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Simpler food stamp applications for seniors sought

A Costco shopping floor on Oct. 6, 2009.

A Costco shopping floor on Oct. 6, 2009. Credit: AP

State and local social service advocates are calling on New York to simplify the food stamp application process for seniors, citing a study that indicates about 82,000 Nassau and Suffolk adults over the age of 60 are eligible for the aid but are not applying.

In a 24-page report released this month, the senior citizen advocacy group New York AARP recommends the state create a simpler two- to three-page application for seniors, down from its current six pages, to apply for the monthly $200 assistance for individuals.

The group also recommends the state implement a standard medical deduction to avoid having seniors provide their medical receipts to prove their monthly out-of-pocket medical expenses, noting that many have difficulty keeping track of the receipts. It also recommends extending the re-certification period to continue receiving food stamps, from annually to every three years for seniors.

"For whatever reason, too many seniors are not applying," said Christine Deska, senior program specialist for New York AARP. "They may be too proud . . . As a senior they've been working their whole lives, they feel it's not something they should ask for. Those are some of the barriers we're looking to address."

AARP collected input for the report over the past year from social service leaders across the state, including the Patchogue-based Health and Welfare Council of Long Island.

The recommendations unveiled in the report on Nov. 1 come as federal funding for food stamps has decreased and future cuts are being debated by Congress. Last month, $5 billion in food stamp funding provided by the 2009 stimulus package expired, and lawmakers are currently negotiating the level of cuts to the program for the next decade.

Both the Senate and the House versions of the appropriation bill that funds food stamps have called for cuts -- the Democratic-controlled Senate is seeking a $4.5 billion decrease over 10 years, while the Republican majority House wants $39 billion in cuts over the next 10 years.

Social service advocates say they are concerned that the cuts -- which amounted to about $11 a month per individual during the cuts enacted last month -- coupled with the high cost of living on Long Island will add to the financial stresses facing seniors dependent on the program.

"While an $11-a-month cut may not seem like a lot to some Long Islanders, for a senior struggling to pay for heat, food and prescription drugs, it can make a big difference," said Gwen O'Shea, president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island.

Paule Pachter, executive director of Long Island Cares -- The Harry Chapin Food Bank, said the state should consider the AARP's recommendations because many of the seniors his agency assists struggle with mobility and memory issues. The Hauppauge-based nonprofit delivers food to 68 seniors bi-weekly through its mobile-pantry program, Pachter said, many of whom cannot afford essentials such as adult diapers.

"We have to consider their mobility," Pachter said. "There are many seniors who can't even apply without the assistance of someone else, maybe they don't remember the answer to some of the questions . . . The process of applying for any entitlement should be dignified."

Any of the changes would have to be made by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which administers the state's food stamp program, Deska said.

The state office did not respond to calls and an email seeking a response, but Deska said officials from the office were involved in the roundtable discussions that led to the report and the group was "very pleased in working with the state."

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