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Elder Affairs still muddled

Florida should be first among the states when it comes to setting social welfare policies for older people. The demographic demands are obvious, the expertise is there, and a network of veteran service providers has been up and running for 20 years.

Instead of forging ahead, however, Florida is losing ground. In an era when states should be accelerating plans to keep more frail elderly people in the community and out of nursing homes, financial support for community care programs in Florida has declined since 1989. Agencies with a long tradition of working together are now resurveying their boundaries, concerned that proposed changes in state regulations would set them at odds. Florida's new Department of Elder Affairs has submitted ambitious plans for transferring certain programs now controlled by the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, but lawmakers in Tallahassee have rejected the proposals for two years in a row.

While some state officials have claimed that older people are not being hurt by this rocky transition, policy experts and service providers tell a different story. The spirit of goodwill and cooperation they relied on to help stretch limited resources has been badly eroded; time that should be devoted to building programs has been wasted on trying to contain the damage from political fallout.

After two years, the Department of Elder Affairs should be a strong player in state-level funding battles. Florida residents should see results in the form of increased support for community-based programs that provide cost-effective alternatives to institutional placement, to cite just one worthy example. Agencies should be reaching out for new federal dollars to support more pilot programs, not to pay for more Medicaid-subsidized nursing home beds.

A joint legislative task force will meet in Orlando later this month as part of a remedial effort to build consensus on how the transfer of programs from HRS to Elder Affairs should proceed. The agency charged with administering services for some of the state's most vulnerable citizens cannot afford to strike out with the Florida Legislature for three years in a row.

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