| Times Union

Bethany Bump

Disabled New Yorkers who rely on state-funded personal care services say they’re being unfairly blamed for the state’s budget crisis, and are urging a panel tasked with finding cuts to spare a program they say grants them independence.

At a public forum in Albany on Friday — the third and final such forum hosted by the state’s Medicaid Redesign Team — individuals using wheelchairs and wearing “Save CDPA” buttons said the state’s Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Program allows them to remain at home and out of much costlier institutional settings.

The program pays for aides to go to their homes and assist them with daily tasks of living, enabling many to hold down jobs and direct their own lives.

“I am a homeowner and a taxpayer,” said Vince Reiter, a program coordinator with Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley who receives services through the program. “I am an active member of my community and church. I volunteer every year for the St. Joseph Walk raising money for the homeless. All of these things are possible because I have access to CDPA.”

The program has been the target of cuts in the past year, as state health officials work to reduce the number of fiscal intermediaries who perform administrative functions and alter the rate structure by which they get paid.

Participants in the program fear more cuts could be on the way after Gov. Andrew Cuomo referenced the program when discussing the state’s ballooning Medicaid costs and $6.1 billion budget gap next year.

He has since charged a Medicaid Redesign Team with finding $2.5 billion in savings by mid-March, for inclusion in the state budget due April 1.

“Think about what it would feel like starting your day if you couldn’t get out of bed on your own, laying there hoping someone will be there to help you,” Reiter said to the panel. “This is the climate of fear that thousands of New Yorkers with disabilities are facing every day. I encourage the Medicaid Redesign Team to keep this in mind as you move forward.”

More than two dozen people representing Medicaid-funded industries spoke at Friday’s hearing. Many urged officials not to make cuts, and to instead invest in home-based care, community care, social interventions and care coordination.

These services pay off in the long run, they argued, by keeping people healthy and out of hospitals, emergency rooms and other institutional settings.

A number of speakers challenged the premise that New York has a budget deficit, noting that Medicaid spending exceeds a self-imposed 3 percent growth limit set by the governor years earlier. That “global cap” is outdated, they argue, and no longer representative of New Yorkers’ needs.

“I would like us as New Yorkers to take pride in how we care for people by providing the services they need to live independently,” said Sue Ruff, an advocate with the Southern Tier Independence Center. “We’ve also had success in reducing the uninsured numbers in New York. These are good things. They should not be the focus of radical reductions. Please don’t balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable populations.”

Bill Hammond, director of health policy for the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank based in Albany, said he was able to identify over $3 billion in Medicaid savings New York could pursue without impacting beneficiaries and local governments.

His ideas included tightening enrollment standards for community-based long-term care, improving screening to weed out ineligible recipients, and reducing “overuse” of personal assistance programs.

In 2016, New York accounted for 40 percent of nationwide Medicaid spending on personal care, despite 32 other states offering it as a benefit, he said.

“I don’t think you should be raising revenue to cover this deficit,” he said, countering suggestions that New York should tax the rich to close its budget gap. “This deficit is driven by excessive spending.”

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