03/31/13 — Commission: Fees for seniors?

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Commission: Fees for seniors?

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 31, 2013 1:50 AM

The Wayne County Commission continued its questioning of department heads this past week, with a pair of sessions Thursday covering five areas of operations -- and including a question about instituting fees at the new Wayne County Senior Center.

Commissioner Joe Daughtery asked if user fees have ever been considered for people using the Center, the use of which is currently offered free of charge to all Wayne County residents age 60 and older.

He made his comments during a presentation by Services on Aging Director Eryn McAuliffe concerning her department, the county's aging population and the center's grant funding, including $100,000 for transportation.

Daughtery said the proposed increases in the population suggested that perhaps the money might not be there in the future to handle the needs of the seniors.

"The projections are that we are looking at an aging population of 26,000 seniors in Wayne County (in the future), and how do we provide this level of service going forward if the cost to the county at this point is at this level?" Daughtery said. "What is it going to be? I think we are all going to have to make some tough decisions as we are looking at that.

"No one likes to look at everything from the standpoint of cost, but we are forced to do that."

That prompted a rebuke from Commissioner John Bell.

"Seniors have paid their way if you stop and think about it," Bell said.

Commissioner Ed Cromartie agreed, adding the services provided are critical.

He said he sees senior citizens being transported every day to the doctor or for treatments that allow them to remain at home.

"It is Wayne County folks who are using these services, and they did, and they do pay their taxes," he said. "That is a service that I am proud that we can afford."

Ms. McAuliffe told Daughtery that she wanted him to understand that the $100,000 she was talking about was 100 percent grant. It stipulates that no fees can be charged, she said.

"We allow people the opportunity to share in the cost, and they can give if they want," Ms. McAuliffe said.

Daughtery said he was not talking about transportation, but rather the other services at the center.

Fees cannot be charged for programs that are paid for through grants, she said.

Charging fees would mean that the center would no longer be a state-designated "Senior Center of Excellence" which brings with it an additional $11,753 from the state, Ms. McAuliffe said.

"It would have to be something that is solely county money that would allow you to charge a user fee," she said.

"Most of the federal grants in the senior programs won't allow us because we have researched it," County Manager Lee Smith said. "In most cases it will not allow you to charge. They can volunteer (to pay). It is like the meals (served by WAGES at the center). You cannot charge, but they can give something if they choose."

"So if we decided to charge, we would lose $500,000 a year (in grants)," Ms. McAuliffe said.

"So here is the string," Daughtery said. "We are going to give you a grant, federal dollars, but as the result of that there will be no user fees at all."

That is correct, Smith and Ms. McAuliffe said.

Except for only those county-owned and funded programs, Smith added.

"There are local programs that you could," he said. "The flip side of this, and I am going to sound like an advocate. But this is not advocacy, it is just the issue about dealing with the issue of seniors and quality of life and staying at home."

Assisted living or nursing homes cost $6,000 to $8,000 a month per person, which is typically paid by Medicaid, he said. Helping to keep people at home means that instead of having to pay nursing homes, the county receives the grants to help with the center.

So instead of paying the money for just two patients, the county can use that same amount to serve 500 people at the Senior Center, Smith said,

"But we get what you are saying, and we examine it all of the time," he said. "As that number grows, I think we are absolutely going to have to look at how we contend with that, but you make a great point."

Daughtery said the center's respite program for Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers was "commendable."

"But with that in mind are none of those services, none of those are billable to Medicaid?" he said.

The center screens for people who qualify for such programs, Ms. McAuliffe said.

"If you have Medicaid, you are expected to go to a program that Medicaid can offer you," she said. "It is like our transportation, we don't transport a senior who qualifies for Medicaid. They can get Medicaid elsewhere."

Ms. McAuliffe said she would make the argument that aside from the fitness programs offered at the center that keep people healthy and out of nursing homes that the center is an asset that attracts people.

"We want Seymour Johnson Air Force Base to stay," she said. "We want them to be happy. I have a lot of retired military who are coming to the Senior Center and love it.

"So this is an attraction to Wayne County. There are not many counties that have such a lovely facility and so much to offer its seniors here. The seniors are paying taxes. They don't have children in school system so it is a benefit worth the cost to you."