Disabled Woman Faces Severe Cuts in State Aid

Sep 8, 2008

Eric Pera

Lakeland Ledger

LAKELAND | Developmentally, Johnnie Witter never made it beyond the age of 9 months. Yet as an adult of 26, the Lakeland woman enjoys a comfortable lifestyle thanks to Florida's Medicaid waiver program.

Using a wheelchair and sporting pigtails and a mile-wide grin, Witter resides in a group home, surrounded by people who attend to her every need. There are occasional field trips, and she spends much of her day at a training center where she's taught simple skills.

All of her medical and dental needs are paid for, including things like medicine, diapers and special thickening agents to help her swallow liquids. The total cost of her care is roughly $50,000 a year.

But that is about to change for Witter and thousands like her who face huge cuts in services, such as housing, transportation, job training, mental health therapy and dental treatment.

As many as 7,500 Floridians with developmental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, autism and severe mental retardation, will be impacted by budget reductions at Florida's Agency for Persons with Disabilities, advocates say. As many as 300 to 400 people in Polk County will feel the pinch.

Earlier this year, lawmakers cut $120 million from the agency's Medicaid waiver budget of slightly more than $900 million and created four tiers of eligibility. Witter falls into Tier 3, which is now capped at $35,000 annually.

That means her parents will have to contribute $15,000 a year to maintain her current level of services or decide what she can do without.

"It's horrendous," Debbie Witter said of the reduction to her daughter's expenses. "We have to choose which services we want to keep to stay under $35,000. We're not going to let her go without diapers. If there's no money, we'll do the diapers, which is about $2,500 a year."

Witter, a project manager for a Lakeland air-conditioning company, and her husband, a dairy plant worker for Publix Super Markets, are appealing their daughter's waiver reduction.

If unsuccessful, they'll be forced to consider scaling back services they consider fundamental to their daughter's well-being.

Advocates for the developmentally disabled worry about the impact a reduction in services will have for people who have no means to supplement their care.

Some will be forced out of their group homes, while others will lose training that helps them find jobs or live independently, said Shirley Balogh, president and chief executive officer of Alliance for Independence in Lakeland.

"I've been here for 34 years, and this is the worst situation I've seen," she said.

Balogh's $1.8 million agency supports two group homes and a training center for 120 people who come daily from around the county to work on basic living and vocational skills. Local employers, such as Publix and Bright House, provide jobs like stuffing envelopes, which can be done at Alliance's training center.

"Half of our clients will have to cut some days, and some may have to cut the whole program," said Balogh, who also is contemplating staff cuts.

"Some of these families are going to be absolutely devastated."

Statewide, about 24,000 people with developmental disabilities receive services through the Medicaid waiver program, which uses a mix of state and federal dollars.

Roughly a third, or 7,100 people, will be affected by the cutbacks, said Jim Weeks, chief financial officer for the Sunrise group of companies.

Sunrise, a nonprofit based in Miami, operates group homes throughout the state, including the home where Johnnie Witter resides.

Weeks said it's getting tougher for service providers like Sunrise to make ends meet, as Florida continues to reduce the amount providers can bill Medicaid for services.

"We're slowly bleeding to death," he said.

The Witters know the feeling. They say they raised Johnnie, their only child, with little outside support until she turned 21 and moved into the Alicia House group home. Johnnie was born with a rare, genetic abnormality that severely limits her ability to communicate.

"She's like an infant," her mother said.

"You can't leave her in the car to run in a store to get milk. She can't speak. But she cries, she laughs, smiles, frowns. I know she hears, but I don't know how well."

Because of her fragile health, Johnnie sees doctors often. She must be put to sleep simply to have her teeth cleaned, Witter said, mostly for the protection of the one doing the cleaning.

Until Johnnie turned 18, her parents' income was too high to qualify for much monetary support, so Medicaid has been a godsend, Debbie Witter said.

With the services of Sunrise and Alliance for Independence, Johnnie "has thrived like you wouldn't believe," Witter said.

But each year brings another round of budget cuts that reduce Johnnie's quality of life, she said.

For instance, Johnnie no longer gets physical therapy, so she's totally dependent on a wheelchair.

And Sunrise has all but eliminated excursions, said Witter, who brings her daughter home every other weekend.

"We're ordinary, middle-class people," Witter said. "We're looking forward to retirement in about 15 years, and $1,000 a month goes a long way toward a 401(k)."

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