This article by Liz Sauchelli was originally published in the Valley News on Sept. 22.
Home-delivered meal providers in Windsor and Windham counties are being asked to reduce the number of recipients by 25% due to a budget shortfall at Senior Solutions, the agency that distributes the funding.
This has left meal providers scrambling to adjust their budgets and find more funding before the start of the Oct. 1 fiscal year to avoid cutting vulnerable seniors from their programs.
“This is happening unexpectedly at the same time that our costs are skyrocketing,” said Deanna Jones, executive director of Woodstock’s Thompson Senior Center, which receives funding for its meals program from Senior Solutions.
She said she’s working with the nonprofit organization’s staff and board of directors to add fundraisers to make up for the loss.
Some internal solutions for the budget shortfall aren’t feasible — inflation has driven up the cost of supplies and food, but federal nutrition guidelines under the Older Americans Act mean meal providers are limited in what they can substitute or how much they can cut portions, and providers can’t charge recipients for the meals, although they can ask for donations. The main options available are more money or fewer people fed.
“We don’t want to cut back the number of meals we’re serving,” said Jones, who also leads the statewide Vermont Association of Senior Centers and Meal Providers.
There are 20 meal providers in the two counties that receive funding from Senior Solutions. Some are cutting back on the number of days they deliver meals, eliminating takeout meals, cutting back on congregate meals or implementing waitlists, which providers have long feared would be necessary.
But Senior Solutions Executive Director Mark Boutwell noted an important distinction in the one-quarter reduction.
“We are working with meal sites to reduce their participant rosters by about 25%, which is not the same as reducing their budgets by 25%,” Boutwell wrote in an email. “The state has a defined process of meal recipient eligibility assessment and prioritization of need that we are using in collaboration with the meal sites to identify individuals who may no longer need home-delivered meals since the self-isolation protocols of the Covid-19 pandemic have been relaxed.”
Boutwell attributed the budget constraints to funding through the Older Americans Act, which has not kept up with Vermont’s aging demographics. In an August memo to staff, Boutwell wrote that in four years the organization has received only an additional $29,614 in funding, or a 1.5% increase. As a result, Senior Solutions has dipped into its reserve funds to pay for its operating costs.
“These are long-term system issues that have caused our funds to be depleted,” Boutwell wrote in the memo. The organization has also reduced staff wage increases and is looking to expand its case management services to increase revenue, among other measures.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, congregate meal sites closed across Vermont, and some older adults signed up for home-delivered meals instead. Senior Solutions said that the criteria for home-delivered meals were relaxed during this time, which made it easier for people to sign up for the program.
“We made the assumption that the home-delivered meal rosters had been inflated by the rollback of eligibility during the Covid pandemic and that budget savings could be found by taking some of those recipients off the rolls based on their reassessments,” according to a document Boutwell provided to meal providers.
The nutrition contracts that Senior Solutions handles account for 22% of its operating budget. While individual meal sites provide meals, Senior Solutions determines who is eligible for the program through its intake forms.
Prior to the pandemic, meal providers had a cap on how many meals Senior Solutions would reimburse. If they went above it, they would have to come up with the difference. During Covid-19, that cap was removed and emergency relief funding helped make up the difference. Now, that cap is being reinstated at the same time the cost per meal is higher than ever before and emergency funds are running out.
The expected reduction in home-delivered meals hasn’t happened, even though congregate meal sites have reopened. In Woodstock, Jones estimates that a third of the 57 people currently receiving home-delivered meals used to come for congregate meals, a third were already receiving meals before the pandemic and the last third “are just completely new and a part of our aging population,” Jones wrote in an email. Those who receive home-delivered meals do not generally overlap with the group that comes in for congregate meals.
“Senior Solutions is linking the 25% cut in funding to the question of (Meals on Wheels) eligibility and lessened Covid restrictions going back to normal, but in fact, the cut is happening regardless of how many people are removed from the program due to eligibility. Assuming that people who are now receiving Meals on Wheels came on during Covid and may not be eligible is a bad assumption and will not begin to make up a 25% cut in funding,” Jones wrote. “It is important to note that this is a cut to the over-all nutrition funding and not just Meals on Wheels funding. Not all meal providers have congregate dining, but for those of us that do, the cut is across the board for nutrition funding, and MOW eligibility doesn’t have any impact on receiving the cut.”
In fiscal year 2022, the Thompson Senior Center served around 18,000 home-delivered meals and 8,000 congregate meals, which cost roughly $16 per meal. That $16 takes into account indirect costs, like the staff labor and utilities taken to provide each meal. So far, they have received around $105,000 in funding from Senior Solutions for the 2022 fiscal year and are projected to receive $116,023. They receive $5.19 per eligible home-delivered meal and $4.29 per eligible congregate meal.
Next year, the senior center is set to receive $88,956 in funding, which is $27,067 less than the current fiscal year. If the Thompson Senior Center serves the same number of meals next year, its reimbursement rate will drop to $3.42 per meal. While providers have always had to come up with the difference through fundraising and donations from recipients, among other efforts, it will now be harder for them to bridge that gap.
Senior Solutions, under the guidance of the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging & Independent Living, is working with meal sites to “identify individuals who could utilize a different method for getting that meal, maybe because they are back out shopping again or they do have family that is coming back into the home and helping them or any number of scenarios that can happen,” said Conor O’Dea, who is the director of the State Unit on Aging.