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Health

Targeting the disabled — A heartless, impractical move

Late last week, Gov. Rick Scott blindsided tens of thousands of disabled Floridians and their caregivers by signing an executive order to immediately cut their funding.

Yet that very same day, the governor made time for a photo op — for the Special Olympics Torch Run.

"We've got to make sure that we take care of those who have struggled and have a disadvantage," the governor said with the cameras present.

Scott was right, even if his timing was galling.

Florida's Agency for Persons with Disabilities serves about 35,000 people — from the mildly disabled to wheelchair-bound Floridians who can barely do a thing for themselves.

The number served may sound high. But the demand is even greater.

The waiting list for those with autism, for instance, is longer than the list of those who actually get help.

Yet, Scott's order may merely exacerbate the problem.

The cut he ordered was immediate — 15 percent overall. Even more for some workers.

In some cases, caregivers who were making $10 an hour may now make less than $8.

That's precisely the case for the woman who cares for Elizabeth Sickle, an Orlando adult who has cerebral palsy and spends much of her time in a wheelchair. "Losing our caregiver would really affect Elizabeth," said her mother, Rebecca, "both emotionally and psychologically."

Similar worries can be found around the state.

Christine Baker Janesko, whose 13-year-old son has Asperger's syndrome, shuddered when she heard about the prospect of fewer workers at University of Central Florida's Center for Autism and Related Disabilities — a place that Janesko described as a "godsend."

So why were the cuts made?

Well, the agency was running over budget by $170 million — a problem to be sure.

That's partly because, five years ago, the program was expanded to serve more people while the funding wasn't. You don't need an MBA to see that's a problem.

A spokesman for Scott told the Tallahassee Democrat that the governor viewed the overnight cuts as "a very tough choice; one that could no longer be avoided."

State Sen. Andy Gardiner, however, isn't so sure.

The Orlando Republican is looking for other solutions, such as shifting money in a way that wouldn't prompt such dire consequences.

"I want to know how can we fix this," Gardiner said. "How can we lessen the impact?"

I'm glad someone is asking.

Because balancing the budget on the backs of those in wheelchairs is unconscionable.

Now, let me be clear about something.

We need to make cuts. The system needs reform. Most all of health care does.

There are entire industries dedicated to working and bilking the system. The overbilling, unnecessary procedures and outright fraud must stop.

But a serious leader would try to deal with those systemic problems rather than rashly issuing an order that hurts those in need more than those doing wrong.

Targeting a low-paid caregiver who prepares meals and changes adult diapers lacks both sense and compassion.

Gardiner wants to look at long-term solutions, including targeting the overspending. He also wants to consider giving families, rather than agencies, more control over how they spend assistance payments.

One thing I know is that across-the-board cuts and simple-minded mantras like "Everyone has to share in the pain" are brainless and barbaric.

If your family needed to cut 15 percent from its budget, you wouldn't cut 15 percent across the board.

You wouldn't buy 15 percent less asthma medication for your wife and 15 percent less formula for your baby.

You'd make smart choices.

There are smart choices that lawmakers can make as well.

This state gives away hundreds of millions — even billions — of dollars in special-interest tax breaks, double-dipping politicians and corporate giveaways.

Taking on these sacred cows makes much more sense — and displays more humanity — than abandoning the afflicted and powerless.

Those Floridians deserve better, even when the cameras aren't rolling.

smaxwell@trbune.com or 407-420-6141

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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