Protesters charge budget cut could put them in nursing homes Disabled rally against proposal

September 29, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Men and women in wheelchairs rallied outside the state health department yesterday in hopes of saving an attendant care program that helps keep 3,400 disabled Marylanders out of nursing homes.

Three years ago, many of the same people were fighting to reform the program, which they said was under-funded and unsupervised, leaving clients vulnerable to abuse by the attendants paid to help them with the routines of daily living.

Now, they're fighting just to keep the program. Despite its flaws, they say, it is all they have.

"Things are a lot different these days," said Jack Prial, a quadriplegic who led yesterday's rally outside the health department's offices in Baltimore. "It's like an all-out assault on the poor and disabled."

The rally drew about 50 people, including clients of the program, their attendants and advocates for the disabled.

Lorie Peters, a 30-year-old Towson woman with a severe case of scleroderma, or thickening of the skin, spent 20 years in a hospital and then a year in a nursing home.

She said she expects to go back to an institution if the program is cut. Just four months ago, Gov. William Donald Schaefer gave her an award for living independently.

"I need help to bathe and cook," said Ms. Peters, who manages those tasks with the help of an attendant who comes three times a week. "I don't want to go back into the hospital."

The cut to attendant care, expected to be approved with a raft of others at tomorrow's Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis, is small within the context of the state's $450 million budget deficit.

Attendant care costs $17 million annually, but half of that is paid by the federal government. And because the cut will not go into effect until Nov. 1, four months into the fiscal year, the state expects to save less than $6 million this year.

Meanwhile, the federal government will require states to offer such a program -- formally known as Medicaid Personal Care -- starting next year, so Maryland will have to restore its program by then.

"I think what [Health Secretary Nelson Sabatini] is saying is that he doesn't have any cash," said Ellen Leiserson, an advocate for the disabled. "Right now, he had to cut his budget by $60 million. Whether it's going to cost more in the long run isn't an issue."

Mr. Sabatini, in a telephone interview from Cumberland, where he was giving a speech on the crisis in health care costs, said he can't always consider long-term implications in making these cuts.

But he also predicted that only a fraction of those receiving attendant care services would end up in nursing homes.

"Cost isn't the issue, the real issue is the quality of life," Mr. Sabatini said. "These people do not want to be institutionalized. I understand that. But this is really a crisis situation with the budget."

Ms. Leiserson said it costs an average of $26,000 a year for nursing home care in Maryland, while an aide in the attendant care program costs about $5,000. Because clients of the program all have incomes of less than $4,600 a year, any nursing home care they receive would be paid by the state and federal governments.

That's assuming people can even find nursing home beds, Mr. Prial said. Nursing homes contacted by Marylanders for Adequate Attendant Care, an advocacy group, said they had waits of four to six months, Mr. Prial said.

"I don't want to scapegoat the governor," Mr. Prial added.

"This is a very calloused, lethal thing he's advancing," Mr. Prial said. "But he's been telling the General Assembly for three years that if we don't come up with a broader tax base, he was going to have to make these cuts."

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