Assistive Technology Bill of 2007 addresses variety of statewide issues
As a longtime enthusiast and advocate for assistive technology programs and services, Anne Henry of the Minnesota Disability Law Center remembers when duct tape, Velcro and items from the hardware store were the main ingredients necessary to adapt equipment. Sitting in Room 10 of the State Office Building late one March evening, as the House Health and Human Service Finance Division (HHS-FD) finalized the first round of appropriations, Henry reflected on the progress made toward full inclusion, and how assistive technology has changed the lives of people with disabilities. “Interest in and support of assistive technology is strong at the State Capitol,” says Henry. Indeed, ensuring that people in need have access to life-changing equipment is the priority of the Assistive Technology Bill of 2007 (House File 0725 and Senate File 0639) now making its way toward passage in the current session.
Over the past four years, efforts to encourage legislators, the governor and other agencies in state government to include state funding for assistive technology (AT) services have resulted in few noticeable changes. But with the introduction this session of the AT Bill of 2007, advocates have noticed a shift toward support for AT and the use of state dollars to fund programs. The bill directs the Minnesota State Council on Disability to conduct a study of individual needs and service delivery, and provide a report to the Chairs of the House and Senate HHS-FDs with recommendations for a statewide comprehensive AT Plan. For the first time in Minnesota history, agencies, nonprofit organizations, individuals, families, health providers and other groups will all be invited to the table with the goal of creating such a plan.
HF 0725 is sponsored by Representatives Madore, Thissen, Kahn, Erickson, Abeler, Ward et. al; SF 0639 is sponsored by Senators Tommassoni, Bakk, Lourey, Larson, Metzen, and Olseen.
Included in the bill is a provision to establish an AT Savings Account, whereby individuals, families or guardians will be allowed to set aside pretax earnings, disability income and other funds to purchase AT devices and services without losing eligibility for public programs. When complete, the study and its recommendations will create a roadmap for the future of assistive technology in Minnesota.
The AT Bill of 2007 addresses the rapid advancement in technology, increased demand for adaptive equipment and issues related to payment. It will provide solutions, help to close gaps in the system and remove barriers associated with access. HHS-FD Chairpersons Senator Linda Berglin and Representative Thomas Huntley have included funding for AT in their Omnibus Budget Bills. At the time of this article, the $300,000 appropriation will support: a portion of the bill’s funding request, the remaining local/state match necessary to fully fund the federal Alternative Finance Project for the statewide low-interest loan program operated by Assistive Technology of MN (ATMn) and one-year funding for the member organizations of the Minnesota Regions Assistive Technology Collaborative. The original bill also requests $200,000 to conduct the needs study, create the AT plan and establish a pretax savings account, none of which is currently funded in the House and Senate finance bills.
Kim Curry’s experience highlights the importance of strong support programs. She was recently able to secure a low-interest loan to help with the transportation of her two sons with muscular dystrophy, Jake and Jordan. Curry had this to say about the supports and services currently available, “When my journey to find a safe and accessible vehicle began, I was really discouraged …. I thought it wouldn’t be a possibility for us because of my credit and income level, but [ATMn] made that dream come true! …. I am so relieved to know both of my children are in a safe vehicle and not sliding around all over the place.”
The Curry family experienced a common problem, not knowing where to go, what agency provides which service, and who is eligible for what program. Locating the right source was one of their major problems. Funding from this bill will help create a coordinated system, eliminate fragmentation and provide funding to sustain itself. Turning to the low-interest loan program as an option resulted in a positive outcome for this family. How many other families are in the same difficult situation and do not know where to go for help?
With the elimination of federal funds to support AT services, Minnesota is faced with a serious issue – no dedicated funding source for AT providers. As the demand increases and the needs become more complex, service providers have nowhere to turn for financial sustainability. Without the full appropriation sought through this bill, services, especially in Greater Minnesota, are at risk. And now that baby boomers are beginning to acquire age-related disabilities and seniors choose to remain in their own homes, individuals with disabilities are not the only ones in need of AT devices and services. The home-care industry is constantly changing as those in need of supportive housing are no longer required to live in nursing home settings; people under the age of 65 with disabilities have choices for alternative community-based care. All are in need of some type of modification, adaptation or device to live independently.
As the session continues, it is essential to convince legislators to include full funding for HF 0725/SF 0639. The $1 million appropriation originally sought will jump-start a process to create a statewide plan to coordinate services, support the current statewide service delivery system helping those in need.
Minnesotans with disabilities, our seniors and people living with chronic medical conditions have the right to live, work, learn and play in their community. Assistive technology devices and services are critical to meeting those rights. With the necessary financial support for providers and a roadmap for the future, access to life-changing equipment will be available to all. Stay tuned as we continue to seek full inclusion and funding for HF 0725/SF 0639, the Assistive Technology Bill of 2007.
Carol Fury-Fistman is Executive Director of Assistive Technology of Minnesota.