Fair Access for All Minnesotans

“All Minnesotans and all Americans deserve fair and open access under the law,” says Congresswoman Betty McCollum.  “We still have a lot of work to do to reach this goal.”  McCollum not only states these words, she is acting on them.

After eight years of advocacy on behalf of families and individuals as a State Representative from North Saint Paul, McCollum was elected in 2000 to represent residents of Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District.  Thoutgh her election was ten years after the implementation of  the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), McCollum is under no illusion that the work to protect fair access is over.  Upon her arrival in Washington, McCollum immediately rolled up her sleeves and got to work defending the rights of all Minnesotans.

McCollum’s appointment to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has given her a front seat on critical issues facing the disability community, including access to education, employment, healthcare and housing.  She is a watchdog for protection of rights at a time when Congress and the White House have become increasingly frugal  toward long-standing legislation for Americans with disabilities.

“My job is to protect civil rights for all Minnesotans.  I am concerned that policies which are being pursued by the president and Congress fail to account for the disability community.  Turning back years of progress on these rights is not an option,” said McCollum.

Defending Access to Education

An area particularly important to McCollum is special education.  McCollum is working hard to make sure the federal government honors its commitment to children with disabilities by fully funding special education.  Nearly 110,000 Minnesota children participate in special education through the Individuals with Disability Act (IDEA).  The 1975 law mandates that states serve school-age children with disabilities and outlines a 40% funding promise.  However, since its enactment, the federal government has never come close to this funding level.

Working closely with the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER) and others, parents and students, McCollum introduced H.R. 1398, the Achieving Our IDEA Act of 2003.  This bill would have made full federal funding of IDEA mandatory over the next seven years.  Under McCollum’s proposal, Minnesota would have received $396 million annually by 2009.  McCollum offered her bill as an amendment to legislation reauthorizing IDEA, but it failed in a party-line vote in the Education and Workforce Committee.

Despite that setback, McCollum worked hard to make sure that the final bill which passed the House (H.R.1350) included additional funding for newborn auditory screening programs.  McCollum successfully argued that detecting hearing loss and intervening early better serves children and saves schools millions of dollars in special education. 

The House-passed bill requires schools to identify special needs students at an earlier age to avoid the misidentification of children.  Studies indicate that children who are correctly identified as having a disability at an early age can have their needs addressed earlier by parents and teachers, thus making it more possible for these children to be in a regular classroom.

“While the IDEA bill that passed the House is not perfect, particularly in the area of discipline standards, it provides critical funding for early screening and intervention,” said McCollum.  “I am committed to ensuring that students, parents and schools have the tools they need to move in the right direction.  I am committed to providing funding promised to our states and local school districts for nearly 30 years.  This bill moves us closer toward full funding that our schools desperately need,” McCollum said.

Defending Access to the Workplace

McCollum recognizes the importance of both education and employment to individuals as they seek to be full participants in mainstream society.  The Rehabilitation Act, which is due to be reauthorized by Congress within the next year, supports vocational rehabilitation services to help individuals with physical and mental disabilities find employment.

“People with disabilities have the right to make their own choices, pursue careers and contribute to society,” said McCollum.  “Congress needs to reauthorize the Rehabilitation Act to provide training and supportive technology to assist individuals making this key transition into the workplace.”

Defending Access to Quality, Affordable Health Care

McCollum understands that another key to independent living is quality, affordable health care.  She is concerned that proposed changes to the health care system could have long-lasting and damaging affects on many in the disability community.

McCollum has vigorously defended Medicare from House Republican attempts to dismantle the program as millions in the disability community know it.  By a one vote margin, House Republicans recently passed H.R.1, which turns Medicare into a voucher program by 2010. 

At a recent town hall meeting with the ARC, the Minnesota MS Society, the Minnesota Homecare Association, AARP, Senior Federation and labor retirees, McCollum listened as individuals spoke about the need for a comprehensive plan that strengthens Medicare and provides real prescription drug coverage under the program.

The Republican plan instead forces seniors and persons with disabilities into HMOs and other private insurers for limited prescription coverage.  The Republican plan offers no assistance to those whose drug costs range between $2000 and $4900—a $2900 gap in coverage!  Nearly half of all Medicare beneficiaries would fall into this gap in coverage every year, yet would still be required to pay the monthly premium.  Private plans would likely selectively enroll only the healthiest individuals, leaving beneficiaries with chronic health conditions and disabilities behind.

McCollum supports a Medicare plan that makes sense and does not leave people without coverage.  The plan, which is also backed by House Democratic leaders, would be available to all seniors and disabled Americans on Medicare no matter where they live—rural or urban—or what their incomes are.  The plan would be within the Medicare program, not a separate private program.

“I stand by my support for a comprehensive, affordable and guaranteed plan that strengthens Medicare and provides meaningful prescription drug coverage for persons with disabilities within Medicare—not a plan that lets HMOs make all the decisions about costs and benefits—and who gets the benefits,” said McCollum.

Medicaid is another successful health care program that has come under attack, this time by a Bush administration proposal to change the support program into a block grant program.  McCollum is working to save Medicaid for the 11 million people with disabilities who are served by the program, seven million of whom are under age 65. 

“Block granting a program that 11 million people with disabilities rely on is a bad idea,” said McCollum.  “Medicaid is the lifeline for services for many individuals with disabilities, and is the biggest source of funding for state and local disability services in the country.  Given our current state budget crisis and recent cuts, how can anyone be certain that our governor would invest these dollars in those for whom they are intended?  I will not gamble with the health of our citizens.”

Rep. Betty McCollum joined Cindy and Jenna Johnson at an ARC of MN breakfast last Dec. McCollum talked with the Johnsons about state and federal funding for daily health and safety needs. Rep. Betty McCollum joined Cindy and Jenna Johnson at an ARC of MN breakfast last Dec. McCollum talked with the Johnsons about state and federal funding for daily health and safety needs.

The Administration’s Medicaid proposal would eliminate many of the protections and longstanding guarantees that all Medicaid beneficiaries in a state have access to services.  If enacted, the plan could make it easier for states to remove people from the Medicaid program and limit services to certain groups of beneficiaries.

A Proven Fighter

Although she is serving in her second term in Congress, McCollum arrived in Washington as a veteran legislator and reliable advocate for the disability community.  Her record there is proving that she is as serious about defending human rights nationally as she is in Minnesota. 

“I answer to the people of Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District, and I am hearing that more needs to be done to protect fairness and access for all Minnesotans.  I am committed to keeping up the pressure on Congress and the president to make sure we are making progress, not stepping backward,” said McCollum.

ARC Photo Caption:

Rep.  Betty McCollum joined Cindy and Jenna Johnson at an ARC of Minnesota breakfast last December.  McCollum talked with the Johnsons about state and federal funding for daily health and safety needs. 

ARC Minnesota is the largest nonprofit, statewide, voluntary organization devoted to improving the quality of life for persons with developmental disabilities.  The ARC of Minnesota provides advocacy and support services, works on public policy that affects persons with disabilities, and strives to empower people with disabilities to become as self-sufficient and independent as possible.