Meals on Wheels shouldn’t get cut

By Spencer Merrick

Shauna O’Neil, director of the Aging Services Division for Salt Lake County, detailed a story of a Meals on Wheels volunteer who stopped by the home of an elderly woman to deliver her daily meal and found her lying facedown on the floor. Her wheelchair had tipped over, and she had been lying there for more than 12 hours. When she heard the volunteers come in with her meal, she feebly said, “I knew you would come and save me.”

According to O’Neil, Meals on Wheels delivers meals to about 1,600 senior citizens who are not able to prepare their own and have nobody to prepare one for them. She also said 25 percent never see another person, so delivering a meal becomes more important than food8212;it’s human contact. Besides short conversations with the elderly that many look forward to each day, the visits serve a crucial role in monitoring their well-being.

Although the program has proved very successful in the past, potential budget cuts could result in the program being cut in half as early as July or possibly even terminated by the end of the year. Two possible cuts will be proposed at the Legislature on Wednesday8212;one is a 7 percent cut proposed by Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. targeting specific programs, some of which, like Meals on Wheels, won’t be affected until next year. The other is a 15 percent cut across the board proposed by the state Legislature. Both cuts would be detrimental to the program.

There is no easy way to pick and choose who gets help and who doesn’t, especially in a social services agency where, by definition, all recipients need help. With these cuts, the Department of Human Services would have to consider who is at most risk and cut funding to programs in order to have the least detrimental effect. Children, health, and safety risks are naturally priorities, forcing the department to make cuts to programs like Meals on Wheels and Medicaid.

Jerry Eldredge, whose 93-year-old mother is a Meals on Wheels recipient, said, “I think cuts would be horrible8212;we do what we can, but it’s very difficult to care for her during the day. Besides needing the nutritious meals, she really looks forward to the short visits every day. She loves the interaction.”

Budget cutting isn’t as simple as the cookie-cutter, across-the-board method proposed by the Legislature. Many of the elderly that rely on Meals on Wheels and other programs will have to go into nursing homes funded by Medicaid. So instead of taxes covering $1,000 per year per elderly person through Meals on Wheels, the state would be dishing out $42,000 per year per elderly person to finance senior citizens in care centers, according to O’Neil.

But don’t let those figures scare you8212;Medicaid is like a big, magical piggy bank that never gets low, right? Well, interestingly enough, the same cuts that affect Meals on Wheels also leave Medicaid pretty frail and barren. Where is the logic? And why, in the middle of this mess, does the Legislature refuse to touch the $400 million rainy-day fund? Tapping it to keep Human Services programs alive would hardly make a dent, and probably better prepare us for a storm.

In Huntsman’s defense, it seems like he has his fingers crossed that things will get better by 2010 and he won’t have to cut some of these programs. But8212;and pardon my pessimism8212;what if things don’t get better? Does it seem right that programs that were born during the Great Depression should die in a recession? There’s something inherently wrong in killing programs that aid the needy in a time of need. We need to use the rainy-day fund to help those getting rained on the most.

[email protected]

Spencer Merrick