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Freeholders can offer only cold comfort to social service providers anxious over looming state budget cuts

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Dec 11 2013 09:10:21 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 11 2013 09:16:34 PM CST
BELVIDERE, N.J. -

Warren County freeholders could only offer sympathy and words of encouragement to advocates for the elderly, poor and disabled who are concerned about looming state budget cuts.

Representatives from a half-dozen organizations sought advice Tuesday afternoon from the freeholders about coping with the loss of almost $600,000 in so-called "peer group funds" when the fiscal year ends on June 30.

The freeholders admitted their hands are tied financially. "We're stuck with no way to finance this," said freeholder director Jason Sarnoski.

Still, they urged the groups to join forces with their peers in 10 other counties facing the same problem to lobby state legislators. 

"The state made this decision in a vacuum," said freeholder Richard Gardner. "They dictated the rules [and] ultimately they [have to] find out [who] it's going to hurt."

 The peer group funds are disappearing as a result of a Medicaid waiver New Jersey received from the federal government in 2012.

The waiver allows a managed-care approach for Medicaid patients' needs, rather than paying for each service separately.

The organizations' representatives seemed grateful for the support, even if the freeholders were short on solutions.

Cindy Wildermuth, CEO of Abilities of Northwest Jersey Inc., said without the so-called "peer grouping funds," her organization would find it extremely difficult to continue helping the 300 people with disabilities Abilities serves in Warren County.

Over the last decade, Abilities has placed 256 disabled persons in competitive jobs, with a 92 percent retention rate, Wildermuth said.

Richard McDonnell, executive director of the Family Guidance Center of Warren County, wondered where the peer grouping money was going.

"I can't seem to get an answer" from the state, he told the freeholders. "Has anybody asked them, 'Have you thought this through?' "

Peggy Suydam, executive director of Visiting Homemaker Services of Warren County Inc., lamented that even as the elderly population is growing, reimbursement rates are dropping.

She said there is no negotiating with managed-care companies for services. "They tell you what the [reimbursement] rate is, take it or leave it. They don't care...there's going to be a whole lot of people in need, and no one there," she predicted. "They are causing a fiasco."

Martha Rezeli, who works for Catholic Charities, said peer grouping funds help keep the Social Services Center in Phillipsburg afloat.

"It's a food pantry, but it's so much more," she said. "People are given services they need just to live ... like advice on filling out a job application. Warren County is an essential partner in this."

Robert A. Pruznick, CEO and executive director of The Arc of Warren County, said the funding cut will likely compromise the help available to elderly parents caring for a child with disabilities in their home and parents with autistic children. "I'd hate to move back to square one," he said.

Grace Kelly, managing attorney of the Warren County office of Legal Services of Northwest Jersey, gave the freeholders a haunting example of what might be at stake.

Kelly spoke about a woman with mental health issues living on Supplemental Security Income whose landlord threatened to evict her and scared her into signing a new lease she couldn't afford.

"We stepped in and dealt with these issues," Kelly said, noting that the woman was allowed to stay in her home and that the landlord's lawsuit to have her pay a full year's rent was unsuccessful.

"Without the funding, we wouldn't be able to take that first phone call from her."