Budget cuts to programs that deliver meals to homebound seniors in Illinois may force some frail elderly into nursing homes, a more expensive option for both the individuals and the state, advocates say.
Illinois lawmakers so far have protected most money for home health services, despite the state's serious financial problems. But they've whittled back programs that don't receive federal matching money, such as home-delivered meals.
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The state's recently passed budget includes a cut of $2.2 million in funding for home-delivered meals and other services for aging residents, a reduction of nearly 14 percent from the previous year.
Meanwhile, the need is increasing along with the elderly population. Illinois saw a 22 percent increase in residents age 85 and older from 2000 to 2010, according to U.S. Census data.
The loss of a home-delivered meal can be the tipping point that forces an elderly person into a nursing home, said David Vinkler of AARP Illinois. Most nursing home care in the United States is paid for by Medicaid, the federal and state program.
"It really makes no sense for the state to go that direction," Vinkler said. "People want to live in their homes and it's costing the state less when they do."
Vinkler said it's difficult to predict how many people will be affected by the cut to delivered meals and other similar services for the elderly living at home. About 40,000 Illinois residents receive, on average, three to four home-delivered meals per week. The amount of the cut represents about 400,000 meals, or enough to serve about 2,400 clients.
In the Chicago suburbs, case managers for the not-for-profit Age Options will start making tough choices about who gets meals and who doesn't, said Jonathan Lavin, the agency's president.
"People coming out of hospitals will be the first ones to be affected," Lavin said. Those people want to live at home, and can with a little assistance, but they now may be denied delivered meals, he said.
The next step is for case managers to look at each senior citizen already getting meals delivered and ask what other resources the individual may have: "Is the church going to come over? Is a neighbor coming over? Can the person go with three meals a week instead of five?"
The cuts will mean the agency serves meals to 3,900 individuals in suburban Cook County instead of 4,580, Lavin said. Some recipients make donations toward their meals and many of the delivery drivers are volunteers, he said, so it's a cost-effective way to help.
Bellwood resident Joe Lagen, 67, pays $18 a week for state-subsidized hot lunches that are delivered to his door Monday through Friday.
The program provides his only nutritionally balanced meal each day, he said. He doesn't drive anymore because of severe dizziness caused by cardiovascular disease. His wife, Doris, died in 1996. She was the cook in the family, he said, and he misses her casseroles.
For his evening meal, Lagen makes himself a bowl of soup or a sandwich.
The meal program gives Lagen's children some assurance that someone is checking on him every day and will call authorities if he doesn't answer his door, he said. For Lagen, a retired village official, it also is a break from isolation and loneliness.
"I sit here in the morning and wait for that white truck to pull up and my friend brings the boxes to the door and we chat," Lagen said. "It's a real pleasure and you don't have too many of those in life as you get older."
In Illinois, home health care hasn't experienced the cuts seen in other states, but the state government's months-long, $4 billion backlog in paying bills makes it difficult for providers, said Darby Anderson, an executive at Palatine-based Addus HealthCare. The publicly traded company gets about 40 percent of its revenue from the state of Illinois and provides home health care services to 12,000 people in 96 counties.
The company now waits for payment up to 120 days from Illinois, Anderson said. The unpredictability makes it difficult for the company to work with banks on financing, he said.