Johnson County seniors discuss agency redistributing

BY BRIAN ALBERT | JULY 12, 2011 7:20 AM

Jessa Hansen/The Daily Iowan
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Iowa’s 99 counties are represented by 16 area agencies on aging — institutions that provide older Iowans with the information and resources necessary to lead productive lives.

House File 45 will cut that number down to six by next July and reduce the agencies’ budget by $300,000.

“The governor originally asked for a $500,000 cut,” said Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant. “Legislature thought that was a bit much, so we got the number reduced by a few hundred thousand.”

Donna Harvey, director of the Iowa Department on Aging, held a community event Monday at the Coralville Public Library at which locals were free to ask questions and voice concerns about the reduction in the number of agencies — which provide information on health care, assisted living, meal delivery, and employment.

Harvey said the reduction legislation is both beneficial and commonplace in nearby states, citing Wisconsin, which was trimmed down to three areas from 15, and Minnesota, which saw a decrease from 12 to five.

“I’ve spoken with people from aging departments in [those] states, and they tell me it’s the best thing that could have happened,” Harvey said. “They’re much stronger now because their consolidation led to better communication and efficiency.”

The Iowa Department on Aging has until Dec. 15 to propose an updated agency layout. It currently has two possible maps.

Harvey said agency funding will depend on population count and resident demographics.

But one Coralville woman, Charlotte Walker, said she’s wary of these so-called “super agencies,” and she contended that people who aren’t involved in major groups will have greater difficulty finding information.

“Please remember the public who aren’t affiliated with the big groups,” Walker said. “I know from over 10 years of direct experience that I’ve had trouble finding information because I don’t belong to the AARP or the Task Force on Aging or an elderly living community.”

Machelle Shaffer, the communications director for the Iowa Department on Aging, said the community needs to understand nothing is going to be lost — there will simply be some restructuring.

“We’re tightening up the organization,” she said. “They will retain the same services, but we’re bringing them together. And as a more cohesive group, we can also look at the possibility of expanding those services.”

Heaton echoed Shaffer’s belief, saying the current services won’t disappear, they’ll simply be part of a larger administrative umbrella.

“Existing agencies will move into a minor, secondary role,” Heaton said. “But we were reassured the expertise for services would preserved within their areas.”

Not everyone is entirely optimistic about the change.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said just because other states have seen success under similar circumstances doesn’t mean Iowa will necessarily benefit from the change.

“It’s disappointing there wasn’t the support to see [the agencies] succeed in their current capacity,” she said. “A lot of people become fearful the further from home accountability lies, so we’ll have to watchdog things pretty closely.”

The Department on Aging is organizing 16 more community events over the next two weeks. Harvey said she hopes older Iowans will show up and express their concerns.

“Going forward, it’s all about communication on a face-to-face basis,” she said. “Care for the aging is best handled at a local, grass-roots level, so we want to encourage that sort of interaction.”

Harvey said she hopes to begin the implementation by the end of August.

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