Gelser and Republicans Push Back on Cuts to Services for Disabled Kids

Oregon provides all eligible families who apply with caretaker supports and equipment that make it easier for children to live at home with their parents - but funds for that money-saving approach were slated to be cut.

Planned cuts to in-home services for disabled kids are looking less likely after a bipartisan trio of legislators pushed back against them Thursday and demanded that the state find the funding to keep the program open.

“I cannot support taking services away from children,” said Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, at a budget hearing in Salem. “Saving this program seems totally within our grasp and doable.”

But with Measure 101 looming over the state’s budget, it’s still not a sure sign that the state will be able to fully fund the program. While the passage of those tax increases will relieve stress on the state’s budget, its failure may still leave some fiscal conservatives to demand the program be reined in.

Last fall, the Oregon Department of Human Services proposed limiting the number of new children it would accept into its programs for in-home supports that help kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities stay at home.

The agency was tasked with finding $12 million in savings to its Developmental Disabilities Division, but scaling back the in-home program would only save a paltry $300,000, as well as $2.7 million in the 2019-2021 budget. DHS received $3.1 billion from the general fund in this two-year budget.

On Thursday, DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht told the lawmakers that as it balanced its budget for 2017, it had $4.3 million left over, which it wished to dedicate to hiring 33 people and beefing up its background check process for new employees.

New federal rules and stronger state laws regarding child welfare have greatly increased the workload for screening new hires, and Pakseresht said there was now a 10-week backlog on clearing people for employment, undermining the ability for the state to hire people to provide services, including for children eligible for disability services.

Still, the legislators were clearly frustrated that all the leftover funding was dedicated to a new priority when such a small allocation could prevent service cuts.

Gelser floated spending $4 million of the agency’s newfound surplus on the improved background screening process, while placing the remaining $300,000 back in the Developmental Disabilities program for disabled children.

“These families have finally seen a light of hope,” Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Cottage Grove, agreed. “I hope we get this fixed very, very soon.”

Fiscal Responsibility

The buck stopped at the desk of the human services budget subcommittee chair, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, who promised a discussion next month when the Legislature makes it decisions but wasn’t ready to yield to pressure from her colleagues to siphon money back into disability services to fill its funding gap for this biennium.

“I can’t make promises I don’t know I can keep,” Steiner Hayward said.

She was backed up by Senate Minority Leader Jackie Winters, R-Salem. “We actually directed and prescribed cuts for the agency,” she said. “They have some costs that were running away. I know how hard it is to cut a program. Unlike the federal government, we don’t have a printing press.”

The services were greatly expanded in 2013 with the launch of the K Plan, a provision in the Affordable Care Act which Oregon adopted that allowed it to receive more federal money if it lifted restrictions on its home-based disability programs.

Previously, the state paid for residential care but limited in-home supports to just a few hundred children, but now Oregon provides all eligible families who apply with caretaker supports and equipment that make it easier for children to live at home with their parents. Without these supports, many children must be placed in much more expensive residential settings, which the state has no plans to cut.

The popularity of the program greatly exceeded the state’s forecasts and continue to grows at a rate faster than state revenues, leading the legislative budget-writers to suggest caps.

DHS would close the door in July of this year to new applicants from families with household incomes above $35,000 for a family of four. The children would go onto a waiting list as current children leave the program. This plan was first reported in The Lund Report in September.

The idea has attracted mounting opposition from Gelser and Republicans who have attacked the plan to cut services for disabled children as a poor decision morally and politically

“It’s not even a good economic move,” said Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who is also a candidate for governor. “You save money by keeping them in their home.”

Buehler said the situation was a case of the governing Democrats' misplaced priorities, particularly as state tax revenue receipts increase by tens of millions of dollars each quarter in a growing economy.

Hayden, who has a child with a disability, has been particularly adamant about stopping the program cuts, and refused to go along with a parliamentary procedure acknowledging news of DHS’s plans on Thursday.

Ironically, Hayden is the lead opponent of the Medicaid funding package in Measure 101. If that referendum fails, it could blow a $1.3 billion hole in the state budget and imperil funding for healthcare for low-income people, as well as prevent a pathway for maintaining access to these in-home services.

Hayden has argued that he will support other taxes to support the Oregon Health Plan if Measure 101 fails, although Democrats have scoffed at the feasibility of his proposals to provide as much funding as the hospital assessment and insurance taxes they laid out and passed with bipartisan support in June.

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].