Policy and politics have dominated the conversation about health care reform in the Maine State House this year, but a March 13 story about Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook, and her husband, Patrick, who suffered a stroke last year, offers a timely reminder of the human implications.
The goal of providing the kind of quality, loving care that Ann Peoples gives to her husband — and all of its associated challenges and benefits — must factor more prominently as Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature contemplate changes to Maine’s health care systems.
Programs that make it possible for Mainers such as Ann Peoples to care for their loved ones, and make it easier for Patrick Peoples to remain a valued member of his community, offer direct financial and medical benefits. They promote the quality of life that comes with living independently, and they save the state money by preventing or delaying the need for aging or disabled Mainers to seek more expensive care in nursing homes or other institutional settings.
A 2012 Weinberg Foundation Market Survey of Long-term Care Costs calculated that every $1 spent to help people care for loved ones in their homes yields $4.62 in nursing home cost savings.
Jessica Maurer of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging estimates that more than 230,000 “informal caregivers” in Maine help people with chronic medical conditions stay in their homes. A 2012 report on population and service use trends by older Mainers and people with disabilities, prepared for the Maine Office on Aging and Disability Services, indicates that number will likely increase steadily in a state with the oldest median age.
To better manage the cost of caring for an aging population in a rural state, Maine needs community-based programs that support its informal caregivers and those who want to live independently but aren’t lucky enough to have a dedicated family member like Ann Peoples. The Homemakers Services Program and adult day services are two such programs, and legislation to increase funding for them has gained approval from the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
One bill, LD 20, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, would allocate $1.5 million in each of the next two fiscal years to shorten the program’s waiting list, which exceeds 1,500 people, according to Brenda Gallant of the Maine Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program.
At a cost to the state of $18.75 per hour, sometimes reduced by co-payments, the Homemaker Services Program serves approximately 2,000 low-income, mostly rural Mainers who need help with personal care, shopping and other basic services that allow them to stay in their homes. Intangible benefits include a system to check up on vulnerable Mainers and a remedy for isolation, which takes a physical and mental toll on older people in rural areas.
A second bill, LD 62, sponsored by Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, would increase the hourly rate that adult day service programs could charge. The aim is to make it more economically feasible to operate adult day service centers, which provide nursing supervision, socialization, meals, activities, medication administration and personal care to aging or disabled people — and respite for their caregivers.
People who want to keep families together should support these bills. People who want to reduce the overall cost of health care, including long-term care, in Maine should recognize that it makes good economic sense to invest in these proven, cost-effective programs. Enacting LD 20 and LD 62 would be an investment in compassion and independence.