It's been nearly two weeks since Gov. Rick Scott exploited his vague emergency power to force unconscionable cuts of up to 40 percent in reimbursement rates for those who serve the state's developmentally disabled. The governor claimed Tuesday he had no choice because the Agency for Persons with Disabilities was running a $174 million deficit. But Scott chose to appease his tea party base rather than work with lawmakers to stave off potentially life-altering and debilitating changes in services for up to 33,000 of Florida's most vulnerable citizens. Now Republican legislative leaders should follow through on promises to find a way to cover the deficit and not cut off thousands of Floridians who have nowhere else to turn for help.
Scott's March 31 order will affect Floridians with cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual handicaps, Down syndrome and other disorders. In Pinellas County, one provider alone has told 30 people in group homes and day treatment programs that their services would end in 30 days. Where the most vulnerable of those will land is anyone's guess. As one father so aptly told the St. Petersburg Times, "You're taking people who can't take care of themselves and putting them on the street."
Scott forced a 15 percent cut in reimbursement rates immediately — yet the law requires the service providers to give their clients 30 days' notice. Administrative allowances were also eliminated in the 90-day order, meaning cuts as high as 40 percent for some providers. The governor's rationale — that it is unacceptable for the agency to run a deficit — is aimed at appealing to his loyal base of tea party activists. There was no need to act immediately, and the Legislature should be able to resolve this without cutting off services.
Part of the problem stems from the economy, which has forced the tax-averse Legislature to cut the agency's budget in recent years. But lawmakers haven't cut enrollment or been successful in finding other cost-saving mechanisms. Lawmakers tried last year to force a 2.5 percent reduction in reimbursement rates that was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who said he feared it would shut down some providers. Meanwhile, the agency's 27 Medicaid-related programs are entitlements that are allowed to run deficits when the number of clients or costs of services rises.
The fact is, Florida's program — 65 percent of which is paid with federal dollars — still falls short of meeting a desperate need. More than 19,000 people are on a waiting list for services, some of whom have been waiting for more than five years, spawning a federal lawsuit.
After initially appearing to acquiesce to Scott, legislative leaders have stepped into the void. Senate President Mike Haridopolos has indicated the Senate would likely join the Florida House to find money to cover this year's deficit.
There was no devastating hurricane or call to 911 that necessitated the governor's action. The deficit was months in the making and hardly qualified as an emergency. Instead of finding a solution with lawmakers, Scott acted unilaterally and without regard for thousands of Florida's most vulnerable citizens. Now it is up to the Legislature to find the way out.