Opinion » Guest Opinions

Idaho Legislature Doesn't Want Idaho with Disabilities to Work

by

The Idaho Legislature does not appear to want Idahoans with disabilities to be gainfully employed or to become taxpayers. I make this statement based on two recent actions of the Idaho Legislature. The first action of the Legislature was its decision to not approve the so-called Medicaid Buy-In legislation. The Medicaid Buy-in bill would have allowed persons with disabilities to keep their Medicaid benefits and share in the cost of those benefits after they go to work.

Medicaid is possibly the single most important program affecting people with disabilities. It is not only the sole access to medical coverage for many people with disabilities, it is the funding source for many services which are essential to the independence and integration of people with disabilities into their communities. However, Medicaid expenditures are literally busting the budgets of most states, and any program that moves people with disabilities off Medicaid and into the workforce should be embraced by lawmakers.

Current policy requires individuals with disabilities to make an "all or nothing" decision: either not work and keep their Medicaid benefits, or go to work and risk losing their health insurance. In 1996, Governor Batt's Medicaid Reform Advisory Council recognized this "catch 22" situation and adopted the following recommendation: "the Medicaid program should enable qualified recipients to achieve self-sufficiency and independence." Last year, Governor Kempthorne's Blue Ribbon Task Force recommended that the state implement a "Medicaid Buy-In" Program. Governor Kempthorne, in his State of the State Address last year, directed the Health and Welfare to implement a "Medicaid Buy In" program.

The Department of Health and Welfare has made a commitment to implement a Medicaid Buy-In program if sufficient funding is made available. The most current cost estimate for implementing the Medicaid Buy-In program is $430,000. However, the Idaho Legislature has failed to fund the program for the three (??) years in a row.

The second action of the Legislature that will be a barrier to the employment of Idahoans with disabilities is its failure to provide funding for a statewide assistive technology financing program. Assistive technology is redefining what is possible for persons with disabilities and older persons. It includes such items as reachers, adaptive computer hardware and software, electronic communication systems and thousands of other commercially available devices. Assistive technology allows persons with disabilities to get and keep a job. Without these devices, many persons with disabilities can't work.

In the past three years, President Bush has requested and Congress has appropriate over $40 million to create financing (loan) programs for the purchase of assistive technology in the states. These low interest loan programs have been established in 39 states to date and have provided affordable financing to thousands of Americans with disabilities for the purchase of assistive devices. Governor Kempthorne's Blue Ribbon Task Force has recommended that the Legislature appropriate funds for this program because they view this as a way to lessen the burden on state government.

In 2004, President Bush once again convinced Congress to appropriate $4.1 million for assistive technology loan programs. However, Idahoans with disabilities will not benefit from the assistive technology loan programs because the Legislature has refused to provide the 25% match required by the federal government. The request was for $100,000, which in turn would have brought in $300,000 in federal assistance for establishing an assistive technology loan program in Idaho.

By failing to act, the Legislature has contributed to the ongoing high unemployment rates for Idahoans with disabilities. If the Idaho Legislature wants to increase employment opportunities for Idahoans with disabilities, which in turn would save taxpayer dollars, then lawmakers must fund these programs. As a wise person once said; "Penny Wise, Pound Foolish."