Months of lobbying are coming to down to waiting and wondering about Minnesota’s disability communities’ legislation.
The Minnesota House and Senate passed health and human services funding bills in late April, sending them to a conference committee that began meeting the first week of May. While both bills contained many priorities for Minnesotans with disabilities and their service organizations, questions remained about dozens of issues.
The Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities planned two final Tuesdays at the capitol, May 2 and 12, to press for legislation. Other advocacy groups were also working on their issues as the clock ticked down to a May 18 adjournment date.
As final phone calls were made and emails sent, one overriding worry has been how contentious the final days of the regular session could become. The House and Senate have diverged sharply on a number of issues, which is worrisome. Many people had fingers crossed that issues could be resolved without the possibility of state lawmakers going into a special session this summer or worse, a government shutdown.
A key focus continues to be that of caregiver wages. The House bill provides a one-time, five percent increase for home and community-based services effective July 1, 2016, while the Senate bill had no increase. The 5 % Campaign made a big push April 30 for increased home and community-based services dollars, lining up supporters outside of the House and Senate chambers and packing a press conference at the State Office Building.
More than 300 supporters turned out to lobby legislators and hand out more than 1,000 post cards stating their case. One supporter held up a large sign that simply said, “PLEA5E” with a numeral 5 in place of the S.
At the press conference, caregivers spoke of the difficulties they face due to past state budget cuts and the rising cost of living. They described how the high turnover of staff has affected quality of care and quality of life for their clients. Some clients with disabilities have been forced to leave their homes because they couldn’t get care. Workers often live at the poverty level, taking multiple jobs to make ends meet.
“A rate increase is needed to address the caregiving workforce crisis,” said Sam Subah of Living Well Disability Services. Subah described how he works two jobs and is on call at a third, simply to make ends meet. Subah said he and other caregivers, who are dedicated to their jobs, must provide a voice for those they serve as well as for their coworkers.
Lynne Jensen, who works for Wingspan Life Resources, spoke through tears as she recalled starting work in 1998 at $8.87 per hour. “I am still at Wingspan and I love going to my job every day,” she said. But her pay has only gone up to $13.27 per hour, not nearly enough to pay basic expenses. Factoring in inflation, “I make less than I made 17 years ago.”
Jensen and other caregivers said, they are thankful for the five percent increase approved by state lawmakers in 2014, but that it doesn’t go far enough to address the problems agencies and the individuals they serve face in hiring and retaining quality staff.
Jon Nelson, executive director of Residential Services, Inc. in Duluth, said his agency is struggling to fill 47 openings, which adds up to an 11 percent vacancy rate. “Our experience is not unique,” he said. Some agencies face a 20 percent vacancy rate. Employees work long hours covering shifts due to staff shortages.
“The situation, as we look at it today, is pretty desperate,” Nelson said. “Legislators must figure out how we’re going to address this (wage issue).”
The House and Senate bills contain better news on some fronts. Both include elimination of a 2014 Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD) premium hike that has caused hardships for many Minnesotans. Gov. Mark Dayton has expressed support for eliminating the MA-EPD premium increase but provided no funding to do so in his supplemental budget.
Yet another item in play is changing the MA spend-down standard, to allow people to keep more of income and assets and still qualify for MA. The House changes the spend-down from 75 percent to 80 percent of the federal poverty guideline while the Senate brings it up to 85 percent. Both would take effect January 1, 2017, with the Senate bill increasing to 95 percent in 2019. Still, those who are able-bodied retains 100 percent of the federal poverty guideline to be eligible for MA.
Numerous other items remain on the table including State Quality Council funding, money for mental health programs, funding to establish ABLE accounts and operating funds for several community group, and funding to establish Achieving a Better Life or ABLE accounts. ABLE, which was signed into law in December 2014 by President Barak Obama, allows people with disabilities (with an age of disability onset up to 26 years old) and their families the opportunity to create a tax-exempt savings account that can be used for maintaining health, independence and quality of life. States must pass companion legislation for ABLE to take effect.
Other bills are also being watched closely as they go to conference committee, including funding for K-12 and higher education, capital bonding and transportation funding. Advocates rallied in late April to speak out against the House transportation bill, which proposed cuts to transit programs that serve riders with disabilities.
Many groups are posting online updates on conference committee proceedings. A complete wrap-up of the session will appear in the June issue of Access Press.