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Transport cuts hurt lifestyle of area elderly

Senior citizens whose low-cost or free rides to the doctor or supermarket were stripped away in Erie County's budget crisis are not expected to find much relief in the state budget.

A $10 million request to fund transportation services for the elderly in areas like Western New York, hit especially hard by local government cutbacks, has been rejected so far in negotiations for the state budget, which is due by March 31.

"It's very important because many older persons have no other forms of transportation. You need these to get to the doctor," said Mary Ann Stelly, a Buffalo senior citizen who saw access to the county's now-shuttered program for the city all but dry up last year.

A coalition of senior citizen groups across the state has been lobbying state officials to provide a regular source of operating aid for transportation services to help elderly people get health services, visit a spouse in a nursing home, go shopping or even to social gatherings. They argue the relatively small request -- out of a $112 billion-plus state budget -- is vital to help keep elderly people in their own homes and out of expensive nursing homes.

Though the state has a program that provides money for organizations to purchase vans, there is no program to fund the operation of the vans. A recent study said fuel, insurance, salaries and maintenance expenses have pushed operating costs up 75 percent since 2001 for such organizations, which can no longer keep up with the demand for rides.

"We're not there to make money. We're out there to save the state money. If you can keep people out of assisted living, keep them healthy, if you can keep them going to the doctor for preventive care, you reduce the costs of Medicaid and assisted living," said Jody Harvey, executive director of the Buffalo Community Center Collaborative, an organization of 12 human service providers in the city that offers transportation services for senior citizens.

Harvey's facility, the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Center, has a van running every day and can't keep up with the demand.

The situation worsened last year when Erie County's budget crisis forced a $750,000 cutback at the county's senior services agency, resulting in the elimination of more than a dozen staffers who ran a 13-van operation providing more than 25,000 rides a year to elderly residents in Buffalo and Lackawanna.

However, rides for seniors continued to be offered in suburban communities, which picked up the cost of paying for drivers or are able to hire non-union drivers at a lower salary, county officials said.

Critics say the county made a political choice, not a financial one, to keep the suburban services going.

Meanwhile, elderly residents of Buffalo and Lackawanna turned to nonprofit neighborhood centers, which don't have the resources to keep up with the demand in a region ranked by the U.S. Census Bureau as the country's 10th oldest for areas with populations of more than 500,000.

"It's the most cost-effective way to keep people in their homes in the community," Pamela Krawczyk, Erie County's senior services commissioner, said of the transportation programs. She said it costs about $7,000 a year to provide various health and other services to keep people living in their homes, compared with $7,000 a month for some nursing homes.

Gov. George E. Pataki did not include funding for the transportation programs being pushed by advocates for senior organizations. In recent budget talks, the Assembly has agreed to spend $500,000, and the State Senate is considering matching that amount. If $1 million is funded, that will be far below the $10 million groups view as adequate funding statewide.

But advocates say they will take what they can get as a first step.
"We're interested in opening the funding stream; it's a foot in the door," said Bobbie Sackman, public policy director at the Council of Senior Centers and Services.

It won't be enough to solve the transportation problems in Erie County, where about $500,000 was cut when the vans stopped rolling in Buffalo and Lackawanna. Before the cutbacks, the government countywide was providing about 89,000 rides a year to 6,000 people.

Harvey said the transportation problem is hitting Buffalo especially hard because there are more low-income elderly who relied on free rides to do errands.

"It's literally almost becoming heartbreaking to tell them they have to wait," she said of growing waiting lists for rides.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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