Metro-East News

AgeSmart resorts to fundraising to deal with state budget impasse

Twice a week, 95-year-old Pauline Wells of Alton receives a hot meal and one or two frozen meals that are delivered through Senior Services Plus.

After breaking her hip two years ago, she can no longer stand long enough to cook for herself.

“I don’t drive anymore,” Wells said. “Getting groceries, I have to have someone else to do that. Meals on Wheels comes the same time every week, you can almost set your watch by them.”

However, the service used to deliver a hot meal five times a week. Wells said she’s also noticed that the vegetables aren’t filled to the rim.

Services for seniors such as Meals on Wheels or transportation to doctor’s appointments could see additional cutbacks come Feb. 1, because of the state budget impasse, AgeSmart Community Resources says.

Because of the lack of a state budget, AgeSmart is seeking donations through its website to help fill a $500,000 financing gap.

The organization says it may have stop providing funding for services such as meals on wheels, transportation, and legal assistance, among other things and could affect up to 900 people.

The Belleville-based group, previously known as the Area Agency on Aging, helps provide and coordinate services for people 60 years and older and their caregivers in seven counties in Southwestern Illinois – Bond, Clinton, Madison, Monroe, Randolph, St. Clair, and Washington.

It receives federal and state funding, as well as funding from the United Way and other donors. Contributions from clients also help make up the $4 million budget. State funding makes up about $1.5 million of the organization’s annual budget, but $500,000 has not come in.

Illinois has not had a budget in place since its 2016 fiscal year began July 1. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratically controlled General Assembly have not been able to come to an agreement on a budget.

However, the state is spending at 90 percent levels of the 2015 budget and unpaid bills continue to mount.

AgeSmart, which is one of 13 Area Agencies on Aging in the state, also distributes money to other area organizations that serve seniors. According to AgeSmart, 10 percent of metro-east seniors currently using services won’t have access to services beginning in February.

You can’t spend what you don’t have. We’ve been trying to write (for) grants to organizations that are new to us.

Joy Paeth, chief executive officer AgeSmart Community Resources

Joy Paeth, the chief executive officer for AgeSmart, said services could end on Feb. 1 because that is when all federal funding will be exhausted.

“We don’t know how we’ll recreate the services we have,” Paeth said.

“You can’t spend what you don’t have,” Paeth said. “We’ve been trying to write (for) grants to organizations that are new to us.”

In order to save money, the organization has cut back on staff from 15 full-time equivalents to nine, Paeth said. It also has eliminated travel and is looking at its health insurance costs, Paeth said.

“Really we’re doing everything we can,” Paeth said.

In October, two staff members at AgeSmart left and weren’t replaced. Those staff members helped seniors navigate Medicare open enrollment process. Seniors were eventually sent to a Medicare hotline for help.

“Transportation is going to be the biggest concern (and) the biggest challenge will be organizations already struggling,” Paeth said.

AgeSmart is asking for donations on its website and has sent out fundraising appeals.

A six-person group that includes a case manager and a service provider among others will decide how to spend donations to AgeSmart, Paeth said.

The aim would be to help those who are most frail, Paeth said.

Paeth said if lawmakers are able to come to an agreement on a budget before Feb. 1, and it included no reductions for senior services, her agency would be able to avoid service reductions.

One of the organizations that could be hurt is HealthVisions Midwest in East St. Louis. The agency, which provides case management, healthy living workshops, and outreach programs, among other things, receives money from AgeSmart to provide transportation for seniors.

Paula Wills, the executive director of the office, said HealthVisions provides rides to about 150 people a year. Volunteers take people to dialysis appointments, cancer treatments, to the grocery store among other locations.

“This is a major problem for us,” Wills said. “We provide transport for seniors who are unable to take public transportation and need assistance.”

The organization serves people in East St. Louis, Washington Park, Cahokia, Centreville, Alorton and Fairmont City, among other towns with predominantly low-income areas.

The volunteers use their own vehicles and are reimbursed 45 cents a mile, and most medical appointments are to locations in Belleville, Swansea, Fairview Heights and St. Louis, Wills said.

The reimbursement rate was reduced a year and a-half ago from 55 cents, and the organization did lose some volunteers.

We’re doing everything we can. We’re telling seniors to call and encourage (legislators) to realize the gravity of the situation. It’s transportation that is affected, meals affected, people are hurting... We’re serving the most vulnerable population and the people who have the quietest voice.

Paula Wills, executive director HealthVisions Midwest in East St. Louis

Mileage reimbursements is one of HealthVisions largest expenses, Wills said.

“What we need is people able to provide transportation who don’t need the reimbursement,” Wills said.

However, most of the volunteer drivers are retired and need the income that comes from the mileage.

Wills said drivers are being asked to take the shortest route. HealthVisions also is looking at having staff take seniors to appointments if the seniors live close to the HealthVisions office.

“We’re doing everything we can,” Wills said. “We’re telling seniors to call and encourage (legislators) to realize the gravity of the situation. It’s transportation that is affected, meals affected, people are hurting ... We’re serving the most vulnerable population and the people who have the quietest voice.”

Because of the budget impasse, and the initial delay of federal funds being released by the state to local agencies, Meals on Wheels delivered and coordinated by Senior Services Plus, had to be reduced two months ago from five days to two days a week. Seniors still received five meals a week, but only two of them were hot. Other meals are frozen.

Meals are delivered to 600 seniors in St. Clair and Madison County and there are 130 seniors on a waiting list.

Theresa Collins, the associate director of Senior Services Plus said some clients don’t even have access to reheat frozen meals.

Senior Services Plus, which is a nonprofit group, also has reduced the amount of employees it has delivering meals.

“These are guys who have been with us a long time,” Collins said. “They care about people and help support people in their own communities.”

The seniors we serve are the most vulnerable, medically frail people. These people have supported our community their whole lives. These are good people. Now that they need us the most, they’re being dumped on.

Jonathan Becker, executive director Senior Services Plus

Collins said home delivery of meals is a cost effective way to keep people living independently in their own houses.

“Seeing these cuts has been really terrible,” Collins said. “We’re worried about further cuts.”

Wells, the senior who lives in Alton, said she worries about seniors who live alone and don’t have family nearby. People who deliver meals also are able to do a daily checkup on seniors.

“If you’re an older person and lived by yourself and had no connections, that (driver) might be only person you saw this week,” Wells said.

With AgeSmart saying it will cut off funding on Feb. 1, Senior Services Plus has been asked to reduce meal delivery costs again. How those reductions will take place has yet to be determined.

“Our plan as an agency is to provide service as long as we can through whatever means available to us,” Collins said.

“We had to think long and hard of what we’ll do, but we can’t leave these people in the cold and can’t leave them hungry,” Collins said.

Senior Services Plus Executive Director Jonathan Becker said his agency has billed the state $2 million for services since July. However it only has received 30 percent of what its owed.

341 seniors a month who depend on transportation, won’t able to get a ride to places the need to get to such as a doctor’s appointment, grocery store or a senior center.

195 seniors a month won’t get daily meals through the Meals on Wheels program. Currently there are 230 people on a waiting list for Meals on Wheels.

134 seniors a month won’t be able to access legal services, residential repair and renovation services or assisted transportation.

“Bills don’t come in at 40 or 50 percent, they come in at 100 percent,” Becker said. “It’s criminal we have to borrow money to pay our bills.”

“The seniors we serve are the most vulnerable, medically frail people,” Becker said. “These people have supported our community their whole lives. These are good people. Now that they need us the most, they’re being dumped on.”

To contribute to AgeSmart go to www.agesmart.org. For more information, call 800-326-3221.

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