Behind budget jargon, numbers, real pain lurks

Behind the angst of state budget jargon is the pain of real people.

The latest example: “trigger cuts.”

The term “trigger cuts” has become a kind of fading buzz word.  Californians, through the media and repetition, have grown accustomed to hearing it, like “unemployment rate” or “home foreclosure.” It’s the language of hardship.

Updated assessments of the state’s economy and revenues were completed in November by the Legislative Analyst Office, and that news doesn’t sound very buzz-worthy.  In fact, projected revenues are drastically lower than expected, concluding that the state’s economic shortfall have been projected to reach up to $13 billion by 2017.
That means a lot of state services are going to get cut. And people who depend on them are going to be in big trouble.

Early reports show that many departments are facing losses in a such degree that it compromises their ability to fulfill their missions.

Higher education, MediCal, child care services and corrections and rehabilitation are all facing devastating and unprecedented budget cuts.

One group coping with some of the deepest slashes is the developmentally disabled community. The “trigger cuts,” reductions in state funds pegged to the economic downturn, are expected to begin in less than a month. The cuts are expected to butcher an additional $100 million a year from non-profit developmental agencies and the families that utilize them.
For the next five years, these particular groups will continue to take the brunt of the state’s financial meltdown, their advocates say, suffering so much that this time around, they may not recover.

“The cuts that are happening are huge and they’re not well directed,” says Christopher Rice, executive director of the California Disability Services Association. “If this goes on, I don’t know how much longer my agency is going to continue.”

The CDSA represents a statewide collective of 100 nonprofit agencies that provide individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities direct care within their community. Focused on long-term support, the ultimate goal of the CDSA is to empower people who struggle with developmental issues by promoting “independent choice” and sustainable functionality within their surroundings.  

What makes these types of services available is the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act. The Lanterman Act was enacted in 1969 and promises people with a developmental disability (including, but not limited to, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, and other conditions similar to mental retardation) the services and support needed to live as independently and productively as possible in their own community, regardless of age or degree of disability.

People with children or adults living at home with developmental disabilities can seek out one of the 21 Regional Centers that is under contract by the Department of Developmental Services in order begin an Individual Program Plan (IPP).  The IPP is designed to include goals and objectives for the individual (legally referred to as a “consumer”) and to especially identify who will be responsible for implementing said goals, when activities would start and the frequency/need for services, support and further assessments. As it stands, these services are a legal entitlement guaranteed to the consumer.

“The average agency is going to provide a range of services,” continues Rice. “It might be supported employment, they may do respite care, transportation, day programs, there’s a long list of what they can be providing. While they may be losing money in one service, they may be doing well in another and that’s what keeps them marginally going. The problem is, when is that tipping point going to arrive?”

Rice and his colleagues are well aware of what’s coming.  By their estimates, about 240,000 developmentally disabled people within the existing system utilize on average four to five different services just to get by. If each department faces cuts upwards of 20 percent in areas such as the K-12 system, MediCal, transportation, senior living facilities, etc, the chances of said person finding independence and functionality as their life develops dwindles drastically.

The CDSA knows that a Christmas miracle isn’t to be expected.  “We haven’t yet had an agency under the CDSA say that they’re going out of business,” says Rice.  “But our fear is that after these cuts happen, that it won’t just be one, it could be dozens and that the Regional Centers aren’t going to be able to find something to do with the people who have no support network.”

Roughly 80 percent of those utilizing the CSDA programs have managed to reach their independent goals, the highest success rate to date. These numbers have remained high despite caps to respite care hours, cuts to working wages and entire programs in some areas being totally eliminated.

In the meantime, most of these agencies are scrambling to do what they can with what frayed resources that they still have.  Closing doors not only limits help to the people that need it, but also puts those that work for them out of a job.  To catch these falling stars, many groups survive by consolidation and absorb one another to keep what is already barely available.

A meeting was held Monday featuring representation for agencies from all over California about the current state of their growing financial burdens.  Though the collective outlook struggles to stay positive, the affects of these elusively-described cutbacks looms like a dark cloud set to engulf them by the New Year.

To these advocates, the difference between some of the cuts to other social programs compared to this issue is simple – quality of life.  

“Nobody, in my experience, who is utilizing these programs is there to take advantage of them,” says Will Sanford, executive director of Futures Explored Incorporated. “They just want to go to work, have their own place to live, get a break from care-taking, basically just to live life. What these cuts are proposing is ‘How do you take 20 percent of my life away?’”

With less and less options to rely on, the alternative that no one seems too pleased to discuss is the possibility of these people in need being forced into state-run institutions. The staggering price tag per bed – $346,000 per person – and with no other resources to keep many of those developmentally disabled independently living, it wouldn’t take much to wipe out a family’s entire savings.

“As it stands, this has been an effective public and private partnership, saving billions for community groups.  So it’s not the cuts, it’s the way that they’re done,” adds Dwight Hansen of Hansen & Associates.

U.S. District Judge Claudia A. Wilken recently issued an order temporarily halting the state from proceeding with a 20 percent cut to the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program until the Court is able to hear the case on Dec. 15.  

But whether the CDSA is ready or not, these draconian cuts are scheduled to drop in January 2012.  Rice and his team are still struggling to achieve their goals despite the negative buzz, but in this economy, it’s only getting louder.  “The way the cuts have been implemented makes sense for the bureaucracy,” Rice says,  “not the people.”

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