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Advocates for the elderly have these 2 priorities for state legislators

Advocates for Georgia’s elderly population will be focusing on helping seniors access affordable independent housing and transportation when the Georgia General Assembly reconvenes in 2020.

Coalition of Advocates for Georgia’s Elderly, the advocacy division of the Georgia Council on Aging, a state agency, has approved its 2020 legislative priorities through a vote from its members, who are representatives of organizations that work with the elderly population.

While the General Assembly is done meeting for the year, work continues in committees, and legislators will begin introducing and voting on bills again in early 2020.

One focus will be helping seniors have options to live independently rather than go into a nursing home, which can be costly.

“Most seniors would rather age in place and stay in their home,” said Don Colombero, chief operations officer at Legacy Link, an area agency on aging based in Oakwood.

CO-AGE plans to advocate for $10 million more in state funding for programs that provide in-home care. According to the Georgia Council on Aging, the state’s portion of a Medicaid nursing home bed averages $21,250 per year, while the state’s portion of the bill for in-home care averages $4,447 a year. In-home services can delay a move to a nursing home by an average of 51 months, according to the GCOA.

The Community Care Services Program is a Medicaid waiver services program that provides support services to seniors as an alternative to nursing home placement. The Georgia Department of Community Health contracts with area agencies on aging, including Legacy Link, to administer the program. Home and Community Based Services is a similar non-Medicaid program.

Advocates also hope to expand access to behavioral health services for adults living in affordable housing sites. The program, which would involve providing behavioral health coaches and getting residents to clinicians for treatment, has been used as a pilot project with the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Area Agency on Aging. The GCOA and CO-AGE hope to expand the program using state funding.

Another priority for the GCOA and CO-AGE is creating more affordable senior housing options, such as allowing Medicaid funding to pay for assisted living facilities. A House Study Committee on Innovative Financial Options for Senior Living, chaired by State Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, will begin meeting in September, and advocates hope to work with the committee.

Colombero said finding affordable housing can be a struggle for local seniors.

“A lot of them will have to have roommates to try to find decent housing,” he said.

Transportation will be another focus of the GCOA and CO-AGE during the 2020 legislative session. According to the GCOA, more than 260,000 Georgians age 70 and over no longer drive, but 36 of Georgia’s 159 counties do not have public transportation.

“Accessible and affordable transportation is one of the most unmet needs seniors have, and the most requested,” Vicki Johnson, chair of the Georgia Council on Aging, said in a statement. “Not having access to transportation can lead to critical social determinants of health, leading to medical problems, social isolation and depression.”

During the 2019 legislative session, House Bill 511 was introduced to create new “Mobility Zones” throughout the state to help older Georgians, especially in rural areas. The bill passed in the House and has been sent to the Senate.

Hall County does offer public transit in some portions of the county, along with the Dial-A-Ride service, which residents can use to request a ride at a specific time.

Colombero said transportation can be tied to health care if seniors cannot get to their medical appointments.

“A lot of times they may be home-bound or not driving anymore, and it can be expensive for them to take a cab, and sometimes they may have to go to a specialist that may be several miles away,” he said.

Colombero said the nonprofit ITNLanier is another resource for local seniors who need transportation somewhere and is a lower-cost alternative to a taxi.

Costs can add up quickly for seniors, between housing, medications and transportation, Colombero said, and Social Security has not kept up with increases in living costs, leaving some seniors struggling.

“I know when I was 16 years old, you didn’t see seniors stocking groceries on a grocery shelf. The reason you see seniors working at the ages they do is the costs of their medications. … That cost, as opposed to the cost of housing and getting to appointments, really puts a crimp on their income,” he said.

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