Red tape cutters give seniors an edge

Even in these tough economic times, there are a lot of free assistance programs available to seniors in Illinois--from help with home heating bills to getting on Medicare. Trouble is, people don't always know about them. And even if they do, they can get intimidated by the paperwork, or may receive conflicting information. Often, language is a barrier.

Enter the Red Tape Cutters. These are specialists trained to assist seniors in getting the financial, health, medical, and transportation benefits for which they are eligible. The service is free, and it works. With an annual budget of only $251,700, the Red Tape Cutters Program obtained almost $20 million in benefits for needy seniors in Suburban Cook County during the last fiscal year, serving almost 8,000 clients.

"Individuals who would have never contemplated applying for help in the past are now confronted with the reality that they need financial assistance to continue to remain living independently in their homes," says Elizabeth Lough, coordinator of the Red Tape Cutters Program.

Lough works at AgeOptions, the Suburban Cook County Agency on Aging, which started the Red Tape Cutters Program 15 years ago. Now there are Red Tape Cutter Specialists sprinkled throughout 11 agencies in Suburban Cook County (see sidebar.) They speak multiple languages such as Russian, Korean, Spanish, Polish and Arabic, and also have telephone interpreters.

The most common forms of assistance are for home energy, property taxes, prescription drug programs, Medicare, and food stamps.

These days, Red Tape Cutters are seeing a lot more clients like Patricia Brink, a 65-year-old who has experienced more than her share of challenges recently. Brink, a former nanny and preschool teacher, has been unemployed since August, and is recovering from breast cancer. She is the only child of her 93-year-old mother, who lives nearby in a senior apartment and depends on her. Brink does not receive Social Security, and has had complications getting on Medicare.

When Brink received a $200 heating bill this winter, she knew it was time to seek help. "That was as much as I was getting from unemployment for a whole week," she says, "and I keep the house around 66 degrees. It's not like I'm living in a tropical climate."

The Red Tape Cutter Specialist at Solutions For Care in North Riverside helped her enroll in the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which kicked in after just a few weeks. She hopes they can help her iron out her Medicare issues, and maybe even help pay her license plate renewal, so she can continue looking for a job."I was amazed at how easy they made this when I went there," she says. "They've been extremely helpful and extremely kind. I wish I had known about this years ago when I was trying to help my mother."

In addition to helping people weather a crisis or economic downturn, the Red Tape Cutters Program helps seniors in the long term by keeping them out of bankruptcy, foreclosure, hospitals and nursing homes--and legislators' offices."We had a state senator say we were the most cost effective program in the state for the amount of funding we get," Lough says.

Though the Red Tape Cutters Program is successful, its future is uncertain. It was funded by the State of Illinois from 1996 to 2009, when its budget was eliminated. A Unity Grant from the Chicago Community Trust is supporting the Red Tape Cutters Program this year, but there is nothing in place for 2011 and beyond.

"We are lobbying our lawmakers in Springfield," Lough says. "We are working diligently with legislators to have it funded again, and have it funded statewide."The bottom line: Don't wait to take advantage of your local Red Tape Cutter Specialist.

"Unfortunately, we see people who did not seek services when they should have, and things got out of control financially," Lough says. "It's better to start out getting help for the small things, rather than waiting until your life is in chaos."

Anyone 60 years old or older who lives in Suburban Cook County can make a free appointment with a Red Tape Cutter Specialist by calling AgeOptions at 800-699-9043 to find the location nearest them. Residents of the City of Chicago can contact the Department of Family and Support Services, Senior Services Area Agency on Aging at 312-744-4016 and ask for a free Benefits Eligibility CheckUp. ■

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