Legislature reaches mid-point, but much remains unfinished

Disability Day at the Capitol, courtesy of ARRM and Matty Lang

The message of “My rights, my choice, my life” resonated with service providers, self-advocates and the staff who give needed care and assistance. Those at the rally cheered when asked if they love their jobs and love the people they work with. Chants of “We want a livable wage” rang out through the capitol.

As the mid-point of the Minnesota Legislature’s 2019 session passed, dozens of bills supported by the disability community are at very different stages. As Access Press went to press, many efforts were still moving ahead, either in omnibus bills or as separate legislation. But for others, the cry of “wait until next year” has already been heard.

The largest of the disability advocacy rallies wrapped up in March, including Disability Services Day at the Capitol. The event, hosted by the umbrella groups ARRM and MOHR, drew a massive crowd of advocates from around the state March 12. Advocates, with dozens of banners from their organizations, line all three levels of the rotunda.

One huge focus for those is the need to support competitive wages, to address the 17 percent wage disparity between disability services wages and the wages of the jobs competing for the same workers. More than 34,700 Minnesotans receive Home and Community-Based Services. But the average wage for a direct support professional working in a community residential setting is just $13.04 per hour.

Minnesota is facing a 30 percent vacancy rate for support professionals, with job openings all over the state. Not filling those jobs and forcing people with disabilities into institutional settings is happening more and more often. The savings in community-based over institutional care is estimated at more than $1 billion. One focus this session is to pass legislation that allows service providers to use staff in the most efficient ways possible, through increased use of technology, sensible training requirements and streamlining of regulations.

The turnover of staff is increasingly difficult for clients. One sign stated, “When New Staff Come and Go, I’m Impacted.”

Addressing unfunded regulations, changes to the termination of services requirements and the ability to seek rate changes for intermediate care facilities for people with developmental disabilities are among the many other issues the groups are seeking legislative action on.

Legislators spoke to the need to raise pay for those who provide care and to address other funding inequities. “We have more than enough money to take care of you,” said Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis). He and other lawmakers urged those present to keep coming to the capitol until the wage issues are resolved.

Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) said that the needs of the disability community have been heard, when it comes to pay for staff. “Your message has been sent. We need to raise (staff) pay … We need firm push back on moves to cut disability rates and to hold form on state funding for all disability services.”

But despite the encouragement for people with disabilities to advocate for themselves, and the positive comments at rallies, there is growing frustration over the slow pace for some legislation. As of now, many key issues including personal care attendant (PCA) rate reform and ways to overturn a state mandate on incontinence products will need some heavy lifting if they are to be signed into law this session.

What’s frustrated some disability groups and selfadvocates is a sense that things are stalled. Some measures that made it all the way through the 2018 process, and then were wrapped into vetoed omnibus bills, haven’t gotten nearly as far this session. Efforts to toward a smaller bonding bill are also stalled in the Senate.

Another 2018 measure that needs a push is the effort to reduce the spend-down for Medical Assistance. Spend-downs are widely criticized because they force people with disabilities to live in poverty. The spend-down bill is active in the House and is in Health and Human Services Finance. It is likely to need an informational hearing in the Senate.

There have been bright spots. Mitchell’s Law, which allows an individual to add up to three emergency contacts to the driver’s license data base, is moving ahead. Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance is behind that bill.

The alliance is also supporting the hands-free cell phone legislation, which has made high-profile progress through the House and Senate. The bill prohibits cell phone use while driving, unless the phone is in hands-free mode.

Many brain injury self-advocates have sustained their injuries as a result of careless driving by motorists who were talking on phones. Peoples whose loved ones have been killed by careless drivers have also joined the cause.

Keep track of bills and find legislative contacts at www.leg.state.mn.us