Regional News – June 2024

Anoka, federal government reach agreement on renters’ mental health  Anoka city officials have agreed not to disclose private medical information […]

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Anoka, federal government reach agreement on renters’ mental health 

Anoka city officials have agreed not to disclose private medical information about renters with mental health issues and to pay $175,000 to resolve a complaint from the federal government that the city discriminated against mentally ill residents in enforcing an anti-crime law. 

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) May 22 announced its agreement with the city of Anoka. It addresses allegations that the city violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by improperly pressuring landlords to evict tenants with mental health issues over multiple police or emergency calls to their addresses. The DOJ also filed a federal lawsuit May 22 against the city. That case won’t go forward if a judge approves the agreement. 

The department told the city in a letter in November 2023 that an investigation showed illegal discrimination in enforcing a “crime-free” housing ordinance allowing the city to fine or deny rental licenses to landlords whose properties are deemed a nuisance or a source of criminal activity. 

In at least 780 cases from 2018 through mid-2023, the city issued weekly reports to landlords sharing details about people’s mental health crises and even how some tried to kill themselves, the DOJ stated. 

DOJ officials described the November letter as a first-of-its-kind finding of discrimination against people with mental health disabilities from one of the hundreds of anti-crime ordinances enacted by cities across the U.S. since the early 1990s. Housing and civil liberties advocates have long argued that those policies are enforced more harshly in poor neighborhoods and against people of color. 

“Anoka’s so-called ‘crime-free’ housing program does not protect public safety but rather risks lives by discouraging people with disabilities and their loved ones from calling for help when needed most,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.   The agreement said the city denied wrongdoing and the allegations in the November letter and the lawsuit filed Tuesday. 

“However, the city desires to avoid any litigation,” the agreement stated, adding that Anoka wanted to ensure that its policies comply with both the ADA and federal fair housing laws. 

The city’s $175,000 payment will cover compensation for people the DOJ identifies as having been harmed by Anoka’s enforcement of its anti-crime ordinance. 

The city will have 30 days to revise its anti-crime housing ordinance, which allows the Anoka to suspend a landlord’s rental license if there are more than four “nuisance” calls to an address in a year. A nuisance call involves “disorderly conduct” such as criminal activity and acts jeopardizing others, but also “unfounded calls to police” and allowing a “physically offensive condition,” without defining those further. 

Under the agreement, the city cannot treat mental health-related calls to an address as nuisance calls, and it is required to notify both a renter and landlord whenever a call for another reason is deemed a nuisance call, giving them information about how to appeal. 

(Source: WCCO-TV) 

Metro Mobility subject of audit 

Metro Mobility provides rides for 18,500 Twin Cities residents with disabilities, with almost 2 million rides logged last year. But a recent state audit found problems, including missed goals for timely pickups and drop-offs, and more than 5,000 denied ride requests. 

Riders have complained about inconsistent service, long waits for buses, rides that don’t show up, untimely drop-offs that imperil jobs and medical appointments, circuitous routes that make little sense, rides that were denied and drivers who they say aren’t trained properly. 

Every time a ride is denied, and a pickup or drop-off is delayed, “it has a deeply calamitous, consequential effect on that person’s life,” said Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), who recently chaired a hearing on the Office of the Legislative Auditor’s report before the Senate Transportation Committee. 

“That’s something we would never tolerate in our own lives — not even one time, and we’re asking other people to tolerate that,” Dibble added. 

Metro Mobility users must book their rides one to four days before their trip. If a bus arrives 29 minutes late for a pickup, it’s still considered on time. The maximum amount of time permitted for a ride aboard a Metro Mobility vehicle in the Twin Cities service area is 2½ hours — roughly the time it takes to drive to Duluth. This is largely because buses frequently pick up multiple customers, often in routes that don’t make sense. 

A Facebook group called MN Metro Mobility Riders and Supporters helps fill in the gaps for users with information and support. The group’s intention is to make the service better, said Tim Marciniak, a Metro Mobility customer since the 1980s who created the Facebook page. 

He’s advocated for a Passenger Bill of Rights, an oversight commission appointed by riders and a social media presence to help passengers experiencing sudden changes in their schedule. 

Met Council officials say they are working to improve Metro Mobility service, including by bolstering staff to field complaints, upgrading the fleet of vehicles and improving technology. So far this year, no rides have been denied, and on-time performance is about 93%, according to the council. 

“We have a common goal to provide a high level of service for people with disabilities, who deserve nothing less,” Council Chair Charlie Zelle said at the Senate hearing. 

(Source: Star Tribune) 

Checking of enrollee assets resumes 

When Minnesota’s post-pandemic public health care program renewals wrap up this spring, the state will restart a longstanding practice of checking some enrollees’ assets to make sure they are eligible for coverage.  Asset limits ensure that public health care programs pay for care only when no other resources are available.   Many Medical Assistance enrollees do not have asset limits. The state will notify those who do. 

For certain Medical Assistance and Medicare Savings Programs enrollees, assets will be reviewed when their annual renewal is due. If enrollees have more assets than the program limits, they will need to reduce or spend down their assets to keep their health care coverage. 

A person’s home, vehicle and personal items do not count as assets during the renewal process. Assets that do count include checking and savings accounts, stocks, bonds, trusts, mutual funds, real property and other financial investments.  “Our public health care programs serve Minnesotans who most need our support to access health care,” said Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead. “We want to get the word out about asset limits now to give enrollees time to act to keep their health insurance.”  Annual eligibility checks – often called renewals – were paused by the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic. States resumed renewals in 2023 in an effort called the unwinding period. 

Asset limits for public health care programs were temporarily disregarded by the Legislature to help eligible Minnesotans maintain health insurance during the unwinding period. The asset limits resume after the unwinding period. 

Asset limits differ depending on program and family size. Medical Assistance and Medicare Savings Programs enrollees who have an asset limit will receive a notice in the mail about two months before their renewal month reminding them that assets will be counted for their upcoming renewal.  Enrollees can look up their renewal month at www.mnrenewallookup.com. 

The notice will explain that if enrollees have assets above program limits, they will need to reduce or spend those assets by their renewal deadline to keep their health care coverage. The notice will also remind enrollees to save documents that show proof of their assets, such as bank statements, to send in with their renewal form.  For a breakdown of asset limits, visit the Income and Asset Guidelines (DHS-3461A) (PDF) at https://edocs.dhs.state.mn.us/lfserver/Public/DHS-3461A-ENG. 

(Source: Minnesota DHS) 

Deaf Minnesotans need interpreters 

American Sign Language interpreters are an essential part of life for thousands of Minnesotans. They are there when someone is diagnosed with cancer or if they end up in court. They attend weddings, family reunions and funerals. But the pool of interpreters is shrinking in Minnesota and across the nation. A survey of Minnesota interpreters in 2021 found nearly 4 percent expected to leave the profession within five years. Leaders of two interpreting agencies in Minnesota said they are seeing service requests rising and more of those asks are going unmet. 

At the same time, the three Minnesota colleges with interpreter training programs have seen participation drop. 

“We’re afraid for our quality of life. We’re afraid we’re losing our access to communication. We’re afraid to be pushed aside,”  said Darlene Zangara, executive director of Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing. 

The commission launched an Interpreting Forward 203 effort and has gathered ideas from around the state on how to shore up the interpreter workforce and ensure people get high-quality services. The input doesn’t point to one simple solution. Zangara said the commission will create a website this summer highlighting a long list of issues, and those will be narrowed into a plan. 

One of the first problems, many people said, is too few people consider an ASL interpreting career.  Many colleges and universities offer American Sign Language classes, but St. Catherine University is one of the few with an interpreting program. ASL is a language and a culture, but interpreting programs teach ethics and how to listen and talk at the same time. 

Their interpreter class size dropped from 16 people before COVID-19 to seven. At North Central University, assistant professor Sydney Groven said their graduating class in ASL interpreting has fallen from nine people to one this year. 

Broad demographic and workforce factors are contributing to the looming shortage, including the decline in college enrollment and baby boomer retirements. And fewer colleges are requiring world language classes, Groven said, so not as many people are exposed to ASL. 

There are also industry-specific issues, like getting people to stick in a profession that involves a number of expensive hurdles post-college. For example, work in courts and educational settings takes more training and certification. 

The certification process should be less expensive and easier to pass, said Kathleen Smith, president of Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens. She said that in the past people could request an interpreter a day or two ahead of an appointment, but with the growing shortage they now need to reach out at least a week in advance. 

(Source: Star Tribune) 

Widower sues over accommodations 

The widower of a 29-year-old woman who died by suicide, after a lengthy battle with her employer over her service dog and other work accommodations, is suing the Ulta Beauty salon company in federal court. 

Lanie Zimney worked as a hair stylist at the Ulta salon in St. Cloud for about five months in early 2019. When she disclosed she was pregnant, she was abruptly escorted from the store and told she couldn’t work until she provided paperwork on the accommodations she required because of her disability, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. 

The lawsuit claims Ulta violated Zimney’s rights and asks to award Zimney’s husband, Allan, damages. Ulta had until the end of May to file a response. 

According to the complaint, Ulta hired Zimney as a stylist. During the application process, Zimney disclosed the existence of multiple, chronic physical and mental health conditions. 

During the interview process, Lanie Zimney told management that she could provide medical documentation for her accommodations, but no one required it. She worked for more than four months on a full-time weekday schedule with occasional weekend shifts. 

Her accommodations included access to a water bottle and chair at her workstation, as well as her service dog, Bingo. Bingo was trained to remind Zimney to take her medications, retrieve medicine or water and respond to seizures. 

In May 2019, when Zimney told management she was pregnant, Ulta withdrew its accommodations, barred her from the workplace, and demanded extensive paperwork. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states an employer can’t ask for documentation on a request for reasonable accommodation when the need is obvious or the individual has already provided the employer with sufficient information. 

Zimney lost work hours and her medical insurance, and was scheduled at times that conflicted with child care needs. 

Lanie Zimney was “effectively, constructively discharged,” attorney Benjamin Kwan said. “What it comes down to is the employer did enough that any reasonable person would know they’ve already been fired.” 

Allan Zimney said his wife felt dehumanized and suffered from depression. She died by suicide in October 2020, at their home in Ogilvie. 

“This case really underscores how much we, as a society, ask of working parents. And, in turn, Lanie Zimney asked so little of her employer,” Kwan said. “This case really shows when employers take simple accommodations away, we immediately see how quickly things can fall apart for disabled workers.” 

In April 2023, the director of the local EEOC office found reasonable cause that Ulta discriminated and retaliated against Zimney, in part based on disability. 

(Source: Star Tribune) 

Inpatient services’ end eyed 

A public hearing was held in May on a request from Lakewood Health System ending inpatient mental health services. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) held the public hearing on Lakewood Health System closing the 10-bed psychiatric inpatient unit of its critical access hospital in Staples. 

According to the submission filed by Lakewood Health System, the hospital will continue to provide outpatient mental health services to the community following closure of the inpatient unit. 

The hearing was hosted by MDH’s Health Regulation Division to provide a forum for the community to discuss the change in services and available alternatives for Lakewood Health System patients. 

Community members were invited to join the hearing online. The hearing was the latest proceedings by health care providers seeking to limit or cut mental health services around the state. 

In June 2021, the Minnesota Legislature passed legislation requiring a public notice and a public hearing before closure of a hospital or hospital campus, relocation of services or cessation in offering certain services. 

(Source: Minnesota Department of Health) 

Worker training offered 

There is an increasing need for health care workers in the United States, especially since many left the medical profession after the challenges of COVID-19. That has especially affected people with disabilities. 

The International Institute of Minnesota In St. Paul is working to fill that need by providing certified nursing assistant (CNA) classes specifically for new Americans. 

The classes, according to program manager Julie Garner-Pringle, have been going since 1990. Garner-Pringle has worked with the program for the past 15 years. With a background in teaching, she taught English in Hungary and Egypt before coming to the institute  to teach English to adults. Other support staff for the CNA program include English language teachers, and a nurse is responsible for teaching the program content. 

Garner-Pringle said two tracks of the CNA training are taught: an intensive seven-week course and supportive eleven-week course. “We let the students know that the training will be like a full-time job,” she said. “The seven-week course is Monday-Thursday and the 11-week is Monday -Friday.” 

According to Garner-Pringle, the state requires a minimum of 75 hours completed for CNA certification. The institute offers hours well beyond the minimum in various classes. 

She said there is a pretty thorough screening process for students. They must verify they are from another country but have permission to work in the United States. They need to have an intermediate level of English. They need to be fully vaccinated and complete a phone interview. 

“We want the students to have a real desire for healthcare work,” she added. 

Garner-Pringle said some of the students come from countries where other languages are the primary languages. Some come from countries where English is mainly spoken. “Some also have advanced degrees but have to start all over when they leave their country,” she noted. 

“Being a CNA is a good place to start if someone wants to advance in a health career,” Garner-Pringle said. She said the institute is very supportive of students going out and finding a job upon completion of their training, but also supports those who want to continue their health-care education. 

The CNA students are able to do their classroom training, as well as clinicals at the institute, and they can also take their state tests at the same location. “This is very helpful,” she said. 

(Source: Midway-Como-Frogtown Monitor) 

Decision pending on lawsuit 

A federal court judge indicated that he needs more time to determine whether a Rochester City Council member’s discrimination lawsuit against the city can move forward. 

While attorneys for the city argue that several of council member Molly Dennis’ claims lack merit due to her status as an elected official rather than an employee, U.S. Federal Court Magistrate Judge Douglas Micko questioned whether that argument covered Americans With Disability Act (ADA) claims. 

Dennis was censured in March 2023. City officials have tried to have her lawsuit dismissed. She has sued the city, Mayor Kim Norton and council member Patrick Keane. 

Dennis claims that actions taken against her violated several state and federal protections against discrimination based on her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis. 

Micko said Dennis’ claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act appear to be contrary to employee definitions in the law, but the ADA doesn’t provide clear-cut guidance. 

The city’s legal counsel argued that the language could be considered vague, past rulings have determined elected officials are separate from employees. 

Micko questioned whether elected officials gave up human rights protections under that interpretation. 

Dennis, who is representing herself, said she believes the ADA protections apply to elected officials. 

Emory said such restrictions are outlined in the City Council’s rules for all elected officials, but Dennis told Micko she believes the actions went beyond what is expected of others. She claims her disability was used against her and used to justify censure. 

The city countered that the actions cited in the censure — intimidating behavior, unwillingness to respect personal boundaries and threats — are not symptoms of ADHD. She said Dennis has cited difficulty focusing, short attention span and struggles with linear thinking as symptoms of ADHD. 

Micko has the option of letting the full nine-count lawsuit move forward or ruling that some of all of the counts be dismissed. 

No date for a trial has been set. 

(Source: Rochester Post-Bulletin) 

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