And we’re back! Minnesotans with disabilities and their allies have enjoyed a return to the halls of state government during the 2023 legislative session. The first big rally for Disability Advocacy Week in February drew a large crowd. Another big group is expected Tuesday, March 28 for Disability Services Day.
Groups continue make the case for legislation including measures to better compensate direct support staff and compensate them for driving clients. With the first bill deadline on March 10, there’s much activity to get measures through for further action.
More than 100 people attended the first big in-person event February 14 since COVID shut things down in 2020. The rally, part of Disability Advocacy Week, was like old times at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) building as people reconnected and caught up.
Although the usual march to the capitol was canceled due to sleet and icy conditions, advocates crowded the rotunda to hear legislators and Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead. Gov. Tim Walz was traveling and unable to attend this year’s rally.
One message repeatedly shared is that with a large budget surplus, this is the year to take action on disability requests that have been languishing for years. “Everyone is needed if we’re going to succeed,” said Brittanie Wilson. The Arc Minnesota staffer was emcee for the event.
Advocates who spoke focused on three key pieces of legislation. One is needed reforms for Medical Assistance for Employed People with Disabilities (MA-EPD). The reforms are in SF1637/ HF1660.
Rob Wudlick is one of the founders of the Get Up Stand Up group that focuses on spinal cord issues. He explained that while MA-EPD has provided health care for working disabled people since its inception in 2001, income and asset limits have held people back. Changes have been sought for years, centered on the argument that it is less expensive and more appropriate for disabled people to live and work in the community. The ability to earn a decent living and even save money is argued.
“I want to work and I want to contribute,” Wudlick said.
Self-advocates are again seeking support to increase the MA income and asset standard for people in the elderly and disabled Medicaid category, as those are among the strictest standards for all Minnesota healthcare programs. The current standards for those who need and qualify for home and community-based services require people to live in deep poverty, just to get healthcare and supports they need to live independently in the community. These income and asset standards are tied to the federal poverty guidelines and have not been raised for decades.
Participants are currently forced to live on $1,100 per month, and cannot have more than $3,000 in the bank. Not meeting the rigid guidelines means losing all of one’s services. The pending legislation would raise the income standard from 100 of the poverty level to 133 percent. It would either eliminate or raise the asset standard from the current $3,000 to $20,000.
Another issue to be addressed is the intersectionality between disability and obesity. Kayte Barton, a disability rights advocate and Special Olympics medalist, outlined the health measure she is championing. She has autism and an intellectual disability.
Many people are obese, which can cause an array of related health problems. Barton said that commercial weight loss programs available can be out of reach financially, and don’t work for many people with disabilities. Helping people maintain healthy weight can mean avoiding other health problems.
Barton seeks to make health care more inclusive, with lower-cost options. A pilot program would be overseen by state health and human services officials.
A third focus was accessibility with a focus neurodiversity, a cause led by Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM). A bill would create a task force on disability services accessibility, and a pilot program. A report on such a program could greatly improve access to services.
The bill if passed would eventually make state and county services more accessible based on the work of the task force. While Nelson has a waiver and personal care attendant services, “getting that help was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Programs that help people find services and supports should be easily accessed, but too many government programs have barriers.
The intent would be to identity and remove barriers, creating an entirely new era of accessibility. Without access to needed services, ‘too many of us have ended up homeless or dead,’ said Nelson.
Remember that the session is far from over. An ongoing activity is Wednesdays at the Capitol, led by the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD).
Meet with MNCCD at 10-11 a.m. every Wednesday in the Department of Transportation Cafeteria. Share policy priorities, give updates, and energize advocates to take action.
Questions or want more information about Wednesdays at the Capitol? Email Project Coordinator Bridget Carter at [email protected] Another useful resource is the Minnesota Council on Disability bill tracker page, which has a wealth of information on disability-related legislation. Go to https://www.disability.state.mn.us/about-our-public-policy/bill-tracking/