When Vickie Dingess couldn't get her oldest sister Sharon Milligan to answer her door, she went into "panic mode" and called 911.
Turns out Milligan, of Grove City, was in distress due to low blood sugars: She hadn't eaten in a while.
That call to the Jackson Township Fire Department provided more than the emergency care she needed. A follow-up visit from a fire department representative put Milligan, 77, and her family in contact with LifeCare Alliance to provide meals and other services.
"Now, I know she's getting a hot meal at least once a day," Dingess said.
It's that type of collaboration that LifeCare Alliance will be bolstering through a $750,000 grant the organization received this fall from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The three-year grant was one of only seven given out nationwide, said Chuck Gehring, president of LifeCare Alliance, which provides services including Meals-On-Wheels to seniors and those with health needs.
A main goal of the funds is to further partnerships with local fire departments and healthcare providers to refer residents to LifeCare and therefore improve access to care for individuals that rely too heavily on emergency services.
"There are these folks who fall in this gap where they don't need emergency, prehospital care, which is what we provide, and they really don't need in-hospital care," said Jeff Warren, chief of the Norwich Township Fire Department in Hilliard.
Maybe someone has called 911 several times, and during each response firefighters have found the client has fallen in the bathroom, because there are no grab bars. Or maybe it's someone with diabetes, who calls regularly, and first responders notice the refrigerator always seems empty.
"We have the skills, it's just not in our scope," Warren said. "We knew at the time we were there for things that could've been solved by different agencies."
Now, through the department's burgeoning relationship with LifeCare, he has someone to call.
Gehring said they've been piloting this program for the past few years to prevent "frequent flyers" of the healthcare system and to keep people out of nursing homes. However, this grant helps them expand services by allowing them to hire several more employees to do in-home care (diabetes and nutrition counseling, well checks, case management) and provide more home repairs (wheelchair ramps, grab-bar installation) and help with household chores.
"First responders were driving back to the fire station thinking, 'What is that lady going to do when she gets home and can't take care of herself?'" Gehring said. "We now have agreements with them and they call us."
Expanding these types of programs makes sense financially in the long run—"Frequent flyers cost a fortune," Gehring said, not to mention the astronomical costs of nursing homes. Yet most Meals-on-Wheels organizations are barely surviving let alone have the money to offer more than the hot meal, he said.
That's what makes this grant so pivotal, he continued. Not only is it helping LifeCare provide much needed services, but it will pay for a researcher at Ohio State University to collect data on the impacts in hope that what they're doing here in Columbus can become a model elsewhere.
This will show the benefits of the services LifeCare Alliance offers beyond the anecdotes of clients, families and other agencies, said Molly Haroz, the agency's director of nutrition.
"It's using atypical ways of keeping people out of the hospital or out of doctor's offices with great frequency," Haroz said. "We put a lot of warm and good feelings in the community, but we want to prove that we can be a medical intervention."