By Thomas Goldsmith

A General Assembly budget likely to emerge early this week will include increases in several areas vital to older people, a Republican budget crafter said Saturday. The conference committee budget is the result of negotiations between members of the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.

Budget-writer Rep. Josh Dobson (R-Nebo) said older people and advocates can expect increases in funding for the personal needs allowance for lower-income people in long-term care and in the Home and Community Care Block Grants that fund county-run services such as home-delivered meals, in-home aides, senior centers, and transportation.

“There will be an increase in the personal needs allowance and the Home and Community Care Block grants,” Dobson said in a telephone interview, citing the advocacy of Rep. Donna White (R-Clayton) for older adults.

Increased funding is also likely for long-term care centers that serve Special Assistance residents, who are older than 65 and/or have disabilities, said Dobson, who would not specify amounts.

The conference committee, comprised of leaders from both chambers, has been adjusting multi-billion-dollar slices of a budget to present to Gov. Roy Cooper, who could veto it.

Paying for personal needs

A coalition of advocates has mounted a campaign this session to increase the amount of the personal needs allowance provided to the state’s lower-income long-term care residents. People getting public assistance in adult care homes — assisted living centers or group homes — have for years received $66 a month, comprised of state funds along with an income set aside, to cover clothes, prescription copays, hygiene items, snacks, travel and myriad other needs.

In its budget proposal, the House proposed increasing the state portion from $46 to $70 a month and the Senate included a lesser hike, to $58 a month. The income set aside adds $20 from residents’ incomes to their available funds.

Neither chamber recommended an increase for nursing home residents, who have more expenses such as drug copays covered, but whose allowance is $30 a month.

Judy Vines Hendrickson, of Sharpsburg, whose son has mental illness and lives in a group home, said she hopes that the legislature’s members know what the increase would mean to residents.

“My son goes to a day program where they can do different things like go to the grocery store, or get out in the community,” Hendrickson said in a phone interview. “They have to pay a dollar for their lunch. That’s pretty cheap, except that’s $30 of his $66.

“I really wish that the people making these decisions would have a panel of people like me come up there and talk to them.”

‘If we could vote’

Hendrickson first entered the personal needs allowance discussion in April, when she contacted North Carolina Health News with information about her late sister’s experience in adult care. In an example that’s unusual but not unprecedented, her sister had “gone with men for money” in order to supplement her spending money at an Eastern North Carolina residential center, Hendrickson said.

Rep. Cynthia Ball (D-Raleigh) proposed increases in the personal needs allowance for assisted-living and nursing-home residents with separate bills introduced later in April. However, consideration of both items has come instead in the conference committee.

“If we could vote on it, it’d probably pass,” Ball said Friday.

Within the details of the budget bill, there’s a likely increase in the prescription copays for people on Medicaid, a cost that will cut into any increase in their spending money.

Budget writers have been conducting negotiations in secret, leaving voters and advocates in the dark about the fate of additional items that affect older people.

Those include Adult Protective Services, the county-based services charged with preventing and responding to abuse and neglect of vulnerable older people. The House would direct $893,041 in federal funds for each of the next two years to hire more local APS workers to tackle bulging caseloads. The Senate would add $457,041, or a little more than half that amount, during the same period.

Regarding a smaller-scale effort, but one that’s been around for more than a quarter-century, the House recommended giving the Senior Tar Heel Legislature $12,000, while the Senate ignored the body completely. The Senior Tar Heel Legislature, with a representative from each North Carolina county, was set up in 1993 to keep older people informed about matters afoot in the General Assembly, encourage people’s involvement in aging issues, and establish a forum for discussing possible legislation.

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Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...