COLUMBIA — Meal programs providing Missouri senior citizens with free meals at senior centers and in their homes are stretched thin by a lack of funding.
The Silver Haired Legislature, an informal body advocating for senior citizens, chose increasing and restoring funding for meal programs as the most important issue it would like to present to the Missouri General Assembly in 2012.
The Silver Haired Legislature debated on 18 different proposals before choosing five priority bills for the coming session. In addition to funding for the meals program, they were:
- Creating a Silver Alert system to locate missing seniors, especially those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
- Raising the asset level for Missouri HealthNet beneficiaries.
- Limiting interest rates and prohibiting renewals for payday loans.
- Improving the process of criminal background checks for long-term care workers
Mack Brushwood, 93, represented Columbia seniors at the session last week. He said he is active at Oakland Plaza Senior Center, where he has seen the demand for free home-delivered meals and meals at the center increase year by year.
Brushwood said he worries about the future of the meal program and what Columbia seniors would do without it.
"I cannot foresee the economy getting better for a few years," Brushwood said. "You can't expect money from the state for everything because they have to pass a balanced budget."
Funding to the meal program was cut in fiscal 2010 by about $1.4 million, said Catherine Edwards, executive director of the Missouri Association of Area Agencies on Aging. The effects of these cuts were mitigated slightly by federal stimulus money, Edwards said, but that help eventually dried up.
In January 2011, Edwards told the legislature that the cuts had forced agencies to cut staff, close centers and scale back the meal program, resulting in a decrease of tens of thousands of meals delivered.
Edwards said the cuts had come with a promise to fund the state's 10 agencies on aging with 75 percent of that $1.4 million, or about $1.05 million.
On Aug. 3, Gov. Jay Nixon released $471,000 to the agencies on aging, about half of the 75 percent Edwards said they had wanted. She said this is not enough.
"(The meal program) is the bedrock of what we do," Edwards said.
She said proper nutrition for seniors is a smart investment for the state because it keeps elderly residents in their homes instead of relying on Medicaid for nursing home care. Seniors are also more likely to buy food instead of medications if they are forced to choose between the two, she said.
The high cost of nursing home care means that even if only 90 seniors are forced to go on Medicaid to pay for it, it costs the state more than the $1.4 million it would take to fund the program fully, Edwards said.
"The impact increases because as the number of seniors increases, more are seeking home-delivered meals, and costs are increasing," she said.
Kate King, area coordinator for central Missouri, said improving funding for the meal plans has been a priority of the Silver Haired Legislature sessions for years.
"It's the most important service we offer," King said.
Brushwood, Edwards and King all said the agencies have had to rely on private donations to keep the program going, but those contributions also are diminishing.
"We had to rely on private contributions and can’t get any more out of it," King said.
"Lots of people are out of work," Brushwood said. "They may be afraid to give money because they are of the opinion that the economy will get worse before it gets better."
Edwards said the Area Agencies on Aging would not give up on receiving the $1.4 million in funding from the state.
"If these weren't tough times, we wouldn't need to be asking," Edwards said.
Many states have Silver Haired Legislatures, which bring together delegates chosen by seniors to represent their interests to their states' governing bodies. The Missouri Silver Haired Legislature held its 38th annual session Sept. 19-21 in Jefferson City.