tampabay.com

Families attack cuts in disability aid

Lawmakers are exploring ways to get the Agency for Persons With Disabilities out of the red.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 20, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Hundreds of families rallied Thursday in opposition to budget plans that would cut services to thousands of Floridians with developmental disabilities.

Wearing "we vote" buttons and pushing their sons and daughters in wheelchairs, they demanded lawmakers abandon plans to cover a $153-million deficit in the state disabilities agency by imposing new limits on care for people who are mentally retarded or have cerebral palsy, spina bifida, autism and other disabilities.

They stood beneath a big banner that said "use rainy day funds," and called on the Legislature to divert $75-million from a reserve fund to be matched with $75-million in federal funds to maintain current levels of service.

Otherwise, the families said it's possible that some people with disabilities will be forced to leave their families and move to group homes or other institutional settings at a higher long-term cost.

"It would devastate my family," said Nila Benito of Lutz, the mother of two teenage boys with autism. She decried a Senate budget plan that she said would reduce the yearly services to her children by nearly two-thirds, or $15,000 a year.

The rally came on a day when lawmakers initiated the annual ritual of hammering out a compromise budget with the goal of concluding their annual session as scheduled on May 4.

The problem lawmakers face is an ocean of red ink in the Agency for Persons With Disabilities. The two legislative chambers employ different strategies to get the agency back in the black, with the Senate placing a $30,000-a-year cap on client services and the House scaling back services to existing clients to help other families languishing on a waiting list.

The intensity of the criticism at the rally troubles legislators such as Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, a country doctor who oversees human services funding in the Senate. The first order of business, Peaden said, is to stem the flow of red ink in the agency coordinating services.

"We'll take care of these folks," Peaden said. "We just can't give them any more money until we get the business plan down."

Families receive services through a program known as the Home and Community-Based Waiver. The Florida Developmental Disabilities Council, which helped to organize Thursday's rally, said it is unfair to force clients to go without services to pay for the state's failure to monitor costs.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who has appointed a new director at the deficit-ridden agency, made a brief appearance at the rally and struck a hopeful, if vague, tone.

"We're committed to helping you as much as we can," Crist said, as the crowd broke into applause. As he previously told frustrated taxpayers and insurance policyholders, Crist said the families' presence is likely to change the course of events.

"Anything can happen," Crist said.

Karen Clay of Tampa, a board member of the Statewide Advocacy Network on Disabilities, said that unless Crist and lawmakers changed course, the state could face a lawsuit and hefty fines as it did several years ago.

"If he says he's the governor of the people, these are his people, too," Clay said, nodding to the crowd.

House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said that if the cuts in disability services were allowed to stand, it would leave "a stain" on Crist and the Legislature.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.