Meals on Wheels recipients fear funding uncertainty
Agnes Taulton depends on the meal that volunteers deliver to her home each day.
It is one of 15 million meals that Meals on Wheels serves in Pennsylvania each year.
“It means everything to me. ... I'm handicapped,” said Taulton, 78, of Clairton. “A person like me needs Meals on Wheels.”
Automatic federal spending cuts scheduled to take effect on March 1 could mean the loss of more than 1 million meals annually for 10,000 seniors across the state, said JoAnn Nenrow, director of the Meals on Wheels Association of Pennsylvania.
Drafting contingency plans has been complicated by a delay in implementing the cuts — they were originally scheduled for January — and uncertainty over the size of the final allocations.
The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging will notify its members this week to brace for the cuts.
“My current assessment is that they will go into effect,” said Amy Gotwals, senior director of public policy and advocacy.
But, the Pennsylvania Department of Aging is advising agencies to “sit tight” until it receives further guidance.
“We just don't know how to prepare for this. Do we lay people off now, or do we wait?” said Diane A. Menio, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly.
The cutbacks are triggered by congressional failure to trim $1.2 trillion in spending. Automatic, across-the-board budget cuts, called sequestration, will kick in March 1.
“These are seniors who are living independently in their homes with the help of home-delivered meals and senior center lunches,” Nenrow said. “If they did not receive meals, many could end up in a nursing home environment, which would cost the state and the federal government even more money.”
The federal government could reduce the $70 million to $80 million Pennsylvania receives each year for aging services by as much as $12 million, said David Gingerich, deputy secretary of the Department of Aging. Any reduction, he said, “would be extremely detrimental.”
“We're hoping a long-term deal is achieved, or a postponement,” Gingerich said.
Senate Democrats offered an alternative plan on Thursday to replace 10 months' worth of sequestration cuts. But lawmakers are off until Feb. 25 for their Presidents' Day recess.
Whether the package can get the votes of at least five Republicans — the number needed to overcome a likely filibuster attempt — remains uncertain.
The Department of Aging has reviewed scenarios for contingency planning but does not have final numbers from the federal government, Gingerich said. Under some scenarios, the shortfall could be higher than $12 million, he said.
The spending cuts could affect 650 home-bound seniors in Allegheny County who depend on Meals on Wheels through Lutheran Services, said John Dickey, chief operations officer.
“We're very concerned,” he said. “This could have a significant impact in Pennsylvania.”
Other services — from personal care to transportation, housing and energy assistance — could be cut, say advocates for seniors.
“We would hope that Congress does whatever it takes to avoid the sequester,” said Leslie Grenfell, executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Area Agency on Aging, which serves 15,000 seniors in Fayette, Greene and Washington counties.
In Westmoreland County, officials said predicting what might happen is difficult but any cutback in the food program would hurt.
“You're talking about the lifeline for this population,” said Ray DuCoeur, administrator of the Westmoreland County Area Agency on Aging. “It's essential.”
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.