Pandemic shaped a remarkable, trying year

Pandemic shaped a remarkable, trying year

 January 2020

2020 began with notable retirements. Minnesota Department of Human Services Director for Disability Services Alex Bartolic stepped down. She reflected on changes seen over more than four decades. Her interests in human services began when a childhood friend was placed at Cambridge Regional Treatment Center. 

Steve Kuntz ended a long career at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) as program specialist in rehabilitation services. He helped countless Minnesotans with disabilities find meaningful work. 

Pending cuts at M Health Fairview included the end of the Minnesota Substance Use Disorder Program. Its loss was protested by disability community members, as it was one of the only specialized residential treatment programs serving clients that was linguistically and culturally appropriate to meet the needs of deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind individuals.

February 2020 

Bonding was the focus when the 2020 Minnesota Legislature convened. With a shorter session planned, advocacy groups lined up behind priorities including more pay for direct care staff, mental health system changes and program technical changes. 

People and service dogs lined up during public testimony

A former employee of St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, alleging discrimination and lack of accommodations. Hope Hoffman testified before a legislative committee alleging work-related discrimination. She has spina bifida. 

Hoffman worked for Carter for about five months as a policy associate. She said she repeatedly asked for information about the amount of walking she’d have to do for her job. 

A change was announced at Handi Medical Supply, Inc. Troy Keach was named president and CEO. Keach previously led healthcare teams at Minnesota Eye Consultants, Mayo Clinic, Allina Healthcare and Fairview/ HealthEast systems. Mike Bailey relocated to Arizona to be closer to family.

March 2020

A state surplus was overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Minnesotans with disabilities were being urged to protect themselves and prepare for what could be long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Disability rights are human rights” was the 2020 Disability Advocacy Day at the Capitol theme. Hundreds of people with disabilities, advocacy groups and allies turned out for organizing, a march and rally. Participants made signs, met with advocacy group representatives, heard updates on bills and met with their legislators. The event is typically one of the first large disability community gatherings during the legislative session. As other rally days were canceled due to the pandemic, it wound up being one of the few 2020 rally days. 

The This is Medicaid coalition warned Minnesotans of threats to health care received through Medicaid because of changes to the harmful “public charge” rule, a proposal to “block grant” Medicaid, and other proposed regulations.

April 2020 

The COVID-19 virus created uncertain times everywhere. Many programs and services shut down. People were isolated in their homes. The Minnesota Legislature adjourned in mid-March and wasn’t to return until mid-April. Dozens of key bills were in limbo. The session went online. 

Needed updates to civil commitment law, increased access to mental health treatment and beds, safe and supportive housing and other measures were priorities for the Minnesota Mental Health Network. The coalition of more than 40 organizations brought forward the message that the mental health system isn’t broken, it hasn’t been built yet. 

Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare launched its first book on its new publishing platform, Gillette Children’s Healthcare Press. The inaugural book is authored by Lily Collison, a Gillette patient mother, who details her family’s journey and the treatments and therapies of her son Tommy. Tommy is a longtime Gillette patient who has cerebral palsy.

May 2020 

Shuttered day programs, closed employment services and canceled activities presented overwhelming obstacles for Minnesota organizations serving people with disabilities. It’s estimated that about 30,000 people use day services alone. Programs faced difficulties as clients struggled to find care staff. 

Because organizations are paid only when services are provided, there was no income to cover fixed costs such as rent, utilities, transportation, staff health insurance and other expenses. While some employment programs’ work is considered essential services and they could remain operating, others had to close. 

The loss of staff since the pandemic began compounded the staff shortage’s human impact and urgency. The shortage has intensified the difficulty of keeping people with disabilities safe in their homes, and not forcing them into already overwhelmed nursing home and hospital settings. The PCA Reform Coalition pushed for higher PCA wages, increased pay rates for those providing enhanced care, and more data collection. 

June 2020 

Keeping the independent living philosophy at the forefront is a focus for the Minnesota Statewide Independent Living Council (MNSILC). The 21-member council prepared its 2021-2023 plan for federal submission. The pandemic forced the first-ever online hearing. The council heard about gaps in services such as housing, transportation, technology and accommodations for the deaf, deaf/blind and hard of hearing communities. 

The council heard a wide range of comments. The lack of accessible, affordable housing in greater Minnesota is one issue. So are transportation options, especially in rural areas. 

Former state legislator Shelley Madore brought a longtime commitment to inclusion to her role as new director of the Minnesota Olmstead Implementation Office (OIO). Madore said that every piece of work she has done along the way has been critical toward filling her new position. 

Alex Bartolic’s retirement didn’t last long, as she provided interim leadership at the Minnesota Council on Disability.

July 2020 

Providers of work and social activities for Minnesotans with disabilities were in crisis, with many facing massive cutbacks or even closure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clients face the smaller, yet deeply personal losses of job and social skills. That was the message service providers and parents of clients had for a legislative committee. 

The History Note was a look at the killing of George Floyd on May 25. Calls for law enforcement reform in deadly force cases involving people with disabilities are nothing new. Issues surfaced in the early 1980s, in the face of sweeping deinstitutionalization. Too many people lacked safe and supportive housing environments after leaving state institutions. 

George Floyd Justice Mural
George Floyd Justice Mural

Tragedies in 1999-2000 brought a renewed focus to the need for education and training in the context of suspects with mental illness and other disabilities. In the span of a year, Minneapolis Police shot and killed three suspects living with mental illness.

August 2020 

Police reform, including measures to protect people with disabilities, were passed during a special legislative session. The Minnesota Police Accountability Act was hailed as bringing reforms long sought by advocates including those in the mental health and autism communities. 

Distance learning was a struggle for many Minnesota special education students during the last several months of the 2019-2020 school year. The start of classes for 2020-2021 brought out many hopes and fears. 

Parents from across Minnesota expressed frustration with distance learning during a virtual forum. Advocacy group representatives, legislators and officials from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) heard a long list of concerns. MDE officials worked to answer questions raised. 

Scooters returned to Twin Cities streets and disability rights activists are keeping an eye out, to make sure sidewalks aren’t improperly blocked. Officials were working with the scooter companies to address access concerns.

September 2020 

A $30 million relief package for Minnesota’s disability service providers was a lifeline for many. But for others, it was too little, too late. The funding helped providers closed due to the pandemic. The shutdown created a dire situation for nonprofits that provide an array of employment, training, recreational and social services. 

Around the state, some of the day services providers were already closing their doors. In rural areas where there aren’t a lot of options for people with disabilities to find meaningful work and social activities, the closings hit especially hard. Providers said they were simply unable any longer to wait for state aid. 

While it’s fun to vote in person, see neighbors at the polls and watch a ballot swoosh into a machine, the pandemic meant voting in person posed risks. Absentee ballots and the availability of early voting were helpful for many Minnesotans with disabilities.

October 2020 

A lengthy legal battle, which has had many implications for Minnesotans with disabilities, officially came to an end. But in a September filing, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank emphasized that the fight for improved care for adults with disabilities isn’t over. 

If mistreatment reoccurs at state-run facilities for people with disabilities, Frank warned that state officials could face additional consequences. The facilities in question are the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center and the St. Peter Forensic Mental Health Program. The judge urged state officials to continue working with disability right advocates. The legal battle was Jensen et al Versus Minnesota department of Human Services, et al, and had dragged on for more than a decade. 

Former State Rep. Mindy Greiling’s book, Fix What You Can, was her family’s compelling story about life with schizophrenia. 

Jim and Mindy Greiling
Jim and Mindy Greiling

Access Press followed the trend of many community papers, and went to a virtual office.

November 2020 

Long-awaited help for the personal care attendant (PCA) program was a highlight of the Minnesota Legislature’s October special session. 

Direct care for people with disabilities was in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. A shortage of staff, due in large part to low pay, put many people with disabilities at risk. Many people struggled to fill all of their worker shifts, with some spending days in bed because they had no help. The pandemic worsened those problems. The measure Walz signed includes several key changes. One is an emergency 8.4 percent rate increase for PCAs, Consumer Directed Community Supports (CDCS), and the Consumer Support Grant (CSG). This extends to February 7, 2021. 

Another change that was approved allows parents, stepparents, and legal guardians of minors to provide PCA services through February 7, 2021. Also approved is a permanent increase to the monthly hourly cap from 275 to 310 hours.

December 2020 

Jim Ramstad
U.S. Representative Jim Ramstad

Jim Ramstad was remembered as a champion for people with chemical dependency, recovery and mental health issues, drawing on his own life experiences to shape policy and help others. Ramstad, who served in the Minnesota Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, died. He was 74 and had battled Parkinson’s disease. He worked extensively on an array of legislative initiatives, yet he never was too busy to reach out and help others who were struggling. 

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson is the new executive director at Can Do Canines. Johnson left the county board in early December to take on his new role. Johnson succeeds Alan M. Peters, the longtime leader and founder of Can Do Canines. Peters worked with Johnson through a leadership transition before enjoying his retirement. Peters founded the organization in 1989 and had served as the executive director since then, growing the organization to become a major provider of service dogs. 

Disability community activist Nikki Villavicencio prepared to take a place on the Maplewood City Council in January. She topped the city council race by garnering 28.6 percent of the vote. She is a longtime activist and fixture at the state capitol.