Advocates for seniors see crisis on the horizon

mlee@macon.comJanuary 25, 2014 

ATLANTA -- Some 11,000 older Georgians are waiting for home-based services to which they are entitled, such as Meals on Wheels or respite care. The state budget, however, promises little relief in the near future.

“I’ve been waiting eight years,” said 83-year-old Ida Floyd, a lifelong Macon resident. “I’d like to know when I will ever get some help if I don’t get it now.

“I get Meals on Wheels, and I’m thankful for that,” she said. But “to tell the truth, I need a home health nurse.”

She has arthritis and a bad back, takes 18 medications daily and is just recovering from pneumonia. Her children live in College Park and South Carolina. Floyd’s neighbors help with things such as shopping, but she doesn’t like to feel that she’s imposing on them. Or, recently, expose them to pneumonia.

Of the thousands of other Georgians like Floyd, about 82 percent “have conditions that would make them eligible for skilled nursing home care,” said Vicki Johnson, legislative chair for the Georgia Council on Aging. That’s a 20-member panel in charge of advising state government on senior citizen issues.

This year, one of the council’s priorities is advocating more funding for home-based services.

Many people on the waiting list are not poor enough to be Medicare eligible, yet they can’t afford the full cost of the home services they need.

Care in the home costs nearly $1,900 per person per year, according to the council’s math. The state share of a Medicaid nursing home bed is more like $8,000. A spot in a nursing home costs nearly $30,500.

Besides the cost savings, most people want to stay in their own homes, Johnson said.

Georgians can sign up for services at their regional Area Agency on Aging. The Middle Georgia AAA covers Macon-Bibb, adjacent counties, plus Pulaski, Twiggs, Baldwin and Putnam. Each agency gets a certain state appropriation, which it uses to pay contractors to provide services.

The council recommends that Georgia spend $10 million between two major programs in the year beginning this coming July: $6 million for home-based services and another $4 million for Adult Protective Services workers.

That $6 million would make a “dent” in the waiting list but not clear it, said Kathy Floyd, advocacy director for AARP Georgia.

What’s on the table is only about 10 percent of that $10 million. That’s what’s allocated in Gov. Nathan Deal’s draft budget for the fiscal year beginning in July. That would fund 11 APS positions plus cash for emergency placements -- somewhere to put seniors who are in immediate danger.

“The Aging Division is only 3 percent of the total (Department of Human Services) budget, yet the Aging Division is bearing 43 percent of the cuts” in the proposed budget, she said, and the cuts are reaching a “crisis.”

Last year, a north Georgia Alzheimer’s patient was shot to death after he wandered onto a stranger’s front porch. The GBI shut down an Alzheimer’s care home in Commerce, charging the owner with abuse, neglect and financial exploitation.

The budget is also silent on funding to start a licensing regimen for adult day cares. The Georgia code already authorizes the Department of Community Health to license such facilities, but no funding is available, according to a department spokeswoman. Finalizing rules for such facilities and actually doing the licensing will not happen until money is allocated.

Budget hearings will be scheduled soon.

Coming sooner ... or later

A few pieces of legislation relating to aging services are moving through the state Legislature. And the topic of senior services may be headed for more attention in the coming years.

One bill would create a new Adult and Aging Services Agency to take over functions of the Aging Division in the Department of Human Services. The new agency would have its own board and be part of DHS for administrative purposes only.

Such a move would give aging services a higher profile and its own budget line, things that are important in annual state budget negotiations.

The other would create an Alzheimer’s registry, meant to collect data on the prevalence of the disease in order to make further policy decisions.

On Thursday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee unanimously passed the two measures, Senate bills 291 and 292, which are both by state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford. Both now head to the Rules Committee.

Two key House members are definitely paying attention.

“I think home-based services is something we could really do a great job with,” said state Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, chair of the Human Relations and Aging Committee.

“We’re an aging population, and so this is a new emphasis,” said state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Both of them also served on the Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias State Plan Task Force. The conclusions of their summer hearings are due in March.

Ida Floyd also said she has a message for the governor’s office -- and the White House.

“We need more help,” she said. “They’re not allocating enough money for the people who don’t have.”

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