07/18/2011 01:14 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2011

Elderly Losing Home-Delivered Meals, Could Drive Nursing-Home Moves

Cuts in the recently-passed Illinois budget could drive hundreds of seniors from their homes and into nursing homes, a move that advocates say will be more costly for the elderly and for the state.

The reason, according to an Associated Press report: a $2.2 million cut in the budget for hot meals delivered to seniors' houses.

According to the AP story, the 14 percent cut to the program is the equivalent of about 400,000 hot meals, or 2,400 clients worth of food. One organization in the Chicago area, Age Options, is already reportedly considering which seniors it can afford to keep delivering meals to, and whom it will have to cut from its rolls. The Chicago Tribune reports:

"People coming out of hospitals will be the first ones to be affected," [Age Options president Jonathan] Lavin said. Those people want to live at home, and can with a little assistance, but they now may be denied delivered meals, he said.

The next step is for case managers to look at each senior citizen already getting meals delivered and ask what other resources the individual may have: "Is the church going to come over? Is a neighbor coming over? Can the person go with three meals a week instead of five?"

The loss of these meals, though, could be the last straw for many seniors trying to stay in their own homes and out of elder-care facilities. As the Tribune reported when the budget cuts were first announced, the program will now only be available to those seniors eligible for Medicare, but many who are just above that threshold will lose the benefit of the state-subsidized meal.

Without hot meals delivered at home, argued Don Chapman, executive director of the PLOWS Council on Aging, these seniors will lose their last grasp at independence, and will be forced to move into nursing homes. "This is a program that keeps people out of nursing homes," Chapman said to the Tribune. And the rise in the nursing-home population will end up costing the state far more than it's saving by trimming the meals program.

The agencies that were providing the meals, like PLOWS and Age Options, were already struggling to stay afloat before the budget cuts. In its fiscal crisis, the state of Illinois has been very slow in making payments to human services agencies; a story in the State Journal-Register earlier in the year reported that agencies feeding the elderly often waited months before they saw reimbursement checks from the state.

And skyrocketing food prices didn't help, either: higher prices of gas, coffee, hamburger and cheese all hit food providers hard, coupling with spotty cash flow to hinder their efforts to provide seniors meals.

With the new cuts now in effect as well, these organizations have little choice but to abandon some people in need.