Thursday, January 27, 2011

In South Carolina, 120 children and adults with mental or physical disabilities appear before state subcommittee to protest Medicaid cuts

From The Spartansburg Herald-Journal:

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tammy Gilbert might have to make a choice no parent should: Does the Spartanburg mother give up her child or does she quit working so she can take care of her daughter?

State budget cuts to Medicaid and other programs are forcing those kinds of choices on Gilbert and, she said, thousands of other South Carolina families. Gilbert's daughter, Paige Lynn Taylor, has autism, mental retardation and cerebral palsy.

“I am here to ask you to protect her as the 7-year-old her mind is, not the 21-year-old her body is,” Gilbert said Jan. 26 before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health and Human Services.

While most 21-year-olds are graduating college or thinking about marriage, Gilbert said she and her daughter still play with Disney toys. Her daughter needs constant attention and care in a structured, specialized environment.

Paige is No. 350 on a waiting list of more than 1,000 people for critical services. That's been her status for years.

“This is a hopeless position that I'm being put it,” said Gilbert, a massage therapist. “I can give up my rights to her. And I can actually choose not to work. But if I choose not to work, then I lose my house, and I become part of the system as well as she does. And that's not a choice. That's seriously not fair for any parent to consider this.”

The state Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Medicaid, is facing a $228 million budget shortfall — and the hole is projected to grow wider next year as more people come under the umbrella. In December, the department made a long list of drastic cuts in hopes of reducing its deficit.

The state Budget and Control Board so far hasn't decided whether to allow the agency to run a deficit or dip into the state's reserves — or cut further. That board meets next month.

More than 120 children and adults with mental or physical disabilities sat before the House subcommittee Wednesday.

McCarthy Teszler School Principal Cheryl Revels, who has two special-needs children of her own, and Charles Lea Center Executive Director Jerry Bernard also testified, saying services that directly affect the lives of people with disabilities are, in fact, essential.

“In the long run, we are not saving money,” Revels said. “The children are not going to have the opportunity to develop skills necessary to be independent individuals of society. And we will be paying for them down the road.”

Revels pleaded with the four legislators in front of her — state Reps. Brian White, Harry Ott and Bill Herbkersman of the subcommittee, and Rep. Harold Mitchell of Spartanburg. Mitchell helped arrange the visit.

“It's real good for my colleagues to see the faces of the cuts that they're making,” Mitchell said in an interview.

The December cuts would cause children with disabilities to use up their allotments of physical, speech and occupational therapy in a few months, which would impede their ability to learn to walk and eat, Revels said.

She also said restrictions on equipment would cause a 3-year-old with disabilities essentially to be stuck with a stroller until he or she was 10.

“Morally, this is a travesty, and we have a responsibility — mine and yours — to take care of these individuals, the most vulnerable members of our society,” she said.

McCarthy Teszler serves about 240 of the most significantly disabled students in Spartanburg County. About 90 percent of those students receive Medicaid benefits, Revels said.

Each year, about 15 students age out of the program when they turn 21. In the past, students have transitioned to the Charles Lea Center, which has day programs, work programs and residential programs, among others.

But budget cuts last year have prevented Charles Lea from accepting any new clients.

“The folks that we're serving are getting hit on all sides,” Bernard said.

The Charles Lea Center serves about 1,400 people in Spartanburg County.

“One of our biggest challenges, with the budget, with all the demands we have and the mandates, is taking care of the vulnerable folks that we have,” said White, an Anderson Republican and subcommittee chairman. “I don't think it's the intention of anybody to not fill that need. It is truly a need, and they are blessed children. They are God's creation, and we need to take care of them.”

About 31,000 South Carolinians depend on Medicaid and the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, Revels said.