Hundreds of Tampa Bay people with disabilities stand to lose essential services such as job training and transportation when new state guidelines begin limiting the amount of money the state will pay for their care.
In 2007, the budget-strapped Legislature voted to cut benefits to people with disabilities who get Medicaid money to pay for housing, job training, therapy and transportation.
In the next two months, the state agency that manages the payments will begin rolling out the cuts.
The 31,000 people statewide who now receive an uncapped amount of money each year will be grouped into four categories, each with a different limit. That means some people will get less money.
State officials say the cuts are necessary in these tough economic times. They also say, however, that capping the payments will enable the state to serve more people.
Up to now, "we haven't been able to take people off the waiting list because the people already getting services wanted additional services," said Melanie Mowry Etters, communications director for the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities.
There are 17,000 people on the waiting list, with no openings for the past two years and "no incentives for someone to say, 'You know what, I don't need speech therapy five days a week,' " Etters said.
But organizations like PARC, which gets payments from the APD to help 700 people with disabilities, fear that the reductions will hurt existing clients.
"For the clients, this is socialization," said Sue Buchholtz, the chief executive officer of PARC. "Without it, you take away their life."
PARC expects that 200 of its clients will lose some services. And they're not alone. Across the state there are 10,000 groups that help people with disabilities.
One of PARC's clients is Robert Kozola, 41, who is developmentally disabled. When Kozola came to PARC in 1995, he was dependent on others for most of his daily skills.
After years of work with the organization, he now has a job as a packer at PARC headquarters in St. Petersburg and lives in a group home provided by the organization. Each year Medicaid pays about $50,000 so Kozola can pay for housing, receive behavioral therapy and get transportation back and forth to PARC for work and training.
He earns $50 a week.
"I like to go on Saturdays for lunch to McDonald's and CiCi's Pizza," said Kozola, when asked what he does with his paycheck. "It's all you can eat, all you can drink."
Karen Higgins, chief program officer at PARC, said Kozola's job has led to his improvements.
"Everything we do leads to self-sufficiency," she said. "When you earn money, you earn social skills."
Under the new payment system, Kozola could lose about $16,000 a year, according to PARC officials. That means he would have to decide between keeping his job or the transportation he uses to get there.
Medicaid, a state and federal program administered by the state, helps finance health care for low-income people and services for people with disabilities.
Under the changes, people with disabilities will now be classified into tiers according to their impediment. Someone like Kozola, who gets help with daily chores, would qualify for $35,000 a year. The highest tier is uncapped. The lowest, for people with mild disabilities, pays up to $14,792 a year.
In fiscal year 2006-2007, APD spent $898-million on benefits to people with disabilities. With the new tier system, it would spend $45-million less in the first year.
The state agency's inconsistent handling of benefits in the past is exactly why the tier system is necessary, said Jim Freyvogel, who operates a training facility for people with disabilities in Tampa.
"These tiers were imposed on APD by the Legislature, which was frustrated with the lack of control," said Freyvogel, the chief executive officer of the MacDonald Training Center, which stands to get $150,000 less. "It was because of their inability to manage their budget and have a vision for cost-efficient services."
Services won't change for many of the people who receive Medicaid benefits through APD, Etters said. But for those who will feel the reduction, case workers are working to find community resources that will fill in the gaps.
PARC is prepared to pick up the slack as well, said Tre' Littlefield, director of government and media relations for the organization.
"We have a moral and ethical obligation to these folks," Littlefield said. "Whether it means going to get community support, we will make it happen."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8828.