Nikki Villavicencio was born with a rare joint disorder known as arthrogryposis. It has rendered her hands largely dysfunctional and caused her to rely on an electric wheelchair to get around.
Despite these hurdles, Villavicencio (pictured) earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Wisconsin and is currently serving an internship at the Phalen Clinic on St. Paul’s East Side.
To remain as active as possible, Villavicencio relies on six hours of daily assistance from personal care attendants. They help her with basic daily tasks that most people take for granted — bathing, getting dressed, making meals.
Without this government-sponsored assistance, Villavicencio’s life would be radically constricted. “I would have to go live in an institution or a group home,” she says.
But Villavicencio fears that the state budget crisis could cut back the personal care she’s entitled to. Under proposals floated by both Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the DFL-controlled legislature, there would be significant cuts to the personal-care assistant program. The governor wants to slash $39 million from the program, while the legislature has proposed $25 million in cutbacks.
How significant the cuts ultimately turn out to be is difficult to say at this point. Yesterday Pawlenty ruled out a special session or a government shutdown, and threatened to unilaterally make $4.6 billion in cuts. He fired the first shot across the bow by signing off on the legislature’s funding bill for the Department of Human Services, but striking $381 million from the General Assistance Medical Care program for childless adults in 2011. Democrats continue to insist that they can work out a compromise budget with the governor.
But no matter who wins the battle at the Capitol, one fallout is clear: There will be significant cuts to services for people with mental and physical disabilities. Given that the Minnesota Department of Human Services consumes roughly 30 percent of the state’s general fund, few programs will come away unscathed. But disability advocates charge that their clients are taking a disproportionate hit.
“I think we can make a strong case that vulnerable adults and the programs that protect them are being treated unfairly,” says Steve Larson, public policy director for the Arc of Minnesota.
“There seems to be an overemphasis on cutting programs for people with disabilities,” adds Bruce Nelson, chief executive officer of the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota.
“These are our most vulnerable people, along with the elderly. We seem to be moving away from the Minnesota tradition of taking care of those folks who are most in need through no fault of their own.”
Thomas Huntley (DFL-Duluth), chairman of the House’s Health Care and Human Services Finance Division, disputes that services for people with disabilities are taking a disproportionate hit, but he doesn’t doubt the significance of the cuts.
“Are they going to hurt a lot of people?” he asks. “You bet. And I think people will die because of this bill.”
It’s not surprising that the personal-care attendant (PCA) program was targeted for slashing. Its cost has been ballooning by an average of 20 percent annually, increasing from roughly $150 million in 2002 to just over $400 million in 2007. What’s more, a report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor released in January determined that the program is “unacceptably vulnerable to fraud and abuse.”
But disability advocates argue that such flaws should be fixed by policy changes and more stringent enforcement rather than through severe cuts. People suffering from mental illnesses in particular are likely to find it more difficult to get assistance under the pared-down program.
“Most of the people who are going to be cut off are children or adults with mental illness,” says Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “The PCA program might not be perfect for them, but because there wasn’t anything else that’s what they glommed onto.”
The personal-care attendant program is far from the only cut that would impact people with disabilities. Pawlenty’s proposed budget called for a three percent across-the-board cut on reimbursements for disability services. Similarly the legislature’s bill contains a 2.6 percent reduction, but mental health services are exempted.
While the cutbacks are modest, non-profit organizations that work with disabled people insist that they have very little budgetary fat to trim.
Bob Brick, executive director of Midway Training Services, which helps disabled people obtain employment, says the three percent reduction would cost his agency roughly $100,000.
“Most organizations have essentially cut where they can on the operational side,” says Brick. “Midway Training, like I suspect most organizations, is really down to cutting staff, either in wages or in number of positions. That has a direct impact on the types of services and the breadth of services we can provide to people with disabilities.”
Perhaps the most galling cut to disability advocates is the reduction in the amount of earned income that people who live in state-licensed group homes can keep.
Currently such residents are allowed to keep either $101 or $121 per month for personal needs such as haircuts and transportation. Under proposals by both the governor and the legislature, however, that would be trimmed to just $89. The change would impact more than 16,000 Minnesota residents and save the state roughly $7 million.
Larson notes that Pawlenty recently vetoed a minor increase in the state income tax for households earning more than $250,000, but is apparently okay with reducing incomes for disabled people by roughly 25 percent in some instances. “I find a lot of irony in that,” Larson says.
Disability advocates have now resigned themselves to the fact that cuts to programs that assist their clients are inevitable. They just hope to minimize the damage.
“The lobbying strategy at this point is to make sure things don’t get worse for persons with disabilities,” Larson says. “We’re just trying to hold our own for the rest of the legislative session.”
Despite the doom-and-gloom outlook for disability services funding, Villavicencio has ambitious plans. She wants to move out of the house that she shares with her aunt and uncle and live independently. She also wants to return to school for a graduate degree in paralegal studies.
“The job market isn’t very good for broadcasters right now,” she notes. “All of my classmates are unemployed right now.”