A tough legislative session is grinding on

Minnesotans with disabilities, senior citizens and their advocates continue to face uncertainty about day-to-day life as the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton prepare to sort out the health and human services budgets. As Access Press went to press, the two budgets were headed to conference committee. 

The bills, when adopted by the House and Senate late last month were met with dismay as a slew of cuts took shape. The House and Senate Health and Human Services Committees were told to find $1.6 billion in savings as part of legislative leadership’s overall work to address Minnesota’s $5-plus billion state deficit.

It is a tough session all around as members of the disability community find themselves battling on many fronts. One huge dilemma are House and Senate bills that would freeze funding for special education. Deep cuts to transit funding could raise fares for services that provide transportation to people with disabilities or even eliminate services in rural areas. 

“Legislative leaders have repeated on many occasions since the beginning of this legislative session that protecting services for Minnesotans with disabilities is a priority for this legislature,” said Steve Larson, Minnesota Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD) co-chair. “The cuts proposed in these bills will result in Minnesotans with disabilities bearing much of the brunt of balancing our state’s budget deficit – indicating significant inconsistency between what legislative leaders are saying publicly and what they are proposing through legislation.”

Additionally, many of the specific cuts included in the two bills are cuts to the services that allow Minnesotans with disabilities to remain as functioning, contributing community members. Advocates said the cuts will result in longer care costs over the long term. One example of this is cuts the House proposes to waivers, by $373 million over two years. The waivers enable people with disabilities to access home-based Medicaid services. Waivered services help Minnesotans with disabilities to identify and maintain employment, housing, transportation, and other facets of day-to-day life enjoyed by non–disabled Minnesotans. While funding is being slashed, there won’t be a reduction in the number of people needing services but the result is likely to be major reductions in the services.

The House bill also cuts money set aside by the legislature two years ago to provide a minimal level of personal assistance, about a half -hour a day to a group of Minnesotans with disabilities who will lose access to more comprehensive services this July. These personal care services provide Minnesotans with disabilities with the assistance needed to bathe, shower, and dress each day—often the critical service that allows an individual with a disability to get to work. The Senate Health and Human Services bill proposes the elimination of coverage of occupational, speech, and physical therapy; and coverage of dentures, prosthetic devices, and other services helping individuals to remain productive in their communities.

Viewing these two proposals collectively, MN-CCD Co–Chair Chris Bell said, “Why would we want to cut the very services that allow Minnesotans with disabilities to make the most of their lives and livelihood? It is these services that increase the quality of life for our community members with disabilities, and that save our state tremendous amounts of money by preventing more expensive, institutional type placements.”

Many other areas are facing huge changes as well. One major dilemma is stem cell research. Both the House and Senate bills contain language that would make human cloning a felony offense. Opponents contend the language would still allow stem cell research, so long as embryos are not destroyed. But opponents content that it would decimate research and eliminate potential medical solutions for people with a wide range of disabilities. Objections have been raised by researchers as well as the state’s growing bio-tech business sectors. Families in search of cures for their loved ones are also speaking out.

The debate has also pitted groups including the antiabortion group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) against the University of Minnesota. The U of M Stem Cell Institute uses a variety of stem cells, including embryonic stem cells, to research treatments for diseases including Parkinson’s, diabetes and heart disease. They use embryonic stem cells copied from existing cell lines. While the U doesn’t do so-called therapeutic cloning, scientists have indicated they don’t want to lose that option in the future. Therapeutic cloning offers the possibility of merging a patient’s cells with embryonic cells, so there’s less risk of rejection. MCCL is advocating for use of adult stem cells, and reprogramming of adult stem cells for research. Researchers contend that this may not work for some diseases.

Bills affecting elections and voting are also a worry, as a wide range of proposals have been in play. MNCCD, the Minnesota Disability Law Center and other groups have spent much of the past few weeks fighting changes that would affect everything from voter assistance to guardianship issues. Some of the proposed changes, which would have greatly affected who could assist voters, have been stripped from the bills. But controversial identification requirements remain, as does a proposal that would require an annual court hearing on guardianship remained in the bill.

Typically, persons under guardianship retain the right to vote unless that right is specifically taken away by a judge. Pamela Hoopes of the Minnesota Disability Law Center, self-advocate Roberta Blomster and her sister and guardian Ann were among those testifying against increased restrictions on guardianship.

Hoopes pointed out that if the annual hearing requirement went into place, it would affect several thousand Minnesotans. It would also add costs to an already burdened courts system.

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