Illinois seniors hit by state budget cuts
Assistance for prescription drug costs and property tax bills fall victim to lawmakers' ax
Monday, July 09, 2012
Marytherese Ring is scared.
The 79-year-old retiree lives on a modest $1,400 a month from Social Security. Much of that, she said, is squirreled away to pay property taxes and flood insurance on her Des Plaines home. The rest goes toward food, health insurance and the nine prescription medicines she must take each day.
Until last week, Ring could count on help from the state to pay for her medication, which she takes to control everything from her blood pressure and cholesterol to incontinence. But Gov. Pat Quinn and lawmakers, still struggling to keep the state afloat, approved a budget with sweeping cuts. Eliminated is Illinois Cares Rx, a prescription discount program started by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich that helped 180,000 low-income seniors.
That's left Ring with few choices when it comes to paying for the medication she needs. When her three-month supply runs out, Ring said she'll likely have to dip into funds from her reverse mortgage to pay for the refills.
"As my father said, 'These aren't the golden years, babe. These are the rusty years,'" Ring said.
Seniors are getting hit elsewhere in the new state spending plan. They're losing help paying their property tax bills. Free bus and train rides and a license plate discount are threatened. And a $150 million cut to community care programs means thousands of seniors who receive help to live independently may be forced into nursing homes.
Advocates for seniors said the cuts will cause needless pain, adding that the cost-saving moves may backfire as the elderly turn to more expensive emergency rooms or nursing homes for care.
It's an election year, and seniors are avid voters, but the state's financial situation remains so bleak that even they weren't spared from the budget ax. Some lawmakers could face a backlash in the voting booth come November.
"These cuts were a gamble, and the gamble may not pay off," said David Vinkler, associate state director of AARP Illinois.
Under the budget that took effect July 1, the state hopes to save an estimated $72 million by eliminating the discount prescription drug program for seniors. The Circuit Breaker Tax Relief grant also has been cut to save $24 million. That program provided money to low-income seniors to offset the cost of property taxes. Last year, 288,500 seniors received tax breaks of about $100 each.
While the cuts are relatively small when compared to the state's $33.7 billion spending plan, Vinkler said lawmakers were so focused on cutting that they forgot the reason many of the programs existed in the first place.
Vinkler said the programs were designed to provide enough help to keep seniors in their homes and out of a hospital or nursing home, which is much more expensive. By investing on the front end, the state ultimately saved money — and the cutbacks could reverse that, he said.
"These cuts really start to whittle away at seniors' ability to live in the community, and it benefits no one," Vinkler said. "Many only need a minimal amount of support. But when they lose these services, in a lot of cases it's a matter of choosing how to survive. And that means looking at nursing homes, which seniors don't want to live at and which costs the taxpayer lots more than the programs being cut."
State Department of Aging officials said they are working to come up with a plan to tackle the $150 million shortfall for the community care program, which helps seniors stay in their homes by assisting with everything from running errands to preparing meals and doing laundry. The goal is to limit the amount of time a worker spends with each client to try to serve more people while preserving core services.
Meanwhile, the agency also is trying to work out an arrangement to ensure low-income seniors continue to receive free rides on public transportation, as well as a $75 discount on license plate fees. Lawmakers cut $4.5 million in operations and staffing costs within the department, which administers the program.
A department spokeswoman said the agency will continue to process applications for free rides and the license plate discount while the agency works to find a "funding solution." But Vinkler said the budget cuts mean there is no one to do the paperwork, meaning people who qualify for benefits can't get them.
Indeed, officials with the Regional Transportation Authority warned that the state stopped processing new applications for free rides June 30. Those who already have free ride cards wouldn't be affected, as those passes are good for two years.
Quinn said last weekend that his office is working with transit agencies and the Illinois secretary of state's office to reach an agreement on which agency will process the paperwork, saying he's confident they will be able to "get things in order."
Administration officials said the cuts to senior programs were the result of budget decisions made by lawmakers. Still, Quinn signed off on the spending plan and has defended the need to make cuts across the board, saying sacrifices must be made for the state to get control of its budget. The state is billions of dollars in the red despite last year's major income tax increase.
That's little comfort to Thesia Sergott and her husband, Frank. For years, the couple from Posen had relied on the prescription discount program to pay for their medicines. Once the cuts took effect, they said they had to buy private insurance to cover the extra cost.
The south suburban couple will have to cut down on groceries and other expenses to pay for the insurance, but they said they don't have a choice — they need their medication. They argued lawmakers should focus on reforming the state's employee pension system to cut costs rather than slashing services for people who need them the most. Quinn had hoped to strike a deal on pension reform before the end of the spring legislative session, but talks are ongoing.
"We're lucky. We can afford it for now," said Thesia Sergott, 77. "But it's not fair what they are doing to us. We pay taxes, but these politicians don't care. They pat you on your back to get your vote, then forget about you."