterans of three wars.

"The World War II and Korea veterans are aging," he said. "As they develop health problems it results in a high cost to the Veterans Administration. The older veterans' needs are different from those of the younger.

"The VA cannot go it alone; it is concerned about the growth of this population and how to provide for it. Also, what do we do about these veterans' families and spouses?

"The Vietnam veterans population will suffer their own health problems in their 40s and 50s."

The House Select Committee on Aging operates on a budget of more than $1 million a year, which "demonstrates that Congress considers this a serious priority. We have to use it carefully; it is monitored closely and we must use it well. But it is sufficient," he said.

Torres-Gil, with a bachelor's in political science from San Jose State and master's and doctoral degrees in social policy and planning from Brandeis University, has worked previously in Washington on behalf of the aging. President Carter appointed him to the Federal Council on Aging and he served as a White House Fellow. He was a delegate to both the 1971 and 1981 White House Conferences on Aging.

'A Big Hullabaloo'

Indeed, it was the 1971 White House Conference on Aging that got Torres-Gil interested in gerontology. He went to the conference as a Brandeis graduate student "strictly to evaluate it," then found himself in the midst of "a big hullabaloo because minorities were not represented." He eventually was named a Massachusetts delegate to the conference; in 1981 he represented California.

Torres-Gil will take up his new post in Washington Monday. Moving with him is his wife, Elvira, who has been a legislative analyst for the Los Angeles City Council and has worked with the State Assembly in Sacramento and other agencies in Washington.

He made it clear, however, that he plans to return eventually to Los Angeles and to USC, where he is on a leave to be renewed annually. He had high praise for the university and said that one of the pluses of his new post in Washington is that he will be working with Stephen McConnell, staff director of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and a former colleague at the Andrus Center.

"We are bicoastal, equally at home in Los Angeles and in Washington," Torres-Gil said. "But Los Angeles is where it's at, what with the future of the Pacific Basin. What will happen will happen here first. We have the economic ties with China, Japan, all of the Pacific nations as well as with Mexico and Central and South America.

"I am very concerned about the future. Will we educate our ethnic groups so that they can participate in avionics, economics, media, trade? Will they feel equally a part of the political community? Part of whatever the business establishment is? Los Angeles has incredible potential if it can avoid the problems that have plagued cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Miami."

Plenty of Political Opportunities

Active with the East Los Angeles Jaycees, United Way and the Monterey Park Sister City Committee, Torres-Gil declined to speculate on a political career. Yet he indicated he is prepared should one develop.

"There is plenty of political opportunity for bright, ambitious, talented Hispanics," he said. "I am in no hurry. We can be patient. The future of this region really is ours. It's just a question of what we will do when we get it. I hope we will not be ethnocentrist and narrow.

"I will be back."

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