SPRINGFIELD — A big part of Diane Drew's job is helping make sure hundreds of elderly Macon County residents receive the services they need to be able to stay in their homes.
Drew is executive director of the Community Home Environmental Learning Project, a Decatur-based nonprofit organization that serves about 275 people through the Illinois Department on Aging's community care program, which is designed to keep people out of more costly nursing homes by providing services such as help with household tasks, including cooking, laundry and bathing.
"The community care program and the services that we provide keep people at home where they want to be," Drew said. "Maybe it's not going to happen tomorrow, but if they lose their services, our clients will eventually end up in a nursing home."
Drew and other providers are nervous that their clients will lose those services as a result of dramatic changes to the program the department has proposed under Gov. Bruce Rauner's leadership, and they're supporting a proposal that would block the changes.
In his budget plan for next year, Rauner proposed reducing funding for the services by $200 million and shifting participants who are not eligible for Medicaid — currently 43,000 people — into a new "community reinvestment program."
The administration says the new program will continue to serve all those eligible under the community care program but will cut costs significantly by delivering services more efficiently. For example, instead of paying a home care worker to go into someone's home to do laundry, the program might hire a laundry service at a lower cost.
The changes are necessary to deal with an aging population, the administration says. The population of Illinoisans 60 and older is expected to grow 57 percent in the next 15 years, according to the Department on Aging.
The services offered through the new program, which is set to take effect when the next fiscal year begins July 1 or when a budget for that year is signed, will be coordinated by the state's 13 Area Agencies on Aging.
"Using a thoughtful, more progressive approach, the (community reinvestment program) will provide more flexibility to better meet our clients' needs," department spokeswoman Veronica Vera wrote in an emailed statement. "No seniors will lose services due to the implementation of (the program)."
But providers such as Drew, groups that advocate on behalf of older residents and some state lawmakers are skeptical.
"It's the same story we have had over and over again," Drew said, referring previous attempts to alter the program, including the Rauner administration's since-abandoned effort last year to tighten eligibility rules.
Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, also has strong doubts and has introduced legislation to block implementation of the new program.
His measure, which a House committee approved last week, would prevent the Department on Aging from making its proposed changes, which it currently can do without legislative approval. It also would codify in state law the current eligibility standards.
"I understand the need for efficiencies and looking at new models and better models of providing care in a growing population," Harris said. "But in a wholesale way to take over 40,000 elderly (people) and take them out of care which they're used to receiving I think is a bad experiment, especially when that's being done in an untested way statewide."
Lori Hendren, an associate director with AARP Illinois, went further, calling the administration's proposal "an attack against the lives over 43,000 of the Illinois' most vulnerable and frail population."
Bill Wheeler is executive director of the Illinois Council of Case Coordination Units. Under Rauner's proposal, those regional agencies would work with their local Area Agencies on Aging to develop "person-centered" plans to deliver services in their regions.
While members of his organization are working with the department on the details of the new program, Wheeler called its implementation "the worst-case scenario."
"We're pinning our hopes to the efforts of Rep. Harris and Sen. (Daniel) Biss," an Evanston Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate, Wheeler said.