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Eye On Boise

Judge halts state budget cut for disabled

Idaho's planned cutbacks in Health & Welfare programs have run into a snag - a federal judge has temporarily barred the state from cutting a cash assistance program for some developmentally disabled adults. The recipients, who all function at the level of an 8-year-old or below, are part of a proposed class-action lawsuit charging that cutting their monthly payments could force them to become institutionalized, actually costing the state more than paying to keep them in certified family care homes. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Federal judge: Idaho can't cut cash assistance yet
By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has temporarily barred Idaho from cutting a cash assistance program for some developmentally disabled adults, saying the state must do more to make sure recipients or their guardians are properly notified of the changes.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill made the ruling last week after attorneys representing some of the developmentally disabled residents said cutting the monthly payments could leave their clients without enough money to pay for care in a certified family home — effectively forcing them to become institutionalized.

Tom Shanahan, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Welfare, says the agency will submit a communication plan to Winmill that ensures those affected by the cuts get adequate notice of their right to challenge the cuts.

Still, with lower Idaho state tax revenues putting pressure on the Health and Welfare budget, the agency still hopes to follow through with the austerity measures to help it keep spending under control, he said.

"It's entirely funded by general funds, there's no federal match, and it keeps growing every year," Shanahan said of the program being trimmed.

Nearly 15,000 Idaho residents get cash payments through the Aid for the Aged, Blind and Disabled program. Earlier this year, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare announced it was reducing or eliminating payments to about 1,250 of them in the wake of budget cuts as the program was facing a $1.1 million deficit.

Attorneys with Idaho Legal Aid sued on behalf of six residents, asking for class-action status and saying the cuts target some of the most vulnerable Idahoans.

In his ruling, Winmill barred state officials from cutting payments to roughly 400 of the residents to allow time for the court to make sure they understand their rights to fight the cuts. Winmill noted that residents who receive the assistance all function at the level of someone 8 years old or younger.

While about 800 people whose payments were getting cut are cared for by a close relative — who could act on their behalf in fighting the welfare cuts — about 400 don't, Winmill said, and instead are living with non-family care providers who generally aren't under any obligation to fight benefit reductions on behalf of their clients. That makes it likely they haven't been given sufficient legal notice of the impending cuts.

Winmill said the restraining order will continue until the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare comes up with a court-approved plan to provide meaningful notice to the individuals that their benefits are being cut. For instance, that could mean a guardian has to be appointed for each one, Winmill said, or that automatic appeals be started on each individual's behalf.

James Piotrowski, one of the attorneys representing the cash assistance recipients, contends the state's decision to cut benefits wasn't an effective way to save money.

"The group is, by definition, severely developmentally disabled adults who have very few places to turn," he said. "They're simply not receiving very large benefits from the state, and there are limited options for living arrangements. If they can't stay where they are, they could end up somewhere like an intermediate aid facility — and that could result in greater costs to Medicaid and other programs."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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