October 22, 2021

NY Connects not flashy, but gets job done

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Norm Stitzel, left, and Todd Simmons.

Crystal Brehm got to the hospital in June and discovered her surgery was canceled. Now she’d have to get creative to get home.

“How am I going to get back to where I need to be?”

The Cortland woman, who has cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, uses a wheelchair. And she relies on her health insurance to pay for a taxi ride. But it isn’t a piece of cake getting that approved.

She’d need authorization from her case manager or her doctor to pay for the taxi to get back home. And no, she doesn’t have money to pay out of pocket.

She thought of her NY Connects coordinator, Todd Simmons, who works out of Access to Independence of Cortland County, for help.

“Whenever I am having an issue with transportation or whatever, he’s the first person I call,” Brehm said. “He’s going to get it done. He’s the guy to figure it out.”

And he did. He networked to get her home that day. And in another instance, he arranged a ride to an MRI appointment, when transportation again was an issue.

Simmons is like a brother, said Brehm, who was recently hired at Access to Independence to be a peer advocate. She meets with Simmons once a week “to go over stuff.”

“I have a complicated medical history.”

She says NY Connects is important. “People need to know that it’s there,” Brehm said.

NY Connects hooks people up to services they need — whether long-term care, an aide at home, transportation or meals. It’s for senior citizens, people of all ages with disabilities and families, caregivers and professionals.

There’s a NY Connects service in every county in the state, through each Area Agency on Aging and through the state’s independent living centers. Its goal is to get people help and to keep people independent as long as possible.

“There are so many different scenarios,” said Liz Haskins, director of the Area Agency on Aging in Cortland County, the lead agency for NY Connects in the county.

Do seniors need a nursing home? Or can they stay home with an aide? Or can they stay in a loved one’s home and get support there?

Haskins says one scenario could be: A woman with Alzheimer’s disease comes from Florida to live with the daughter here. The daughter calls NY Connects about her mom needing a change in health insurance. In the meantime, she discovers that finding housing mom is really tough! What help is there?

A NY Connects counselor will talk to both mom and daughter to explore options.

“We might help that individual change their insurance to a New York State plan,” Haskins said.

There may be Alzheimer’s setting in for mom. They can get the daughter connected to the Alzheimer’s Association, or programs the agency offers to teach about the changes coming with dementia.

NY Connects will get the pair hooked up with whatever supports the community offers. Maybe that mother will need to be in a nursing home. Maybe not. Maybe the daughter’s stress can be relieved by a shopping assistance program or an aide for a few hours a day.

NY Connects counselors also work with mental health officials, developmental disability agencies and Department of Social Services. “This person might need a placement (in a nursing home) and they might need a Medicaid application,” Haskins said.

“We can help. They always say Area Agency on Aging is the best-kept secret … we are here.”

“I work for people in Cortland County,” said Simmons, who’s based at Access to Independence. “It’s a statewide program. I get calls from anywhere.”

“If I have a person call up, they are getting low on food. I get them hooked up with a food pantry,” he said. “If a veteran calls and needs services, I will get them hooked up to a Veterans Affairs official.

We are a lot like 211. But we take it a couple of steps further.

NY Connects services

Need help with home care? Transportation? Meals? A senior? Person with a disability? Caregiver? Family or professional of senior or person with disability?

Reach out to NY Connects:

  • www.nyconnects.ny.gov
  • www.cortland-co.org/434/ Area-Agency-on-Aging
  • Area Agency on Aging: 607753-5060
  • Access to Independence: 607753-7363 (Todd Simmons)
  • Email ccaaacortland-co.org or tsimmons@aticortland.org
  • Social Media: AAA is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

People get a live person to help them and NY Connects counselors don’t just hand out a phone number. They will connect their caller with a person in the helping agency, while in their office, or call the agency and arrange a phone call.

“We have a no wrong door policy,” Simmons said. “No matter the issue … we will do everything we can to get you to the right person.”

NY Connects will call up a week or two later to follow through.

“We all do home visits. Some people are pretty much stuck in their homes,” Simmons said. “A year ago, a woman in her 40s had a son on the spectrum. She needed services for him. The agency she was dealing with didn’t know how to get connected with the Racker Center.”

He connected the two and she was able to get services for her son.

The idea of the program, established in 2006 and later expanded, is to provide a single point of entry for people with all kinds of issues, to provide long-term supports to keep them living in the community as independently as possible and to reduce Medicaid costs for long term care funding.

Amy Friot is a NY Connects specialist for Chenango County, working out of the Southern Tier Independence Center in Binghamton. She’s a contact for New Ministries in Cincinnatus, covering Chenango and Tioga counties.

She said she wish people who qualify for HEAP heating benefits knew there is a cooling benefit as well. It could pay for an air conditioner for people who have a condition like asthma or COPD.

“People don’t know about it,” she said.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Norm Stitzel, left, a chaplain with Veterans Search and Rescue, talks strategy with Todd Simmons, NY Connects coordinator at the Access to Independence. The men are working with agencies to get a veteran the services he needs.


“Right now we have a veteran that we have been tag-teaming for quite some time,” said Norm Stitzel, director of Veterans Search and Rescue, a non-profit helping agency for veterans. “We were trying to get him services and then COVID hit and it’s impossible.”

The two are making headway, now that agencies are starting to reopen.

“It’s trying to figure out what he has coming to him and who would do that,” Stitzel said.

He’s not an expert on NY Connects. “It’s a huge list of services,” he said. “People will have services or benefits right under their noses and they don’t even know about it.”