Officials, clients say vulnerable hurt

MIDDLEBURY –– Tears filled Gwen Buchanan’s eyes as she discussed the improvement in her quality of life and happiness since coming to Project Independence, the senior day care program at Elderly Services Inc. (ESI) in Middlebury.
“When I first came here I was awful depressed with life and I just was discouraged,” the Vergennes woman said. “I’m better now.”
Buchanan is able to attend Project Independence because of her Medicaid insurance.
Many of ESI’s clients rely on Medicaid to attend Project Independence. However, Medicaid is the source of significant debate in Congress, where many legislators believe the program’s funding should be cut. Any federal cuts would affect the state of Vermont’s ability to provide Medicaid, which in turn would limit the ability of many seniors to go to ESI.
“Every year, as the federal budget is being worked on, there are legislators in Washington trying to cut off and severely reduce the Medicaid program; and the Medicaid program is a very big concern at the state level because they pay 40 percent of the cost and the federal government pays 60 percent,” said Joanne Corbett, ESI’s executive director. “We live with our heart in our mouth for the half of our clientele who are depending on Medicaid to pay their hourly fee for adult daycare and whether that will be cut off completely or the hours of eligibility severely reduced.”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., known for his passion about issues such as this one, acknowledged the value of Medicaid and programs like ESI.
“The Older Americans Act and Medicaid provide funding for services that are critical to older Vermonters, including nursing, social work, transportation, meals, recreation, personal care and other essential services,” Sanders said in a statement for the Independent. “People must understand that when they talk about making terrible cuts to Medicaid, they are talking about increasing human suffering. Cutting people off Medicaid does not make their health care needs go away. Cutting the safety net shortens the lives of the most vulnerable among us.”
Buchanan echoed concerns about Medicaid funding instability.
“I have to go to the doctor constantly and Medicaid has been covering it,” she said. “If I don’t get that, then I don’t get a doctor because I can’t afford it. I just think it’s unfair for them to do that. People like us have worked all our life and we’ve earned it, and now they’re going to take it?”
Another Project Independence client, Diana Parks of Vergennes, is also nervous about possible cuts to Medicaid.
“Medicaid helps pay for my coming here. I rely on it,” she said. “I worked a lot of years to be able to have it and I wouldn’t be able to come here if it wasn’t for Medicaid.”
Over the past few years, ESI has reduced its budget by $150,000 a year due to various government moratoriums and freezes on spending, as well as budget cuts.
“We have constant insecurity and the threat of cuts. In the last two years we suffered from a government freeze and closing of the Veterans Administration funding for elderly daycare, so for a year-and-a-half no new veterans could obtain any funding and that was a real hardship on us,” Corbett said. “At the same time, the state Department of Aging had to close this federal-state program called Moderate Needs funding, so for a year-and-a-half we couldn’t admit anyone new to that funding.”
This created some additional challenges for ESI.
“During that time, we laid off three positions and did not fill another four as they were emptied by staff,” said Corbett.
Since then, the freeze on the VA program enabling veterans to attend has been lifted.
“Now, temporarily, the VA has reopened the program and that’s a big relief, but they limit their funding because of their budgetary pressures to only paying for 10 to 15 hours a week of elderly daycare for the veterans,” Corbett said. “The family often wants 30 or 40 hours a week of care, but because the VA has such budget problems it trickles down to us that they can only pay for a small number of hours a week.”
Overall, the freezes and cuts have created more pressure on ESI to function with a smaller staff.
“It all comes around to more pressure on us to try to do with less staff,” Corbett said. “We have less employees, everyone has to chip in more, we all have to help work a bit at the fundraising.”
Corbett emphasized that ESI’s budget cuts have not led to a decrease in its ability to provide good services to its clients.
Brandon resident and client Ken LeBlanc discussed how much he enjoys his experience at Project Independence.
“I come four days a week and I look forward to it,” he said. “I go crazy on the weekends sometimes if I don’t do anything. I think it’s a super place and I’m so glad that they started this.”
LeBlanc also loves the programs provided, which continue unaffected by ESI’s budget cuts.
 “What I like about this place is we have a choice. It’s good that way,” he said. “Like I say, you can just choose what activities you want. They have a lot of field trips, which I like.”
Jack O’Boyle of Bridport, also enjoys going to Project Independence and would not be able to attend without Medicaid.
“Without it I wouldn’t be able to come here,” he said. “My other alternative would be to stay home and there’s nothing for me to do down there.”
For the clients’ children, knowing their parents have somewhere safe and fun to be during the day creates peace of mind.
O’Boyle’s daughter, Patti Cartier, is thrilled her dad can spend the day at Project Independence.
“For us it has been a lifesaver because now I don’t have to worry about him,” she said. “He’s not steady on his feet and he has a heart problem, so it’s not safe for him to be home alone. He’s a very social man, so it’s just great for him to go.”
Jim Sullivan, an ESI board member and son of client Mary Sullivan, also noted that beyond providing a safe place for his mother, Project Independence has renewed her will to live.
“Having this place to come to every day is an energizer and it shows in her,” he said. “She laughs a lot, and that’s fun. She’s tickled by different things happening around her. She’s very connected to people and to things that are going on. To me that’s a person who’s alive, not just getting up every day, but who’s alive.”
Because of its name recognition throughout the county, ESI has increased its number of volunteers to compensate for staff losses.
“We have been fortunate that people know about us and we have 250 volunteers a year,” Corbett said. “We’re depending more and more on volunteer entertainers, volunteers to come in and help keep our people safe and help us run activities and help us serve meals.”
Despite the ability of ESI to continue its services, ongoing debates about the federal budget and the possibility of a new president and Congress still cause significant uncertainty for the nonprofit.
“It’s a very insecure, unsettling time to be offering services to low-income people when the public funding will, over the next five years, continue to be threatened in a major way,” Corbett said. “An enormous amount is going to be decided by the next president and Congress, what their priorities are for spending.”
Looking down the road, Corbett noted that the nation’s financial insecurity is unlikely to lessen in the coming years. The organization will likely continue to have the same issues it does now.
“I think it will continue to be limited hours, no raise in the fee and possible cut in the hourly fee, and possible reductions again in the number of hours per week that they can pay for,” she said. “I see that we’re going to have to try to raise more and more money privately to make up for the losses in government funding.”
However, Corbett remains optimistic about the ability of ESI to provide services to all of its clients.
“We’re committed to taking care of people regardless of their income level. We are committed to maintaining and improving our transportation, our meals, our activities all the time.”
Intern Kaitlyn Kirkaldy is at [email protected].

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