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VOL. 42 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 28, 2018

Lawsuit funds create transportation options for seniors

By Joe Morris

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Five years ago, a settlement among National Health Investors and National HealthCare Corp., and the state of Tennessee (as well as the receiver for SeniorTrust of Florida and ElderTrust of Florida) created a $40 million fund for charitable purposes.

The lawsuit was longstanding and complex, and involved alleged overpayments for financially struggling nursing homes, as well as excessive management fees.

The settlement was created so that the Chancery Court for the State of Tennessee in Davidson County would determine how the fund would be used for charitable purposes, with the office of attorney general and the public providing input in that process.

Almost immediately $5 million went to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee “to address a broad range of immediate elderly needs,” according to the court, which further ordered in November 2017 the remaining $35 million be distributed as grants in the areas of: affordable senior housing; senior dental; senior transportation; and legal services for seniors.

The transportation funds totaled $3.6 million and went to the Southwest Tennessee Development District for its Senior Volunteer Transportation Network, which will use the money to continue a pilot program that was the culmination of conversations that had begun more than a year prior, says Keita Cole, project coordinator for SVTN and West Tennessee director for MyRide, the transportation program that has been created from the grant.

“The Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability contacted my office in September 2016 to see if rural transportation was an issue for the people in our coverage counties and how we addressed it,” Cole explains. “They wanted to know if we’d be interested in piloting a program for rural transportation. About that same time, Madison County had the highest number of fatalities in the state for drivers ages 65 and older.

“That’s not a number we were proud of, certainly, and transportation has been in the top three needs for our seniors for a long time. We let the commission know that we were very interested, and then got busy with our executive board to begin seeing what a program would look like.”

The first stop was the Blount County Community Action Agency, which had been successfully operating SMiles, a senior-friendly, door-to-door program successfully. Based on what they learned, Cole and her staff began MyRide with a $70,000 budget and a similar set of policies, procedures, volunteer vetting and cost-per-ride structure.

Like other programs in the state, MyRide is a membership program, riders must be older than 60 and still be ambulatory either on their own or with the use of a cane or walker. They must live in Madison County, where the pilot is under way, and the destinations must be within county lines as well.

“We do essential trips, which for our folks can include the beauty shop or bank as much as the grocery store or doctor,” Cole says. “Our volunteers donate their time and their personal vehicle, they can just drop someone off or go with them into the store or the doctor’s office. We wanted a door-through-door program, because that’s more helpful to people.”

Thus far the program has done more than 2,000 trips in its first year, with 64 riders and about 40 volunteers. The waiting list has grown to more than 30 people, so volunteer commitment is an ongoing issue.

“We have riders and families who are so grateful to have an option, because some of them had a lot of anxiety about driving or riding the bus,” Cole adds. “Now they have one person who’s helping them, and they just love it.”

Going forward, the grant funds will help MyRide TN take the Madison County pilot and create a 30-program network over the next three years. Already Bradley County is preparing to roll, and other counties are working to start new MyRide programs in their areas as well.

“This is such a big deal for the state of Tennessee,” Cole says. “A lot of people elsewhere are watching to see how we do this, because this isn’t a problem that’s just limited to our state or region. Hopefully, when people see how necessary this is, we’ll be able to continue to keep all these programs funded.”

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