A non-profit group says a statewide shortage of direct care workers is making it more difficult for the elderly and disabled to remain in their homes.

And local advocates say much needs to be done in order to increase the number of home health and therapy aides in the workforce.

“People told us they are missing work, doctor’s appointments, meals and medications because they can’t find workers,” said Beth Swedeen, who co-chairs the Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations.

The group recently surveyed 500 Wisconsin residents who rely on direct care services and their family members.

According to the survey: 85 percent of respondents said they don’t have enough workers to cover all shifts; 95 percent said it’s very hard or somewhat hard to find workers; 60 percent said they get sick more often when they don’t have enough workers; and 43 percent said they can’t find a worker seven or more times a month.

“With unemployment being low, and entry level jobs being fairly plentiful, there are not too many folks choosing the job of direct care,” said Sauk County Aging and Disability Resource Center Director Susan Blodgett.

She said the state has worked to eliminate the waiting list for long-term care by ditching a waiver program. But people are still left to wait for services because there isn’t enough staff available.

Potential solutions might include better pay and an increase to Wisconsin’s Medicaid rates, Blodgett said.

One effort to address the shortage in southwest Wisconsin offers high school students paid apprenticeships which come with college credits. The Career Education Cooperative, which started last year, includes about 15 local businesses and schools in Richland, Vernon, Crawford, Grant and Juneau counties.

“The first year we focused on local industries and this year we added a healthcare track,” said Becky Dahl, a regional ADRC director who is part of the grassroots initiative. “Our vision is to expand the (program) into more school districts in the coming years.”

Sauk County government offers a home care program that supplements the private offerings that exist locally. But the program has been eliminated in next year’s budget due to a growing reliance on property tax levy.

Sauk County Health Care Center Administrator Jennifer Vosen, whose department oversees the home care program, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Sauk County Public Health Director Cindy Bodendein, whose department previously administered the program, said the elimination of home care is a loss, but that there still are providers within the county to serve those patients.

Bodendein said all clients of the county’s program have been referred to Home Health United, a care agency that is co-owned by hospitals in Sauk County, Madison and Janesville. She’s confident they will be accepted.

“But there’s certain cases, which is what the county always kind of looked out for, the cases that other people wouldn’t want to take because they aren’t as cost effective as the other ones,” Bodendein said. “That’s part of the reason the county agency struggled so much, because we would (take those cases).”

Bodendein said a living wage might help address the shortage of workers for such programs. Some home care agencies pay employees for their time spent in a patient’s home, she said, but not for their travel to and from the home.

Not only is remaining in the home more desirable for patients, it may be more cost effective.

A 2015 report by the Wisconsin Department of Human Services found that the average daily cost of caring for people went down after they relocated from a nursing home to a community setting.

Daily nursing home costs of those surveyed were $151.28, which dropped to $112.55 after they were placed back in the community as part of the state’s Community Relocation Initiative.

The Survival Coalition survey found that one in five respondents had considered moving out of an apartment or community setting due to the workforce crisis. Some respondents even opened up about deeper personal struggles they had encountered.

“We received heartbreaking stories from individuals across the state that have been left in their wheelchair overnight, suffered falls, spent the entire day in their bed or considered suicide because the workforce crisis is leaving them without the supports they need,” said Survival Coalition Co-Chair Kit Kerschensteiner. “Family members are also leaving the workforce or retiring early to take care of their loved ones full-time because they are concerned for their safety.”

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos

Reporter for the Baraboo News Republic.