Disability and aging advocates share issues, ideas

Working together on a wide range of issues will serve Minnesota’s disability and aging communities well during what is expected to be a challenging 2011 legislative session. Representatives of more than 50 groups met Nov. 29 in St. Paul to share ideas and strategies. The 2011 Minnesota Legislature convenes Jan. 4.
   
Participants agreed that the two populations have a number of shared issues and can unite to educate state lawmakers this session. Panelists discussed key issues as well as effective strategies to meet with lawmakers. With so many new state representatives and senators, the early part of the session will be a time to get people up to speed on issues that affect the state’s elders and people with disabilities.
   
“If ever we had a legislative session where we need to get together in a coordinated fashion, this is going to be it,” said David Hancox of MCIL. One overriding concern many panelists cited is the tight budget situation at all levels of government and how that will affect key programs and services.
   
“Too many people are reacting instead of working on (the basis of) information,” said Anne Henry of the Minnesota Disability Law Center. She and others said that is why it’s important to educate lawmakers early on about how programs and service actually save the state money.
   
There are “daunting tasks” ahead at the state and federal levels, Henry said. Senior citizens and people with disabilities have many shared values and a lot in common to work toward, which will be helpful in lobbying and self-advocacy efforts. She cited the commitment to respectful, competent care, promotion of self-direction and quality community living as being among the issues that are priorities.
   
Patti Cullen of Care Providers said that everyone will be approached about looking at ways to ease regulatory burdens. She and John Tschida of Courage Center said lobbyists and self-advocates need to be cautious of that mantra. Tschida noted that what is called “reform” may just be financial cutting. Cullen added that rather than focus on regulations there needs to be a focus on cost-effective ways to provide services.
   
Both communities need to watch for some key reports coming out of state agencies soon (see related story on page 14) and how those will have an impact, Tschida said.
   
Another priority will be mental health issues and the need to more fully integrate mental health into the health care system. “It’s become abundantly clear to us that people with disabilities and seniors don’t have access to acute care mental health benefits,” Henry said.
   
“The holes in the mental health system are very evident,” said Patti Cullen of Care Providers. A growing number of elderly people are developing mental health issues and more needs to be done for them.
   
The personal care attendant (PCA) cuts of 2009 especially have affected people with mental health and behavioral issues, and many are at risk of termination of services in July of 2011.
   
“I think these are situations where we can ask for the same things but outline our unique issues,” said Mike Weber of Volunteers of America (VOA).  One is support for a wide array of home and community-based services that save money and provide flexibility. A second is to promote the idea of “communities for a lifetime” with adequate housing and transportation options.
   
A third issue Weber cited priority is to promote health care reform. Cullen agreed but said there is a need to frame the discussion so it doesn’t appear that the communities want to add more costs and rules.
   
Panelists focused attention on caregivers, saying there is a need to provide significant support for volunteer care-givers and family caregivers, and provide needed respite care. The value and contributions of informal caregivers need to be recognized, added Cullen.
               
Weber and Tschida noted there are issues the senior citizen and disability groups differ on. One is that of medical assistance, where there are different client needs and focuses. Another issue is employment. Seniors want to see more done to provide flexible, part-time work while people with disabilities have full-time work and adequate workplace accommodations among their priorities. In the housing area, many seniors want to get out of their owner-occupied homes, while many people with disabilities want to become home owners. But everyone agreed that on common issues, those should be reinforced and emphasized by advocates.

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