Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Disabled Utahns lose cash assistance

From Deseret News:

The man stood behind his shopping cart filled with all his worldly possessions and looked, as he describes himself, "surprisingly sheveled for a guy whose every fear has come true."

As he tried to squint away the Tuesday afternoon sun and move from the nosy passerby who had interrupted his wait for a doctor's appointment outside the Fourth Street Clinic, he said, "Yup, I'll be losing that, too, here in a minute."

He doesn't mean the one good ankle he has left since he fell off scaffolding at work about a year ago. The accident led to at least four surgeries, steel screws, a permanent limp and ultimately a nasty MRSA staph infection that doctors finally stopped, he said, "when they cut off my leg" just below the knee.

What he means he'll be losing now is the $261 a month in state cash assistance that stops Saturday, Aug. 1.

"You can call me Crash," a nickname he says befits the course of his life and his interaction with the system that is set up to help people like him. "No, I don't want to give you my real name. Would you?"

He is one of the nameless, faceless 500 or so disabled Utahns on the verge of losing state cash assistance that makes up all or most of their incomes. The money serves as a bridge to newly disabled residents receiving federal Supplemental Security Income payments.

A coalition of community groups and churches have asked Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and his apparent successor Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert to intervene. Members of the group said Tuesday that their call for an "urgent" meeting with the state's top executives has drawn no response other than claims by staff assistants that they weren't aware of the situation or that the letter had been lost in the shuffle between the two administrations. Herbert is to become governor when Huntsman becomes ambassador to China.

"I was told they never received the letter, even though I hand-carried a copy and gave it to them in person," Laine Gardinier, a Fourth Street Clinic governing-board member, told the Deseret News. "We've left them long-winded voice mails, been on the Web site, requested a meeting there and in print. I don't know any other way to make a more pronounced request for a meeting."

The state has known for three months that the cutoff date was coming, said coalition spokeswoman Linda Hilton. The administrative costs of the $2 million program aren't going down, but the program's services are, she said.

"They clearly set this up to fail and make it easier for the Legislature to cut it out altogether at the next session," she said.

The public seems to think these are people "on the government dole, or they're just among those who have made some of those famous 'bad choices,' even though they've never been through a catastrophic injury themselves," said clinic medical director Christina Gallop. She said that it's the opposite of easy for people to even qualify for the assistance, and Utah already has some of the most restrictive eligibility requirements in the country.

"I have to see a patient for a year before they can even apply," Gallop said. "And to do that requires doing two to three hours of paperwork and at times, making court appearances. All the while, we have people in need who are knocking down our doors."

It's easy for people to just tell someone pushing a shopping cart to get a job or to move in with their parents or children, Gallop said.

"The problem is, more often than not, their parents and kids are already staying with them," she said, adding $261 isn't much money at all, "but when that's the only income you've got, it's everything."

Staff members at Herbert's office said they are doing their best to set up a meeting with the group.

"I haven't received a copy of the letter. I'm not aware of the timelines involved, but we're more than happy to meet with them," said Jason Perry, Herbert's transition director. The state Department of Workforce Services has scheduled a public hearing on the rule changes to the supplement program in August.

"The only bad choice with this mess was when I grabbed for the handrail and I missed," Crash said. "A better choice would have been to defy gravity, but I guess that wasn't the right choice, either."