Senior services to see agency changes

Most in-home workers expected to remain the same

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Three longtime Pittsburgh area social service agencies that have coordinated care for the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging's thousands of senior clients are losing their contracts to do so.

AAA officials have sought to reassure the 4,100 participants who receive services in the affected in-home help program that they won't feel any impact from having new coordinators of their services. The agencies losing their contracts express concern about disruption from the overturn of personnel and knowledge.

"Our biggest concern is you've taken organizations out of this that have long-standing relationships with the county and with the clients we've been taking care of," said Anthony Turo, executive director of Ursuline Senior Services.

As of July 1, he said, Ursuline will no longer be arranging the government-subsidized care of about 1,700 individuals age 60 and older and more than 30 employees who have assisted them will lose their jobs, unless an appeal of the contract decision through the county's law department is successful.

The AAA also will be dropping the case management services of the Lutheran Service Society and Hill House Association in the county agency's main program, known as Options. Dozens of the three agencies' social workers will lose their positions.

In their place, the county AAA has awarded new contracts to two providers, Family Services of Western Pennsylvania and Familylinks, in addition to renewing its relationship with LifeSpan, which will continue serving many clients in southern and western parts of the county.

It is the first change of coordinators in 15 years for the Options program, in which about 4,100 Allegheny County older adults are allocated lottery-funded services such as personal care assistance and housekeeping, based on their need and resources.

The case management agencies involved in the program don't deliver the in-home services themselves -- they receive payment through the county contracts to meet with aging clients and evaluate their needs. They then arrange with private service providers to send workers into homes and handle a variety of approved tasks.

County officials say an objective evaluation using knowledgeable, non-government representatives from the field of aging was done on seven bidders who applied for the contracts, which included the three present organizations that are losing out. It was time for a review of the Options case managers, based on new state requirements and a desire to reduce four geographic providers spread across the county to three, to parallel boundaries in another aging program, said Mildred Morrison, AAA administrator.

She had no criticism of the existing contractors, but she expects the case coordination of seniors to benefit from the experience Family Services and Familylinks have gained working with multiple generations and with additional social service problems, such as mental health and retardation and drug and alcohol addiction.

"We need to see a broad perspective of social work," said Ms. Morrison, who noted more innovations may come from having the new agencies involved. "We're going to need to head toward an approach that is more family-oriented."

Although the AAA has received about 350 calls from consumers about a letter mailed to them Dec. 12 advising that case management changes were imminent, county officials said most people were satisfied once they heard that the personnel actually doing work in their homes are expected to remain the same.

The losing agencies say they've heard deeper concerns from clients, based on the relationships built with case managers who understand their needs.

"They like their current case managers and don't understand what's happening or why. We are having to lay off talented staff," Hill House Association President Cheryl Hall-Russell said in an email.

Among them, the three agencies that won't continue have more than 60 employees involved in case management who could lose jobs, although the new contractors might also elect to hire them.

"You spend month or years and develop that bond, and that trust sometimes takes a long time to build," said Kathy Rex, 26, an Ursuline employee faced with termination who has started applying for other social service positions. "A lot of our participants don't have family members, and sometimes we're the only ones who can help them."

Administrators of Familylinks and Family Services said they're looking forward to the new role and have begun working with the county AAA to try to arrange a smooth transition for clients. Familylinks, in particular, has not done work focused on aging services in the past, but both its officials and those with the county expressed confidence that experience managing cases of young people with mental health or retardation issues or adults with addiction troubles is transferable to assisting seniors with their needs.

"We would hope if these other individuals [losing jobs at other agencies] want to continue in care management they would want to apply to our agency, and we would be very interested in speaking with them," said Michelle Sipple, Familylinks service coordination unit director, to help with some 1,300 new clients it will handle as of July 1.

Stephen Christian-Michaels, chief operating officer of Family Services, said his agency will hold a job fair at the Vintage senior center in East Liberty Feb. 23 for those interested in one of its 30 new care management positions.

He said Family Services expects to emphasize staff training, mentoring, evaluations and use of technology for those assisting Options clients, similar to what it has been doing in the behavioral health field and other programs. Family Services has been working with the elderly through an in-home volunteer caregiver network and the Apprise counseling service related to Medicare Part D insurance plans.


Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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