Disabilities Act Passes First Hurdle

A key component of the Minnesotans with Disabilities Act of 2005 won unanimous approval from the House Health Policy and […]

A key component of the Minnesotans with Disabilities Act of 2005 won unanimous approval from the House Health Policy and Finance Committee Feb. 24, 2004.

The proposal, a comprehensive package of health care policy and funding improvements for those with physical, developmental and mental health conditions, was praised by both Republicans and Democrats on the Committee.

The bill (HF980) is one of several pieces of legislation crafted by the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD), a coalition of over 40 provider and advocacy organizations serving the state’s disability community. Nine months in the making, the proposals “are designed to show how many different parts of government need to be coordinating programs and services for individuals with disabilities to live successful, independent lives,” said Joel Ulland, public policy director for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society-MN Chapter, and MN-CCD co-chair. Other proposals addressing employment, transportation, and education will be heard later in the legislative session.

Unveiled at a Feb. 14 press conference, disability community leaders were flanked by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, including House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, as they explained the need for the Minnesotans with Disabilities Act. Supported and sponsored by some of the legislature’s most conservative and liberal members, the ambitious set of proposals were developed “using three guiding principles: access to needed services, empowerment and choice, and quality of care,” Ulland said.

The public support of the legislature’s most powerful leaders at a media event on any issue – one Republican and the other a Democrat – is rare. But both Johnson and Sviggum spoke of the state’s historical commitment to people with disabilities. While reserving judgment on specific funding levels that would be required by the proposals, both leaders acknowledged that protecting the health, safety and independence of those with disabilities would be a high priority. The chief task of the 2005 legislature is to formulate a state budget for the next two years.

The health care component of the MN-CCD proposal is the most wide-ranging and complex, with many policy and financial implications. Chief sponsor of HF980, Rep. Tim Wilkin (R-Eagan) said the health care bill “focuses on a number of critical areas” and both “spends some money and makes some needed governmental reform.” How much the bill would cost has not yet been determined by the Minnesota Department of Finance.

The bill approved Feb. 24 would:

  • create a Disability Services Coordination Commission to plan for the future of disability services and link legislators and multiple state agencies to ensure the complex needs of Minnesotans with disabilities are met;
  • lower monthly parental fees for families now enrolled in the TEFRA program;
  • repeal the $500 annual dental cap for individuals now enrolled in Medical Assistance, General Assistance Medical Care, and MinnesotaCare;
  • call for a study to examine access to dental services for people with disabilities. This will address geographic access, physical accessibility issues, and look at the poor reimbursement rates for dental services that has caused many dentists to stop providing care to people who have Medical Assistance as their insurance plan;
  • increase the Medical Assistance income standard to 100 percent of the federal poverty guideline. This would allow people with disabilities to keep an extra $200 per month and still remain eligible for Medical Assistance;
  • increase the personal needs allowance from $76 to $150 per month for those living in a licensed setting, such as an adult foster care facility;
  • increase the Medical Assistance reimbursement rates of home and community based providers of services to people with disabilities. Most of this money will be passed on to the direct care workers as a compensation increase:
  • create more choices for individuals who are in need of case management or nursing home relocation services. Historically, counties have served in this role, but the proposal would ensure that private agencies and organizations could also provide these services;
  • provide a one-time $3000 allowance for people with disabilities moving from a nursing home to the community. This would allow for spending on things like security or damage deposits, travel to and from a potential home or apartment, and essential household items or utility start-up costs;
  • expand the Minnesota Disability Health Options (MnDHO) program, which is a voluntary managed care program for people with physical disabilities. Now available in a handful of Metro area counties, the proposal would ask the Department of Human Services to provide access to this program in targeted regional centers throughout the state.

Many individuals with disabilities attended the hearing and 12 advocates and individuals directly affected by the issues in the bill testified in support of the proposal.

“I can’t explain to you what it was like to live in a nursing home,” Ron Conaway told committee members. “My quality of life was horrible.” Ron, a double amputee who now lives in his own home in Anoka, is enrolled in the MnDHO program, and says the help he got from health coordinators at AXIS Healthcare, “literally saved my life.”

Waunita Clare, a young woman now living with Multiple Sclerosis, talked about the devastating financial effects of living with a disability. “We shouldn’t have to sacrifice a lifetime of savings just to get the health care we need,” she said. The bill, as passed, would allow people with disabilities to access Medical Assistance coverage but keep more of their income each month and have more money in savings.

HF980 will next be heard in the House Governmental Operations Committee, where discussion will center on the Disability Services Coordination Commission. It will then return to the Health Policy and Finance Committee for a discussion on the costs of the proposal.

The Senate companion to the proposal, SF984 sponsored by Sen. Beck Lourey (DFL-Kerrick), likely will be heard in early March. Exactly how much of the bill eventually becomes law “will depend on how much money lawmakers are willing to invest in Minnesotans with disabilities,” said John Tschida, vice president of public affairs and research at Courage Center and MN-CCD co-chair. “But with House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Senate Majority Dean Johnson as strong supporters, we’re hoping to take a giant step forward this year.”

Note: Anyone interested in following the legislative progress of the Minnesotans with Disabilities Act of 2005 can do so by using the web site of the Minnesota Legislature at www.leg.state.mn.us, or contact your state legislators. You can determine who represents you at the Capitol by calling the House of Representatives Public Information office at 651-296-2146.