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State populaton aging more quickly

Sep 18, 2012 - By Becky Orr, For The Associated Press

By 2030, an estimated 32.2 percent of the state's population will be 60 years old or older.

Wyoming is starting to show its age, betrayed by a few shocks of gray hair and silver-tinged temples.

But within a few years, it's projected that aging will be a fact of life in Wyoming.

The U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2010, 12 percent of Wyoming residents were 65 or older. By 2030, an estimated 32.2 percent of the state's population will be 60 years old or older, according to April Getchius, senior administrator of the Wyoming Department of Health's Aging Division.

If that holds true, Wyoming will be the fourth-oldest state in the country. Most states are aging as the huge post World War II Baby Boom generation advances through life. The youngest "Boomers" turn 48 this year.

Is Wyoming ready?

The projections trouble Getchius, and she wonders if Wyoming is ready for such a change. She questions whether the state will have enough geriatric specialists to treat the unique needs of senior citizens.

The increase in the senior population raises other questions, too, like whether there will be enough nursing home beds and home health care agencies.

The squeeze on resources could start sooner than 2030. By Jan. 1, 2013, state agencies could face 7 to 9 percent cuts in federal funding if the U.S. Congress can't agree on a budget, Getchius said.

"That would be huge for some of our centers," she said. Many of the 39 senior centers in Wyoming serve lunches to senior citizens. Any cuts would have a dramatic effect there.

Access to medical and mental health care and finding places to live could be big issues for older people, too.

Whether enough resources will be available is a special issue for the rural areas, she said.

Will enough nursing homes be available?

'A hill to climb'

Steve Bahmer, executive director of the Quality Health Care Foundation of Wyoming, represents 28 nonprofit nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Wyoming. He said the increase will put pressure on existing resources.

"We've got quite a hill to climb to get ready," he said. "I would say that we aren't where we need to be yet."

He questions if there will be enough skilled nursing home beds in the state.

"The latest information I had is that there were more than 500 skilled nursing home beds available in Wyoming," Bahmer said. "If we're looking at a doubling of the population in the next 15 years or so, I'm not sure that will be sufficient capacity."

There is no shortage now. About 20 percent of beds statewide are available, he said.

The condition of the federal budget and possible state budget cuts raises questions about the long-term viability of nursing homes, he said.

Medicaid concern

In Wyoming, 65 to 70 percent of the nursing home patients are on Medicaid now. Nursing homes get reimbursed for Medicaid residents at about 84 cents on the dollar, he said.

"That means fundamentally that nursing homes aren't able to be paid at a rate that even covers the cost of Medicaid residents," Bahmer said. "Even today in Wyoming, there are some nursing homes that are pretty fragile because it is difficult to keep the doors open when you lose 20 cents on the dollar."

The state and nation need to improve Medicaid reimbursement or change the long-term care model, he said.

Most people who enter nursing homes today have complex health conditions, he said. As a result, employees need more training to provide care, which increases costs, he added.

The state Legislature told the state Health Department to prepare a report about Medicaid options. The Legislature wants to find out what drives the cost of Medicaid and how best to control costs while providing high-quality care, Bahmer said.

The Legislature's Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee will consider the Medicaid options study when it meets starting Wednesday in Lovell.

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