Jewish Journal

Budget Crisis Threatens Jewish Programs

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

Posted on Jul. 8, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Jewish social service programs that serve the elderly, disabled and at-risk children may end up as casualties of the state budget crisis, which leapt to a new level of urgency last week as California lawmakers failed to pass budget revisions before a July 1 deadline.

More than $4 million in state funding for four Jewish Family Service programs could be zeroed out if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has his way; budgets currently working their way through legislative committees also require significant cuts on top of previous cuts made during last September’s budget negotiations. If no budget compromise is reached in the legislature before California runs out of money, JFS could be forced to close down programs that aim to keep indigent elderly and disabled clients out of institutions, as well as one that gives shelter to victims of domestic abuse.

In addition, Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services and the Aviva Family and Children’s Services may be unable to continue operating residential programs for children after a likely state cut of 10 percent to already underfunded programs.

Service providers fear clients’ lives are in the balance.

“As a result of all this the safety net is going to be broken,” said Paul Castro, CEO and executive director of JFS, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Where in prior years when the net was broken we had been in a position to catch people if they fell through, our best hope now is to just help break the fall, because we aren’t going to be able to catch them.”

Schwarzenegger and the legislature passed an 18-month budget last February that was supposed to remain in effect through June 2010. But California’s declining revenues and the failure of the May 19 propositions to free up initiative-locked dollars rendered the February budget worthless, a situation lawmakers failed to remedy when they couldn’t come to an agreement on budget revisions by July 1. A gap of $25.3 billion now lingers, on top of the $15 billion in cuts made in February.

Medi-Cal-funded programs will continue to be paid through July, though other budget areas may receive IOUs from State Controller John Chiang, which the state started issuing July 2.

JFS is bracing for the worst. It is prepared to begin informing clients of potential closures. Layoff notices that it hopes it won’t have to implement already went out to staff, and JFS and the union that represents most of its staff have agreed to a 45-day closure of affected agencies so it can regroup if funding disappears.

The largest JFS program targeted is the Multipurpose Senior Services Program (MSSP), a case management program that provides frail, needy seniors with community-based aid — nurse and social worker visits, taxi vouchers, home aides — to allow them to stay in their own homes and out of nursing facilities.

Forty-two MSSP programs operate across the state, and JFS sees 800 clients at the program it operates with a budget of $2.8 million, cut from $3.3 million earlier this year. While state legislators are hoping to keep the program intact in the budget they are currently working on, the governor’s proposal eliminates the state’s $1.4 million contribution — which is currently matched dollar-for-dollar by the federal government. The governor’s plan, or a long-term failure to pass a budget, would mean the closure of MSSP. Because it is a Medi-Cal supported program, it will continue to receive state dollars through July.

“In my conversations with Sacramento, I’ve been very straight about the reality. They ask what will happen if MSSP closes, and I say that some families —  if the clients have family —  will figure out ways to care for their elderly, and some clients will have to stay home, and they will die,” Castro said. “One of the things this program does is monitor them…. When nobody else is around, they may forget to take their medications; they may forget to eat. It won’t be long before many clients deteriorate.”

Castro said one estimate demonstrates that if half the MSSP clients statewide end up in nursing homes, it will cost Medi-Cal $200 million — not counting emergency room visits that will skyrocket — as opposed to the $28 million required to support the program statewide.

“It will balance the budget today, but you’ll have to pay for it tomorrow,” Castro said.

The same is true for Partners Adult Day Health Care, which is also a Medi-Cal-reimbursed program. The program shuttles 230 frail, medically challenged and disabled clients to a center in West Hollywood, where they receive meals, nursing care, social work and other services that keep them out of institutions.

The governor is proposing cutting the entire $736,000 in state support, effectively ending the program. The budget legislators failed to present but are still working on requires minor belt tightening.

“If a caregiver has to stay at home to take care of their mother, that means they have to quit their job, which means welfare or food stamps. The ripple effects are not being quantified as additional costs,” Castro said.

Linkages, another JFS program being targeted, uses a case management model to provide resources and services to about 125 disabled adults, costing $217,000 a year. The governor’s proposal would eliminate all funding, and the legislators’ version would cut it by one-third.

Two domestic violence shelters that also offer related services for 450 battered women and children would lose $347,000 in state funding in the governor’s version of the budget, and would be cut by 20 percent in the current legislators’ version. The JFS Family Violence Project would likely survive the cuts, as it also gets county and federal money, but it might need to be scaled back — perhaps to just one shelter instead of two.

Two programs that serve children whom the state has removed from their homes are facing an almost certain 10 percent reduction in funds, a cut that will be hard to absorb since state funding for residential programs has been stagnant for 14 of the last 19 years, with only a 5 percent increase since 2002-2003.

“We are witnessing the greatest threat to providing critical services to children who cannot remain at home that I have seen during my 20 years as CEO of Aviva Family and Children’s Services,” said Andrew Diamond, adding that government-mandated standards require a certain level of staffing and service, but government funding — a combination of state, federal and county dollars — doesn’t come close to covering the requirements, creating high fundraising demands difficult to achieve in this economy. 

“I don’t think we’ll be able to make it up in charitable dollars, and I don’t know what is going to happen,” said Elias Lefferman, president and CEO of Vista Del Mar, a historically Jewish agency that still receives some funding from The Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation. “We’re going to have to take a look at our programs that we think are effective and efficient and make some tough choices.”

Vista has already cut its residential program from 88 beds three years ago to 36 beds now. An additional 24 kids are in a locked community treatment facility. Aviva closed a six-bed home this year, and now has 36 in its group home and high school in Hollywood. If state funding falls far enough, or if IOUs and payment delays gum up cash flow, credit lines and reserves may not suffice; programs may have to shrink or close.

During past budget crises — California is consistently late in passing budgets — JFS has been able to float threatened programs by dipping into reserves or borrowing from its line of credit. But Castro isn’t sure JFS would be able to carry the programs past August.

And Castro hasn’t been able to get a clear answer from Sacramento about any transition plan if the programs are forced to close.

“Are we to abandon these clients? Do we suddenly turn off the spigot?” Castro asked. “We’re dealing with people’s lives — this is not about bureaucracy.”

JFS, Aviva and Vista are all appealing to the Jewish community not only to lobby Sacramento, but to step up charitable contributions to make up for where the state is leaving them hanging.

“The part that is troubling is that nobody is thinking about what California is going to look like after this,” Castro said. “What is the state going to be about if we shut down all these programs that help the most vulnerable?”

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