The number of V.I. senior citizens is growing, but the funding to provide services isn’t keeping pace, Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch and his staff said repeatedly Monday at the Legislature’s Human Services, Recreation and Sports Committee meeting at the Earl B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
“We are juggling very limited resources to do important work,” Assistant Commissioner Michal Rhymer-Charles added.
Finch and his staff were at the Legislature to provide information on the territory’s senior programs and, along with others, provide testimony on a bill to create a senior citizens advisory committee.
They came armed with facts and figures to show why the demand for senior services continues to increase. Finch said that the number of people across the territory over age 60 stood at 9,659 in 1990. The number was at 23,423 in the 2010 census. When it comes to seniors over age 65, the number was at 6,479 in 1990. In 2010, it was 15,910. As for those above age 85, he said there were 418 in 1990 and 1,165 in 2010.
“This group, which needs and consumes many services, has almost tripled over the last 30 years,” he said of those over age 85.
Sen. Louis P. Hill’s office later provided information that indicated the average life span was 73 in 1970. It rose to 78 this year, but by 2020, it’s projected to stand at 88.
Optimally seniors will age in their homes because it’s usually cheaper and seniors prefer it, Finch said. However, he said it’s not always possible.
With the number of aging residents on the upswing, the number of nursing home beds will need to rise. According to Finch, guidelines suggest having enough beds for 5 percent of the population over age 65. This means the territory needs almost 800 nursing home beds. It has 121, he said.
“It’s why seniors get left in hospitals,” Finch said, indicating that they’re stuck there because there are no nursing home beds available.
While Sen. Patrick Simeon Sprauve pressed Finch and his staff to open up the second floor of the Queen Louise Home for the Aged on St. Thomas to accommodate more seniors who need nursing home beds, Finch said that to operate each bed would cost about $100,000 a year.
He said it was the same story at the Herbert Grigg Home on St. Croix, where space is expected to come available as soon as the Frederiksted Health Center moves back to its permanent home.
Drug costs are one reason care of aging residents continues to rise, Finch said. Additionally, as the number of older residents continues to increase so do their other needs.
“Disability doubles for every five years after 65,” said Murlene Van Beverhoudt, administrator of Senior Citizen Affairs.
As for the bill to create an advisory body to be called the Commission on Aging, all three testifiers said they wanted fewer people on the commission, as well as a different composition of members. The bill as written calls for 16 members from various government agencies, senior citizen centers and AARP Virgin Islands.
“Reduce the number of government people and add community people,” Finch suggested.
Sen. Louis P. Hill, who sponsored the bill, said he’d take into consideration the testimony and come up with an amendment. The bill was held in committee due to lack of a quorum.
While a bill to mandate that all the territory’s physicians allow patients to pay their bills with their Medicare insurance was not on the agenda, Sen. Alvin Williams said one was coming.
“A lot of senior citizens are suffering,” he said.
He said that many doctors won’t accept Medicare at all, but others make the patients pay up front and then collect from Medicare.
According to Williams, the physicians won’t accept Medicare because the federal government program sets its payment rates too low.
Finch and AARP Director Denyce Singleton both agreed that the bill was warranted.
“It’s reaching crisis proportions,” Singleton said.
Sen. Celestino White provided a bit of levity when he told Finch about his frustrations in reaching people at Human Services because of the automated telephone system.
“It’s a spelling bee. It’s a geography test. Why?” White asked.
Finch told him to press zero to reach the operator because the department doesn’t have the manpower to assign someone to answer the telephone.
In addition to non-committee members White, Hill and Sen. Ronald Russell, Sprauve, and Williams, who chaired the meeting, Sen. Janette Millin-Young and Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen attended the meeting.