Advocates upset over budget cuts to services for disabled

Disability advocates are urging Gov. Dayton to veto a Health and Human Services Finance bill that makes deep cuts in programs that help disabled people live more independently in the community.

They say the provisions would ultimately cost the state far more money than it would save with the reductions.

The Health and Human Services bill would cut $188 million from three so-called "waivered service programs."

People who have disabilities significant enough to qualify for nursing home care tap waivered service programs when they would rather live at home or in another community-based setting.

The spending agreement, hammered out by a conference committee, freezes all new requests for waivered services and rolls back the state's waiver caseload to March 2010 levels.

According to an analysis by the Department of Human Services, the freeze would mean that 5,780 people would have to leave the program before any new applicants could be accepted. The proposed freeze would occur at a particularly bad time for Betty Petersen. The 84-year-old just started the paperwork to get a waiver for her 60-year-old daughter Lynda.

"She'll sometimes look at me and say, 'Mom, what's going to become of me? What will happen to me?'" said Petersen.

Lynda received a traumatic brain injury in a car accident almost 40 years ago. She has gone through rehabilitation, but she still has difficulty writing checks, keeping a budget and going grocery shopping. She also has balance problems.

Betty Petersen and her husband, who is 85, don't want to put their daughter in a nursing home. But they need to find her an alternative living situation soon.

"We don't have a whole lot of time to wait for this because we're in our 80s, and we would like to get her settled while we're still able to help her with this transition, before we have end-of-life issues that we have to deal with," she said.

If the waiver freeze becomes law, it's likely that the Petersens and others in similar situations will have to wait many months to even years before a waiver slot opens up for them.

For people who already have waivers, a proposal to cut some PCA wages would give them less money to pay their relatives to be their personal care attendants. The spending bill cuts wages by 20 percent for PCAs who get paid to take care of relatives for whom they are not legally responsible.

Joe Haines, 60, of Stillwater, is a quadrapalegic who receives more than 10 hours of care a day from his mother and adult daughter. They are paid close to $11 an hour for the care they deliver.

"Bathing in the morning, getting ready, eating, you name it, they help me with it," said Haines.

Haines' 29-year-old daughter, Cari Myhra, isn't sure she can absorb a 20 percent cut in her wages. Myhra says if the wage cut proposal becomes law, she may quit caring for her father and look for a new PCA job.

"Since I'm already equipped to be in that position, and that would get me my 20 percent back if I were to PCA for someone else," she said. Joe Haines says that would be a needless disruption to his life that wouldn't save the state any money, because he would have to pay the replacement PCA at the higher rate.

"I don't know why they would punish just the family members and not take a more broad-spectrum approach to the cutbacks," said Haines.

But Republicans who backed the targeted wage cut are betting that most families in this situation will keep providing care to their relatives at a lower wage.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, is chair of the Health and Human Services Finance Committee. He says lawmakers looked for cuts that would make the system more sustainable.

"Many people care for their disabled child and don't get paid anything. And some people are in the same circumstance and get paid quite a number of hours a week," said Abeler. "I talked to the Department about it and they thought if we reduced the rate, that most of the people would still do it. And so it was meant to be a way to get some savings while not affecting the services."

Gov. Dayton has been vocal about his displeasure with deep cuts in Health and Human Services spending. He has described the cuts as barbaric.