As we go to press the conference committees at the legislature are meeting to rash out the differences between the House and Senate bills. In a year where our state has a $1.8 billion surplus, it seems like there should be more than enough money to go around. Yet programs such as the expansion of the senior drug program to cover people with disabilities and raising the income standard for people who live on Social Security are not even in the Senate Health and Human Services bill. The crazy part of all of this is that we’re not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. The combined priced tag for these bills is in the neighborhood of $19 million dollars. The raising of the income standard means that people who are living on $467 would see any increase to $484 per month, and then these people would also be able to get a cost of living increase each year the same way as people who receive Social Security supplemental income (SSI). This sure doesn’t seem like very much, but it can make a big difference for somebody living at the poverty level. The expansion of the senior drug program could have a huge impact on the lives of people with disabilities; it really can mean the difference between life and death for many people. These people are choosing between buying expensive drugs and having food in their house. Again, this program is not funded in the Senate bill. If these programs are not funded this year, our legislators and the governor should be ashamed of themselves. The governor has stated that he only wants to see spending bills this year when there’s a crisis. Governor, I would say this is a crisis for many people with disabilities.
The other issue facing many people with disabilities is the workforce crisis. People who rely on direct care workers to live. Rep. Kevin Goodno has taken a position that personal care attendants (PCA) deserve a 5 percent cost a living increase (COLA). He has looked at the hourly wage that PCA’s receive vs. people who work in group homes or nursing homes. His conclusion was that the PCA’s hourly rate is much lower, therefore his proposal would narrow this income gap. I believe he has a valid point, but this year we really should be looking at raising the hourly rate for all. Next year, when the legislature has more time, this issue should be discussed and we need to be careful not pit one type of disability against another. Again, Governor this is another crisis and you should sign this bill.
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The Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD) program is a huge success. People with disabilities are going to work in record numbers. The Department of Human Services underestimated the number of people who would want take advantage of this program. The latest numbers I have: as of December 31st over 3,100 people are enrolled in the MA-EPD program. DHS didn’t expect to reach this number until 2002. The record low unemployment rate has helped people with disabilities. Employers are now forced to consider people with disabilities when filling positions that are going vacant. What these employers are finding now is that people with disabilities make great employees.
Typically, people with disabilities rely on a number of government-funded programs, such as Social Security, section 8 housing and medical assistance. All of these programs are inter-connected and earning income will affect each other. Since many people with disabilities are going to work for the first time, or are returning after a long absence, DHS would like make sure you understand how going to work is going to affect these different programs. On page 7, DHS has written a brief article explaining some of these issues.