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Local seniors need a hand with heat

July 31, 2008

Staff members at Washington County's Commission on Aging knew there was a problem when the oil companies started calling them.

Even though it's the middle of a hot summer, COA officials said oil company representatives told them their firms are getting a lot of calls from senior citizens who fear what's going to happen to the price of heating oil.

Both The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal are predicting $5-a-gallon heating oil for this winter, so that many of those who received heating assistance previously will need more now. And some who've never had to ask for it will be forced to seek it this year.

To prepare for that need, COA is launching a drive to build up its crisis fund to help those in need over age 60, an idea that came from Belinda Corbett, an assistant with the Maryland Access Point program.

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Corbett's co-workers said Monday that she urged them "to take a proactive stance" on the energy situation, especially in view of what they've already heard.

Elizabeth Church, a MAP social worker, said she's received a number of disturbing calls, including one from a senior who decided last winter that the price of oil was too high. Instead of buying oil, the senior citizen purchased electric space heaters and now faces a large electric bill.

"People come in here very tearful," Church said, adding that she has also heard from a case worker about a diabetes sufferer who can't afford the fresh fruit and vegetables needed to stay healthy.

Another problem: Many of the elderly are reluctant to ask for help and so don't seek it until they're facing a crisis, such as a utility shutoff or an empty oil tank. Some of them, according to COA staff, have used their credit cards to pay for oil and electricity and now can't pay those bills.

Katrina Eversole, the MAP supervisor and Senior Health Insurance Program specialist, said she hopes seniors will not hesitate to visit the agency because of the work that COA has done on issues like Medicare Part D, a prescription drug assistance program that can be very complicated.

"What we're seeing as a team is that COA is accessible, a trusted agency that has been here for a while. We try to look at the whole person," Eversole said.

That means that if the client they're seeing needs some help with financial planning, COA won't do it for them, but can refer them to other agencies that can help.

It's all part of the Maryland Access Point (MAP), a state program that focuses on creating a single starting point for those in need, including the elderly, the disabled and their families and people who want to plan for their long-term care.

Even if the agency that runs the local MAP program can't help, staffers direct the person to another agency and give them the name of a contact there.

It's called the "No Wrong Door" system, because it seeks to avoid shuffling clients from one agency to another, where they must begin the application process all over again.

To obtain help, those over 60 must fill out an application, Eversole said, adding that they can then apply for funds, which must then be matched by grants from REACH - Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless - and the Community Action Council.

At the same time, according to Marci Cosens, MAP information specialist, when someone applies for crisis funds, they're also screened to see if they're eligible for other programs, such as Medicare beneficiary programs, energy assistance, Maryland state prescription drug assistance and renters/homeowners property tax rebates.

Cosens said that if other programs can help seniors free up some income, they can use it for other purposes.

The crisis-intervention fund is a line item of about $2,000 in the COA budget and staff believes that by summer's end, it will be exhausted.

As I noted recently when I wrote about the upcoming United Way campaign, if the community leaves its most vulnerable citizens without services, the entire area will suffer, as government is called on to save the day.

Why not allow a nonprofit to do the job more economically instead? If you can help, please send a check to the Washington County Commission on Aging, 140 W. Franklin St., Hagerstown, MD 21740.

Please put "Crisis Intervention Fund" on the memo line. Your contribution is tax-deductible.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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