CHAMPAIGN — The state has declared that area seniors can keep their hot-lunch program after finding flaws in an agency's decision to switch to a provider that was going to serve frozen meals.
The Peace Meal program that would have ended Sept. 30 will now continue with its hot-lunch deliveries four days a week and will serve warm meals at dozens of congregate sites in 14 counties.
The East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging, which administers federal funding for senior services in a 16-county area, had awarded a new one-year contract for the senior-meals program starting Oct. 1 to Danville-based CRIS-Healthy Aging Center, which was going to start a new program using frozen meals.
The Illinois Department on Aging investigated after an outpouring of complaints and has directed the agency to award the contract to the other applicant, Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Coles County, which will take over administration of the Peace Meal program from its longtime sponsor, Eastern Illinois University.
According to a copy of a preliminary report obtained by The News-Gazette, the Department on Aging found:
— Providing frozen meals doesn't comply with an objective in the Older Americans Act intended to fully engage older adults in community-based programs and services for their benefit.
— The agency's procurement process included competition on unequal terms, and "the review and award decision was not applied equally to all applicants."
— Numerous sections of the scoring instrument used in the selection were applied differently on the two grant applications.
— It is questionable whether CRIS could develop the program income, local cash and in-kind resources projected in its application, with these resources representing more than 40 percent of the total budgeted in the grant application.
— The agency said the new provider would expand home-delivered meals in unserved areas, but in the submitted application CRIS "basically projected the same number of meals to be served for the home-delivered meal program as the other applicant."
— Before undertaking a process that included a significant change in the nutrition program, the agency should have sought and assessed community input.
Six public hearings were conducted April 29 through May 3 after the procurement process was completed and CRIS had already been selected.
The report also states that several meal host agencies said they felt threatened "verbally or in writing" by the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging with the loss of their federal funding for performing their advocacy responsibilities if they didn't serve as host meal sites. Several asked the agency if they could terminate their funding under those conditions and asked the state to intervene.
A much shorter final report states nothing in the findings means the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging broke any state or federal laws.
In addition to directing the change to Sarah Bush Lincoln, the final report also directs the agency to refrain from taking any adverse actions against any service providers without first informing a Department on Aging office.
The department and agency will cooperate to strengthen the agency's selection process for the meals program and public-input process, the report also stated.
Department on Aging Deputy Director Mary Killough said the final report reflects the department's concerns that public participation in the process is vital and that the meal program must continue to serve seniors without disruption come Oct. 1.
However, she also said, "everybody agreed that the process can be improved."
The department has an oversight and monitoring role and will work with the agency to make improvements, she said.
East Central Area Agency on Aging Executive Director Michael O'Donnell said his agency clarified concerns raised in the preliminary report, and he contends that the Department on Aging ultimately found that the process used to choose the meals program administrator was in keeping with federal law.
"We acknowledge that it can be improved," he said.
O'Donnell also said no service providers that receive funding through his agency were ever threatened, but they are required to cooperate with their fellow agencies that get federal funding through the agency.
"We just felt that we needed to enforce our policy on inter-agency coordination," he said. "Some people might interpret that as a threat. We were just enforcing our policy."
O'Donnell also said he moved ahead quickly without public input in the selection process because he didn't have much time to find a replacement.
"But all of that is in the past now," he said. "We have agreed with the department to change our decision."
State Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, called the preliminary report "concerning" and said he's fully behind the Department on Aging's actions.
"When you read that, you can see why the Department on Aging did what it did," he said. "It was completely screwed up."
Rose said he went to two public meetings on the plans to switch to frozen meals and heard from many upset people.
The Department on Aging received 21 petitions with 3,201 signatures and 90 letters, and heard from four elected officials. Meal host agencies and clients held rallies in Toledo, Clinton, Sullivan and Lexington, the report said.
State Rep. Adam Brown, R-Champaign, said he got to see what a warm meal means to seniors during his time as a Peace Meal volunteer.
"We owe it to them to take care of the most vulnerable among us," he said.
Peace Meal has prepared and delivered meals to 52 congregate sites and about 1,400 home-bound seniors a day in Champaign, Clark, Coles, Cumberland, DeWitt, Douglas, Edgar, Ford, Iroquois, Livingston, McLean, Moultrie, Piatt and Shelby counties.
CRIS was going to use frozen meals to save money and strive to expand the number of people served. Seniors would still receive the same number of meals, but deliveries would be reduced to two days a week.
Opponents to the change argued that that plan would have posed problems for seniors who aren't able-bodied enough to reheat meals and would have deprived many of them of the daily welfare checks they got from volunteers delivering the meals.
Rose said it was "blatantly obvious" to him that the new program wasn't going to be up and running Oct. 1.
The staff hadn't been hired, and, he added, "I'm not dissing CRIS. I think CRIS did as a good a job as they can do given the situation."
CRIS Executive Director Amy Marchant said three people had been hired for the meals program, and 75 more positions were in the process of being filled, many of them by current Peace Meal employees.
"We were completely ready to go Oct. 1," she said.
Marchant also said she thinks Peace Meal is a good program, and if she'd known it was linked to Sarah Bush Lincoln's application, CRIS wouldn't have applied at all.
"We would have never bid against the current service provider," she said.
Barbra Wylie, Peace Meal's director under its longtime sponsor, Eastern Illinois University, will remain in charge under Sarah Bush Lincoln, hospital spokeswoman Patty Peterson said.
Wylie said some Peace Meal employees have since moved on to other jobs and some of the program participants informed program staff that they were moving into assisted-living facilities because the hot-meal delivery was going to be discontinued.
"I don't think people know how important that one meal a day can be," she said.
Pulling a program together that was going to end in a few weeks is difficult, but "we're all working on it," Wylie said. "Sarah Bush Lincoln is going to be a wonderful sponsor. The support there has been tremendous. They are so committed to making sure no seniors miss meals on Oct. 1."
For his part, O'Donnell said the agency's first meeting with Sarah Bush Lincoln is coming up, and he's looking forward to a cordial relationship.
"We're looking to the future," he said.
Rose said he wants to be positive and focused on making the transition Oct. 1, but he still has questions about the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging's actions.
"I think there are serious concerns here about the temperament of (the agency) and how this has been handled," he said.