Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Budget cuts for some disability services in California spared

From The Sacramento Bee in Calif.:

Like hundreds of people this winter fighting budget cuts, Steve Doherty (pictured) trekked to the state Capitol on a recent Monday to argue his case.

The 50-year-old Walnut Creek resident spoke in a casual but unwavering tone to policymakers and others about the importance of four state-run institutions serving developmentally disabled people.

He brought his pitch home by describing his severely disabled 54-year-old sister Maureen, who's lived in one institution all her life.

"I'm a sibling," Doherty said. "I'm not a parent. I didn't expect to be as involved as I have been. It's just coming up to the plate to do what needs to be done."

For people such as Doherty, what happens in the budget wars this year means more than just numbers and politics. They've devoted their lives to caring for and defending sisters, sons and others who will suffer the brunt of this year's budget pain.

And they've responded to the proposed cuts by filling the Capitol with protests and pleas for more funding. In some cases, they've persuaded legislators to pull back the budget ax.

With Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature grappling with a $26.6 billion budget deficit, the cuts have targeted programs including in-home supportive services, higher education and facilities for developmentally disabled people.

Brown has said he'll chop even deeper if state voters don't approve about $11 billion in tax extensions this summer.

"It's been ongoing for year after year after year, and there's a lot of emotional toll with that," said Lisa Brown, who's testified in the Capitol about her 18-year-old son Alexander, who has Down syndrome.

The state pays the Fresno woman to take care of her child, an arrangement she said was threatened by the governor's proposal to cut $486 million from in-home supportive services. Legislators have restored much of that funding over the past weeks.

"I walked away from a career and gave up everything, gave up my 401(k) and my life savings in order to be here for my son," Brown said.

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said she and other legislators have been moved by days of such testimony.

Advocates not only filled the budget subcommittee hearings Mitchell oversaw last month but spilled out into the hallways outside and held marches around the Capitol grounds. Some parents traveled hundreds of miles with their children and waited in lines for hours to testify.

The Senate budget committee eventually reduced proposed cuts to the Department of Developmental Services by 37 percent after the Legislature heard hours of testimony.

"You can see flat statistics on a piece of paper," Mitchell said, "but then you hear a mother talk about 'I am a parent of an adult with a developmental disability, and my husband and I lay awake at night wondering what will happen.' ... I truly believe all of those witnesses and the thousands of witness communications we received made a significant difference."

For more than five decades, Doherty's sister has lived on the bucolic campus of the Sonoma Developmental Center, where doctors, nurses and even cobblers paid by the state serve several hundred residents.

About 1,800 people live in four such centers statewide, at a proposed cost of $618.1 million in the next budget year, or $347,000 per resident.

The state has pursued savings by closing centers and moving people into privately run residential homes, where the average expense per client runs about a fifth of that in developmental centers.

Doherty and other relatives argue that while the centers' costs are high, putting people like his sister at risk by moving them into group homes is an unaffordable price to pay.

Doherty insisted that group homes don't provide the same kind of medical care his sister needs. More than a year ago, he said, his sister nearly died due to a distended bowel. "There has always existed some kind of refuge for some people," Doherty said. "There is a need for this kind of facility."

Other advocates argue that the state shouldn't spend dwindling resources to maintain the vast grounds and other facilities of the developmental centers, especially when group homes in the community provide the same services.

The sprawling Sonoma campus sits on nearly 1,000 acres, with many of its historic buildings vacant amid the trees and rolling lawns.

"If you're looking at the cost in the state budget, those monies could be better used by putting it in resources and communities so individuals could transition out to the communities where they belong," said legislative advocate Evelyn Abouhassan of the group Disability Rights California.

At the end of the day, Gov. Brown has said he needs to bridge the state's budget deficit and meet hard numbers, which means cutting programs that many depend on.

On the other side of the table, though, family members such as Doherty have their own job, said advocate Marty Omoto: reminding the governor and legislators what's at stake.

"There's a lot of people who would never have become advocates if they hadn't had a loved one who needed help," Omoto said. "It is scary to testify and organize, but it's out of fear going back several years now, and then it changes to anger and rage."