State, nonprofit clash over services for seniors

Idaho says a lawsuit, expiring contract will not disrupt assistance

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comJune 12, 2014 

A dispute between the two entities responsible for providing services to Southwest Idaho seniors and vulnerable adults erupted last month, with the state having to defend itself in court and a local nonprofit organization losing a significant source of income.

The nonprofit Idaho Council of Governments has sued the state Commission on Aging and its director, Sam Haws, in federal court, alleging that the state's funding formula discriminates against nonminority seniors living in urban areas. The council manages the Area Agency on Aging, which the state commission contracts with to provide such services as home-delivered meals, respite care for caretakers, and an ombudsman who looks into complaints regarding long-term care or assisted living facilities.

The Commission on Aging has stated that it will not renew the Area Agency on Aging's contract, which expires at the end of the month, because of "serious deficiencies." The nonprofit organization received $3 million this year via the state contract - nearly its entire operating budget. When that funding ends, the agency will have to close and its 25 employees will be out of a job, according to director Sarah Scott. But more disconcerting, said Scott, is that the region's most vulnerable adults will be put at risk.

The two entities began sparring shortly after Gov. Butch Otter appointed Haws as commission director in 2011. The Idaho Council of Governments claims that the state commission's new policies and procedures don't follow existing laws and rules; the commission counters that the service provider is not complying with its policies and guidelines.

WHAT'S THE LAWSUIT ABOUT?

The state is divided into six service areas for seniors. Each receives funding based on a per-senior formula. According to the suit, the per-senior allocations in five of the service areas range from $32.98 to $43.58. The per-senior allocation in the most populous service area, Southwest Idaho, is $27.93 per person.

The lawsuit contends that the state's funding formula is flawed because no money is allocated for disabled seniors or white seniors living in urban areas who do not live alone and have a household income of more than $15,730.

"In contrast, funding is allocated for minority persons living under exactly the same circumstances," stated attorney David Leroy in the complaint.

The state's actions "are racially discriminatory, arbitrary, capricious, constitute an abuse of direction, and fail to meet statutory, procedural and constitutional requirements," according to court documents. As a result, older residents of the Southwest Idaho district are "not provided with an equal opportunity" for senior services.

The lawsuit asks the judge for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop the Commission on Aging from allocating funds under the current formula.

The governor's office and Haws would not comment on the lawsuit.

MORE ABOUT THE PLAYERS

The Idaho Council of Governments is a nonprofit economic and community development organization (formerly Sage Community Resources) that serves as an umbrella for several regional nonprofit agencies: the Area Agency on Aging Serving Southwest Idaho, the Economic Development District Region III and the Idaho Hunger Task Force. Its board comprises city, county and state officials from 10 Southwest Idaho counties.

The Idaho Commission on Aging is the state agency that coordinates various services for seniors, including transportation, nutrition and in-home care. The agency, housed under the Office of the Governor, has 14 employees and a $13 million annual budget. The governor appoints the agency's seven board members and its director.

WHAT'S THE DISPUTE?

The showdown between the state commission and the council escalated late last year.

Aug. 23: Several issues come up during the commission's annual site visit with the Idaho Council of Governments, including administrative and formula funding.

Nov. 14: The council's board sends Otter a letter stating it has "no confidence in the ability of Ms. Haws or her deputy, Jeff Weller." The letter also states that seniors in Southwest Idaho "would be outraged" if they knew their region was not receiving funding to which it is entitled.

Feb. 6: The commission board unanimously votes to send a letter to the Council of Governments "demanding that I be sanctioned or dismissed for my activities associated with resolution of the funding formula," said Scott, director of the Area Agency on Aging. The letter was never sent.

May 8: The commission board votes not to renew the Area Agency on Aging's annual contract; it also decides to start the federal process to remove its designation as an area agency. Under federal rules, each service area can have only one such agency. Until the process to remove the designation is complete, the Commission on Aging will assume the agency's duties. Once the designation is removed, the commission will seek bids for a new service provider, Haws said.

May 27: The Idaho Council of Governments sues the Idaho Commission on Aging.

May 30: The commission sends the council a 30-day notification about the decision not to renew the contract, which expires June 30, because of "serious deficiencies." The Area Agency on Aging, which has held the contract since 1972, may appeal losing its federal designation, but it may not appeal the expiring state contract, according to Haws.

The Council of Governments is considering taking legal action to try to keep the contract in place until the federal appeal process is completed, which could take months.

SOUTHWEST IDAHO SENIORS

When the Area Agency on Aging's contract expires, Idaho Commission on Aging staff will take over its duties.

"This means seniors are going to be served by a bunch of folks who do not have any experience in the system," said Scott. "We are particularly concerned with vulnerable adults who are adult protection clients. They have very serious problems, and to put someone with no experience in charge of trying to resolve those issues is pretty scary."

In addition to providing services to seniors, the agency also provides adult protection services for vulnerable adults.

Within its 10-county service area, the agency has 4,300 clients receiving supportive services. It also handles about 150 to 200 adult protection clients per month, said Scott.

In April, the agency served 12,739 home-delivered meals and served 13,850 meals in senior centers or other group settings.

Haws said her staff, which already oversees service providers in the state's six service areas, is very knowledgeable about what the Area Agency on Aging does and is prepared to take them on.

"We do have the staff. It is not like we are learning these programs - we manage them. And we have the other five area agencies to assist us," Haws said.

She said the commission also will hire temporary employees.

"Our No. 1 goal is that the services to our seniors and vulnerable adults and persons with disabilities are done as seamless as possible," she said.

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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