Budget proposal in Missouri House would eliminate aid for the blind

Terrie Arnold feels like Missouri lawmakers are playing political games with her life.

Arnold, 56, and her husband David, 57, were both born blind. He maintains a third-shift job, but she is unable to work due to numerous other medical conditions.

Those pre-existing conditions also keep her from obtaining private insurance, but the Kansas City couple earns too much to qualify for the Medicaid health care program for the poor

Arnold must depend upon Missouri’s Supplemental Aid to the Blind program.

“It’s the only thing that keeps our head above water,” she said. “All of our income would go towards prescriptions.”

The Supplemental Aid to the Blind program pays for medical care for about 2,800 people who earn more than $9,495 a year — and therefore don’t qualify for Medicaid — but also receive monthly payments from the state’s blind pension fund. They cannot have more than $20,000 in assets and cannot have sighted spouses who work.

But in the $24 billion budget passed Thursday by the Missouri House, the $28 million health care program for the blind was eliminated. The money instead was used to avoid another year of cuts to higher education.

“To them it’s all dollars and cents,” Arnold said. “But this is about people and their lives. It’s really scary.”

The decision by House Republicans to eliminate the program has proved to be the most controversial of the budget drafting process this legislative session and has turned into a political tug of war between the House and Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat. Its fate in the Senate, where the budget heads next, is still uncertain.

Rep. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican who is chairman of the House Budget Committee, has said that in a tight budget the state can no longer afford to provide blind residents medical aid that people who are deaf or paralyzed do not receive.

“It is completely inconsistent with how we treat any other disability in the state,” Silvey said. “All we are going to do is put them on a level playing field with anyone else with a disability.”

With the state facing a $500 million shortfall and a request by the governor to cut $68 million from higher education, House members were forced to make tough decisions, he said.

“If you continue to cut away and cut away and cut away at higher education, before long you start cutting into your educated workforce,” Silvey said. “If you don’t have an educated workforce, how are you ever going to dig out of a depressed economy?”

House Speaker Steve Tilley, a Perryville Republican and a doctor of optometry, has repeatedly defended the cut.

“I deal with visually impaired people every day, and I have some concerns,” Tilley said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t necessarily think they should be treated significantly differently than the other people who have another disability.”

The House budget does include $6 million for a scaled-down version of the health care program, although $4 million of that total comes from legislation that has not yet passed that would end a sales tax exemption for newspapers. The idea is to create a smaller program for those who are truly in need.

It’s estimated that $6 million will cover about 600 people.

Christopher Gray, executive director of the Missouri Council of the Blind, said lawmakers are focusing on numbers instead of the impact their decision will have on people.

The unemployment rate for the blind is nearly 70 percent, Gray pointed out, and many have other disabilities in addition to blindness that put them at risk of going uninsured. But the decision to end the program also is fiscally irresponsible, he argued.

“Not only are these cuts just plain wrong, they will cost the citizens of Missouri tens of millions of dollars because of a $28 million transfer,” Gray said. “The costs will come when blind people who have no more medical benefit are forced to go to emergency rooms for treatment or to move into nursing homes when their support system is pulled out from under them.”

Gray added that while the blind are the only disabled people who have this type of benefit, other disabilities have different types of services or Medicaid waivers that they are eligible for that are not available to the blind.

“What bothers me about the debate on this program is the attempt by some to alienate the blind from the community of disabled people,” he said. “It feels like a divide-and-conquer mentality.”

Nixon has come out strongly against using money from the blind health care program for higher education.

“Not one college or university president has asked for more funding at the expense of needy, blind Missourians,” Nixon said at an event earlier this month at a Columbia facility that promotes independent living for people with disabilities.

Nixon later demanded that the funding for the program be fully reinstated.

“We are not negotiating for a half loaf or a portion of this,” he said.

House Democrats also decried eliminating the program, although they split from Nixon in calling for revenue increases — such as raising the state’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax — instead of relying solely on cutbacks to balance the budget.

“If the state has to take away medical care from blind people to pay for its colleges and universities, it is well past time to start looking for new sources of revenue,” said Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Kansas City Democrat.

But the governor and Democrats are simply “ramping up the political rhetoric” on this issue, Silvey said, pointing specifically to a radio ad funded by the Missouri Council for the Blind that began airing last week in Kansas City.

The ad accuses Silvey of forcing thousands of blind people “to choose between medical services and food.”

In a letter to Nixon, Silvey said he’s ready to begin negotiations with the governor on how to “fund both education and welfare” when “you have finished with your press conferences and campaign rallies.”

“Continuing the assault on education unabated, however, is not an option,” Silvey added.

The 13 bills that make up the state’s budget will now go to the Senate. President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, a Dexter Republican, has said his chamber will likely reverse the cut.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican, told The Associated Press that it’s time that “all programs are looked at to evaluate who has taken their share of the cuts and who hasn’t.”

If the Senate decides to reinstate the fund, it should be prepared to find corresponding cuts that don’t come from higher education, Silvey countered.

Meanwhile, Terrie Arnold said she hopes the cuts in blind services can still be avoided.

“I really feel like we’re being shut out of the process,” she said. “It’s like this is a game to them and we’re just pawns in that game. But I still think common sense will prevail.”