Tuesday mornings at St. Paul's Payne-Phalen Living at Home/Block Nurse Program are usually filled with laughter, singing and hugs from the fifty or so people who come here. But the mood was more somber this week.
That is because the Latino elders who attend the weekly memory loss meeting learned there won't be any more after July first. Officials with Payne-Phalen say they've been forced to cut back, because they didn't receive $230,000 in state grant money requested - more than two-thirds of last year's budget.
St. Paul resident Fermina Aguilar said she doesn't know what she'll do without the weekly meetings. Aguilar, who became a U.S. citizen nine years ago, has Alzheimers disease and said the meetings help her get out of the house.
"Eliminating this program would mean death for me," Aguilar said. "This program is really important for me. This is where people help me. They take me everywhere I need to go. They help me with paperwork, because I have issues with my head. There is one particular man here who helped me get a house. I'm a citizen and I didn't have a house or health care. I had nothing."
In addition to the group meetings, the block nurse program at Payne-Phalen pays for regular home visits to about 400 seniors in East St. Paul. Health educator Ana Diaz says they do health check-ups, take seniors to the doctor and brief family members on their conditions.
"You have a staff member who has been trained going to your mom's house," Diaz said. "They check if she's safe, if her blood pressure is right, if her sugars are right, and making the call to the clinic and saying 'doctor so and so, your patient is not safe'."
Malcolm Mitchell says Payne-Phalen is one of 43 programs of this kind that is forced to cut back this year because of increased demand and tough to find funding. Mitchell is the Executive Director of the Elderberry Institute which oversees Minnesota's block nurse programs. He says they served 11,500 people last year and estimates that one out of every ten people served are kept out of the nursing home.
“They've been told that there's no guarantee. This is not program money and that they need to be taking steps toward that.”Loren Colman with the Department of Human Services
"If we give all of the money to the nursing home industry and the more intensive institutional services and there's no money for people for home and community basis, we're just going in the wrong direction in terms of supporting the kinds of needs that people have, and it's going to be more costly in the long run," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he'd like to see an increase in funding for all community-based programs, especially because more and more Minnesotans are approaching retirement.
It has also been a concern for the governor and lawmakers who worry that nursing home funding is eating up more and more of the state budget. The Legislature has appropriated $20,000 in base funding for each of the block nurse programs, but many groups relied on additional grant funding to meet demand.
"We certainly have never suggested that this seed money is going to do it all," said Loren Colmen, Assistant Commissioner with the Department of Human Services.
He said several of the Living at Home/Block Nurse programs didn't receive grant funding this year because other organizations scored higher marks. He said 43 out of the 114 applicants received funding for next year. Two of those 43 were block nurse programs. Colman also said that the grants are awarded every year, and no group should expect continued funding.
"Several of the programs that you're referencing have received funding for several years now," Colman said. "They've been told that there's no guarantee. This is not program money and that they need to be taking steps toward that."
But some say it's not that easy to find replacement funding in tough economic times. The director of the Granite Falls Living at Home/Block Nurse program said her local community is tapped out in giving. She said she raised $28,000 from the community, but she was relying on $15,000 from the state to help maintain services. Without it, she said she'll be forced to cut back.
Colman with Human Services says seniors should not presume that services won't be there if certain programs cut back. He said they should contact the Department of Human Services or other senior groups if they need services.