This article appeared in The Sheridan Press on February 3, 2021.

By: Kristen Czaban

Lucille Myers cannot imagine living anywhere but on her own. She’s grown accustomed to her indepen-dence after years of caring for herself and her family. She lives in a small, tidy apartment at Heritage Towers, and up until COVID-19 limited gatherings, volunteered in the building. In discussing living arrangements with her children, she’s always said she didn’t want to live in a nursing home. “I like my own company,” Myers laughed. “I’m not sure I could live in a place where you’re all together like that.” Despite her fierce independence, even Myers needs helping hands — preferably a pair that can clean her shower, push a vacuum and carry her laundry basket to and from the washers and dryers downstairs. Myers found that assistance in the Help at Home program administered by The Hub on Smith, a program now in jeopardy due to state budget cuts. She learned about Help at Home after an employee at Heritage Towers saw her stopping to catch her breath in the hallway one day as she took her garbage out. “She said, ‘There’s no sense in that,’” Myers recalled. So Myers called The Hub on Smith and quickly connected with the Help at Home team and arranged for somebody to help her with basic household chores. Once every couple of weeks, an aide helps clean the apartment and do laundry. In between, Myers’ children help with shopping and coordinating transportation to various appointments. The arrangement has helped Myers maintain positive relationships with her family, but it has also ensured Myers can hold on to the independence she cherishes.

Help at Home

Myers isn’t alone in the need for an extra hand. Tasks that used to spur families into thinking it was time for older relatives to live in assisted living or nursing home facilities now take just an hour or two here and there for aides to complete. “Family members would come home to visit from out of town and find that their loved ones were no longer able to keep the bathroom from being soiled or the fridge free of moldy food,” said Ky Dixon, who worked as executive director of The Hub on Smith when the Help at Home program launched in the 1990s.
“Those things are pretty easily fixed.” The Sheridan-based program launched as a pilot program with just about $4,000. Dixon said the program was immediately successful. Those receiving the services pay on a sliding scale, making it accessible to most individuals who need it. “In return, they get a vetted and supervised home care worker,” Dixon said. Once the Sheridan program proved successful and continued to grow, legislators based in Sheridan County drafted legislation to expand the program across the state, first in just four counties, then 10 and then in all Wyoming counties as the Wyoming Home Services Program. The program is managed through the Aging Division with 23 provider contracts, one per county, to coordinate the in-home services. Recipients are low-income, non-Medicaid qualifying due to factors such as owning a home. “We were just amazed at how people thrived in their homes,” Dixon said of the program’s influence. “They were able to remain active members of their communities. They could be in their homes, pay taxes, purchase goods from local businesses. And the program itself employed people in the community — it’s economic development.” Myers is just one of approximately 81 local individuals served by The Hub’s Help at Home program currently. Since Lois Bell became the Help at Home director in August 2017, she said, the program has served approximately 418 people. With the program now more than a couple decades old, its impact on the community is estimated to be much larger. Statewide, approximately 1,800 people utilize the service each year.

Funding troubles

Last year, as COVID-19 swept across the U.S. and the energy industry continued its decline, the state’s fiscal analysts estimated Wyoming would face large budget deficits. As a result, Gov. Mark Gordon proposed a series of cuts and when he released his proposed budget in the fall, it was nearly $1 billion less than his first budget approximately two years ago. Among the proposed cuts was the elimination of funding for the home health program. According to Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, to eliminate a program that was legislatively established, a bill has to be passed to repeal the program. While such a bill was discussed, members of the Joint Appropriations Committee did not overwhelmingly support it so it wasn’t brought forward. But, the approximately $2.7 million needed to fund the program in the next fiscal year has not been added back into the budget, either. “The next step if we want to see that program continue, which I personally do, is to have funding restored,” Kinner said. “Now it’s up to the interested parties to work on seeing if there is enough support to do that.” Supporters hope the savings provided by the in-home services are enough to convince legislators to restore funding. According to the Aging Division, the average cost to the state in fiscal year 2020 per person for Wyoming Home Services was on average $1,517 per year or $126 per month. If an individual would become Medicaid eligible, the average cost of the Medicaid Community Choices waiver could be up to $24,000 per year or $2,000 per month. Nursing home costs can reach more than $72,000 per year or $6,000 per month. “It’s a huge, huge expense to the state if people have to go into a nursing home,” Dixon said, reiterating the program has both fiscal and social benefits. The debate may not be that simple, though, as legislators continue examining whether more cuts are needed and if new revenue options should be considered. Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, has noted while the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group offered a more optimistic outlook in its January 2021 report, the Biden administration policies — particularly around the energy sector — will likely hinder Wyoming’s economic recovery. Kinner, though, would like to see funding for the home health program restored and reexamined for the next budget. “The governor made cuts, and we agreed to move those cuts forward,” Kinner said, “but the question remains: Have we cut enough or have we cut too far? In this particular case, I believe we’ve gone a little bit too far.” Kinner also agreed that while the January CREG report included some good news, restoring the funding for one year and reevaluating the state’s situation moving forward provides time to find alternative solutions while remaining cautious with spending.