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    A Times Editorial

    Expanding elders' care options

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001

    If you think this is a trying time for nursing homes and the residents who depend on them -- and it is -- consider the challenges that lie in wait. The number of Florida elders needing publicly supported long-term care is expected to grow by nearly 50 percent by 2010.

    And Florida is nowhere near prepared.

    Florida's long-term care system, long out-of-balance, remains wholly ill-equipped to give aging seniors the security they need and the choices they deserve. Florida should have been expanding and funding an array of non-institutional options for aging seniors, such as assisted-living facilities, retirement communities, adult day care and adult foster care. Instead, it has poured an ever-increasing proportion of state health monies into nursing homes, the most restrictive and expensive form of care. At this rate, Florida will be spending an extra $3-billion in elder-health funds -- mostly to nursing homes -- by the turn of the decade, according to the long-term care task force created last session.

    Lawmakers are expected to shore up nursing homes this spring, and they should. But as they work to strike the right balance in resolving liability concerns, lawmakers should take care not to exacerbate the traditional imbalance that has favored institutional care even for seniors who, with public assistance, could live in their homes or communities.

    Nursing-home care is, and will always be, a critical component of the state's long-term strategy for Florida's most infirmed seniors. But it should no longer be the primary option. While Florida has begun to reverse its overdependence on institutional care, it has a long way to go before developing a comprehensive long-term care strategy that offers aging seniors choices along with help.

    And it is rapidly running out of time to waste.

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