People with disabilities, their caregivers and allies packed the state capitol rotunda repeatedly in March to make their needs know. Having a presence has been a theme this session. On April 7 members of the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities stood outside the House chambers, as that body began work on the health and human services legislation.
With state capitol renovation complete, groups that relocated or didn’t hold rallies for the past few years are back in force. The shows of support are crucial as initial decisions are being made on health and human services spending. Legislators at rallies have repeatedly told Minnesotans with disabilities that their lives matter, and that they are working to address issues. But advocates contend that too many critical pieces of legislation have been forgotten.
ARRM and MOHR’s annual rally drew more than 1,000 people March 14. With crucial legislation in the balance, MOHR CEO Mike Burke urged everyone to make themselves heard by contacting legislators and filling hearing rooms.
Mental Health Day at the Capitol just two days later also drew a huge crowd. Concerned family members, advocates and people living with a mental illness from Baxter to Winona gathered March 16 for Mental Health Day at the Capitol to share stories with legislators. The diverse group talked about the need for more school-linked mental health programs, vital first episode psychosis treatment, urgent reforms for the use of solitary confinement in Minnesota prisons and other issues.
“Today is a reminder that there’s no longer a debate as to whether or not Minnesota needs to do more for the individuals living with mental illness and their families. The entire mental health community made it loud and clear that our mental health system is still under construction and needs funding. We can’t afford to slow down,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota.
At the ARRM/MOHR rally, direct supporter providers and people with disabilities introduced their legislators. Many spoke about their own situations. Several of the rally speakers were direct care workers who shared stories of working large amounts of overtime to cover empty shifts, or needing to work second and third jobs to make ends meet.
Duane Hickel, a direct support provider from Moorhead, works for CCRI. Hickel said he often feels funny asking for a raise, as he sees his work as a calling to help clients be as independent as they can be. But he also outlined the long trend of little to no pay increases for those who provide care. “A wage increase for care providers needs to be a priority every year,” he said.
Hickel introduced Sen. Kent Eken (DFL- Twin Valley). Eken, who has a brother with disabilities, said his family knows first-hand how important quality care is. “Many here just look at dollar figures,” he said, “We need to cut through the dollar figures and hear about the quality of life issues.”
Several speakers told the crowd not to give up. “Your voices are so important,” said Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park). With a state budget surplus, “now is the time to invest in the people of Minnesota.”
“The staffing situation is impacting the quality of life for more than 60,000 people with disabilities in Minnesota, and threatening the viability of organizations that provide essential services,” said Cheryl Pray, ARRM CEO. “The amazing collection, energy and unity of the people here today demonstrates the urgency behind the need for action.”
Nearly all the funding for these services, more than 95 percent, comes from Medicaid, with service reimbursement rates set by the state, limiting the ability of employers to generate significant across the board wage increases themselves.