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State budget cuts threaten senior services

State budget cuts threaten senior services

CATHERINE EDWARDS
Columbia Daily Tribune
March 14, 2017

Long-established programs that directly support Missouri seniors who are most in need are being debated in both Missouri House and Senate budget committees. Targeted programs include a reduction in MORx prescription drug benefits for low-income seniors, significant changes in the level of care criteria to receive Medicaid and, most recently, the elimination of property tax credits that enable seniors to stay in their homes. House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, sponsor of the legislation, seems to believe the elimination of these tax credits is necessary to spare proposed cuts to Medicaid for Missouri’s seniors. This is a false choice. It is socially divisive and financially shortsighted.

We know budgets are tight. No one understands that better than Missouri’s 1.2 million seniors and the nearly 400,000 who rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their annual income.

What do these numbers mean in real terms?

Think of it this way. For every three seniors who might cross your path on any given day, one is struggling to meet the most basic needs — food, medicine, housing and transportation. They are your neighbors, your friends, your family members, former co-workers and the very citizens who have contributed a lifetime to your community. They are a part of a growing population of Missouri’s hidden poor. They quietly live on the edge financially, some of whom lost the bulk of their retirement accounts in the recession years, or suffered catastrophic illness that wiped out most of their savings, or simply lived longer than planned. There is no going back for them. Time is not on their side. They can’t wake up tomorrow morning and launch a new career or make those long-term investments that grow into nice nest eggs. They can’t even set aside a small portion of their monthly income for unexpected expenses. This is real life.

We acknowledge our elected officials are facing tough choices. They are not alone. Each and every one of us, as citizens and voters, needs to carefully assess the current levels of funding and the effectiveness of our programs. In doing so, it is imperative for all of us to start taking a longer view of the kinds of investments that will significantly improve the quality of life and save substantial sums in the years to come. Simply put, we need to make smart investments, not settle for a quick fix to balance the state budget.

State-supported programs that truly make a difference in our lives and communities are those whose mission is to educate, protect and provide essential care. For Missouri’s seniors, access to meals, in-home care, adult day care, transportation, legal assistance, fall prevention education and wellness programs are vital investments that make a life well lived possible and, at the same time, save taxpayers millions of dollars associated with the cost of Medicaid for nursing home care. The numbers tell the story. Consider that, in 2017 dollars, it will cost Missouri taxpayers $53,000 for one senior to stay one year in a skilled Medicaid facility. The same senior, with access to Area Agency on Aging (AAA) services, could live comfortably and safely at home for $18,000 to $20,000 a year. The numbers will amplify the growing need for these services in the next 25 years when the senior population doubles in Missouri at the same time we project the number of informal caregivers will drop by almost 50 percent.

As critical as our state budget dilemma might sound, it represents a serious opportunity for Missourians to reset priorities and invest in programs that will truly deliver the goods. Our seniors have invested a lifetime of work, caring for their families and volunteering in their communities. They deserve our investment — one that will pay it forward with tremendous savings to the taxpaying public.

I urge everyone who knows a Missouri senior, lives with a Missouri senior or cares for a Missouri senior to contact his or her state senator and representative to ask them to support full funding in the fiscal 2017-2018 budget for senior centers and services. Be heard on pending legislation. Ask them to vote against the elimination of property tax credits that keep seniors in their homes. Ask them to keep MORx benefits at current levels so seniors can afford their prescriptions. And remind them that changes to Medicaid eligibility will hurt the most vulnerable, the truly poor and the disabled.

Yes, budgets are tight. It’s time to get our priorities straight. Investing in Missouri’s seniors should be one of them. It makes good financial sense, and it’s the right thing to do.

Catherine Edwards is executive director of Missouri Association of Area Agencies on Aging, which serves as a statewide advocate and resource for older Missourians.

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