Tom Brick, recently retired from the staff of the State Council on Disabilities and a longtime activist for disability rights, describes this past legislative year by saying, “We knew all hell would break loose this year. At the beginning of the year there was an expectation that General Assistance Medical Care could be gone completely.” Its survival is little consolation to Brick. He and others see the pattern used by the current majority: First threaten unthinkable cuts and elimination of disability programs, then “compromise” by merely reducing programs severely rather than killing them absolutely.
“When the November [2002 state revenue] forecast was bad and the February  forecast was worse, what else could you expect? If they weren’t going to increase taxes, this is what you would expect,” says Brick. “If you said ‘raise taxes’ in the House Health and Human Services Committee, where many disability programs are funded) committee this year, you were out of order,” Attendant services, wavered services, human services and long term health care services were all under assault this past session.
Brick says with sarcasm, “It was nice of them to save the developmental disabilities wavered program by only cutting 600 slots.” And next, according to Brick, the legislature will be discussing changing the mandates that require private health plans to cover many conditions related to disabilities. “When you tamper with mandates in the current political climate, there’s going to be a real problem…” Folks who have wanted to make changes for many years now have the support in the executive branch and more muscle in the legislature. Plus they have a tight economy to use as an excuse.
“The most serious conditions are most likely to be eliminated. Mandates were established by the legislature, and mandates can be unestablished by the legislature,” says Brick. Health plans have argued in the past that everyone should not have to pay for coverage of conditions that only a few people have. That’s been the attitude of a number of folks from the council of HMOs since the late 1980s. “If the health plans don’t cover a condition, more people end up on medical assistance.” Brick will be watching as the 2004 legislature that gavels into session on February 2.
What can be done to change the tide against cutting support for essential services to people with disabilities? Brick says the disability community needs to tell the stories of people who are being hurt or could be hurt by this broad range of changes. During the Reagan administration, a story got widespread coverage of a woman in Iowa who fell between the affordability of insurance and eligibility of assistance. The president picked up on it and an income-based fee system was put into place that allowed more children who needed coverage to take part in medical assistance. “In order to reinstate cuts in any program, we will need to tell the stories of people who have been egregiously hurt. Stories of real people who have real problems because of what the legislature did.” says Brick. “if the budget gets worse, there is just no where to cut that will not really hurt people.” At the State Fair, the Minnesota State Legislature polled citizens and found that 70 percent want the state to raise taxes rather than just make cuts to balance the state budget; 45 percent said to raise taxes only, while 24 percent said raise taxes and make cuts. There were no direct questions in the poll about programs or funding for people with disabilities.
Looking back on his career, Brick enjoyed his work at the Council on Disabilities. “At the office,” he remembers. “The good work is really fielding peoples’ questions. I recall a women from Mankato who called on election day and said her sister in Hopkins … on the basis of her disability, wasn’t allowed to vote. [The woman] said [she was] coming up to see what was going on, and I said I’d dig through the statutes on this and asked her to call me back when she got to Hopkins. So I looked in the election judge manual and found that the election judge doesn’t have the authority to prevent someone from voting on the basis of disability. The woman took her sister in to vote.”
There are many good things the council does for people, and that’s important. “When it comes to advocating for programs, as a state agency, the council is much less effective. There is a need, but I don’t think it has ever been a player at the legislature.” Unfortunately, Minnesota’s State Council on Disabilities staff has shrunk from 10 to 5.5 in the past several years.
Access Press will be tracking the issues and checking in with Tom Brick and others who are working to retain and strengthen our public commitment to people with disabilities. Your comments and questions are also welcomed; email at [email protected].