KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Nonprofit organizations are continuing to feel the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic, especially groups that provide daily care for people like assisted-living facilities.

The facilities are adding costs to comply with stricter regulations. In Tennessee, the CHOICES program provides long-term care to older adults, among others, to keep them out of more expensive nursing homes. The average bill of a private room in a nursing home is near $7,000 a month.

For assisted living, the average cost is about $3,500-$4,000, which is a big difference; but assisted-living facilities could be serving more residents if the state loosened up its purse strings.

Wednesdays are bingo day at the Renaissance Terrace a senior assisted-living community in Knoxville. Nearly one out of four residents are enrolled under the state’s CHOICES program, which offers services to help a person live on their own.

Renaissance Terrace is the only nonprofit assisted-living facility that offers CHOICES in Knox County.
Unable to live alone at her home, 82-year-old Shirley Vandaveer moved to Renaissance Terrace three years ago. Her calendar of daily activities is full and keeps her busy with many friends.

“This is an awesome place to stay,” Vandaveer said. “If anybody is sick and needs help this is the place to come. You want to see how much weight I’ve gained?”

Tim Howell is CEO of Renaissance Terrace and Senior Citizens Home Assistance Services, or SCHAS.
The goal here is to offer an affordable price for its residents. However, the state of Tennessee is making it financially difficult to serve more seniors who may be eligible for CHOICES.

“Renaissance Terrace Assisted Living has been a provider in the CHOICES program since its inception,” Howell said. “When we did that 11 years ago, the reimbursement rate that they gave us was $1,100 per resident for each person that came into our facility that was enrolled in the CHOICES program. Well, 11 years have gone by and that rate has not increased one dollar in 11 years. It is still at $1,100.”

Under the CHOICES program, for every dollar the state puts in, the federal government puts in $2. There is also a federal cost of living increase worked into the state’s reimbursement, but it has not been passed down.

“The state also gets a two percent increase from the federal government, every year as a cost of living raise, inflation raise, for themselves,” Howell said. “So over the course of 11 years, they’ve got a 22% increase in reimbursement rates that they have not shared with any provider across the state of Tennessee to help with their increased costs.”

That is a big chunk of money especially since the pandemic began, which created extra costs and expenses. Take gloves for example. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the price of a carton of 10 boxes was $35. Today that same carton of 10 boxes is $100. And 20 to 30 cases of gloves are purchased every month.

“In the CHOICES program most of those people are only going to have a Social Security check,” Howell said. “They are not going to have a whole lot of other income coming in.”

For many of those enrolled in CHOICES their Social Security check may amount to no more than $1,000 a month.

“And because of that, it they have got a thousand and they still need another thousand to stay here, family members are helping to offset that cost,” Howell said.

So, fundraisers are held to help struggling families whose loved ones are enrolled in CHOICES. More eligible seniors could be served under CHOICES, but it’s becoming an increasing struggle for facilities like Renaissance Terrace to enroll them.

“The people that want to get into assisted living need to be able to have that as an option to them and it is slowly being removed as an option in the CHOICES program,” Howell said.

About these issues, we talked with Tennessee state Sen. Richard Briggs. Dr. Briggs said he carried a bill in 2021 before the Senate Finance Committee to increase the reimbursement to the CHOICES program, but the proposed bill was rejected because of its recurring cost to the state of more than $30 million a year.

However, Briggs said there is a ray of hope under the nearly $2 trillion American Recovery Act or stimulus bill, signed by President Joe Biden in March. He added that Tennessee will likely receive billions from the Recover Act and that may free up money down the road, also that could possibly be directed to the state’s CHOICES program.