2009 Year in Review

                                                                                                   January
Gloomy state forecast, film has premiere

Minnesotans and the state agencies and programs that serve them were looking at a difficult 2009 legislative session. Unallotment of state funds in December 2008 was one worry. Another was Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s announcement that he would not support spending reductions for the military, veterans, K-12 education and public safety. That meant human services programs would be more vulnerable to cuts. Pawlenty had announced that there would be an overall state budget deficit of $35 billion.

Disability organizations planned a Disability Advocacy Day in February, and organized other rallies to draw attention to disability community issues and the need for continued state funding. However, most community leaders conceded that it would be a very tough year. Health and human services make up about 28 percent of state spending, putting the programs in the bull’s-eye for cuts.

Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD) had prepared an extensive legislative agenda, after committees had spent several months working on topic areas including personal care attendants (PCAs), housing and employment.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: Writer Mai Thor continued her Pregnancy Journal, describing how a disability affected a high-risk pregnancy. The cumulative impact of aging and cerebral palsy was the focus of the Health Matters column.

The People and Places column featured photojournalist Dan Habib’s film, Including Samuel. The film focused on Samuel, who has cerebral palsy. Samuel is Dan Habib’s son. Best Buy’s corporate headquarters hosted the premiere.

Accomplishments of the Qwest Community Advisory Panel were outlined.

 

February
Service dog is denied, a royal spotlight on ASL

Newman, a service dog belonging to eight-year-old Wally LaBerge, could not accompany the boy to his classes in St. Paul Public Schools. Wally is autistic and has had the service dog since May 2008. Wally’s parents Victoria and Tim were considering their options in light of the school district’s decision. Wally’s parents said Newman keeps their son calm and focused, and helped him in school. But after a trial period school district officials said the dog couldn’t remain in school with Wally.

Cecelia Dodge, director of special education for the school district, said the district could not comment on the LaBerge case. St. Paul Public Schools allow dogs to be tried in a classroom on a case-by-case basis, looking at whether or not a student is making progress with the help of a dog, and how the student and dog relate to other students. Dodge did note that service dogs for persons with autism are a newer trend that the school district is tracking closely. Meanwhile the LaBerges were weighing their options. Newman was the first Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota animal trained for work in a school.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: A state audit of personal care agencies and the assistants they provide was released, and immediately generated debate.

The 2009 St. Paul Winter Carnival Royal Family included East Wind Princess Megan Andryski, who worked as a sign language interpreter for Intermediate School District 287. She’d been inspired to her career as a high school student, when a friend taught her American Sign Language (ASL). She was interpreting at Winter Carnival events.

 

March
New baby arrives, state cuts eyed warily

The federal economic stimulus and how it would affect struggling state budgets was outlined. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) would provide needed help to education and health and human services. But how the federal money would play into looming state budget cuts was still a question mark in some cases. Budgets were expected to sustain deep cuts but the federal funds would have a variety of impacts. Some levels of federal funds for Medicaid and Medical Assistance would increase.

The federal funding would provide needed assistance to the state, said State Economist Tom Stinson. But Stinson noted that Minnesota still faced a deteriorating economy. Estimates showed that the state would collect about $1.2 billion less in taxes over the next two years.

Columnist Stephen Gold, an attorney and Americans with Disabilities (ADA) expert, also explained the economic stimulus would affect Medicaid programs, and how effects would vary state-by-state.

Other articles in the March issue also focused on the difficult legislative session, including a guest editorial on how the PCA program needs innovation as well as change. Another article detailed pending legislative changes ranging from medical marijuana to early voting, and how those changes could help the disability community.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: Writer Mai Thor introduced readers to baby Matthew Nam Loob McIntosh. His birth marked the final chapter in her Pregnancy Journal, which described how disability can affect a pregnancy.

In separate articles, writers Rick Cardenas and Clarence Schadegg described traveling abroad and disability.

 

April
Red River flooding, rally held against cuts

The difficulties of being a long-distance caregiver, and having to handle those duties during a natural disaster, were described in Two Sisters’ Story. Cynthia, who lives in St. Paul and other family members had set up a care network for Diana, who lived in Fargo. Diana was developmentally disabled, had mobility issues related to cerebral palsy, and dementia. Diana was in hospice care in Fargo when the 2009 Red River Valley flooding hit. For a family that had stayed in contact via emails and Web cam visits, not knowing where Diana had been taken was a shock. They found she had been taken to a small town, Langdon, in rural North Dakota. It took Cynthia two days to find out where her sister was staying. Cynthia’s arrival there was delayed by a blizzard. The story illustrated the challenges families face when dealing with nursing homes in emergency situations.

A companion article, with information for the Minnesota State Council on Disabilities and the American Red Cross, provided information on emergency planning and preparedness. Editor’s note: Diana passed away in fall 2009.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: Thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities rallied at the state capitol to draw attention to the looming problem of state budget cuts. Rallies were being held throughout the session to spotlight programs that were threatened with cuts. The largest of the rallies attracted about 1,000 people. The latest program facing state cuts was Minnesota Disability Health Options or MnDHO, which provides care coordination for about 1,200 adults.

 

May
Cuts anticipated, crime alerts bill signed

Minnesota’s disability community was braced for severe budget cuts, as one of the most difficult legislative sessions in recent memory wound down. The inability of the House, Senate and Gov. Tim Pawlenty to reach agreement on state spending meant unallotment would take place. MN-CCD and many other groups rallied community members for a final round of outreach. But it was feared that it wouldn’t be enough. MN-CCD Coordinator Anni Simons told members, “We are at one of the most critical times in the evolution of our community-based service system – maybe the biggest challenge to the system we have ever faced. Individuals and programs are all at great risk.”

Health and human services programs, that were relied on by the community faced cuts in both House and Senate bills. The entire debate was being complication by a bleak state and national economy, as well as uncertainty over the federal economic stimulus package and how that would affect state spending on health care. Health care is the fastest-rising piece of the state budget, but using tax increases to help cover the costs wasn’t an option. Pawlenty vowed to veto any tax increases.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: MN-CCD filed a federal Department of Justice complaint against the Minnesota Department of Transportation and other governmental agencies, alleging that Minnesota’s highways, streets, bridges and sidewalks aren’t in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act.

A positive story out of the capitol was that Pawlenty signed the Accessible Crime Alerts Bill, which was a project that writer Clarence Schadegg was involved in. The new law would require police agencies to distribute crime alerts in formats accessible to persons with disabilities.

 

June
Unallotment threatened programs, construction jobs sought

The dust had settled at the state capitol after a difficult legislative session. Inability to reach agreement on state budgets meant Gov. Tim Pawlenty would soon start the process of unallotment. The state had a $4.6 billion hole to fill. A majority of state lawmakers wanted to use a combination of new taxes and budget shifts to fill the gap but the governor vetoed those proposals. What did get approved and signed into law were many substantial cuts in healthy and human services programs affecting people with disabilities. Especially hard-hit was the personal care assistant or PCA program. Those cuts would affect more than 8,000 Minnesotans of all ages and all types of disabilities. In addition to the cuts, the Office of the Legislative Auditor called for more than two dozen specific changes to the program. The changes were called for following an audit of the program. Changes in how hours are authorized, cuts in program eligibility, limits on the number of hours per month a PCA could be paid and other changes were eyed warily. Major changes were also made in the way that PCA agencies did business. But devastating as the cuts would become, there was a little relief because of all of Pawlenty’s preferred cuts weren’t adopted.

Other legislative actions that would have huge impacts included a line-item veto of funding for General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC), cuts to disability waiver programs, cuts to care providers and foster home operators and dental service cuts.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: Community members rallied to demand that they be included in construction of the planned Central Corridor light rail line in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Courage Center and Gillette Children’s Specialty Health-care hosted a bike expo and sports jam. Minneapolis South High Coach Jim Christy was honored for his work in high school adapted sports.

 

July
Unallotment became a reality, golf programs spotlighted

The threatened unallotment of funding for state programs became a reality. Unallotment is a process that authorizes the governor of Minnesota to cut state appropriations without approval of the House and Senate. The cuts had been questioned at hearings following the end of the 2009 legislative session. But state officials said Gov. Tim Pawlenty was within his rights to cut another $2.7 billion from the state budget.

The impacts of unallotment were wide-ranging for the disability community. The personal care assistant (PCA) program was further hit, with the number of hours per month for a worker was cut from 310 to 275. While that would save the state money it would result in persons with disabilities not getting access to needed PCA hours.

Additional cuts were made to Medical Assistance and General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC), as well as other medical service programs. GAMC would end on March 1, 2010, sending shock waves through the disability community.

The Minnesota Disability Health Options program, the state’s only integrated managed care program for people with disabilities, had been threatened with $6.7 million in cuts as a result of actions during the session and unallotment, but the cut finally came out to $4.7 million.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: Efforts to get more people with disabilities onto the golf course were gaining momentum. 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of the Sister Kenny Institute’s Golf League and the 26th year of the annual golf tournament. Golfers played at Braemar in Edina and Island Lake Golf Course in Shoreview.

 

August
Improper use of restraints sparks lawsuit, Axis outlines changes

Improper use of restraints at the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) facility in Cambridge had sparked a lawsuit in U.S. Federal District Court in St. Paul. Employees at the state mental health treatment facility were accused of routinely restraining patients, in ways that would cause injury. Patients were also placed in seclusion rooms for extended time periods and deprived of visits by family members. METO was insisting that use of the restraints is “essential” but family members of the former patients said otherwise. “This lawsuit is about human dignity and respect for people with developmental disability and their families,” said attorney Shamus O’Meara. He represents three families involved in the lawsuit. Parents of children kept at METO described abuses including use of metal handcuff and leg shackles, which in one case resulted in a broken arm. METO staff members were also accused of not giving patients their medication.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: Axis Health-care was retooling to adapt to upcoming changes in the health care system. The changes were announced at a meeting hosted by Axis, which providers care coordination for adults with disabilities. Axis was responding to a number of changes being made at the state and federal levels.

Changes were coming in 2010 to the many dial-a-ride programs in the Twin Cities, which serve many elderly and people with disabilities. The service would become Transit Link in 2010. Service would be curb-to-curb rather than door-to-door, hours of service would be limited and assistance from drivers would be limited.

 

September
Henry is honored, group home plan blocked

Anne L. Henry, a staff attorney for the Minnesota Disability Law Center, was honored as the 2009 Charlie Smith Award winner. She would receiver her award at the annual Access Press banquet in November. For more than 30 years Henry has advocated for the rights of people with disabilities. Early in her law career she was involved with a pivotal court case that led to the closing of state hospitals for persons with developmental disabilities. Henry was also cited for her extensive knowledge of the Medicaid and Medicare health systems, her background in state law as it relates to persons with disabilities and her hard work on behalf of Minnesotans with disabilities and their families.

One person described Henry’s knowledge of public policy and state law as “encyclopedic.” But she has worked on behalf of Minnesotans with disabilities with little recognition outside of the community.

“Anne has been one of the strongest advocates for people with disabilities in the state of Minnesota,” said Access Press Board Chairman Mike Chevrette.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: A proposal to provide needed housing for young people with disabilities met a hostile reception in the Twin Cities suburb of Centerville. Zumbro House, which owns and operates more than dozen similar facilities in the region, dropped its plans to purchase and develop two group homes in Centerville. Anoka County Social Services was in support of the plan. But some Centerville and Anoka County officials lobbied hard against the proposal. Someone even vandalized the two homes, leading Zumbro House officials to conclude that it wouldn’t be safe to relocate the young people there.

 

October
Minnesotans prepare for flu, ACT reaches milestone

Two types of flu—the seasonal ailment as well as H1N1—were starting to hit Minnesota hard. The Minnesota State Council on Disabilities, Minnesota Department of Health, the federal Centers for Disease Control and other agencies were spreading the word about how to cope with the diseases, how to recognize symptoms and when to seek medical help. Two different vaccines were needed to fend out the two types of flu. But in some cases, health care providers recommended that ill people stay home, rather than spread the flu.

Persons with disabilities and their care givers were advised to be especially vigilant against the spread of flu. Many workplaces, schools and public places were making plans in the event of a pandemic of H1N1. Families were also urged to make their own contingency plans and to stock on items needed if there is a flu outbreak.

Face masks and hand sanitizers were commonplace. There was some frustration as supplies of both vaccines ran out at times. The first wave of H1N1 had passed by year’s end but both strains of flu could gather strength and spread again.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: Advocating Change Together (ACT) celebrated its 30th anniversary with a cruise on the Mississippi River and a dance. The grassroots social change organization began when there was no self-advocacy movement in Minnesota. Persons with disabilities were unhappy with a lack of control over their lives and didn’t want to be served solely by well-meaning experts and parents’ groups. They wanted to speak for themselves and formed ACT.

 

November
Rail effects on businesses eyed, Hamilton case goes on

How the planned Central Corridor light rail line would affect disability service-related businesses, their clients and their employees was being discussed. Construction of the light rail line would start in 2010, with rail operations getting underway in 2014. One huge concern for all businesses along University Avenue was that about 85 percent of the on-street parking would be lost. That would affect businesses including Handi Medical and the Low Vision Store. It would also affect businesses that had petitioned the city and paid extra for on-street parking spots signed for persons with disabilities.

Business owners were prepared to keep a better eye on their existing parking, to ensure it would be for customers and employees only. One huge concern is that with light rail, commuters would try to use business parking as park and ride space. The City of St. Paul was offering forgivable loans to businesses wanting to create or improved shared of-street parking.

But one bright spot many business owners saw was that with light rail, and proper streetscape and rail passenger platform design, getting around University Avenue could be easier once light rail is up and running.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: The Justin Hamilton case was winding down, with the conviction of the fifth and final persons who had assaulted the developmentally disabled young man. Hamilton was beaten, kicked, burned and tortured over a two-night period in October 2008. Four men and a woman were involved in the brutal crime, which stunned area residents and resulted in an outpouring of support for Hamilton.

 

December
MN-CCD prepares for tough 2010 session, MnCARRS celebrates a year

The Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD) was gearing up for the 2010 session of the Minnesota Legislature. MN-CCD committees met for several months in 2009 to hammer out proposed legislation on personal care assistants (PCA) regulations, housing, employment, health care and transportation. With another state budget deficit projected, the main issue for the upcoming session may be one of maintaining services and funding, rather than trying to restore past cuts. Another concern for MN-CCD leadership is that not all of the issues raised could be addressed by the whole coalition during the upcoming session. Instead, each advocacy groups would have to take leadership roles on specific bills.

The biggest concerns remained the looming cuts to personal care assistants (PCA) services and General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC). The end of GAMC in March 2010 was seen as having huge ripple effects throughout the state health care system. The 2010 session is to be a short session and is a bonding year, which will have impacts, MN-CCD members said.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: Helping people with disabilities find employment is the focus of the Minnesota Department of Transport (MnDOT) Community Advisors on Recruitment and Retention Solutions (MnCARRS) Program. The program marked its one-year anniversary by highlighting its successes.

The Arc of Minnesota and other community members honored the legacy of Gerald Walsh, who led The Arc on a major change of course as its executive director from the 1950s into the 1970s.