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Parents of developmentally disabled children protest Florida cuts

Joann Hayes of Chipley, right, tends to her son, Daniel Finch, in his wheelchair as she and other advocates for fully funding services to the developmentally disabled pack the lobby of Gov. Rick Scott’s office Wednesday in Tallahassee.

Photo by COLIN HACKLEY

Joann Hayes of Chipley, right, tends to her son, Daniel Finch, in his wheelchair as she and other advocates for fully funding services to the developmentally disabled pack the lobby of Gov. Rick Scott’s office Wednesday in Tallahassee.

TALLAHASSEE — The little old lady had a simple question as she strained to speak into the microphone in the cavernous Florida Senate meeting hall: "With all these cuts, what am I going to do?"

Raisa Barragan's question was echoed throughout the Capitol on Wednesday when scores of parents of developmentally disabled children protested deep cuts that Gov. Rick Scott ordered last week to close a $174 million deficit at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

Like the other parents, Barragan, 65, didn't get much in the way of answers for what would happen to her 37-year-old autistic son, Jorge, if his Miami group home closed.

Nor were there answers for the owners of group homes, some of which could close soon. Nurses and support coordinators, who help the developmentally disabled live on their own, didn't get the answers they were looking for, either.

Shortly after Barragan spoke to the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee, hundreds of protesters rallied outside the Capitol and then crammed Scott's office.

The protesters weren't just worried with the cuts. Some were angry. They chanted "no more cuts." They pointed out that the 15 percent across-the-board reimbursement rate cuts were far deeper for some — as much as 40 percent.

Some people waved placards that called Scott a "crook" for heading a hospital company decades ago that was convicted of ripping off Medicare. Others passed out mock "State of Disability" dollar bills emblazoned with Rick Scott's picture.

On the back, the bill doubled as a "Don't Hold Your Breath Voucher" that parents and workers for the disabled signed and dropped off at Scott's office. People had to move a coffee table aside to accommodate all the wheelchairs.

The signed vouchers, which bore people's names, asked Scott to personally give each person two free hours of help for baby­sitting, companion services, respite care, behavior therapy or in-home support — services he ordered cut.

Scott wasn't there to meet the protesters. He was at a pre-arranged meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Palm Beach.

When asked Tuesday about what he'd say to those affected by the cuts, Scott said: "It's tough what we're going through. That agency has not lived within its budget as far as I can tell. I don't know when it ever did. And so everybody just kicked the can. And never really held them accountable and looked at how they could spend that money better."

It's true that the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, established in 2004 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, has long run deficits. But the system strained even more five years ago when the Legislature beefed up enrollment in the programs run by the agency.

But, advocates say, the Legislature never adequately funded the agency, which oversees 30,000 people. More than 19,000 people are on a waiting list and receive no services.

When the Legislature tried to cut reimbursement rates and cap expenditures, then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the rate cuts and families sued over the reduced services.

As a result of all of those pressures, the agency is projected to be in a deficit of $174 million, according to an inspector general's report ordered by Scott. The deficit is 20 percent larger than the budgeted expenditures for the main program serving the developmentally disabled.

"We're going to be spending in excess of the budget $174 million," Scott said Tuesday. "This is an emergency. We've got to come up with a way to care for the vulnerable. But we've got to do it in a way that we can afford."

Sen. Joe Negron, chairman of the Senate's health budget committee where Barragan spoke, was more blunt when he spoke on the Senate floor.

"Even if you're doing the Lord's work, you still can't bounce checks," he said.

But for parents like Barragan, the comment isn't even cold comfort. She's growing older. Her son, Jorge, is large and has trouble controlling his temper.

Barragan knows he'll outlive her and has long worried about what will happen to him when she's gone. Now, she doesn't know what could happen if the cuts force his group home to close.

"All of you who have children who are healthy, that's a God-given gift. I don't have that," she told the Senate health committee. "I love him so much. He is my life. … So help me. You've been very good all these years. Just listen and remember that Jorge needs your help."

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com.

Parents of developmentally disabled children protest Florida cuts 04/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 10:23pm]
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