EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 19, 2013

Efforts to save senior citizen program gain sup

Commissioners to decide

By Doug Ireland

---- — Plans to save Rockingham County’s financially strapped adult medical day program are gaining support from the public and lawmakers.

County commissioners recently approved $278,000 to fund the Helen F. Wilson Adult Medical Day Program for another year.

But its future beyond 2013 remains in limbo. The money was part of the $77 million county budget.

The program’s future will be considered Friday by a subcommittee asked to determine if it’s feasible to continue operating the program.

Since 1980, the Brentwood-based program has provided social and medical services to the county’s elderly residents.

For Nancy Birdsall of Kingston, the program has helped keep her father-in-law, 87, out of a nursing home.

Birdsall and Nancy Russo of Epping, whose 91-year-old mother participates in the program, have teamed up with family members to fight to keep it open.

But they must convince the subcommittee and the three county commissioners that it’s worth the cost.

Commissioner Thomas Tombarello is convinced the program is worth keeping.

So is Rep. Debra DeSimone, head of the five-member subcommittee appointed by Rep. Norman Major, R-Plaistow. Major heads the Rockingham County legislative delegation.

The three said yesterday the county needs to do what it can to save the program. They said it provides a valuable service to senior citizens.

“The county does have a responsibility to take care of their elderly,” Major said. “The key of this is it keeps them out of a nursing home and makes them more independent.”

Although he supports the program, Major said it will be up to the subcommittee to recommend whether it should be saved. County commissioners said they will make the final decision.

Major said the consensus among local lawmakers is that the program is needed and terminating it should be a last resort.

“They want to be very careful because it’s something we don’t want to do,” he said.

Tombarello said yesterday options will be presented at the meeting Friday to help save the program. Those options would provide some of the money needed for operating expenses.

He said he would recommend the 24-member program begin accepting new members again, generating more revenue. The freeze was implemented earlier this year when the program’s future became uncertain, he said.

There are at least 10 to 12 people waiting to join the program, he said.

Tombarello said he’s received dozens of letters and calls from members’ families and others who do not want the program eliminated. The families are worried, he said.

“They are very emotional,” he said.

Approximately 20 people out turned to support the program at a county budget hearing Jan. 24, with nearly a dozen speaking in favor of keeping it, according to Commissioner Kevin Coyle of Derry.

DeSimone said yesterday that accepting new members would give the program a much-needed financial boost.

The subcommittee is dedicated to studying all options, with the goal of retaining the program if possible, she said.

“We’ll put our heads together to do the best we can for the community,” she said. “We’re not looking to make money, we’re looking to break even.”

She will ask that the county find an outside provider of bus transportation for program participants. She didn’t know much could be saved, but said privatization would be a much cheaper option, especially since the program needs a new vehicle.

“The bus that is being used is going to have to be replaced,” DeSimone said. “It is a significant cost.”

Russo said members’ families have united to help save the program. About 15 them gathered at her home March 3 to discuss their strategy.

“We’ve got tons of support,” Russo said. “Everyone is on the same page and we will do what it takes to keep this program.”

The medical day program costs $71 a day, she said, compared to $350 a day for a nursing home.

Although Tombarello believes the program is worth keeping, his two colleagues are skeptical. A final decision is not expected for several months.

Chairman Katharin Pratt of Hampton and Coyle have said the program is expensive to maintain when only two dozen people benefit and outside agencies could provide a similar service.

“Our first concern is, it’s a pretty big number for only 24 families who use it,” Coyle said. “I continue to look out for taxpayers as a whole, not just 24 families.”