Do right by Iowa's disabled

Jennifer Hemmingsen
Published: October 7 2012 | 12:11 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 1:37 am in

When archaeologists go digging in search of our murky origins, they look for clues that a community cared for those who wouldn’t survive on their own.

Not every culture grew crops or used the wheel, but all, in some way, helped those who couldn’t help themselves — it’s a basic human instinct.

And it’s something Linn County has long been known for doing well, which makes last year’s drastic cuts in Mental Health and Developmental Disability services hard to stomach.

Worse to know the cuts were caused by politics, not poverty. Worst: They might not be over.

It started when the county had to cut more than $5 million in MHDD spending after legislators changed the rules for accessing a fund intended to take pressure off a system that’s been underfunded for more than a decade.

And it meant, among other things, that people like Kevin Jones, who worked in a sheltered workshop for 11 years, lost their jobs not because they were bad workers, but because there was no money to fund them (for his and others’ stories, see my blog).

State lawmakers tried to ease the pain last spring by approving $20 million in transition funding — money to help counties as they move to regional systems to comply with MHDD redesign.

But that funding disappeared after the governor’s office wanted more details about how much money counties needed, and how it would be spent. So the $20 million still sits there, waiting to be released.

Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Jack Hatch (D-Des Moines) told me this week he anticipates no trouble getting new legislators to do so when they convene in January. But a new legislative session means new lawmakers who will have much to learn about MHDD redesign, about counties’ roles offering services to people with nowhere else to turn.

It will mean explaining complicated funding rules and expenses, like cab fare, that can seem frivolous but actually save money while improving clients’ quality of life.

Meanwhile, counties soon will start building next year’s budgets, not knowing how much, if any, transition funding might come through.

It’s a mess, and it should have been avoided, but there’s nothing to do about that now except to do better in January. Legislators must make it their top priority.

Reasonable people may disagree about the best way to provide MHDD services, but there is no defense for pulling the rug out from under Iowa’s most vulnerable populations and the programs that serve them.

Comments: (319) 339-3154; jennifer.hemmingsen@sourcemedia.net

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