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Hundreds of rural Utahns have been helped by a federal grant that assists patients and families in finding extended care during serious illnesses, a state official told the Utah Commission on Aging.

Maureen Henry, executive director of the commission, said that since October, staffers at four aging and disability "resource centers" that serve 12 mostly rural Utah counties have provided 450 counseling sessions and found the effort so successful that even if funding dries up, they likely will continue with the model.

The $700,000 grant funneled through the University of Utah's Center on Aging links hospital discharge staff with "options planners" who help guide patients and their families through the complex and confusing choices for post-hospital care.

The way Medicare and Medicaid law works, people are guaranteed care in nursing homes. But there is no similar guarantee of coverage for care outside an institution, meaning family finances may limit the choices.

While people need to take responsibility for how they can take care of themselves with health insurance, retirement savings, healthy behavior and learning about Medicare and Social Security, Henry says national surveys have shown people know little about the limits of the federal programs, and even believe they have pensions when they don't.

The options planners who work in county-level agencies on aging like the new integrative approach to providing services, Henry said. "They think it's what their clients need," she said, "and that it should be part of their core mission."

The Aging and Disability Resource Center grant, awarded in fall 2009, was to cover three years of the program and, by default, three years of the Commission on Aging's work. Because the commission is self-funded, Henry told its members, unless new grants are secured it may not be able to continue to operate.

The governor's commission, which the Legislature established in 2005 to examine aging issues facing the state, received state funding for four years but was told not to count on any more money. Because of the grant, it has been allowed to continue work through September 2012, unless the federal Administration on Aging cuts it off.

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