News » Unda' the Rotunda

More Drama Expected Under the Dome Friday

Emotional testimony anticipated at Health and Welfare hearing

by

There will be no "bad guy" in the Capitol auditorium at the Idaho Statehouse on Friday, Jan. 28. There will be no Tom Luna versus teachers' unions. There will be no debate over lap tops. The issue coming before lawmakers, while packed with complexity, comes down to a basic question: Are you willing to cut services to Idaho's most vulnerable citizens?

In order to meet Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's projection of an $84 million shortfall, Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare is considering Plan A and Plan B. Plan A would see a hefty budget ax come down on Medicaid-funded services to adults. Wholesale cuts to developmental disability and psycho-social rehabilitative services could result in more than $25 million in reductions. Plan B would include less of an axe and more of a scalpel to select services, resulting in approximately $20 million in savings.

Advocates for the disabled say they need to influence lawmakers that there is a Plan C. It's risky and it may become the political hot potato of 2011. But it's simple.

"We want our legislators to know we support a tax increase if it is necessary to avoid further cuts in Medicaid."

That's the heart of a petition making its way across Idaho, from the desks of health-care administrators to the bedrooms of the infirm, from therapy clinics to the kitchen tables of families fearing the worst.

"Twenty-five thousand. I fall asleep thinking of that number. I wake up thinking of that number," said Katherine Hansen of the Idaho Association of Developmental Disability Agencies. "I'm fully expecting to be holding a petition with 25,000 signatures come Friday morning. And I'm going to hand it to the chairs of the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee."

JFAC chairs and their colleagues from both sides of the aisle decided that before the 2011 legislative session gets any more heated with political rhetoric, they would hold two unprecedented events: two listening hearings in which members of the public could weigh in on education and Health and Welfare. The education hearing was, by all accounts, a success considering that the hallways of the Capitol were filling as early as 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 21. It was estimated that nearly 600 people attended the hearing.

"This Friday could easily be higher," said Hansen.

She met with an anxious group of caregivers, parents and disabled adults the evening of Jan. 24 in the basement of St. Luke's Regional Medical Center in Eagle. Attendees said they desperately wanted to tell their story but were clearly nervous about the daunting task of speaking about something so personal in such a public fashion.

"Tell your story," Hansen said, calming the gathering. "Try to end in a supportive way. Say, 'I'm here to keep this,' instead of 'Don't cut this.'"

Hansen brought reinforcements. Former legislators Robbie Barrutia, Kathy Garrett, and Jim Hansen (Hansen's brother) offered tips to speakers-in-the-making.

"Define what your 'ask' is," said Garrett.

"Tell them that this is an excellent investment," said Jim Hansen.

"Tell them what is was like before these services existed," said Barrutia.

"Let me tell you what it was like," jumped in Hansen. "Anyone here remember what it was like in the 1960s?"

A few hands went up.

"Then you know what I'm talking about," she said. "A thousand people in the state hospital. People with disabilities died too soon. And those that survived were heavily medicated."

Fawn Bell and Juanita Allen remember it well. They're caregivers for their older sister, 68-year-old Barbara Allen.

"Barbara is M.R.D.D.," said Bell. "That's mentally retarded with a developmental disability. Thank God we take care of her at home now. When she was in a facility, she was over-medicated. Because of existing services, we can take care of her now."

Those are the exact services that are being threatened.

"You'll be hearing a lot about certified family health providers on Friday," said Hansen. "Let me tell you about some of them."

She said she held a letter from a family living outside of Burley.

"Their son, Eric has a developmental disability," said Hansen. "They get paid $54 a day to care for Eric. But he's doing well now. He's able to work part time and even serves as a volunteer. Eric can learn. He can continue to become more independent. But they're looking at cutting his services. Eric's mother wants to ask lawmakers if they ever get to a point where they don't need to learn anymore. Just because Eric has a disability, we're saying he can't continue to learn and develop. At what age do we ask that a person is not valued?"

Parents and caregivers want lawmakers to ask the big question: Is this not worth raising taxes for?

"And we wouldn't want the dedicated revenue just disappearing into the general fund," said Barrutia. "I think there's a great opportunity to possibly raise the tax on cigarettes. A $1.25 bump in cigarette taxes could raise $50 million. And we could put that in a dedicated fund for health."

"Don't these lawmakers see what's at stake?" asked Bell.

"Of course they see it," answered Garrett. "They just don't know what to do."

Garrett said the issue is not about politics. It never has been.

"I was a Republican lawmaker," said Garrett. "I'm still a conservative. But that doesn't take away my heart and compassion."

Hansen said she expects a lot of heart, compassion and even tears at Friday's hearing. She'll be there early. Garrett said she expected to wake about 5 a.m. after dreaming more about the number 25,000.