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Elder services under 1 roof gains support

A broad array of private and public aging services officials agreed Monday that the Legislature should consolidate all elder services in the Department of Elder Affairs.

It is the first time this many groups have supported a single concept on how the state should serve its growing elderly population.

The transfer of the remaining programs in the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services to Elder Affairs would result in better services by eliminating the confusing, sometimes overlapping agencies that help older people, advocates said at a legislative workshop.

But money, the bogeyman that helped sink similar proposals in past years, raised itself again Monday. Advocates conceded they will have to do a better job selling the proposal if they expect the Legislature to pass it next year.

"I can visualize some of the opposition," said state Rep. Phil Mishkin, D-Port Richey, who chaired the meeting of about 50 legislative staff members, government officials, and social services agencies. "They will say we are creating another bureaucratic level. . . . We must be prepared to show how the level of service will increase."

The Department of Elder Affairs was created in 1991, three years after a statewide referendum. But the Legislature, reluctant to create a separate department, only moved some programs into Elder Affairs, mostly those meal, transportation and community care programs funded under the federal Older Americans Act.

The large programs under the state and federal Medicaid program remain in HRS. Other programs are moving into the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Advocates for the elderly say that's all wrong, and creates three agencies where one would work better. And although they disagree over some small points, they now back the idea of moving programs such as public assistance for the aged, blind and disabled _ a $3-billion a year program _ into Elder Affairs.

Elder Affairs would operate district offices, similar to those where 1,800 of HRS' Aging and Adult Services employees work. Several levels of regional and state HRS managers would be eliminated in the transfer, said E. Bentley Lipscomb, secretary of elder affairs

Earlier this year, Lipscomb's department proposed contracting with local non-profit agencies for many of the services HRS now handles, which would, in effect, make those agencies quasi-governmental operations. Many advocates and legislators balked at the idea and its $10-million cost.

Still, Lipscomb said, any consolidation could cost more money because services for the elderly are underfunded in HRS.

"This is not going to cost less money," he said. "But not doing this is going to cost the state more money."

Lipscomb and others argued that one department overseeing the array of elderly services would do a better job of plugging people into the proper programs. At times, advocates say, people end up in nursing homes at state expense rather than less costly in-home programs because no one agency coordinates all programs.

The meeting continues this morning.