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Budget cuts force senior aid agency to drop services

POSTED: December 11, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

The Legacy Link 2008 RSVP Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon brought hundreds of volunteers Wednesday to the Georgia Mountains Center. Legacy Link, the Area Agency on Aging in Gainesville, has almost 500 volunteers.

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  • Legacy Link director Pat Freeman talks about the budget cuts.

About 750 people are on a waiting list to receive services from Legacy Link, the Area Agency on Aging in Gainesville. But they might remain on that list indefinitely, as state budget cuts have curtailed the agency’s ability to provide services.

"The first round of cuts came in August," Legacy Link director Pat Freeman said. "About $193,000 in state funding was removed from our budget. We lost money for our wellness program, and we lost a staff person who had been helping with planning for long-term needs."

Freeman said they managed to pull together some money from elsewhere in the budget to continue a version of the wellness program.

But soon, state officials are expected to announce another round of cuts that could be more painful.

"The money that will be cut next will be from the respite program," Freeman said. "We haven’t been told how much that will be."

Respite programs provide part-time care for elderly clients so family members can take a break. Legacy Link also contracts with companies to provide personal care aides, who help clients with tasks such as bathing, and homemaker aides, who help with housework.

Freeman said about 300 people currently are receiving homemaker or personal care services, but almost 600 more are on waiting lists. Another 150 or so are waiting to get into other programs such as Meals on Wheels.

"We’ve been told to freeze enrollment," Freeman said. "We may even have to drop some existing people from the rolls. This has never happened to us. There’s been state downturns before, but we’ve never been asked to take money out of an existing contract."

Some programs, including Meals on Wheels, can be administered with the help of volunteers. Freeman said Legacy Link has almost 500 volunteers working throughout the community.

"We rely on volunteers all the time. They’re all over the place," she said.

But volunteers cannot legally provide services such as patient care, which must be performed by licensed professionals in order to be reimbursed by Medicaid.

For years, groups that advocate for the elderly in Georgia have been trying to get funding redirected from nursing homes toward home care. Many seniors could continue to live in their own homes if they had someone to help them occasionally with things they can no longer do for themselves.

Home care is far less expensive than living in a long-term care facility. Freeman said the state’s attempt to save money in the short run could be costly down the road.

"There will be people who have to go into a nursing home because of this (cutback on home care)," she said. "And the state’s expenditure will be much higher. That’s the illogic of it."

The budget crunch at Legacy Link also will affect several partnering agencies. For example, Legacy Link normally provides $100,000 of the $420,000 annual budget for the Guest House, an adult day care center for elderly and dementia patients.

"They called me Tuesday and told me not to put any more clients into the program," Guest House director Jocelyn Pryor said. "It’s sending me into a tailspin."

The full rate for the Guest House’s day program can be up to $65 a day.

"But some of our clients don’t have to pay that much because they get a cost-share through Legacy Link," Pryor said. "If that goes away, some of them might not be able to afford our services."

She said Legacy Link helps fund two programs, one for Alzheimer’s patients and one for respite care.

"Without that, we would be struggling," she said. "We can’t cut personnel because state guidelines require a certain client/staff ratio."

Pryor still hopes services for the elderly will be spared when the General Assembly compiles next year’s state budget.

"We were lucky to escape the last round of cuts (in August)." she said. "Now we just have to wait and see what the legislature does in January."

But Pryor admits it’s hard to feel optimistic. Gov. Sonny Perdue has asked for across-the-board cuts from every state agency, so it’s unlikely that programs for seniors will be singled out for special treatment.

Freeman said Legacy Link will search for other sources of funding to keep its programs afloat.

"We’re looking at grants that may be available," she said. "But it’s very competitive. A lot of foundations are cutting back, too."



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