TOWANDA - Approximately 450 senior citizens in Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Tioga counties participate in the state's Aging Waiver Program, which uses Medicaid dollars to pay for services that allow them to live at home, instead of going to a nursing home.

As part of the program, nurses go into some of the homes to provide services, such as setting up a pill box of daily medication for the senior to take or conducting a medical evaluation.

But the program's reimbursements to the home health agencies that provide the nursing service is less than it costs them to provide the service, said Bill Farley, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging that serves Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Tioga counties.

As a result, "we have a very difficult time finding (home health) agencies" that will agree to provide nurses for the Aging Waiver Program, he said.

The low reimbursement rate is one of the financial challenges facing the B-S-S-T Area Agency on Aging, which has seen its federal and state funding cut over the past year, Farley said at a public hearing on Wednesday on the agency's plans for the next four years.

While it is not yet clear how much funding the agency will receive from the state and federal governments during the coming year, it won't be enough to meet its needs, Farley said.

"The challenges are there," Farley said. "No matter how much we get (from the state and federal governments during the coming year), the demand for our services will exceed our available resources."

A $700,000 state funding cut last July is continuing to impact the local Area Agency on Aging, which is headquartered in Towanda, Farley said.

Not only did the cut result in the layoff of 20 percent of the agency's full-time staff, but the agency had to scale back the volume of services it provides to the elderly, Farley said.

As a result, a list of elderly people waiting for services from the B-S-S-T Area Agency on Aging increased to a high of 171, he said. The waiting list, which is for services such as home-delivered meals, light housekeeping, and assistance in bathing and dressing, now stands at 93 seniors, he said.

The funding cut also reduced the frequency with which hot meals are delivered to seniors' homes.

Seniors in Bradford and Tioga counties currently receive hot meals only three days per week through the agency's meals-on-wheels program. They receive a cold meal for two additional days a week, which they can heat up in a microwave, Farley said.

In Sullivan and Susquehanna counties, the county commissioners provided additional funding to retain the five-day delivery of hot, home-delivered meals, Farley said.

Due to the federal sequestration, the local Area Agency on Aging received a 2 percent reduction in the federal funding it receives for the local Foster Grandparent Program, Farley said.

The reduction, which amounts to $8,000, will result in fewer hours that the approximately 60 local "foster grandparents" will be paid a stipend, Farley said.

Under the Foster Grandparent Program, citizens age 55 and older are paired with an at-risk child. These "foster grandparents" serve as a mentor and friend to the children, providing them with academic tutoring under the direction of a teacher, according to the Area Agency on Aging.

Due to sequestration, the federal funding for other aging services in Pennsylvania was also reduced by 2 percent, or $1.75 million, during the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, Farley said.

Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed that the state provide an additional $50 million for aging services in the fiscal year that begins on July 1, but the increase would result from the privatization of the state lottery, and it remains to be seen if the privatization will go forward, he said.

Under the governor's proposal, the B-S-S-T Area Agency on Aging, which has a $6.4 million annual budget, would receive an increase of approximately $500,000 in state funding for the coming year, Farley said.

Due to reductions in state and federal funding, the local Area Agency on Aging is putting more of an emphasis on soliciting donations.

"Because we have limited funds, we are trying to increase our donations to help sustain the services we offer," Farley said.

At the public hearing, which was held partly to get input from the public on what services for the elderly are needed, Towanda senior citizen Virginia Shapiro criticized a policy of the Endless Mountains Transportation Authority, which requires that seniors provide at least a 24-hour notification to the EMTA when reserving a ride in one of its shared-ride vehicles.

Shapiro said her car had broken down, so she had tried to sign up for a shared ride to a doctor's appointment, which had already been scheduled for the following day.

Shapiro said she was turned down for the ride, even through the doctor's appointment was 23 1/2 hours later.

Farley agreed that the sign-up policy is a "difficult" one for seniors, but said the requirement was set by the state Department of Transportation.

In the area served by the B-S-S-T Area Agency on Aging, the number of residents are aged 60 or older has increased to one-fourth of the population, so one-fourth of area's residents are now eligible to receive its services, Farley said.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. provided the local Area Agency on Aging with funds to conduct a capital mail campaign, which occurred last fall, Farley said. The agency will conduct a similar mail campaign in May.

In addition, an auction will be held on May 16 at the Ulster Fire Hall to raise funds for the direct services that the agency provides to seniors, Farley said.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.