Disabling Cuts

Some folks fear they'll lose their ability to live at home under the guv's budget



Last Friday afternoon, in John Anderson's modest, garden-lavish Eureka house, the cockatiels in the huge, covered, indoor-outdoor cage attached to his bedroom were up to their usual stunts. An outburst of chirps here, a cheery shriek there.

Anderson was in the kitchen, where a gazillion thriving potted plants seemed to be taking over the windowed area round the sink, creating a spillage of green light. In the living room, a tidy, hardwood-floored space, there were more plants amid a spare assortment of artsy wall hangings, sculptures and other accoutrement of a life intensely lived.

Anderson, with the help of a friend, was working his way into a sweater and hat so he could take Mowgli -- a sweet, aging Doberman-Rottweiler mix with a gimpy front leg -- for a walk. Finally, with his right hand, he pushed the button that propels his chair forward and rolled out the door, passing a refrigerator ironically adorned with a bumper sticker that says "Hard is square dancing in an elevator."

Hard. These days, Anderson would tell you -- no joke -- that hard is the round of budget cuts Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed for crowbarring the state out of its Hell-deep deficit of $24.3 billion and growing.

"The budget cuts?" said Anderson. "No. No. I was going to write a letter to Schwarz -- actually, if you don't mind, Schwarzdick -- about this. The only reason he got voted in was because he was a movie star. I've actually had friends tell me they voted for him because he's the Terminator. Well ..."

Anderson, who is 55, lost his left hand in a farming accident when he was 19. Then, in his 30s, he was riding his motorcycle in a driving rain one night on Highway 36, heading to his property in Dinsmore, when he rounded a tight curve and was blinded by oncoming headlights; his bike hit something and he crashed. The wreck broke his neck and left him paralyzed from the bellybutton down -- although he suffers constantly from "pins and needles" caused by nerve damage in his feet, and lately the sensation has begun creeping up one leg. He wears a neck brace. He has seizures. He can't work -- and up until he broke his neck, he says, he always worked, including for many years as a chef in the Bay Area.

With his mom's help as well as publicly funded care providers, Anderson's been able to live in his own home. But some of the proposed state cuts might lead to a crumbling of the network of caregivers and services that help him stave off being institutionalized in a nursing home.

The cuts that would affect people like Anderson are tri-fold. Some would knock the wind out of Medi-Cal, the federal- and state-funded program that provides health insurance for low-income people, seniors, pregnant women and people with disabilities or certain diseases. Some would diminish SSI/SSP -- Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment, a federal- and state-funded program that gives cash assistance to people 65 and older, or who are blind or disabled. Some would chop back In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS), a federal-, state- and county-funded program that pays care providers who perform specified tasks for people who are low-income and over 65, or blind or disabled, who, without such help, might not be able to live in their own homes (a right granted by the Supreme Court 10 years ago).

To date, the governor proposes to cut $1.1 billion from Medi-Cal by eliminating specific services, starting July 1: dental care, acupuncture, audiology, speech therapy, chiropractic, optometric and optician care, podiatry, psychological counseling, and incontinence creams and washes. If the governor's proposal goes through, only those recipients under age 21 or who live in a nursing facility will remain covered for those services. In Humboldt County, as of this May, 7,966 people were on Medi-Cal, according to Heather Muller, public education officer for the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services.

The state proposes cutting IHSS by about $500 million, by reducing its contribution to IHSS worker pay -- the counties and federal government pay a percentage, too -- capping IHSS workers' wages at $8 an hour (minimum wage), and by eliminating or reducing certain services provided by care givers for all but the most severely disabled IHSS consumers. Counties that have negotiated with unions for higher wages and benefits for their workers will feel these cuts. Counties that still pay minimum wage, such as Humboldt, won't. But the IHSS cap on pay will make negotiating for a living wage for Humboldt's workers impossible, said Cindy Calderon last week from her office at the Tri-County Independent Living Center, a nonprofit that helps connect folks to disability-related services in Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties.

The reduction in IHSS services would impact 93 percent of Humboldt's 1,776 current IHSS recipients, said Barbara LaHaie, assistant director of programs for the county's Health and Human Services Department, in an interview on Monday. People not ranked as needing the highest levels of in-home care might no longer qualify for things like help with their laundry, cooking, shopping or even, say in the case of someone with slight dementia, with remembering to eat.

LaHaie said the cuts also would impact Humboldt's 1,800 IHSS care providers. Many will have reduced workloads and might have to seek other work. And the loss of a care provider, or services, might force some IHSS recipients into nursing homes -- which LaHaie and others say will cost the state as much as triple the amount paid for home care provider programs -- or into recruiting family members to come help them out, who in turn might have to quit their jobs to do so.

The Medi-Cal cuts, said Calderon, would force some people to put off essential routine care.

"Some people will end up in emergency rooms," she said. "Where else are you going to go if you're 68 years old and a diabetic, and you cannot afford to go see a doctor? People just don't understand, we're talking about people's lives. People living, or dying."

The SSI/SSP cuts will reduce the monthly grants that go to elderly, blind or disabled people from $850 to $830 for individuals and from $1,489 to $1,407 for couples.

"The problem with this is, these cuts come on top of years and years of the state withholding the federal cost of living adjustment," said Calderon. "So right now, it's estimated the SSI dollar is worth approximately 73 cents."

Last Friday at his home, Anderson rolled into his back garden with Mowgli and two of his cats, Toto and Chloe, close by. He unlatched the gate and pushed it open by rolling forward in his chair, and then shut it the same way. Now they were in the alley. It smelled like cut grass.

Mowgli limped down to the street corner and flopped in the shade of an overgrown fruit tree. The cats gamboled.

"See this tree?" said Anderson. "It produces the best red delicious apples."

Anderson likely won't lose his IHSS care because of the high level of his needs. But the other cuts will affect him. His dentures will remain ill-fitting. He won't make his regular trip to the eye doc. Plus, he fears he'll lose some of his providers who are also living on low incomes.

"One of my ladies, she has a severe dental problem, and when they shut down the Medi-Cal payments for dentistry, how's she going to get her teeth fixed and be able to work?" Anderson asked.

All in all, he's worried he might end up in a nursing home. After the mortgage is paid, and all the other house-related bills, he's afraid he'll be left with not enough to get by.

"Already, at the end of the month I'm broke," he said. "And sometimes I go into minus in my account."

This Friday, June 5, the Tri-County Independent Living Center is holding a rally on the front lawn of the Humboldt County Courthouse in Eureka to protest these proposed cuts. The rally takes place from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.


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