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'It's too much of a secret. It's the best-kept secret,’ How MI Choice Waiver can help seniors who want to live independently

Posted at 8:34 AM, Jul 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-07 08:34:32-04

(WXYZ) — As Americans age, experts say the challenge for seniors is to continue living as independently as possible.

That often means avoiding a nursing home while still receiving adequate assistance.

But now, a Medicaid-funded program is doing just that for thousands of Michigan residents.

I connected with many players in what seems to be a very, very well-run program. The problem, I’m told, is not enough people know about it and direct care workers aren't paid nearly enough for the important work that they do.

For Sharlean Duncan a walk around Minock Meadows Senior Apartments in Redford isn't something she takes for granted.

The 71-year-old, who needs daily assistance, knows she could be living in a nursing home.

"I do not want to be in a nursing home," she says.

But in 2014 Duncan says she learned about the MI Choice Waiver program while in the hospital.

Here's how the program works:

  • It's covered by Medicaid.
  • To qualify recipients must be at least 65 years old or a disabled adult.
  • You have to qualify for the level of care you'd find in a nursing home
  • You have to meet certain financial requirements.
  • The waiver provides several services and so you must require at least two of those services on a monthly basis.

So, what's unique?

The waiver allows people, like Duncan, to receive that care at home, so she can live wherever she wants and choose who she wants as her direct caretaker.

Her daughter, Damika Johnson, is her caretaker.

Johnson is able to care for her mother and receive an income from Medicaid, so she doesn't have to quit her job.

"That makes such a big difference than having someone you don't know," Duncan says.

Johnson says she met the state-mandated qualifications and takes care of her mother during the week. A caretaker from an agency helps on the weekend with tasks like bathing, cooking, and cleaning.

"It gives you that independence, and I think one thing after you turn 70 you fear losing independence," Duncan says.

"The program gives choice, which is the key,” says Kelly Faber, Chief Clinical Officer with The Senior Alliance. “Some people, they might want their care at their own home, home of a daughter. Here is senior housing. We have a housing specialist to help find this location."

The Senior Alliance is the program that connected Duncan to the waiver.

Faber says there are 20 agencies statewide that issue the waiver. Without the mi choice waiver program, she says people may end up in a nursing home long-term when it wasn't their intention. As a result, she says they may receive less personal attention, experience more falls, and end up hospitalized.

“It's too much of a secret. It's the best-kept secret," Faber says. “You know, people, there’s 12,000 statewide that are utilizing it. I think there's a lot more, if they knew about it, could be making that choice where those Medicaid dollars go to. Be that nursing facility pays MI Health Link or MI Choice Waiver."

Elizabeth Gallagher agrees. She oversees the waiver program through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and tells me the need for the waiver will grow exponentially over the next ten years with an aging baby boomer population.

"Part of the limitation is Medicaid doesn't usually advertise for its services. I think another limitation is that people often don't think about or plan for needed long-term services and support," Gallagher says.

And for those who do, Gallagher also says there's a shortage of direct care workers because of low pay and subpar benefits.

"No one knows their child or relative better than mom or dad," says Sara Lloyd who takes part in a similar program in Colorado.

Lloyd says she's studied programs in other states since her husband's job travels.

She found Colorado has one of the best waiver programs in the nation, again allowing a loved one to receive income while caring for, in this case, an adult child with a disability.

Twenty-year-old Julie has down syndrome and a chronic condition. Lloyd got the certifications as a direct care worker.

"It's nice to be able to have that because I didn't work for many, many, many years because my family came first, and with Colorado allowing this program it sure makes it a lot better because I can do the things I do every day, but I'm able to also help support my family in addition to it," Lloyd says.

Duncan, like Lloyd, says she's made it a point to spread the good news.

"All that I have received, when you receive good things, you share," Duncan says.

You can get more information on the MI Choice Waiver program from the State of Michigan.