Opinion

Sick seniors face critical cutbacks in Washington state

The pending decision by the Legislature to ax the state's adult day health program is going to cause tremendous harm to thousands of seriously ill seniors and disabled people across Washington state.

It will all but end this innovative approach to efficient, community-based care for a very vulnerable population, costing more than 500 jobs in the process.

I founded, developed and currently work for an organization that delivers Washington state's only nationally accredited adult day health services. We have four locations reaching four counties and 72 cities in the central Puget Sound, Washington state's most populated region — serving more than 500 seniors and disabled people a year. Our operation is going to be drastically reduced if these cuts go through. Most of the 32 other adult day health (ADH) centers around the state may be faced with closing. Overall, some 5,000 adult day health participants and their families statewide are facing disaster.

ADH is a lifeline not only for this vulnerable population, but also for the thousands of family caregivers who voluntarily, and without pay, take on the burden of caring for their frail family members at home. These are your neighbors who directly bear the burden of 24/7 efforts required to maintain their loved one suffering from Alzheimer's, traumatic brain injuries and other serious medical conditions.

Without the support ADH provides, these caregivers cannot and will not be able to continue. Their loved ones will in most cases have to be placed in nursing homes.

That is a shame. The seniors and disabled who participate in ADH have built our communities, raised and taught our children, protected our country. They have earned this efficient and effective service to maintain their level of independence.

The cost of ADH to the state is small — about $19 million over the next two years. That is only about 2 percent of the money the state is planning to hold in reserve in the current budget. Most maddening of all, the taxpayer is not going to benefit by ending adult day health. By not spending a small amount now, the state is needlessly giving up $26 million in federal dollars over the next two years that would help subsidize this important program. Even worse, nursing home care costs the state more than seven times as much per patient than adult day health — and the state is going to be on the hook for all of those increased costs.

Although there are many supporters in Olympia and in communities around the state concerned for the reality of losing these vital services — including health care and legal professionals, caregivers and religious leaders — their voices are not being heard. The decision to eliminate funding for adult day heath continues to be based on mistaken assumptions on the part of some influential legislators.

Those legislators would be advised to give this issue a closer examination. As a recent study published in the Journal of Gerontology put it, use of adult day health leads to "reductions in hospitalizations, better outcomes and cost savings.” To be blunt, some people are going to die needlessly if this program is eliminated.

I have dedicated my life to helping the elderly and disabled adult. I cannot let this happen without speaking out. ADH improves every community where centers exist, providing access to employment for families who need to work, employment for health care workers who have been specially trained to work with the persons served and volunteer opportunities for people entering the workplace.

It’s down to the wire now as this state's budget is nearing approval. There is still time to reverse course and make sure that we do the right thing for our seriously-ill seniors and disabled populations. Our legislators need to look beyond the short-term and do what is right before access to adult day health disappears in Washington state. If they don't, they should not be surprised that when the time comes, and they need this help for themselves or for one of their loved ones, it won't be there for them.

Jan Nestler is founder and executive director of Elder and Adult Day Services.

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