News & Views from 465 California Street

Disrespecting our Elders

Clint Reilly

John F. Kennedy once said that the strength and durability of a society can be judged by how it treats its elderly.

Proving his point more than four decades later, the careening state of California is considering cutting off vital in-home services to thousands of dependent seniors.

Of course, with the Golden State staring down the barrel of a $24 billion deficit that swells with each passing nanosecond, we must expect our elected officials to make difficult spending decisions.

But the proposal to dramatically slash In-Home Supportive Services is best described with one word: “stupid.”

Or perhaps two: “astonishingly stupid.”

IHSS is one of a select breed of programs that serve thousands and actually save the state money.

The program helps pay for in-home caregivers for more than 400,000 elderly and disabled Californians.

These home-care providers are often responsible for the most intimate self-care tasks that most people take for granted, like feeding, bathing and dressing. They also do day-to-day chores, provide transportation to and from medical appointments and administer various other medical and domestic services.

It’s a big job, but it doesn’t exactly equate to big bucks. The statewide average hourly wage for an IHSS provider is less than $10. In many rural California counties, home-care providers are making minimum wage for their efforts.

So, yes; IHSS costs the state money. But consider the alternative.

According to the AARP Public Policy Institute, family caregivers provide unpaid health care services valued at $48 billion.

Without IHSS assistance, the overwhelming majority of recipients would be shunted unceremoniously into far more expensive skilled nursing facilities.

California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office puts the annual cost of keeping a disabled or elderly person in a nursing home at more than $55,000 per year.

By comparison, the LAO estimates that providing in-home care costs less than $10,000. Not only is it vastly cheaper, but it also allows the elderly and the disabled to remain in their own homes, which greatly enhances their quality of life.

Critics argue that IHSS deserves to be cut because of waste, failing to see the irony in their flawed logic. Budget hawks have intimated that relatives will just have to pick up the slack.

But families already stretched to the breaking point by unemployment, plummeting home values, dwindling savings and shredded retirement accounts will be forced into a difficult predicament. If they stay home to “pick up the slack,” many won’t be able to pay the mortgage or put food on the table.

Obviously, the moral imperative to preserve and protect IHSS is strong, but the economic rationale is even more compelling given our dire fiscal situation.

Then again, this is California. Why would we want to retain a program that actually saves the state millions every year when we’re busy negotiating a fiscal tsunami of epic proportion?

Some pundits speculate that this is just another of the governor’s maneuvers in a game of budgetary chicken with his recalcitrant partners in the legislature.

They argue that Schwarzenegger’s early proposals to close state parks, end the state’s SCHIP program for uninsured kids and pare down IHSS are just there to establish an initial negotiating position.

This could be true. Politics is a game of smoke and mirrors and the vast majority of deals are cut behind the scenes, the details of which rarely make it into a reporter’s notebook.

Nevertheless, we’re past the point of scare tactics and political gambits. The stakes are too high this time.

If legislators are serious about cutting a program like IHSS, they need to check their math.

Comments (5)

  • I am writing to express my heartfelt gratitude for the article you wrote about the proposed cuts to IHSS. I found an article written by Kate Scannell in the June 21, 2009 edition expressing the same sentiments which I had saved with the thought of writing to her, too.

    I am a single-mother of a 21-year-old daughter with profound disabilites. We adopted her at birth and discovered that most of her brain did not develop when she was five-months-old (long, heart-wrenching story). Her father left our lives when she was ten, a month after she had had surgery that involved breaking her femurs and rotating her legs, securing them with 7″ long plates to help her gait (her diagnosis includes cerebral palsy, epilepsy, visual impairment, developmental delay and mental retardation). He has a new family and rarely sees our daughter. He lost his job in
    January and no longer pays child support. We would be “on the street” if it were not for IHSS. I work full-time as a legal assistant. My day begins at 5 am as she requires constant care and supervision. Even with the IHSS funding, it can be challenging to find someone who is competent and responsible to help care for my daughter. However, my family and friends know I would “slit my wrists” before I placed her or put her in a facility. She IS one of the most vulnerable in our society. As a mother, my greatest fear is not only that she would not receive the care she needs to live with dignity, but that she could never defend herself against an attempt to cause her bodily harm. This would destroy the precious little cognition and innocent sense of well-being she does have.

    I apologize for “going-on”, but I want you to know that there are thousands of mothers/caregivers who, even though they may never see your article, are deeply thankful for people like you. You have given a voice to the voiceless in our society.


    Denise L.

    Posted by: Denise L. | June 30th, 2009 at 3:23 pm

  • mr reilly,

    i wish i could fully express my thanks to you for writing this article. i work full time as a secretary at a local car dealership and my disabled, 80 year old mother lives with my husband and i. without IHSS, we would have no alternative but to institutionalize her, because she cannot stay by herself. our family is dependent on my income as well as my husband’s, so not working and staying home to take care of her isn’t an option. i would if i could, but if i don’t work, the bills don’t get paid. it’s not like we’re living a lavish lifestyle, either — we live within our means and we both work hard, but we just can’t afford a fulltime caregiver without some help.

    it scares the hell out of me to think that some bean counter in sacramento has actually proposed gutting IHSS as a solution to the problem, when it would make matters profoundly worse on so many levels.

    thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Posted by: Tania Sievel | June 30th, 2009 at 5:17 pm

  • Thank you,Clint, again for another right-on article. In addition to IHSS cuts, if they also cut the Adult Day Health Programs, which provides daily health care and meals in a safe environment, even more would be forced into nursing homes. And as horrible as some nursing homes are, there are not even enough beds for all the people who would need them.
    Mary S.

    Posted by: Mary Schembri | July 1st, 2009 at 10:37 am

  • Thank You. Your article should be published on the front pages of all the newspapers in California. I truly believe that most people (including the bean counters in Sacramento) have no idea that IHSS actually saves the State money. I work for a non-profit agency that among other things, supports Adults with Developmental Disabilities to live independently. IHSS, as a generic service, is a large part of how we continue to assist this population to stay out of institutions and again at a cost savings to this state. People need only compare the cost of living in an institution verses living in the community to see that IHSS has value, not a drain. Our agency has been assisting our folks for over 20 years and if the state slashes IHSS, we will be hard pressed to continue these valuable services. On top of the IHSS cuts, the Department of Developmental Services implemented a 3% cut in our fees in February and has stated that there may be an additional 7% cut coming. We are getting a double hit. How fair is this to the most vulnerable population of people in the state? John Kennedy would be appalled at how these people are being treated.
    Thanks again~
    Carmen Y

    Posted by: Carmen Ynostroza | July 1st, 2009 at 4:57 pm

  • Thank you! Your article should be published and sent out to all the families like mine, who are depending on someone who will be heard to step forward and say “This is wrong” . Why does the Governor and the Republican party have such little regards for the least able to advocate for themselves?! We are not just a liability! We are part of the Californian dream,too. Please continue to fight for us! These proposed cuts will not help restore the economic vitality, it will only add to the misery.Cecilia R

    Posted by: cecilia rahner | July 4th, 2009 at 1:40 pm

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