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Delays Hinder Program For People With Disabilities

Sen. Ron Bradley speaks
The Florida Channel
Florida Sen. Ron Bradley speaks in this file image. The Fleming Island Republican, who championed the measure, says he is looking into the cause of the delays.

A push by state lawmakers to encourage Floridians with intellectual and developmental disabilities to work has been stalled in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration for more than a year, and there's no clear indication when the program will get up and running.

Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew assured top legislative leaders and the governor’s office in a June 29 report that her agency was developing an outreach plan to promote what’s known as the Working People with Disabilities Program and that it would take effect in July.

But the program, initially passed by lawmakers in spring 2019, still isn’t operational, according to people who have tried to use it.

Tampa resident Mayra “Paulina” Reyes works full time for the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department and will graduate from Pasco-Hernando State College in seven months with a business degree. Eager to potentially earn more money after graduation, Reyes spent more than an hour on the phone last week calling the local Medicaid office asking to be enrolled in the program.

“I took an hour lunch break and I literally had to ask my supervisor to give me an extra 20 to 30 minutes to try to get this done,” Reyes, 31, told The News Service of Florida.  “As soon as I mentioned the Working People with Disabilities Program, they would put me on hold and try to figure out what program I was referring to.”

Reyes, who has cerebral palsy, receives home- and community-based services through the Medicaid program. Though she has health insurance through her job, home- and community-based services provide benefits that aren’t covered or are limited in traditional health insurance policies.

For instance, Reyes struggles with her balance and cannot do laundry on her own because she can’t pick up laundry baskets and walk with them. So she has a Medicaid-funded companion who helps her with that chore and others such as making dinner. She also relies on Medicaid to provide transportation because she cannot drive.

“Basically, they gave me the runaround,” Reyes said of the Medicaid office. “I got hung up on. By the third or fourth (call), when I actually got a real person, I was transferred back and forth to different departments. At the end of the day, the last person I spoke with honestly had no idea what I was referring to. And I feel like that was disappointing because I was so excited to find out about this program.”

Prior to the 2019 law, people with disabilities who received home- and community-based benefits were precluded from earning more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $2,349 a month, if they wanted to maintain their benefits.

Championed by Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the 2019 law directed state Medicaid officials to get approval from the federal government to increase the monthly maximum allowable income. Instead of being capped at 300 percent of the federal poverty level, the law directed the state to get approval from the federal government to increase the monthly allowable income cap to 550 percent of the federal poverty level, which translates to $4,307 a month. 

The law also upped the amount of cash assets a person could have without jeopardizing their Medicaid benefits from $2,000 to $13,000 and allowed people to have Internal Revenue Service-recognized retirement accounts without losing benefits.

Bradley, who once called the 2019 law one of his proudest legislative accomplishments, told the News Service that he was “looking into” the cause of the delays.

In the June 29 report, Mayhew attributed the “slight delay” in getting the program operational to COVID-19. She said the federal government approved the higher income and savings caps on April 2 but that the state was focused on responding to virus-related issues.

“As such, implementation of the Working People with Disabilities program has been slightly delayed,” Mayhew wrote, adding that, “Starting July 1, 2020,” the state would implement a process that allowed people with disabilities to earn more money without losing their benefits.

While the Agency for Health Care Administration houses the Medicaid program and was directed to get approval from the federal government to make the change, the Department of Children and Families determines whether people qualify for Medicaid. Additionally, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities is the lead state agency when it comes to Medicaid home- and community-based services.

Mayhew indicated  in the June 29 document that her agency would work with other state agencies to ensure that information about the program is easily accessible on each agency’s website and that waiver support coordinators, who help people with disabilities secure home- and community-based benefits, were made aware of the new opportunity.

Valerie Breen, executive director of the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council, said Reyes is not alone and that she has heard from others who are eager to sign up for the program but cannot. Breen estimates that as many as 1,000 people with disabilities would benefit under the change.

“The implementation of this program is critical to their livelihoods, and they are eager to sign up,” Breen said in a statement. “Now is the time to take a wonderful opportunity and really make it work, not just on paper, but in real life.”.

Breen said it’s imperative for agencies to work together to ensure procedures are in place and that staff members are knowledgeable.

The Department of Children and Families and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities did not respond to repeated requests for comments on the delays.

Agency for Health Care Administration spokeswoman Katie Strickland told the News Service on Monday that the agency is in the “process of drafting outreach materials which will be shared with our sister agencies for final approval. Once finalized, this material will be distributed to our community partners so the information can be effectively communicated to potentially eligible waiver recipients.”

For Reyes, that can’t come soon enough.

“People with disabilities need to be given the right tools. Which means if you go out there and you get an education and you are eager to work and show your talents there’s nothing that should stop you from doing what you want to do to be a productive person in society,” she said. “It’s very critical to make people feel included in society.”