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huffpost – COVID-19 and Congress have left seniors’ safety net in tatters

Each month, the agency where Mary Beals-Luedtka works has $ 100 to spend on grocery deliveries for a few seniors in the area. Beals-Luedtka oversees a senior services agency that spans four vast counties in northern Arizona – mostly rural, poor, and home to several Native American communities that have been devastated by COVID-19.

Case workers serve about 120 seniors each, arranging leftover meals, Medicare advice, and trips to the doctor’s office.

Which seniors get the $ 100 grocery delivery? Each speaker can choose two.

“It’s brutal,” Beals-Luedtka said. “We have to choose the people most in need, and it’s almost impossible.”

Hers is one of hundreds of federally funded senior centers and regional agencies that together maintain a frayed safety net for the country’s seniors while teetering on the edge of a financial cliff. Funded by Congress under the Older Americans Act, these are the centers that coordinate iconic programs such as meals on wheels, as well as transportation for the elderly, tech aid, home care, translation services, home modification, Medicare counseling and legal aid – anything older the person may need to live at home and avoid a premature move to a nursing home. The centers also serve many adults with disabilities and offer support to overworked home care professionals.

They are a vital resource for millions of people in normal times. During a pandemic that is particularly dangerous for the elderly and those with disabilities, their services – and the ability to live at home rather than in extended care – can mean the difference between life and death.

But funding has simply not kept pace. In the two COVID-19 relief bills passed in March, Congress set aside $ 1.05 billion in additional funds for the Older Americans Act, which turned out to be only one fraction of the overall need.

We have to choose the people most in need, and it is almost impossible.
Mary Beals-Luedtka, Director of the Regional Agency on Aging for the Northern Arizona Council of Government

“We blew our share,” Beals-Luedtka said. The funding enabled her agency to distribute two meals a day, seven days a week for three months. But the coronavirus pandemic had doubled the number of seniors, according to his agency, to more than 2,000. In July, they reduced meals to once a day, five days a week for the poorest seniors. Some customers cried when they got the phone call; a waiting list has grown to hundreds of people.

To help bridge the gap for his agency and hundreds of other sites, a bipartisan group of lawmakers initially suggested that the latest back-up plan, passed in December, include an additional $ 750 million in Americans Act funding. elderly – the same level of emergency funding as in the March Economic Relief Package.

Senators and members of the House reassured supporters until the eleventh hour that the final package contained all of the $ 750 million. But at the last minute, when the package disappeared in the leadership negotiations, supporters learned that the entire $ 750 million was on the chopping block. The final package contained just $ 175 million for meal delivery and virtually nothing for other services.

The lawyers were appalled. “Soon these crises will be happening in every state,” said Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Regional Agencies on Aging. “It’s really devastating.”

“With this latest package, we have gone from a large investment in meeting the needs of older people to stay at home – where they desperately need food, services and support – to an investment that is woefully under-sufficient to help people. live at home safely. “

Markwood is praying for more funding in a new round of COVID-19 relief under the upcoming Congress, especially now that Democrats will control the Senate.

In the meantime, centers for the elderly across the country are increasingly desperate.

In rural southeastern Illinois, administrators at the White County Senior Citizens Center recently wondered if they could do the payroll next Friday. The center provides approximately 7,000 meals per month to low-income seniors in two counties. He’s already been abandoned by his grocery seller once, and by early January the state of Illinois owed him nearly $ 59,000 in refunds. In New York, a coalition of leading lawyers recently warned the governor that a waiting list for senior services now numbers 11,000.

“Here we are.”

The challenge is a combination of enormous needs and unprecedented costs. COVID-19 has left families poorer and older people more isolated, and made caregiving potentially fatal. Just two months after the start of the pandemic, more than 90% of senior centers were serving new clients and 70% of their existing clients needed additional services, according to a survey conducted in May by the Markwood group.

Additional funds from partner cities, states and charities have dried up, while older people desperately need services that allow them to avoid fatal long-term care facilities. “Our agencies even receive calls from people who wish to take their loved ones outside long-term care, ”said Markwood.

Senior centers have dug into their pockets to turn communal dining rooms into delivery and delivery operations, to purchase new delivery vehicles and otherwise adapt their services to a world in the grip of the coronavirus crisis. Centers in northern Arizona recently found funds to provide groceries, medicine and three months of food to recovering COVID-19 patients discharging from a Navajo County hospital.

The isolation is really starting to take its toll on some of them. They need to know that someone is there.
A worker at the White County Senior Citizens Center in Carmi, Illinois

In Tucson, the funding cut forced the county’s main agency to cut a program that delivered groceries to more than 600 families in public housing. The lead agency can only afford delivery to about 150 households, without any of the subsidies it provided over the summer. “They will have to find other ways to pay for their groceries,” said W. Mark Clark, president and CEO of the Pima Council on Aging.

Beals-Luedtka offers a tier system to decide which of his elders needs the once-a-day meal deliveries his agency can afford – weekdays only.

Centers for the elderly in rural areas of the country tense. Seniors are more likely to live in rural areas, where public services are exhausted and where there are no soup kitchens or large churches.

“Here we are,” said Vicki Harrelson, who runs the White County Senior Citizens Center in Carmi, Illinois.

At its peak, the White County center delivered about 7,000 meals per month – lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and frozen meals on weekends. The center had to purchase new vans for meal deliveries and hire a dishwasher and several facility workers because the non-profit organization that previously held these positions ran out of money.

Besides meals, the center offers what is the only contact many older people have with the outside world.

“I call most of our seniors at check-in every day,” said Pam Cobb, the receptionist at the center. “My calls last longer. The isolation is really starting to take its toll on some of them. They need to know that someone is there.

They will do anything to try to serve people. But when the money runs out, they can’t.
Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Regional Agencies on Aging

The future of the center, however, is extremely precarious. An overhaul of the state’s beleaguered financial management system appears to have delayed reimbursements to many senior state centers.

The $ 59,000 the White County center has to repay, and the time to arrive, may determine whether the center can survive for a few more weeks.

Their food vendor abandoned them with unpaid bills in mid-December, then resumed deliveries after the senior center paid the vendor $ 24,000 – still not all of what he owed. The senior center cut evening meals from the first Monday of the new year, and last week it was uncertain whether the center will have the $ 14,000 it needs to pay pay on the 15th. January.

The center managed a bequest and a small loan from the Paycheck Protection Program. The budget is so meager that a local restaurant has promised to tip.

Thousands of centers have some version of this aggravating disaster, Markwood said.

“They are people with hearts of gold,” said Markwood. “They will do anything to try to serve people. But when the money runs out, they can’t.

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