Looking back: 2015 was a year of change for the Minnesota disability community

2015 year in reviewAnother year has drawn to a close so it’s time for the Access Press annual look back at the past year. Happy 2016 to our readers.

January

The 2015 legislative session began with many expectations and also many uncertainties. A plus-$1 billion state surplus raised hopes for some additional spending. But a DFL-led Senate, DFL governor and Republican-led House set the stage for gridlock. The 5 Percent Campaign was back for another run at additional funding for staff, as were efforts to change Medical AAssistance (MA) and MA-EPD.

The ABLE Act’s passage was celebrated. ABLE stands for Achieving a Better Life Experience and allows families to save for higher education for people with disabilities. Federal passage triggered the need for states to pass their own laws.

ALLY People Solutions was in a bind as one of its accessible vans was stolen from St. Paul’s East Side.

 

February

Mental health services, education and families fared well in Gov. Mark Dayton’s two-year, $42 billion budget. But the budget proposal met dismay from the 5% Campaign and groups calling for MA reforms, as those priorities were left out. When Dayton’s budget was released Jan. 27, there was relief that many disability services programs were spared cuts. But there was disappointment that more needs weren’t met.

EquipALife, a statewide nonprofit organization that provides all kinds of adaptive equipment for Minnesotans, received a generous gift from Crippled Child Relief Inc. (CCRI). The $85,000 gift will be used to jumpstart the new Grants to Individuals Program. The new program will help EquipALife help even more Minnesotans and make their dreams of self-sufficiency come true. CCRI was shifting its focus after many years.

 

March

As the 2015 Minnesota Legislature approached the session’s mid-point there were concerns about the pace of legislative activity. There was also frustration about the lack of attention to state spending and disability community needs.

Jesse Bethke Gomez took the helm at the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, succeeding longtime director David Hancox.

The play was the thing for southwest Minnesota self-advocates, who had graduated from ACT’s Olmstead Plan Academy. Disability Pride and Power was the theme of the project for the self-advocates from The Arc Southwest. The group not only staged a play, members launched Born This Way Here to Stay groups. Self-advocates from around the state took part in the 12-month training.

Audrey Benson, a founder and former president of the United Handicapped Federation, passed away at age 76.

 

April

Interact Center for the Performing and Visual Arts moved to St. Paul’s Midway area, after 18 years in the Minneapolis Warehouse District. The new space offered more room for classes, displays and performances by the adult day program participants.

Access to transit was the focus of a meeting in St. Paul, where the need for better connections to Green Line light rail was discussed. More than 9,000 people with disabilities live in the neighborhood served by the light rail line, so good connecting business and accessible sidewalks are needed.

Educator Bruce Kramer, who used his experience with ALS to chronicle with life with illness, died just as his book came out. The book, We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying, was well-received.

 

May

Hamline University prepared to host the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in June. The event drew top athletes from around the nation, and served as a selection event for the 2015 Parapan American Games and 2015 world championships. This marked the first time that the national championships were held in Minnesota.

Preparations were also underway for the ReelAbilities Film festival in June. The event, held at multiple places throughout the Twin Cities, included the showing of films, an acting workshop, opening reception and closing ceremony. This was the second time for the Twin Cities to host the film festival, which is held at venues around the nation. Partners in Policymaking was again offering its classes for people with disabilities and their family members. Classes would start in the fall.

 

June

Saying the Olmstead Plan still needed work, Judge Donovan Frank sent the 158-page document back to its planning sub-cabinet for more work. It marked the second time in eight months that Frank had scolded state officials about what he saw as shortcomings in the plan. He gave state officials until July 10 to submit a new draft. One of Frank’s greatest concerns was a lack of measurable outcomes.

The end of the 2015 regular legislative session came with uncertainty on some issues, joy on others and disappointment on a few fronts. The 5 Percent Campaign vowed to come back in 2016 with its plea for a wage increase. Proponents for reforms in MA and MA-EPDF got positive news, as did advocates for mental health. Mental health programs saw some of their greatest gains in years. Education and other issues were still up in the air, pending a special session.

 

July

Access Press and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrated reaching the quarter-century mark in 2015. The community enjoyed a big celebration at the Minnesota History Center, The newspaper published a 25-year timeline and stories about founding Editor Charlie Smith. Smith died in 2001 but his impact on disability issues as a journalist is still felt today. He is remembered as a determined and resilient fighter for disability and human rights.

About 27,000 Minnesota personal care attendants were covered by a contract. As of July 1, the workers were covered by a first-ever contract negotiated between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the state of Minnesota. But the union faced legal challenges.

A cramped and warm special session in the State Office Building wrapped up the work of the 2015 Minnesota Legislature. Disability community members celebrated gains in housing and employment programs, but were unhappy with how funding for special education played out.

 

August

The Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter was found to be using seclusion and restraint in violation of its own policies and license conditions. A 16-month investigation by the Minnesota Disability Law Center indicated that hospital staff strapped patients to restraint chairs, isolated patients in locked rooms and used other measures when patients and staff aren’t at risk of harm. The report said the measures are used more as punishment than as emergency protection as required. More individualized treatment, added clinical staff, ongoing staff training and more patient involvement in treatment plans are among the report’s 17 recommendations.

Visitors to the Minnesota State Fair enjoyed additional accommodations for guests with disabilities. After complaints in 2014, the result was more accessible parking spaces, respite space, more interpreted shows and other accommodations. Changes were made to the West End Market’s transit hub, which opened in 2014.

 

September

More than 5,000 Minnesotans with disabilities have been deprived of plus-$1 billion in services for more than two decades under a federal Medicaid program managed by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court stated that people have waited for years for services needed so that they can live in the community. But some Minnesota counties don’t spend Medicaid funds as quickly as they should. The lawsuit contends that for more than two decades DHS mismanaged monies appropriated by the Minnesota Legislature for the Home and Community Based Waiver Services program.

UCare, its partner businesses and about 370,000 of its clients face uncertain times as a result of a competitive bidding process for state health care contracts. The clients are among an estimated 475,000 Minnesotans who had to switch public health plan providers. This is the greatest number of Minnesotans who have ever had to switch plans in a given year.

 

October

Approval of the Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan capped almost four years’ of effort. The plan provides clarity as to how people with disabilities will be more fully integrated into the greater community and how supports and services will be provided. While hailing U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank’s decision to approve the plan, state leaders agree there is much work left to do toward plan implementation.

People Inc.’s Diane Ahrens Crisis Residence will relocate from St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway area to the Hazel Park neighborhood. Months of debate at the neighborhood, St. Paul Planning Commission and City Council level ended September 10 with a 5-2 council vote of approval. The new location was a convent for many years.

After 58 years of stimulating the economy, celebrating creativity, and helping launch multiple businesses, the Minnesota Inventors Congress shut down. The shutdown is due to reductions in state funding. Many inventions benefitted people with disabilities.

 

November

People who rely on Social Security programs for support will see changes. The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Program, which faced running out of funds in mid-2016, was spared large cuts in the federal budget agreement. Had Congress not acted, trustees for the Social Security system had warned that benefits could be cut by as much as 19 to 20 percent. But retirees on Social Security faced the prospect of no increase in 2016.

The fight continued over a 2013 state law allowing Minnesota’s 27,000 home health care workers to unionize. Supporters and opponents, with their clients, filled a St. Paul federal appeals courtroom for back-to-back hearings.

ALLY People Solutions had seen many change since its inception 50 years ago when a group of determined mothers set out to change disability services for the better.

 

December

Everyone has a story and was born with a purpose. That was a theme of Access Press Charlie Smith Award winner Jessalyn Akerman-Frank’s speech. At the end of each speech everyone in the crowd shook their hands in the air in the American Sign Language version of applause.

Best Life Alliance is the new name for The 5% Campaign. The Best Life Alliance, a coalition of more than 130 groups statewide, launched its quest for $90 million from the 2016 Minnesota Legislature, to increase caregivers’ wages.

MN-CCD also looked ahead to the 2016 legislative session, with Medical Assistance (MA) Reform as the lead policy item. MA provides adults and elders with disabilities access to services and supports that keep them living in the community. But changes is needed to state-mandated asset and income standards.