Minnesotans with disabilities wait, worry with budget cuts coming

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Jean Bender, St. Paul, is worried about the next round of Health and Human Services cuts that will make it harder to afford the care needed by her developmentally and physically disabled child.

Her 22-year-old son, David, is one of the thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities receiving services that are part of the Health and Human Services budget. Born with Down Syndrome, David also has autism, epilepsy, and vision and hearing impairment. He’s in a perpetual “terrible twos” state, meaning he can never be left alone. David’s mental and physical abilities are so limited that he can never be self-supporting, she says.

Faced with a $4.8 billion budget deficit for the 2009-2010 biennium, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and the legislature must come to an agreement on how to deal with the budget crisis. As part of that balancing act, the governor has proposed a three percent across-the-board cut in the Health and Human Services budget. While a cut of $360 million seems small, it would affect access to services by the state’s most vulnerable disabled people (including those in long-tern care), place a higher burden on caregivers, and reduce hopes for the 5,000 disabled people now on the wait list for services.

Opponents of the governor’s budget proposal say people with disabilities are being unfairly targeted. “The governor is attempting to balance the budget on the backs of people with disabilities – again – and it’s getting to the point where people are really vulnerable,” says Steve Larson, public policy director of Arc of Minnesota, and co-chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. In one example, he pointed out that after July 1, the state will no longer pay for dental care for people receiving medical aid through General Assistance. That will lead to more ER visits and send state costs “over the top,” said Larson.

A family of five with two wage-earners, the Benders have had their own insurance through work. Because of David’s special needs, they also pay a $700 monthly premium (the premium was increased 100 percent in 2003) a month to access available state services for things like special medical supplies, specialty day care, and personal attendants. Bender said she and her husband are unable to help her two other children, now attending college, the way they would like, even with practical things like moving to and from college housing.

Both Bender and Larson acknowledged that the state and nation face significant challenges in this time of lay-offs, foreclosures, and mounting deficits. Most service providers and beneficiaries say reforms are needed and are resigned to some loss of services, but they believe cuts and added fees should be more thoughtful and minimize the burden on people with disabilities.

For example, cutting the $2.8 billion Medical Assistance program, the $265 million Minnesota Care program, and the $65 million Minnesota Family Investment Program/ Divisionary Work Program as the governor has proposed would be ill-advised, said Larson. Expenditures for those programs are matched dollar for dollar, or more, by the federal government. “When we cut, we lose funding,” said Larson.

The Minnesota Senate is hosting an online budget discussion forum where it invites people to contribute their ideas on how to solve the budget problem. The Health and Human Services budget is being discussed here on the budget forum.

Kathlyn Stone is an independent journalist in St. Paul. She maintains a health and science news site at fleshandstone.net.

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