May 2024 Regional News

Disabled voters file suit in Wisconsin Wisconsin voters with disabilities should be able to cast their ballots electronically and failure […]

African American young man with disability putting ballot paper into box

Disabled voters file suit in Wisconsin

Wisconsin voters with disabilities should be able to cast their ballots electronically and failure to provide that option for the upcoming Aug. 13 primary and November presidential election is discriminatory and unconstitutional, a lawsuit filed April 16 in the battleground state alleges. 

The lawsuit seeks to require that electronic absentee voting be an option for people with disabilities, just as it is for military and overseas voters. Under current Wisconsin law, people with disabilities are “treated unequally and face real and considerable hurdles to participating in absentee voting,” the lawsuit argues. 

Absentee ballots, including who can return them and where, have been a political flashpoint in swing state Wisconsin, where four of the past six presidential elections have been decided by less than a percentage point. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments next month in a case seeking to overturn a previous ruling banning absentee ballot drop boxes. 

A federal court sided with disability rights activists in 2022 and said the Voting Rights Act applies to Wisconsin voters who require assistance with mailing or delivering their absentee ballot because of a disability. The ruling overturned a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that said only the voter can return their ballot in person or place it in the mail. 

The new case was filed against the Wisconsin Elections Commission in Dane County Circuit Court by four voters, Disability Rights Wisconsin and the League of Women Voters. Riley Vetterkind, a spokesperson for the elections commission, declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

Voters with disabilities must have the ability to vote electronically in order for Wisconsin to comply with a variety of state and federal laws related to accommodation and equal-access, the lawsuit argues. Electronic voting will also ensure that people with disabilities are treated the same as other voters, the lawsuit contends. 

The lawsuit states that because absentee voting for most in Wisconsin is by paper ballot, many people with disabilities are unable to cast their votes without assistance. They could vote in private if electronic voting were an option. 

(Source: Associated Press) 

Tradeoffs eyed with closures 

Minnesota plans to shutter several state treatment facilities for people struggling with addiction and shift dollars, staff and space to increasingly in-demand mental health programs. 

But lawmakers and facility employees are pushing back against the closures, saying the state is trading one problem for another. They are particularly concerned with the looming shutdown of the only state-run substance use disorder residential facility specifically for women. 

“Some of these women have been traumatized by men. They have been trafficked, neglected, abused,’ said Tarajee Goorhouse, a nurse at the Carlton facility. She said the women-only environment allows people “to feel safer, and able to be a little more vulnerable and focus on their recovery.” 

Goorhouse and other employees picketed outside the Community Addiction Recovery Enterprise (CARE) facility in April and have been meeting with lawmakers in hopes of preventing its closure. The Carlton location is one of five 16-bed CARE centers around the state. The Department of Human Services  (DHS) has been planning to close the Carlton, St. Peter and Willmar programs and continue operating the Anoka and Fergus Falls locations. 

The potential CARE closures are part of a complicated game of chess DHS is using to try to quickly tackle the state’s mental health crisis with limited state budget dollars available this year. 

The state’s psychiatric treatment facilities and hospitals have lengthy waitlists and too few beds to meet the skyrocketing demand for mental health services. People who have nowhere else to turn are often stuck in emergency rooms and jails as they await treatment. Doctors, social service workers, sheriffs and family members of those in need have been pleading with the state to address the crisis. 

So DHS has proposed shuttering the 16-bed CARE program in St. Peter and repurposing the space and staff. The location would instead serve people who have been civilly committed by the courts as “mentally ill and dangerous,” according to a DHS budget proposal detailing the shifts. 

Patients who have that designation fill a number of coveted beds at Minnesota’s largest psychiatric hospital, the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center. By shifting people to St. Peter, DHS officials said the Anoka hospital could admit 50 to 75 more patients with mental illness each year. 

That change would come with new costs. If Minnesota closes the Carlton-based addiction recovery facility, which has struggled to retain staff and leases a building in need of repairs, it will save money that could be redirected to the new mental health services in St. Peter, DHS’s budget plan says. Carlton employees would be offered positions at other state facilities. 

The state decided last year to mothball the substance use disorder facility in Willmar, with services stopping June 30. DHS suggested that change could allow more staff to work at the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Hospital also located in the city and ensure that hospital is operating at full capacity. 

There are no firm closure dates yet for the Carlton and St. Peter addiction programs, DHS officials said, but noted clients will be able to finish treatment before they are discharged. 

(Source: Star Tribune) 

ADAPT active in Mankato 

Representatives of Southern Minnesota ADAPT recently took their demands to the Blue Earth County Government Center during the first National Take Back Our Disability Rights Day. 

Led by local ADAPT leader Chris Murphy, they met on the steps of the center and then went to the Human Services Office, handing their list of demands to Public Health Supervisor Erika Sletten, who represented Human Services Director Phil Claussen. 
They were there to help assure that rights earned through the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision 25 years ago were delivered. 

While the Olmstead decision guarantees people with disabilities the right to receive supports and services in the community rather than in institutions, several realities prevent that, according to ADAPT. 

Among their demands are living wages and benefits for personal care attendants and other caregivers, the end of institutional bias, the expansion of access to home and community-based services, the construction of more accessible housing so people with disabilities can move out of institutions, and the delivery of durable medical equipment equitably and without fraud. 

Denise Houston, who uses a wheelchair, said, “Give people a chance to live on their own because group homes are horrible.” She added the same is true for nursing homes. 
Pastor Neil Ellingson of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Mankato has an 8-year-old son who qualifies for 23 hours a day of attendant care. Their family has never been able to utilize all of those hours. 

“This hits really close to my and my family’s situation,” he said. “There’s so much to be grateful for in this state, but there’s so much remaining left to go.”  ADAPT is a national grass-roots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom. 

(Source: Free Press of Mankato) 

Mental health concerns raised 

It can be hard to predict what St. Paul Central High School principal Cherise Ayers will encounter when she walks through the doors each day. 

“I would describe a day in the life of a principal as everything everywhere all at once,” Ayers said. “I am like the mayor of a small town. There are so many things happening, and Central is actually larger than some small towns.” 

Principals like Ayers have an outsized impact on their schools. Research shows effective school leaders have a big impact on student achievement, teacher retention and other outcomes important for kids. 

Many, though, are overwhelmed. A newly released University of Minnesota report on Minnesota K-12 school principals found school leaders struggling for traction on instructional leadership and community engagement as they deal with their single greatest challenge, student mental health.  “The principal really, really matters, and they’re overwhelmed,” said Katie Pekel, executive director of educational leadership at the University of Minnesota. 

The report from the U’s College of Education and Human Development is based on a statewide survey of thousands of Minnesota principals conducted in November with a strong enough response that the college considers the findings conclusive. 

Among those findings, 94 percent agreed that student mental health challenges are a significant barrier to student learning. 

For Ayers, social media and technology are major contributors to the anxiety and emotional outbursts she sees students struggling with. 

The effects are not limited to high school students. Emily Casselius, principal at Goodview Elementary in southeastern Minnesota, said she sees her students struggling with anxiety, depression and friend relationships, making it hard to focus on school work. 

Over the last 12 months, another mountain of work has been added to the plates of school leaders: dozens of new laws from the Minnesota Legislature regarding things like reading instruction and non-exclusionary discipline. 

Principals across the state voiced widespread concern that many of the mandates passed in 2023 were not fully funded or supported. Many reported needing more information and guidance to implement the changes as well as time to plan and train staff. 

(Source: Minnesota Public Radio) 

College doors to open 

Minnesota college students with intellectual disabilities have often had to leave the state to find higher education options beyond schools that teach basic life skills. In 2019 students’ parents formed the Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education Consortium. The group’s efforts paid off in 2023 when the Minnesota Legislature allocated $2 million over two years for inclusive higher education, defined as equal access to higher education for students with an intellectual disability who need special education services. 

Inclusive higher education calls for the students to have the same rights, privileges, experiences and outcomes as nondisabled students, for an experience resulting in a meaningful credential. That means access to the same fields of study, degree programs, housing options, campus activities and more. 

Most of that money will go to colleges to fund new ways to boost enrollment for students with an intellectual disability. Some of the money — $500,000 — funds a technical assistance center operated by the consortium out of the University of Minnesota. 

The new center is the home where government, students, school leaders and other stakeholders in Minnesota can find expertise on best practices on providing postsecondary education for students with an intellectual disability.  There are nearly 200 colleges and universities in Minnesota. Of the four institutions with specific programs for students with an intellectual disability, three are designated as Comprehensive and Postsecondary Transition Programs by the U.S. Department of Education. That status allows the students to access federal financial aid. Those schools have a combined enrollment capacity of 90. 

Studies show students with an intellectual disability who enroll in college are more than twice as likely to be employed than those who don’t. They’re also more likely to have higher wages, live independently and rely less on social services. 

In May, Minnesota colleges will be able to apply for money to make higher education more accessible. They can receive up to $200,000 per year for four years. 

The Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education Consortium is holding sessions to prepare colleges and universities to apply for the state grants, as well as the federal designation for financial aid. 

(Source: Minnesota Public Radio) 

Insurance coverage is eyed

The share of Minnesotans without health insurance fell to an all-time low in 2023, according to data released by the Minnesota Department of Health. 

Last year 3.8 percent of Minnesotans said they didn’t have any form of health insurance, down from 4.0 percent in 2021 and a high of 9.1 percent in 2009. The data comes from the Minnesota Health Access Survey, which interviewed 15,220 respondents between September and December 2023. 

Minnesota has one of the nation’s lowest uninsurance rates, according to separate data from the U.S. Census.  

“We are encouraged by Minnesota’s overall uninsurance rate,” Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Brooke Cunningham said in a statement. “However, we must keep in mind these rates are dynamic. The state must remain committed to ensuring that Minnesotans eligible for public coverage have it available to them and that those who are no longer eligible for public coverage have affordable private options.” 

The survey also found that the share of Minnesotans forgoing health care due to cost concerns rose from 2021 to 2023, likely reflecting the rollback of COVID-era stimulus money and coverage protections. About one quarter of respondents said they skipped needed care due to costs in 2023, up nearly 5 percentage points from 2021 but similar to the level seen in 2019. 

Among those living at 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level, the rate was 33 percent, while 40 percent of indigenous Minnesotans said they skipped care due to cost. Among the uninsured the rate was 53 percent. 

Gov. Tim Walz ran in 2018 on supporting a public health care option available to all Minnesotans. But Walz’ DFL party hasn’t been able to make it happen despite gaining narrow control of both legislative chambers in 2023. Last month the governor’s office told the Reformer it wouldn’t happen in 2024, saying it was too expensive to pass in a non-budget year. 

Still, Minnesotans’ rate of uninsured is miniscule compared to many states, especially those that have refused the Medicaid expansion that was part of the Affordable Care Act. In many Republican-controlled states, the rate is 10 percent or more. Texas has the nation’s highest uninsured rate, standing at 16.6 percent in 2022. 

(Source: Minnesota Reformer) 

Suicide awareness is raised

Dozens of veterans gathered April 15 at American Legion Post 167 in Willmar to listen to the American Legion’s National Commander Daniel Seehafer as he spoke about the continuing effort to end veteran suicide. 

The visit from the national commander came as part of his tour of Minnesota which saw Seehafer visiting six posts across the state. The tour ended with Seehafer at the Capitol for Veterans Day on the Hill, a day of political activism for veterans as they push for issues including property tax relief for disabled veterans and for veteran organizations. 

While a push for statewide change was made April 17, what Seehafer spoke about in Willmar was change at an individual level. The American Legion’s Be the One campaign asks people to step up and reach out to veterans who are facing adversity with their mental health. 

“It is not just a campaign. It is a mission of ours, and it is a lifelong mission. We are not going to stop until the number of suicides is zero because losing one life is too many,” Seehafer said in an interview. “We want them to join our ranks, to be a part of us, to get back that passion. I have met soldiers with PTSD who have joined our family and told me ‘you know, the American Legion saved my life.’” 

As part of the effort, Seehafer asked that local posts use what they have — whether it is baseball, oratorical competitions, a bar, charitable acts or something else. Whatever it is that makes the post unique can be used to give a place for veterans to find a family. 

According to the 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the suicide rate for veterans in 2001 was 23.3 per 100,000. In 2021, it was 33.9 per 100,000. The 2021 rate was almost double the rate for non-veteran adults. 

Be the One was started prior to Seehafer’s election as national commander; he has continued the work due its importance. 

During his address, Seehafer commented on the many stories he has heard from veterans across the country who have contemplated suicide. 

The American Legion is hoping to provide veterans with the community they need to tackle those issues. 

(Source: West Central Tribune)  

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