Metro-East News

Want to participate in Meals on Wheels? Be prepared to wait.

On weekdays, Millstadt Senior Center driver Larry Sanders makes about 15 stops, including one to Marcela Klein’s house.

Klein, 97, who lives alone near Smithton, had a knee replacement and still uses a walker. She gets meals five days a week through the center’s Meals on Wheels program.

“(The meal) is pretty important; I’m always in constant pain, and I can’t go shopping, much less can I prepare a balanced meal,” she said.

Klein is lucky. Any new seniors who want to join the Meals on Wheels program will added to a waiting list.

Even though a state budget has been in place since summer, the backlog of bills has curtailed payments to area providers of home-delivered meals to seniors, so they are starting a waiting list.

The $9.7 billion state bill backlog has meant AgeSmart Community Resources has not been able to distribute state money meant to help pay for weekday meals for seniors that allow them to stay at home. AgeSmart has not received state money for the program during this fiscal year.

So it started a waiting list, instead of accepting more clients to add to the current 1,300 people they serve.

AgeSmart allocates the money to 11 agencies such as the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in East St. Louis, and Senior Service Plus, in St. Clair, Madison, Bond, Clinton, Monroe, Randolph and Washington counties to provide meals to senior citizens in their homes. Some of the agencies provide a meal five days a week; others such as Senior Services Plus delivers a hot meal on Monday and Wednesday and frozen meals for the other days.

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This fiscal year, AgeSmart is slated to receive $413,396 in federal money and $871,200 from the state to distribute to grantees to provide the meals.

“We met with our grantees, the folks who are distributing the meals, and to stop the bleeding they said, ‘Let’s freeze the (list) right now,’ ” said Joy Paeth, CEO of AgeSmart. “We’ve had people who say, ‘I don’t think we could do this anymore,’ and we said, ‘Well just hold on, lets see if there’s some money coming in.’ 

Paeth said no one is in crisis, but AgeSmart expects to have more requests for meals in January.

Paeth said the number of requests fluctuates, but the biggest request time is January, after the holidays, when out-of-town adult children visit their parents and see a situation has deteriorated, and that their parent may not be doing well.

AgeSmart and the local agencies it funds had a waiting list during the budget impasse, until a court order led the state to distribute some money for the home-delivered meal program. People on the waiting list were served, but then the money slowed down, so the waiting list is coming back.

Locally, the wait list reached 263 people during the year and a half it was in place, she said.

“People don’t go on and off this program,” Paeth said. “They do get an annual assessment. ... Sometimes the people who are providing the meals know that Mary is doing much better now and is on her own, and sometimes the recipients themselves say, ‘I’m good, I don’t need the meal anymore,’ (but) that doesn’t really happen. Usually these folks are really frail.”

The state’s budget, included an income tax increase, and was adopted by the General Assembly after lawmakers voted to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto.

“What’s really frustrating is, we all paid into extra taxes. All the bond money went into Medicaid and to state health insurance,” Paeth said. “So none of it came to us ... it’s exhausting.”

Jonathan Becker, executive director of Senior Services Plus, said the agency does ask for a suggested donation of $4 per meal from its seniors.

“We have to raise those funds to make the program work,” Becker said.

However the average donation per meal is down to 32 cents. Eleven years ago it was 82 cents, Becker said.

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“It means we’re serving some of the poorest people out there,” he said.

The Illinois Department of Aging has sent six vouchers to the state comptroller totaling $242,222 to pay for home-delivered meals that are paid for through AgeSmart. The vouchers were sent in November, said Department on Aging Communications Director Michael Dropka.

The state allocated $21 million for home-delivered meals throughout Illinois for the fiscal year that runs from July 1 to June 30.

“The Home Delivered Meals program is critical to health and quality of life for older adults,” Dropka said. “We agree with AgeSmart and implore the comptroller to release the funds that they need.”

With the passage of the budget, the state was able to borrow $6 billion in order to bring down the bill backlog from $16.7 billion. It is currently $9.7 billion, according to the comptroller’s office.

“That being said, as a result of the lack of a complete budget for two years, the state’s bill backlog more than tripled,” said Jamey Dunn, a comptroller’s spokeswoman. “Even with an enacted FY18 budget, payments will continue to be delayed until the backlog is reduced.”

Dunn said the comptroller’s office has bills from March still waiting to be paid. By the end of the year, the comptroller’s office expects to be caught up to April.

Dunn said the comptroller’s office has worked within financial constraints and paid $107 million for Department of Aging programs in the last month. The office also plans to pay the rest of 2017 fiscal year vouchers for the Department on Aging by the end of December, which would mean $422,000 would come to AgeSmart, she added.

The comptroller’s office received vouchers for the 2018 fiscal year’s Meals on Wheels program in November, and it expects “to be able to prioritize those bills soon,” Dunn said.

“We’re still dealing with delays and will continue until there’s some plan to address it,” she said. Dunn said a plan would have to come from the Legislature and governor through the budgeting process.

Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter

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