Friday, January 28, 2011

Texas couple illustrates loss of independent living that will come with state budget cuts

From The Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Wayne and Beverly Black are often found at their kitchen table, pencils and worksheets in hand.

Wayne, 57, practices his multiplication tables. He also completes a household budget, dutifully recording utility bill payments on a sheet of lined paper.

Beverly, 56, is trying to overcome a speech impediment. She recites aloud words printed under pictures of objects. The exercise is part of a speech therapy class.

"Computer," Beverly reads, enunciating with purpose. "Toolbox ... teddy bear."

The Blacks have intellectual disabilities. They met in the 1970s while living at the Denton State School, fell in love and got married. Neither could read or drive a car. But they left the school determined to live life outside a state institution.

They are succeeding, they say, with the assistance of a state program that helps people live independently. Service coordinators help them manage money, cook healthy food and get to doctor's appointments.

It is one of many programs the state could slash as it grapples with a severe fiscal deficit. Preliminary budgets have outlined $16.1 billion in cuts to health and human services spending. The reductions would affect everyone from deaf people to at-risk children to disabled adults.

Funding for the specific service that helps the Blacks could drop from $5.7 million to $2.8 million. Half of the clients who receive the service could lose it, said Amy Mizcles of The Arc of Texas.

Advocates for people with disabilities acknowledge that legislators face difficult decisions. However, Mizcles said, "these are services that help people live in their communities. We are in danger of cutting the safety net."

Wayne and Beverly worry about more than just themselves. Beverly's 80-year-old mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about two years ago. She lives with them in a west Fort Worth home.

"It is scary," Beverly said. "We don't want to be cut off."

The Blacks' one-story home is decorated with photographs from their 35 years of marriage. They are a cheerful couple.

To live independently means a lot to them, they said. Wayne was sent to the state school when he was 17, after his parents died. He has since grown close to Beverly's mom and other relatives.

"I would have been so lonely and alone without them," Wayne wrote in a letter about his life for The Arc. "I would still be in a state school until I died if it weren't for them."

Over the years, Wayne and Beverly have lived in a state-run halfway house and apartments. They've held jobs busing tables in a cafeteria and bagging groceries. For a while, Beverly arranged merchandise at the Gap.

But Beverly broke her ankle a few years ago when a city bus was hit by a vehicle as she was boarding, and the pain makes it hard to work. Wayne said he is looking for a job. For the time being, he volunteers at church.

They moved into their current home, which Beverly's mother owns, a few years ago.

The state pays for a services coordinator and support worker to visit the Blacks each month. Similar to caseworkers, they help the Blacks budget for the grocery store, eat healthy and enroll in local services -- such as speech therapy at John Peter Smith Hospital.

Their service coordinator, Laura Harman of Mental Health Mental Retardation of Tarrant County, said Wayne and Beverly are two of her more successful clients. A big reason is their "go get 'em" attitude.

"A lot of clients are intimidated at going out into the community and trying to find a job," she said. "They go after it."

Service coordinators help them organize their lives. Doctor's appointments are marked on a refrigerator-mounted calendar. The Blacks save coupons and ads for bargain meals at restaurants.

They still need some help. The Blacks run into trouble communicating with people or figuring out a process, Harman said. When they have a question, they sometimes have a hard time explaining it.

"Wayne and Beverly can learn anything they set their mind to," Harman said. "But they are going to need someone to help set goals they work toward and get some helpful tips on how to do it. That's how these services are really valuable to them."

Advocates for disabled adults say the services helping the Blacks are modest. No more than a few thousand dollars is spent on a client in a year.

Like the Blacks, most clients are on a lengthy waiting list for a Medicaid waiver that would help pay for more-encompassing community-based care programs.

The Medicaid program can cost about $40,000 per person a year, although officials say the Blacks are sufficient to the point that their costs would probably be lower. Regardless, it is significantly cheaper than placing people in state institutions, where costs can run $200,000 a year, said Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans With Disabilities.

The Blacks have waited six years for a waiver. They expect to wait several more.

"Many folks wait eight years," Mizcles said. "Legislators have acknowledged this and have moved a lot of people off the waiting list. We don't want to wipe out the gains we've made."

As the Blacks age, they will require more service, said Erinn Hall, a project coordinator at The Arc of Greater Tarrant County who has befriended the couple. Beverly's mother's condition also means that they will they need more help. The Blacks hope that she can live with them for as long as possible.

"I am sad that she isn't going to know who we are one day," Wayne said.

On this day, Beverly's mother lingered quietly in the living room while Wayne and Beverly spoke to a reporter. She helps them cook dinner and often bundles up with Wayne and Beverly to walk their three Scottish terriers.

"We're happy," Beverly said. "We hope they don't stop helping us."