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Elder Affairs bill gets shot in arm

Republican and Democratic senators have worked out a compromise that might get the stalled aging services consolidation bill out of a committee, officials said Friday.

A vote Thursday could end weeks of uncertainty over the fate of a 3-year-old effort to move aging and disabled adult programs out of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services into the Department of Elder Affairs. The bill doesn't go as far as some advocates want, but without the compromise, the effort might have died again this year.

The bill has been bottled up in the Senate HRS Committee, where Republicans and Democrats have sharply different views over which programs, if any, should be transferred into Elder Affairs. Proponents say all aging programs should be in one department for efficiency, while opponents fear Elder Affairs will become another overstaffed bureaucracy.

"I still don't know if it's a good enough compromise, but for me it is," said Sen. William G. "Doc" Myers, R-Hobe Sound, the chairman of the HRS panel who opposed the creation of Elder Affairs in 1991. "Other members of the committee might fight it tooth and nail."

The compromise bill moves only a few programs into Elder Affairs, which operates several community care, meals, Alzheimer's disease and volunteer programs. The HRS programs to be moved include services that help people who care for frail elderly or disabled adults in their homes and a program that subsidizes poor elders who live in adult congregate living facilities.

Disabled adults younger than 60 would get a separate division within Elder Affairs, a move that might gain support from groups that have worried programs for the disabled would be lost in a department whose mission is to be an advocate for the elderly.

Many of the transferred services would be contracted through local area agencies on aging, the non-profit groups that run many of the most popular aging programs, such as Meals on Wheels.

But the bill would not move adult protective services, which does abuse and neglect investigations. And it does not move the major aging program in the state, Medicaid eligibility for the aged, blind and disabled.

Instead it lets Elder Affairs operate Medicaid eligibility in three areas of the state during a two-year test.

Among other services, that Medicaid division in HRS assesses who gets part of the $1-billion the state spends annually for nursing home care.

Myers said his bill avoids what he and some other HRS committee members argue will happen _ the buildup of another state bureaucracy.

Elder Affairs officials say that won't happen. E. Bentley Lipscomb, the department's secretary, was out of the office and unavailable for comment Friday.

Sen. Howard Forman, D-Pembroke Pines, worked with Myers on the compromise. Although it is not all he and other Democrats want, "it should be enough to get it out of committee," Forman said.

Even if the committee approves the compromise next Thursday, the House is working on a different version of the bill. It would transfer almost all HRS programs for the elderly into Elder Affairs.

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