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Advocates for the Elderly Call on Tennessee to Tap Federal Funds to Provide Better Care

July 1, 2021
Source: Nashville Tennessean

Vickie Harris joins her father each Friday for his cocktail.

The chemotherapy agent administered at the Maury Regional Cancer Center in Columbia is one activity on their “Father-Daughter Friday” itinerary.

They also have time scheduled at the lab and a visit with the doctor. She then spends the weekend at [her] parents’ home in Lewisburg in Marshall County — a city of 10,000 about 40 miles from Harris’ home in Murfreesboro.

When Harris and her father, 86, return home, her job as a home caregiver continues. While she’s sorting mail, prepping meals and tidying up, she’s also assessing. With a professional background as a nursing home administrator, Harris is watching for changes in her parents’ health. Like whether the treatment for her father’s prostate cancer is complimenting the medication for his multiple myeloma.

By the time she heads home to Murfreesboro Sunday morning to prepare for her paid work week, she’s mentally and physically exhausted.

“Family caregivers ... are like trees falling in the forest,” Harris said. “Nobody hears them falling.”

Harris, alongside others at the Tennessee Coalition for Better Aging, are recommending the state allocate $157 million from its federal Medicaid funding, to advance home-based and community-based state services for Tennesseans who need these services. The money would come from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal COVID-19 relief package with money awarded to each state.

The coalition called on Gov. Bill Lee and TennCare to file an action plan through Medicaid for funding before the July 12 deadline.

“This is free money to the state that can enhance home- and community-based services and address numerous challenges in long-term services and supports,” said James Powers, geriatrician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and co-chair of the coalition.

TN ranks among lowest in supporting family caregivers

After hearing about the available funding, TennCare began reaching out to stakeholders, like the Tennessee Coalition for Better Aging, said Connor Tapp, spokesperson for the state’s Medicaid agency.

"We are committed to investing funds in ways that will have a sustainable impact on the [Home and Community Based Services] delivery system in Tennessee, and more importantly, on the lives of those we serve and their families," Tapp said in an email.

Tennessee ranks 49th in supporting family caregivers, according to the Long-Term Services & Supports State Scorecard, a measurement by the AARP aimed at improving care performance across the country.

For Grace Sutherland Smith, the executive director of AgeWell Middle Tennessee, there is a dire need to invest in the home and community based care system.

“Issues that have lingered in recent years were magnified by the pandemic, and it’s time to reimagine long-term services and supports for Tennesseans,” Sutherland Smith said.

The coalition proposes providing stipends to family caregivers like Harris, to spend as they see fit. The coalition also recommends increasing compensation for professional caregivers, investing in preventive services to delay or avoid nursing homes and incentivizing students to pursue training in home care.

“We have an opportunity now, at no cost to the state, to make meaningful changes,” said Donna DeStefano, assistant executive director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition.

If the federal money was awarded, the services must be delivered by March 31, 2024.

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