Millie Veasey stands in the doorway of her home, a smiling man in the doorway looks in. Some programs such as these are not getting as much support because of the budget standoff.
Millie Veasey gets her meal from Wake County Meals-On-Wheels volunteer Chuck Galle in 2013. Many of the state's Meals on Wheels programs have long waiting lists to receive services. Photo by Rose Hoban

By Thomas Goldsmith

Brad Allen runs Senior Games events in 52 North Carolina locations on a little less than $500,000 a year, but last year, as the group’s CEO, he had every reason to think there was an extra $125,000 coming from state coffers.

However, when the General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper butted heads over Medicaid and teacher pay, the result was no comprehensive state budget. That meant goodbye to the competitive grant that Allen and the Senior Games had won from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

And those were far from the only missing dollars for aging services that advocates thought were locked in after months, and sometimes years, of effort.

Allen remained upbeat and philosophical during a recent phone interview from his base in Lumberton. Through money donated by people and companies, he’s working to ensure that the 60,000 participants in North Carolina’s Senior Games continue to reap benefits from the running, jumping, power walking and other events designed to keep them fit.

“There would have been the opportunity particularly to give something back to the 52 local programs,” Allen said of the lost funding. “The research says that Senior Games participants are more active, they’re more socially involved, and many people credit being involved with Senior Games for both their physical well being and their mental outlook.”

The impasse over the state budget came after Cooper vetoed a $24 billion budget crafted by legislative Republicans that contained several provisions for increased funding for aging priorities. But the document did not include the Medicaid expansion and specific teacher-pay increases that the governor championed, so Cooper pulled out his veto pen.

Republicans unsuccessfully tried for months to override the veto but wound up only passing a series of mini-budgets for some departments while leaving other agencies to live with the previous year’s funding.

Increased spending money falls out

That meant that earlier presumed wins in the budget were swept aside like sailboats in the wake of an ocean liner. That included a $9 million increase for services such as Meals on Wheels and in-home aides.

Other losses in funding that legislators had approved included:

  • An increase in the state fund called the Home and Community Block Grant. This funding supports many different means of help for older people and had been slated for a $9 million bump up during a two-year period. The money would have reduced waiting lists of more than 10,000 people across the state for everything from congregate meals at senior centers, to respite for caregivers, to transportation for people who spend time at adult day care programs.
  • An increase in the monthly spending money for residents of assisted living centers on Medicaid. The spending, used for personal items, prescription copays, transportation and other needs, would have increased from $30 to $46 for those in assisted living. Stories of female residents who sold sex for snacks apparently had some effect on legislators’ decision-making.
  • A $12,000 increase in funding for the Senior Tar Heel Legislature, a body set up by the legislature to receive concerns from older people across the state.

The state spending plan for this year does include more than $893,000 from a federal block grant to provide state assistance to the Adult Protective Services programs in every county. Counties pay a large majority of the cost of protecting older and vulnerable people from abuse and neglect, a mandate under state law.

maps show the changing number of people over 65 in each county.
More than half of the state’s counties are already experiencing population aging – a demographic shift in which the median age of the population increases significantly due to improved life expectancy and a drastic decline in birth rate. Map progression shows the changing number of people over 65 in each county. Data: NC Office of State Budget and Management

‘There’s a great need’

Nicole Hiegl, director of High Country Area Agency on Aging in Boone, said she and others in the seven-county region of western North Carolina have had to be creative to fill the needs of a growing aging population and a transformed society.

“People are living longer and we don’t have the family supports that we once did,” Hiegl said in a phone interview. “It’s a new era. Everyone has been seeing an increase in the aging population without much increase in support.”

Hiegl is correct in noting that older people continue to represent ever higher percentages in the state, where one in six state residents is 65 or older. The state N.C. Department of Commerce projects that the 65-plus population will make up nearly one in five residents in less than 20 years. Despite the relentless population growth, state funding for the state Division of Aging and Adult services has increased by only $410,789, to $44.6 million, since the 2016-2017 budget year.

Advocates such as Mary Bethel, former executive director of the state Coalition on Aging and a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Aging, has spent years at the General Assembly pushing the message that an increased aging population is being accompanied by more demand for services and an increased cost of providing help.

“We know there’s a great need and the aging advocates really put a lot of energy and effort into helping to educate legislators about what resources were needed,” said Mary Bethel. “It is frustrating to realize the need continues to grow and we aren’t doing anything to help address it.”

Bethel and other veterans of the legislative battlefront say they will not give up the fight when the General Assembly returns in April.

“We’re going to go back and ask for additional funding for those things that didn’t come through, which is basically pretty much everything,” Bethel said.

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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...