Legislative Session 2002 – “The Very Successful Unsuccessful Year”

Many advocates left this year’s legislative session with mixed feelings.  Given the projected $2.3 billion deficit, the biggest job facing […]

Many advocates left this year’s legislative session with mixed feelings.  Given the projected $2.3 billion deficit, the biggest job facing advocates was preserving programs and staving off cuts.  At the session’s end, most funding for disability-related programs and services was intact.  In fact, compared with other groups, disability programs did well.  In that sense, the session was a success.  But those who worked tirelessly on behalf of people with disabilities were barely able to preserve the status quo in many areas, prompting Joel Ulland of the MS Society to dub this “the very successful unsuccessful year.”

In the March 10 issue of Access Press, we carried an article by Anne Henry of the Disability Law Center recapping progress through Phase I of the budget process.  Below is a summary of some of the final outcomes of the session.  Budget items will be covered first, followed by policy bills.

Budget Items

Many cost-saving proposals were put forward that would have eroded or eliminated funding for programs for people with disabilities.  When all was said and done, the following programs remained intact.

         – Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD) withstood proposed changes by the Senate and governor, and remains the same.

          -The cost of living increase of 3% for home and community-based care, including personal care assistants, was also preserved.  The legislative intent is that at least 2% of these funds will go directly to employees in the form of wages and/or benefits.

         – The Medical Assistance (MA) income standard passed last year was not recommended for cuts during this session and will automatically increase on July 1, 2002.  Individuals whose incomes are above the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG) will have less of a “spend down.”  This will result in people being able to keep more of their income each month while still qualifying for Medical Assistance benefits.  For example, an individual who must now spend their income down to 70% of FPG, or $502/month, will be able to keep 75%, or $554/month, beginning July 1.  In addition, the FPG will increase somewhat next spring from $716/month for an individual to $739/month.

         -The prescription drug program established for people with disabilities was scheduled to take effect beginning July 1, 2002.  Governor Ventura did not include funding for this new program in his budget this year, but it was included in the final budget passed by the legislature.  The expansion of eligibility for the existing senior citizen program was not approved, but the scheduled program for people with disabilities after much controversy was left intact.  See page 3 for a more detailed description of this important program.

          -The budget bill allows people who receive benefits under the Minnesota Family Investment Program to work less than the required hours if following treatment due to illness or disability.
                             
The legislature did vote to pass some MA costs of nursing home care onto counties.  This is an attempt to motivate counties to move people with disabilities out of nursing homes and into the community.  Beginning January 1, 2003, counties will be required to pay 20% of the non-federal costs for this care for people with disabilities who are under age 65, receive MA, and have been in nursing homes longer than 90 days.

In a Department of Commerce housekeeping bill, health plan companies will be able to increase their rates for insurance co-payments and deductibles.  The increases are less than those sought by the health care industry (who lobbied for them throughout the session), due to the efforts of the Alliance for Consumer Protections.  Industry representatives testified that they would not seek further increases for the next two years.

Finally, health and human services spending will be cut by $96 million during the current biennium and $192 during the next.  While the full implications of this are still not clear, there will be layoffs and other cost-saving measures that may affect the state’s ability to effectively oversee and administer programs.  Access Press will continue to follow these developments and provide readers with periodic updates.

Policy Bills

In addition to the budget negotiations described above, a number of policy bills were passed that will have a direct or indirect effect on persons with disabilities.  They are summarized below.

Access to education Advocates worked throughout the session to ensure that students who reside in licensed care and treatment facilities will now have access to a six-hour school day.  It is common for many students in these facilities to receive only 1-2 hours of education per day. When they leave the facility, they are often academically behind their peers in the local school district, and are in need of remedial services.

Reference checks Guidelines were established for long-term care providers who are asked to provide reference information for employees.  A goal of this bill is to protect vulnerable citizens from inadequate or inappropriate care by long-term care employees.  Under the new guidelines, current or former employers may provide specific information about employees upon written request by future employers.  This includes “all acts of violence, theft, harassment or illegal conduct documented in the personnel record which resulted in disciplinary action or resignation.”  According to Jeff Bangsberg, Government Relations Director, Minnesota HomeCare Association, “For some time, employers have been reluctant to provide specific information about employee performance.  This bill provides a framework for employers to share appropriate and relevant information about an employee with a prospective employer.  The law still provides remedies for employees who are given poor references if they are unwarranted.”

Criminal background checks Advocates also worked with key legislators and the Attorney General’s office in an effort to close loopholes in the criminal background check process for care providers.  Current law excludes certain people convicted of “crimes against persons” (including assault and criminal sexual conduct) from working with children and vulnerable adults.  But the Department of Human Services (DHS) has had the authority to “set aside” these guidelines in certain cases, and approve individuals for employment without notifying the prospective employer that an exception was made.

New legislation adds 13 “crimes against persons” (including murder, assault, kidnapping, and felony level harassment) to the list of crimes that would disqualify someone from working with children and vulnerable adults.  DHS retains authority to grant “set asides” to people who appeal the disqualification.  However, if DHS chooses to “set aside” the guidelines for an individual seeking employment, they must notify the potential employer of the employee’s criminal record and the reason for the “set aside.”

Mental health treatment People who live in areas of Minnesota that border other states may receive care in those states when the facility is closer to their home than the nearest Minnesota facility and Minnesota will fund the care as if provided within the state.

Parent/guardian notification Licensed programs serving persons with developmental disabilities will be required to notify parents and guardians when an individual is the victim of physical aggression or sexual assault by another client or program participant.  In addition, when a maltreatment report is filed, the program must notify parents, guardians, and county case managers.  The final provision of this bill requires that vulnerability to abuse be included in a person’s abuse prevention plan.

Changes to the Vulnerable Adults Act The Vulnerable Adults Act was amended to prohibit any sexual contact
between a para-transit driver and passenger, when the passenger is protected by the Vulnerable Adults Act.  The new
language makes this kind of contact a form of criminal sexual conduct.

Hospital admissions Currently, a peace or health officer may transport someone to a treatment facility if the person is in imminent danger of injuring her/himself or others.  The new law omits the word “imminent,” making it easier for people to be hospitalized.  This same bill defines inpatient units of community hospitals as community-based services.

Informed consent changes Current law provides that school districts must receive informed consent from parents or guardians prior to billing public or private health care plans for school-based health care services provided to special education students as part of an Individual Education Plan (IEP).  This law remains unchanged for families with private health insurance or a combination of private and public coverage.  Families with health care through public programs such as MinnesotaCare and MA, will only receive notification of a school’s intention to bill for school-based health services.  The families will retain the right to give informed consent before a school may release education records for
insurance purposes.

As this has been only a brief summary of some of the bills passed this session, please visit these websites  http://www.leg.state.mn.us/ or http://www.budget.state.mn.us/budget/ or http://www.mncn.org/bp/ for more complete information.

Jeff Bangsberg, Bob Brick, Anne Henry, and Joel Ulland contributed to this article.