State’s circuit breaker program may have blown a fuse

May 11, 2011
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Lemont Pierce is grateful to be alive – and even more grateful that his daughter has a key to his front door.

Three weeks ago, Pierce, a 69-year old retired senior citizen living alone, was found by his daughter passed out on his kitchen floor where he had been laying unconscious for nearly three hours.

“I could have died on that floor that day,” said Pierce. “All because I couldn’t get my meds.”

Those meds, which Pierce takes for his diabetes and high blood pressure, he used to get at the clinic up the street in his Austin neighborhood. He no longer does since it closed due to budget cuts in the Illinois Community Care Program.

Under the Illinois Department on Aging, the Community Care Program (CCP) each month helps keep about 71,000 elderly residents in their own homes by providing in-home services, such as personal care, transportation, meal preparation, grocery shopping and emergency response services.

But last year, these services, which are funded by the state’s general fund, have been cut by about 20 percent – or nearly $107 million – from the $627.8 million FY2011 budget.

The circuit breaker program that helped Pierce receive his prescription medication has been eliminated altogether, affecting nearly 200,000 seniors statewide.

The program provides grants to senior citizens and persons with disabilities to help them reduce the impact of taxes and prescription medications on their lives. When the costs of property taxes and prescription medicines begin to overload seniors and persons with disabilities, this program steps in to help, just as a circuit breaker prevents overloads in an electrical system.

In past years, the Department on Aging has been able to issue circuit breaker grants for those with an income of less than $27,610. However, the current state budget did not fund the circuit breaker program at those levels, meaning thousands of seniors received 50 percent less than expected – or nothing at all.

The Department on Aging estimates it will need $701.4 million to maintain the program. And though the budget proposed for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, includes that figure, the circuit breaker tax grants and pharmaceutical assistance programs have been completely eliminated for those not on Medicaid, a joint state and federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled.

As a result, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)  and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have joined forces to push for the passage of HB 3755, which would stop cuts to senior home care.

Last Thursday, more than 125 senior citizens, health care providers and family members traveled to Springfield to meet with state Reps. Al RileyLa Shawn K. Ford and Derrick Smith to voice concerns over the cuts and help reinstate the program.

“We have a lot of members who are proud, and want to grow old in their own homes and not be forced into nursing homes,” said Laurinda Dodgen, AARP Illinois director of community outreach. “They should have that right.”

“We don’t want any cuts, and we’re serious about it,” added Jaqui Algee, director of external relations for SEIU, which represents nearly 100,000 seniors in Illinois. “That’s why we’re here.”

The proposed FY2012 Illinois budget estimates a $24.2 million savings by eliminating circuit breakers and pharmaceutical assistance.

But a 2008 study conducted by the Illinois Office of the Comptroller found these programs help save state and federal governments about $116.5 million by helping seniors remain in their homes instead of moving to more expensive nursing homes.

“Keeping seniors out of institutions costs less,” said David Vinker, AARP associate state director. “It’s critical the state makes reforms to the budget, not just for today’s seniors, but for tomorrow’s as well.”

Vinker estimates for every $1,000 spent per person per month on circuit breaker and pharmaceutical assistance, $3,000 is spent on nursing home care.

“The state is so hell bent on making cuts across the board, they can’t even see it makes no sense,” said Vinker.

Lelia Segura, a volunteer community caretaker on Chicago’s West Side, made the trip to Springfield last week to urge lawmakers to help her mother.

“I bathe her, wash her hair, brush her teeth, cook for her, whatever she needs,” said Segura. “We’re not looking for a handout, but please don’t take away the little she has.”

Asked point-blank by one concerned citizen whether he would vote for the bill, Rep. Smith said yes, but he expects there to be cuts next year.

Lemont Pierce remains undeterred.

Saying he “wouldn’t dare” resort to living in a nursing home fearing he “wouldn’t live but three months,” Pierce will continue making the three-and-a-half hour trip to Springfield and speak to whomever will listen every week if need be.

“I’m in pain and I now walk with a cane; my leg is so damaged and swollen from what happened three weeks ago,” said Pierce. “But I had to make this trip today, I just had to.”

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