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Experts call for new push on senior issues

As Gov. Bush touts his elderly funding record, advocates urge that more be done to meet an aging population's needs.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush is proud of his record on issues of concern to the elderly. To demonstrate his philosophy of "compassionate conservatism," Bush frequently cites the funding increases he has pushed through for programs that help seniors.

But Bush's top elder affairs policy expert joined a group of advocates Wednesday to say that more must be done. Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Gema Hernandez said the state system that delivers services to the elderly is "fragmented," "wasting resources" and has needless barriers that prevent the elderly from getting their needs met.

"We are not offering people enough choices," said Hernandez, who was appointed to head the department after Bush took office in January of 1999.

In recent years, Florida lawmakers have dedicated legislative sessions to welfare reform, schools, tax cuts, prisons and other priorities.

Now it's time to focus on Florida's growing aging population by devoting a session to the concerns of the elderly, said Jim Towey, president of Aging With Dignity.

"While the funding increases under Gov. Bush's "aging in place' plan are welcome help, the truth is that Florida has lost ground to where we were in the early 1980s in this area," Towey said. "Not an hour of floor time last session was spent on elder issues."

Bush again touted his record Wednesday, saying he has eliminated a 10,000-person waiting list for elderly community care services. But he added that he was disappointed that the Legislature "didn't deal with the nursing home crisis."

This past session, lawmakers hotly debated what to do about the financial problems faced by the nursing home industry. Nearly one in five of Florida's 82,000 nursing home beds is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Many in the Republican-controlled Legislature blamed the multimillion-dollar lawsuit verdicts that have plagued the industry and wanted to make it more difficult for people to sue nursing homes.

But Hernandez said that limiting the industry's legal liability should not be the state's priority.

"The industry has to concentrate on quality of care," she said. Then, "legal action should not be necessary."

Instead, Hernandez said more must be done to keep the elderly out of nursing homes, which she called a "last resort." She criticized a law that mandates that case managers must oversee seniors who want state services that help them grow old at home. "People want to manage themselves," she said. "I've seen cases where people are waiting for services not for lack of program dollars, but because of a lack of case managers to assess and process."

Staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

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