TOMS RIVER – Ocean County officials say state funding cuts to important senior citizen programs need to be revisited and the funding needs to be reinstated.
"Many of our seniors are vulnerable and the programs and services provided are lifelines in many ways," said Ocean County Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari, Chairman of the Ocean County Office of Senior Services. "State cuts reduce our ability to provide essential services to our seniors.
"With across the board increases being proposed for every day costs of living, and a small 1.6 percent increase in Social Security benefits, combined with cuts in state funding, our seniors are forced to make decisions on whether to pay to keep a roof over their head or purchase life sustaining medications," Vicari said. "No one should have to face making that kind of decision."
Ocean County is home to more than 173,000 senior citizens and 30 percent of them rely solely on monthly Social Security checks to cover their living expenses.
A recent 1.6 percent cost of living adjustment for Social Security provides seniors about an additional $400 more per year.
"When you have utilities increasing by 10 percent along with essentials like food prices going up, insurance increases, $400 doesn't go very far," Vicari said. "The cost of living adjustment over the last five years has averaged only about 1.3 percent, that's during those years our seniors received one.
"It's important our seniors receive an ample benefit from a program most have paid into all of their working days," he said. "Our seniors rely on Social Security."
Vicari added that two programs that help keep seniors living independently - Jersey Assistance for Community Caregiving (JACC) and home health aide services provided by Visiting Home Care Service of Ocean County – are experiencing severe funding cuts by the state.
The freeholders agreed during a preboard meeting to call upon the state to reinstate the funds. In addition, the Board will reach out to the state representatives in the 9th, 10th, 12th and 30th districts to determine whether there are ways this could be remedied.
"It's important we work with the state legislative districts representing Ocean County," said Ocean County Freeholder Director Virginia E. Haines. "These cuts effect their constituents as well and we need to work together."
According to Maria LaFace, Director of the Ocean County Office of Senior Services, JACC is a state funded program that provides a broad array of in-home services to enable an individual at risk of placement in a nursing facility and who meets the income requirement, to remain in their community home. The program provides a unique array of supports intended to delay or prevent placement in a nursing facility.
JACC recipients all receive care management who prepare and execute a plan of care for the clients. Services to be delivered include respite care, homemakers services, personal emergency response systems, home delivered meals, transportation, adult day care, special medical equipment or supplies, caregiver training, home health aide services.
Vicari noted that in the state fiscal year 2019, Ocean County was awarded $1,067,970 for JACC services and in state fiscal year 2020, that total has decreased to $818,432.
"With the decrease of $249,538 starting in July 2019 we already have a wait list of 41 for new JACC applications," he said.
Visiting Home Care Services of Ocean County is one of the County's long standing providers offering home health aide services and adult day care services. They have been providing these services for 40 years using Title 20 funding through the state Division of Disability Services.
"We just received notice that this funding will end as of June 30, 2020 and the provider stands to lose $460,000," Vicari said.
On average Visiting Home Care Services (VHS) has been providing approximately 300 hours a week of home health aide services under Title 20 grant funds.
"This translates to 15,600 hours of home care a year that will not be provided or 50 clients a week will go without help," Vicari said. "This is unacceptable."
Vicari noted that between the JACC funding cuts and the cuts in Title 20 funding to VHS, Ocean County has lost a total of $709,538 in state dollars used to provide supportive services to seniors necessary for them to remain in their homes.
"Traditionally, we would absorb a loss by diverting clients to alternate programs such as JACC or State Wide Respite," Vicari said. "However, due to funding cuts or underfunding, they both have waiting lists.
"As a result, more seniors will be forced into managed long term services and supports," Vicari said. "This is a Medicaid program which means that seniors will have to exhaust all of their income and assets to be deemed eligible for nursing home placement."
Vicari noted that state funding is disproportionate with more money heading to programs in the northern areas of the state even though Ocean County has the highest senior population.
"I'm also concerned about the long-term impact this will have," Vicari said. "Will there be more state cuts next year?"
Vicari said seniors can get assistance from the Ocean County Office of Senior Services should they need help with meals or other services.
"Ocean County continues to appropriate funds for senior services that help keep our seniors independent," Vicari said.
For instance, he noted Ocean County's senior nutrition program provides 1,100 meals a day to seniors including the home delivered meal program.
"The Board of Freeholders made sure there is no waiting list for this very important program," Vicari said. "It's imperative that all levels of government assist in providing our aging populations with programs and services that will make their lives better and keep them out of nursing homes and hospitals."