Sunday, April 21, 2002

Unspent county dollars help elderly

$1M helps shrink wait list to zero

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After Sally Westerbeck's weak heart threatened her life, it began threatening her and her husband's way of life.

        Married for 55 years, Sally and Al Westerbeck say staying in the Pleasant Ridge home on Woodford Road they have shared since 1967 means the world to them.

        The Elderly Services Program is able to help nearly 8,000 county residents like the Westerbecks stay in their homes rather than being institutionalized in nursing homes.

        “We want to stay in our own home,” Mrs. Westerbeck said. “Al has a fear of nursing homes. I don't think he would survive a nursing home. Our home is safe.”

        The program costs $15.5 million a year, and is celebrating elimination of a backlog of clients waiting to be enrolled.

        For the Westerbecks, the program pays for a cleaning lady to come into the home once a week to do housework, including laundry, which requires navigating basement stairs which neither of the Westerbecks can manage.

        Other county residents get home-delivered meals, personal grooming, companionship, and transportation at a sliding scale cost all can afford.

        About 75 percent of the people in the Elderly Services Program have severe disabilities, meaning they would likely end up in nursing homes but for the program.

        Bob Logan, chief executive officer for the Council on Aging for Southwest Ohio, said it's much cheaper — not to mention more effective — to give those people the help they need so they can stay in their own homes.

        The program used to have a waiting list 1,000 people strong. But about a year ago, Hamilton County commissioners agreed to use $1 million in unspent tax levy dollars to reduce that number. That money was combined with private donations along with federal and state dollars to whittle away the waiting list.

        Today, the waiting list is zero.

        “A little over a year ago, that waiting list looked unreachable,” said Mr. Logan, adding that the average income for people in the program is about $1,000 per month. “When you're on that kind of income, you're making decisions for heat, food and medication. We're so lucky to have this.”

        County Commissioner Todd Portune agrees. He said the program is “incredibly meaningful.” It also makes financial sense — the program costs about $300 per month for each client while Medicaid nursing home care costs about $4,000 per month.

        “I just think it was the right thing to do,” Mr. Portune said. “It made no sense to me to have Hamilton County seniors who are in desperate need of this help to be put on a waiting list when we had the capacity to help.”

        But elimination of the waiting list does come with some political baggage, pointed out Commissioner Tom Neyer.

        With the levy up for renewal in November, some might argue that the $1 million in unspent funds prove the levy rate was too high. Council on Aging officials say a levy increase will be necessary to keep the waiting list at zero.

        “Particularly in today's difficult economy, it made sense to put every service dollar we could on the street,” Mr. Neyer said. “Clearly, keeping people well- served and in their homes is a more humane as well as a less expensive strategy. It just seemed worth the political risk.”

        Mr. Logan said there is proof that the program works. Twenty-seven percent of the seniors who left the program did so because of improved health. That compares to 22 percent who left to live in a nursing home.

        “Before the levy, if you were very, very poor or if you had money you could get service,” Mr. Logan said. “We wanted to design this program above the Medicaid limits and serve the population that couldn't afford care.

        “It's one of few programs like this in the country. We're hitting the people how really need it most.”


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