Blunt’s budget to cut funds for arthritis centers

Exercise programs for seniors at risk to be closed.
Sunday, May 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:20 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

“One, two, take your time, three, four, shoulders back, five, six, happy thoughts and a big smile — all together,” exercise instructor Fabiola Lopez shouts in time to the music of Frank Sinatra while 13 seniors gently raise their arms and legs.

The 11 women and two men remain seated in plastic chairs, their movements limited by various degrees of arthritis.

Soon, exercise programs at the Central Missouri Regional Arthritis Center in Columbia and at six other centers statewide could also be grounded, as a result of Gov. Matt Blunt’s planned budget cuts.

At Blunt’s request, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is reducing its budget by $14.9 million, part of the proposed $239 million cut in state spending, which if passed would go into effect July 1.

The cuts include the elimination of all state money provided to the regional arthritis centers, each of which annually receives $30,776.

Should the cuts receive legislative approval, the centers would rely solely on $20,004 in annual funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“For our participants, we train exercise leaders and we will not be able to offer the number of exercise classes and leaders in the areas,” said Marilee Bomar, assistant director of the Columbia center, which serves 24 mid-Missouri counties and was established in 1984.

Arthritis is ranked seventh in a list of the top 10 most expensive diseases by the national Agency for Healthcare Research Quality. Without affordable or free

services to help arthritis sufferers learn to live independently, more people could require additional care and, in the worst case scenario, end up in nursing homes, Bomar said.

Monthly memberships are $37. Participants can also purchase a punch card for individual classes.

Some of the other state centers, including Springfield and Kirksville, don’t charge for classes.

For Omalou McBride, 62, a $40 punch card gets her 12 visits to the People with Arthritis Can Exercise classes. “The expertise of these people helps us exercise without hurting ourselves, and I don’t think I would be able to function alone,” she said. “Sometimes I feel really bad, but I always try to get up and come because I always feel better after.”

Besides providing physical exertion, the class is an important social hour for many participants. By telling jokes and making plans for the weekend, members interact with each other, share their lives and are comforted in knowing that others have to cope with the same pains.

“It’s the togetherness,” said class member Carita Roach, 78, who works out with her husband. “I would not do this at home.”

Roach is one of the more ambitious participants, sticking around after class for an extra half hour to follow Lopez in a light aerobics workout.

After the more difficult exercises, everyone let out sighs, small grunts and shouts of accomplishment. One participant asked why they always have to do eight more repetitions.

“Because the music is in 32 counts,” Lopez said.

Nancy Smith, who has been attending for the past three months, joked that Lopez doesn’t know how to count, often making them do eight more repetitions.

“She’s challenged when it comes to counting,” she said. Smith, 67, had to quit her job because of osteoarthritis, which affects her joints. The class has increased her flexibility, balance and strength.

In addition to classes, the regional arthritis centers use state and federal money to train exercise leaders and provide free information referrals. The centers also offer presentations to community and professional organizations, which Bomar said would be one of the first services to go if the cuts are administered.

Some budget cuts have already been implemented mid-year. In early April, the state eliminated $6,973 from each center for the current fiscal year. Health Department officials do not know how much federal support will be available to cover the gap in the coming year.

When considering what to cut out of the budget, Gov. Blunt looked for programs and services that received funding from other sources to lighten the impact, spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said.

“The reality is the reductions are spread across many state agencies,” Robinson said. “The decisions were made with careful thought and analysis, and they complement the priorities of mainstream Missourians to increase funding for education, to hold the line on taxes and to ask state government to do more with less.”

Lopez and other instructors teach classes to 46 members in Columbia. Hundreds more take classes organized by the center throughout central Missouri.

Margaret Lindsey, director of the Southwest Regional Arthritis Center in Springfield, said the centers have encouraged participants to write to state legislators.

“Missouri has been a leader in arthritis programs since before 1985,” Lindsey said. “And we would hate to lose that.”

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