PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday March 16th, 2015, 4:21pm

Illinoisans Speak Out Against Rauner's Proposed Human Services Budget Cuts

A few hundred Illinoisans attended a state Senate appropriations hearing in Chicago on Monday to discuss Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed budget cuts to Department of Human Services programs. Here's a breakdown of what happened at the hearing and what some audience members have to say about the governor's fiscal plan.

The Illinois Home Services program connects people with physical disabilities to personal assistants who can assist them in their homes. The vital support system is just one of many human services programs on the chopping block under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's 2016 budget proposal.

Adam Ballard, 33, who suffers from a physical disability and uses a power wheelchair, depends on the Home Services program. He says the program has allowed him to live independently, work a full-time job and support his family. The governor's fiscal plan, if adopted, could deal a significant blow to Ballard's way of life. He was among a few hundred people that attended a Monday state Senate appropriations hearing that looked at Rauner's proposed budget, with the meeting specifically focusing on the plan's potential impact on the Department of Human Services (DHS). Overall, the governor's proposed budget calls for reducing DHS spending by more than $500 million.

The Home Services program, one of many items in the DHS budget that could take a big hit if Rauner gets his way, enables disabled people to live independently in the community instead of in nursing homes, the latter of which disability rights advocates say is more costly for the state.

As part of Rauner's proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1, $110 million would be slashed from the Home Services program by changing the eligibility criteria. The Republican's budget would raise the program's minimum eligibility or "Determination of Need" score from 29 to 37.

Ballard, who works at the Chicago-based disability rights organization Access Living, said he would likely fall below the eligibility threshold if Rauner's proposed eligibility changes are realized. Access Living estimates that 10,000 Illinoisans, representing a third of the entire Home Services program, could lose access to home-based assistance if the "Determination of Need" score is raised.

"If that would happen, I would lose attendant service in the home, so it might become very difficult for me to work," Ballard said of the prospect of being disqualified from the program. "I'd have to rely on family and friends to provide those services for free, and they don't have the time to do that, and it would lead to an overburdening of my support system.

"I have two children who have disabilities themselves, so family resources are already stretched thin, and it could lead to me eventually losing my job or maybe even going back to a nursing home," Ballard added. "Along with the loss of dignity for myself, (moving into a nursing home) doesn't do the state any financial favors in the long-term either."

According to Access Living, people who receive assistance through the Home Services program each save the Illinois Medicaid system an average of $17,000 annually by living at home rather than a nursing home. The program serves disabled individuals up to age 60. 

The state is up against a $6 billion budget deficit next fiscal year, stemming in large part from the January rollback of the state's temporary income tax hike.

"This is a difficult time and a difficult budget," DHS acting secretary Greg Bassi told lawmakers at the top of the hearing. "As a result, difficult decisions must be made."

"We put a great deal of thought into making responsible choices, and we've taken every effort to preserve our core services," he added.

Speaker after speaker, including consumers, providers and advocates, spoke against proposed cuts to family and community service programs as well as supports for immigrants, adults and children with disabilities and individuals with mental illness and addiction.

Rauner's fiscal blueprint looks to cut community mental health programs by $82 million.

Heather O'Donnell, vice president of public policy and advocacy for Chicago-based Thresholds, a recovery service provider for people with mental illness in Illinois, said the state's mental health safety net "will be completely devastated" if such a spending reduction is adopted.

"A serious mental illness is no different than any other medical condition. When you stop treatment, it doesn't miraculously go away," O'Donnell told Progress Illinois before testifying at the hearing. "It worsens, people become unstable, people become psychotic, and then they start the vicious cycle through hospitalizations, homelessness, criminal justice involvement, because they're living on the streets and they commit crimes of survival. And all of these things are far, far more expensive than treatment."

On the topic of mental health, committee member state Sen. Michael Hastings (D-Tinley Park) brought up the 2012 closure of the state-operated Tinley Park Mental Health Center, saying many former patients have been forced to seek treatment in south suburban emergency rooms as a result of the facility closure.

"Have you ever been to an emergency room in the south suburbs," Hastings asked Bassi, to which Bassi said, "Not that I can recall."

"I can tell you I have," Hastings said. "And I can tell you that the amount of mental health patients that (has) increased in the south suburbs has been pretty dramatic. It's been so dramatic, as a matter of fact, there's people that are standing on street corners with mental disabilities. And if they're not standing on street corners, they're residing" in the Cook County Jail.

Hastings also raised concerns about the Child Care Assistance Program's (CCAP) current $300 million budget shortfall and Rauner's plan to completely eliminate funding for the Teen Reach program, which provides after school programming for Illinois youth, among other budget items.

"My people in the south suburbs are scared," Hastings said. "They're scared because they're underserved and they're going to continue to be underserved because of this governor's budget."

Asked about CCAP, Bassi said: "My understanding is that it wasn't fully funded at the start of this year. We are working with the governor and the General Assembly to try to fix that. It's unfortunate that it wasn't funded through the full year, and I think that's part of what the plan in this budget going forward is, is to create a certain realistic, balanced budget so that year-to-year we know how much (money) we're going to have coming in and how much we're going to be paying out."

State Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) took the opportunity to blast former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn for spending "all of the money that the legislature appropriated before he left office," adding that Quinn "spent a year's worth of money the General Assembly gave him for child care in half the year."

He stressed that Rauner has been working to resolve CCAP's funding shortfall, noting that, "To be perfectly clear, everybody in this room understands why this problem hasn't been solved yet is because the Senate Democratic Caucus wants to leverage this issue and push this debt into next year -- and they're using you as political pawns in the process."

"Somebody's got to speak the truth in this room," Murphy said, prompting the audience to boo him.

After the hearing, Appropriations Committee Chairwoman state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) told reporters that it would likely be very difficult for Rauner's budget, as proposed, to garner enough votes in both the House and Senate for passage.

Rauner's fiscal blueprint, she said, does not "demonstrate that level of compassion that I know the governor has expressed concern about, and I suspect we'll also want to try to achieve. I do think there is going to have to be a lot of working together to try to get to a budget that's more reasonable."

Asked to sum up where fiscal year 2016 budget talks currently stand among legislators and the administration, Steans said the current focus is more on how to address the current fiscal year's issues. 

"I'm hoping that we're actually going to have a fiscal year '15 fix ... this week to actually look at so we can actually start having conversations about next year's budget," the senator said. "Right now, we're really in the phase of meeting with every agency director to understand the consequences of the proposed budget. We haven't even started those negotiations until we really finish the current fiscal year." 


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