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Advocates, recipients plead to save program

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to abolish a program that gives disabled adults $157 a month plus health care coverage will push many of the 21,000 recipients onto the streets, where some surely will die, a legislative panel was told yesterday.

Charities, advocates for the homeless, medical care providers, a drug addiction counselor, and several program recipients who said the modest benefits saved their lives all begged a House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday to restore the program.

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"I have never seen a crueler potential budget cut than this one," said Stanley S. Herr, a law professor who works with the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

Those who want to save the program face a daunting task.

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The governor has proposed eliminating the $35 million Disability Assistance and Loan Program (DALP) plus a companion $13 million health care program as part of a broader effort to control state spending. The cut is among $240 million in program reductions he has proposed.

Defending the cut in his budget message to legislators, Mr. Glendening said, "It just does not make sense for us to nip and tuck and cut our priorities of education, safe streets, business growth and jobs to support a $48 million Maryland-only welfare system." Administration officials were not asked to justify the proposal yesterday.

Because there is no money for the program in the budget, the only way the legislature could restore it would be to cut other programs, then persuade the governor to use the savings to pay for DALP.

Yesterday, state health officials said they may be able to set up a $7 million replacement for the health care portion of the program. But for now, it appears the $157-a-month cash payments are about to run out for people who yesterday were described as "poorest of the poor."

To qualify for cash grants, recipients must have no other income, be certified by a physician to have a disability that will last a year or longer, and be in the process of applying for federal Social Security disability benefits.

Maryland's DALP also includes a loan program that provides the same cash payments for those with shorter term disabilities. But of $15 million lent last year, only $72,000 was repaid.

Even with the $157 monthly payments and food stamps, DALP supporters say, recipients find it almost impossible to afford a place to live, to feed themselves, or to buy the barest of necessities.

Joe Johnson, a DALP recipient who appeared before the panel wearing a stocking cap and several days' growth of beard, said after he pays his share of rent in a crowded apartment, "I subsist on $70 a month."

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Other witnesses said if DALP recipients lose their health benefits, many will ignore illnesses or injuries until they are so serious they must turn to hospital emergency rooms.

The cost of that treatment will then be passed on to the general public through higher hospital rates to cover the uncompensated care, and ultimately through higher insurance premiums, they said.

Jeff Singer, spokesman for Health Care for the Homeless, said shelters, soup kitchens and other private programs have no capacity to handle hundreds or potentially thousands of additional people that could come their way if DALP is eliminated.

"They will have no place else to go but on the sidewalk, or on business doorsteps, or in the suburbs, or under a bridge where maybe we won't see them as they freeze to death," he said.

Rick Mosley, a representative of Downtown Partnership, a group of 400 downtown Baltimore businesses, said ending DALP also will result in more panhandlers on the street.

Robert Whitehurst, a 60-year-old Baltimore man, said DALP saved his life after complications from stomach surgery and diabetes left him jobless, homeless and very sick.

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"I went to Health Care for the Homeless and they told me about DALP and got me medicine," he said. "Without that, and without DALP, I wouldn't be here today. I just want you to know this is real important."


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