IM this article to a friend!

January 21, 2003

Crowd implores lawmakers to keep funding for disabled

From: Billings Gazette, MT - 21 Jan 2003

Gazette State Bureau
HELENA -- Casey Clark's 5-month old son is blind and deaf. He suffers from a blood disorder. He's developmentally delayed and can't sit up.

Clark, of Shelby, relies on state-funded services to help with her son's doctor bills, traveling expenses and demanding schedule of appointments. She draws emotional support from the services, too.

"Without these services, we wouldn't be able to handle it," Clark told the members of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services during public testimony Monday.

Clark and more than 100 others testified for the developmentally and physically disabled Monday. The crowd at the hearing was one of the largest ever, observers said, with people packing the old Supreme Court Chamber and filling the fourth-floor gallery.

The state Department of Public Health and Human Services is facing an $80 million budget deficit by mid-2005. Gov. Judy Martz cut the department back by $29 million in her executive budget for the biennium, and when legislators rolled funding back to year 2000 levels, the department lost another $44.5 million.

Potential cuts for fiscal 2004-05 include trimming or eliminating medical services for the visually impaired, extended employment services and independent living services.

In 2002, vocational rehabilitation services helped 942 Montanans with disabilities to obtain jobs. The state Association for Rehabilitation said those workers earned a combined $12.7 million in wages that were returned to the economy.

People spent three hours asking the subcommittee to spare vocational rehabilitation services, Montana's relay phone service for the hearing impaired, the state's independent living centers and other state-funded support services.

Harold Eyre of Great Falls, who uses a wheelchair, said the state's vocational rehabilitation services helped him get a job, and now he teaches others to live independently.

Being independent "is the key to living," he said.

Former Rep. Tom Dell, D-Billings, said his brother, David, gets a great sense of dignity from his part-time job as a janitor at a bank in Billings. Dell testified that when he told his brother to stop working and collect disability income, he was offended.

"He wants to continue working," Dell said, with the help of state services.

Many of the disabled who testified said they want to work, pay taxes and live in their communities. But they need support services to do so.

Rozann Schuhbauer, of Missoula, brought her developmentally disabled adult son before the subcommittee. He lives in his own apartment and holds down a job. Support services that help him live and thrive on his own in Missoula cost Montana $7,800 a year, she said.

If the state cuts the services helping her son live independently, she said, he would be placed in an institution, costing Montana $100,000 a year.

"It's the right thing to do," she said of funding services.

"These people live this every day," said Deborah Swingley, executive director of the Developmental Disability Planning and Advisory Council. "It's devastating."

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.