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Mo. senior meal program caught in funding conflict

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Meals delivered to her Joplin home each weekday “have been a lifesaver,” said June Maddy Blalock.

“The doctor said I wasn’t getting enough protein,” said Blalock, who has been receiving food delivered by volunteers from the Joplin Senior Center for more than two years.

“This helps keep me on my feet, and I’m determined to do that,” she said. “That’s why the meals are so important.”

Blalock said she’s concerned that other seniors may not be able to get the help she receives. Local legislators and an advocate for the elderly in the area say funding withheld from senior programs is placing at risk a population that can least afford it, The Joplin Globe (http://bit.ly/13lbRxB) reported.

It started with federal sequestration, which cut federal funding for the Region 10 Agency on Aging by 4 percent, according to Stan Heater, AAA executive director. He said the agency absorbed most of the cuts by trimming its family caregiving program and an ombudsman post that worked primarily as a monitor of the care seniors receive in nursing homes.

No cuts were made in home-delivered meals, but Heater said the agency did have to cap the program at current levels. For the past three months, local residents who might want to get on the program have been added only if someone else drops off to create a vacancy.

In the AAA region — Jasper, Newton, Barton and McDonald counties — 284,000 meals are served to seniors each year, with 184,000 by home delivery and 100,000 at senior centers.

Heater said he saw light at the end of the tunnel when the Missouri General Assembly increased the budget for the home-delivered meals program by $440,000 in the session that ended in mid-May.

“That would have filled the hole we had from sequestration and covered our cost increases,” he said. “Now, most of that money has been withheld by the governor, and we won’t know until September whether we’ll get it or not.”

The funding is part of $400 million in fiscal 2014 budget allocations that Gov. Jay Nixon has decided to withhold, citing losses in state revenue he said would come with House Bill 253, a tax-cut bill passed by lawmakers in the session. Nixon has vetoed the bill, and Republican leaders in both chambers say they will work to override action by the governor during the veto session in September.

Nixon said the tax-cut measure, if it is upheld, creates the risk of budget shortfalls, so the cuts are needed to keep the state on sound financial footing.

State Rep. Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage, who is vice chairman of the House Budget Committee, disagrees. He said the cuts are unnecessary because state revenues exceed predictions by more than $600 million, and that funds should not be withheld from programs that benefit populations such as seniors and the developmentally disabled.

“These people are being held hostage, and they don’t need to be in the middle of a political fight,” he said.

State Rep. Charlie Davis, R-Webb City, also cited the $600 million in extra revenue. And, he said the tax-cut bill would not cut state funds until other provisions of the measure boost revenues.

“It’s just political fear-mongering rather than trying to put more money into people’s pockets,” Davis said. “The tax cut will generate revenue because people will spend that money.”

Both representatives said they intend to vote to override the governor’s veto.

Heater said federal sequestration put the agency in the position of having to tell seniors that they may have to wait to get on the meals program, and now that wait will be longer.

“For a lot of frail seniors who don’t have a support system, between the time they go on a waiting list and we can start serving them, they may have had to go into long-term care, which would be a lot more costly,” he said.

“Sometimes that meal is keeping them at home. It serves so many other functions than nutrition, because the volunteers check on every senior when they deliver the meals to make sure they don’t need anything.”

Checking on seniors at each stop is an important part of their deliveries, said Jim and Darcy Wilkinson as they loaded up meals on Tuesday.

“One of our ladies had fallen and laid on the floor for a day when we found her,” Jim Wilkinson said. “You check on them, because a lot of times, you’re the only person they’ll see.”

“We visit with them; that human connection is as important as the nutrition,” added Darcy Wilkinson.

Blalock said she counts as friends the volunteers who bring meals to her.

“You can set your clock by them,” she said. “And the meals they bring are well-planned and well-seasoned. I’ve gained 4 pounds.”

A Nixon spokesman cited comments made by the governor last month when he announced the restricted funds. In addition to the tax-cut bill, Nixon said state revenues also will drop if Congress passes the federal Marketplace Fairness Act, a tax proposed on Internet sales.

He said the Legislature created new programs and increased funding for others, beyond the governor’s recommendations. All told, he said the Legislature appropriated nearly $30 million in additional spending.

“As lawmakers begin to understand the problems with House Bill 253 and the immediate and continuing consequences, I am confident that they will agree this bill should not become law,” Nixon said. “But no governor can responsibly manage a state budget based on the assumption a veto will be sustained. That is why, given the additional spending appropriated by the Legislature and the uncertainty created by House Bill 253, we must take action to keep our state’s fiscal house in order.”

The governor also cited the Legislature’s failure to pass comprehensive tax credit reform and to draw down federal dollars available for expanding and improving Medicaid — both of which would have had a positive impact on the state’s budget, he said.

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Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com

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