McConnell key to funding for elderly

Source – The State

On a sunny day in March, about a hundred older people gathered on the State House steps — those that could, anyway — to ask state lawmakers for $5 million to help keep 8,000 seniors out of nursing homes.

They got $200,000.

But three days after the rally something important happened: Ken Ard — the lieutenant governor and the head of the state Office on Aging — was indicted and resigned. That forced then-Sen. Glenn McConnell to become the lieutenant governor, a position he did not want.

Suddenly, instead of a little-known former Florence County councilman asking lawmakers for $5 million, that job fell to a 30-year veteran of the Senate whom many considered the most powerful person in state government.

“We’re pinning a lot of our hopes on if he can come in and do sort of the bully pulpit and try to pull together the forces,” said Teresa Arnold, a lobbyist for AARP South Carolina. “Ken Ard … he was learning everything when he came into that job. This is different, a man who already has his feet on the ground and knows what is going on.”

McConnell, more so than any other senator, knows how to find money. Over 10 years, he funneled millions to restore the Hunley submarine — a Confederate submarine that was the first to sink an enemy ship in battle.

But McConnell maneuvered that money while president pro tempore of the Senate. Now he is lieutenant governor, an office of considerably less power whose only duties are to preside over the Senate and oversee the Office on Aging.

“I’ve always been on the other side of that table asking the questions,” McConnell said, referring to the Senate budget hearings. “This time I had to provide the answers. It’s different.”

While McConnell is upfront about his feelings about being lieutenant governor — he wishes he wasn’t — he says he is committed to advocating for the Office on Aging. On his desk is a pile of papers several inches thick, representing three years worth of public budget hearings for the Office on Aging. And earlier this month, McConnell was armed with these statistics when he made his formal budget presentation to a Senate subcommittee:

• South Carolina has 914,000 seniors, as of the 2010 census — a number that is expected to double by 2030.

• 8,000 seniors are on a waiting list to receive home-based services from the state Office on Aging — services designed to keep them at home longer and out of a nursing home.

• It costs Medicaid $125.69 a day, or $45,608, to house a person in a nursing home. The average cost of home and community based services is $33.65 a day, or about $12,282.

• It cost $1,000 a year for the Office on Aging to provide home-based services to one elderly person, including transportation, house cleaning and meals.

• South Carolina has the fourth highest number of seniors age 60 and older at risk for hunger, according to a report by the AARP Foundation.

“I think what we can try to do is draw a clearer, better picture for the Legislature of the challenge ahead and try to get support for dealing with the question of aging in South Carolina,” McConnell said.

And McConnell has a personal connection: his mother died in 1998 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. McConnell said he “saw the stress it put on my dad” to take care of his mom, which is why he supports the Office on Aging’s respite care program, which gives family caretakers a break.

But is McConnell’s relationship with the Senate enough to push his budget request above the rest?

“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” said Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Anderson, and chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees McConnell’s budget. “He’s held in high regard. I think the office on aging and the senior population is very fortunate to have him.”

Alexander said he supports McConnell’s budget request, adding that, “We have moral duty that’s even a higher calling than our legislative responsibility to take care of our senior population.”

But the realities of the state budget are not in McConnell’s favor. Yes, state lawmakers have an extra $1 billion they can spend in next year’s budget thanks to better-than-expected tax collections. But that money is going fast for things like teacher and state worker pay raises, adding health insurance for poor or disabled children and tax relief for businesses.

And nearly all lawmakers support deepening the Charleston port — a $300 million project that most lawmakers tie to the future of the state’s economy.

“My hope is that we can fund part of that request,” Alexander said. “It would be ideal to fund all of it. We’re still going through that process. It’s early.”

For Rochelle Dorn, a 70-year-old retired legal secretary in West Columbia, the Office on Aging’s services are critical to her quality of life. Dorn says she can’t bend over to pick anything up off the floor and she does not have a lot of stamina — meaning she can’t clean her house. Plus, she’s diabetic.

Dorn — who says she has good support from her family — says she can’t remember how long she has been on the Office on Aging’s waiting list. But earlier this month, the office notified her to say she would be receiving help at home.

“It’s an answer to prayer,” she said.

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