Editor's Column - April 2012

What’s with the Minnesota weather? Could it be a nicer spring? It’s the beginning of April and we’ve already had temperatures well into the 70s: unbelievable.

Speaking of weather, I think our legislators are getting serious spring fever also and trying to finish up early. Being the cynic I am, I wonder if they are trying to prove that the Republican-controlled legislature can finish their work early—or if they are just trying to end early so they can begin their campaign efforts.

On March 29, the House Health and Human Services omnibus bill (HF 2294) was introduced and discussed on the House floor. Many amendments to the bill were proposed; two amendments were introduced concerning repeal of the 20% family-relative personal care attendant (PCA) wage cut. Neither was accepted, but they each produced lively, and sometimes heated, debate among Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL–Rochester), Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL–Minneapolis) Rep. Jim Abeler (R–Anoka) and several others. Abeler’s argument and party stance seems to be more toward reimbursing insurance companies than with any hardship for PCAs. Abeler argued that the estimated single-digit millions that will be recovered from overpayment should go back to the insurance companies as a “goodwill gesture,” a gift, and not as fair compensation to relatives taking care of their own family members.

In the hearing on the temporary restraining order against the cut, Judge Dale B. Lindman said that it is a moral obligation of the family to take care of their disabled family member, and maybe it is, but if that moral obligation means that they have to give up other work in order to do that, I wonder what Lindman thinks the state’s ethical responsibility is concerning these families? This 20% cut was enacted last year after the state government shutdown.

Barbara Christiansen called me recently in tears, wondering what I thought the chance of the 20% pay being reinstated. I could not answer her. She and her husband are in their late 70s and for many years now have been taking care of their adult son Steve, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 26. Due to the MS, he is quadriplegic with speech and seizure problems and needs 24-hour care. The Christiansens take care of Steve to keep him from a nursing home, since without them, he would need round-the-clock skilled nursing care. The Christiansens have been saving the state nursing-home costs and now the state has cut 20% of the income they earn to help support themselves and their son.

The stories I’ve heard from the Christiansens and many others have brought tears to my eyes. In most of these stories, families have taken on layers of difficult responsibility and frequently put themselves in poverty. But the state is not fulfilling its ethical responsibility to take care of its citizens and to ensure their right to the pursuit of happiness. Few pursue happiness through involuntary poverty. These families have been impoverished by the state in taking care of their own, and to say that is their “moral responsibility” is a slap in the face. This is yet another situation where lawmakers generalize from a few incidents to imagine that there’s a widespread problem that must be solved. There is no question that there are abuses in every public assistance system, but we have to find a better way to target the abuse, not abuse the targeted population.

In other legislative news, the Medical Assistance for Employed People with Disabilities (MA-EPD) program that we have been covering looks like it may see legislation to lift the 65-year-old age limit this year. The governor’s budget and both proposed omnibus bills to date have some kind of language extending the age limit and financial disregards or exceptions.

The next big step will be getting a waiver from the federal government to allow the state Medicaid program to extend this age limit and disregards. Finally, it looks like a Voter ID proposal will go on the fall ballot for a vote. We’ll continue monitoring the situation. This law would certainly disenfranchise many, or make the voting process unnecessarily burdensome. In fact, it might not allow many people with disabilities to vote.

Stay tuned to our website updates during the month. There’s plenty of suspense for capitol-watchers in this balmy spring.

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