If you want to know just how desperate — and patient — Louisiana families with developmentally disabled children have been when it comes to getting help from the state, consider this: The next family that will be eligible for the state's New Opportunities Waiver (NOW) program, which provides assistance for in-home care, has been waiting in line since 2004. State lawmakers tried to do something about that backlog during the recent legislative session when they approved several funding increases for disability-related services. One of those increases — about $3.9 million in a $25 billion budget — would have allowed 200 more families to join the NOW program. Those families have been waiting — and hoping — a long time for some official help.
Thanks to Gov. Bobby Jindal, they'll have to wait a while longer. Armed with his veto pen, the governor has single-handedly taken that help, and that hope, away. He vetoed roughly $6 million in state funds from various programs designed to help the disabled and their families. Even some Republicans were taken aback by the vetoes. State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, tweeted, "Wow?? Governor sticks it to the disabled community. Match up the line-item cuts to HB1 and see what you get. Yikes." The reaction across the state was equally incredulous, and despite Jindal's attempts to tamp down criticism, the vetoes undoubtedly will further depress his already sagging poll numbers. Last week began with speculation that he may run against U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu next year. By week's end, Landrieu must have been relishing the prospect of a Jindal candidacy. Vetoing $6 million for developmentally disabled children writes itself as a political attack ad — and it reinforces critics' portrait of Jindal as uncaring.
In an open letter to the state's newspaper editors, Jindal answered his critics and defended the vetoes. "Despite reports to the contrary, the final budget that was signed into law does not include any cuts for people with developmental disabilities who are currently receiving waiver services," he wrote.
The governor's assertion is absolutely true, as far as it goes. But Jindal's defense also skirts the real issue raised by his vetoes. Sandee Winchell, executive director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, confirms that the governor is quite correct on the issue of cutting existing waiver services. Nothing that's presently in place has been cut. The problem, Winchell says, is that there are about 10,000 families waiting in line for help — and Jindal has nixed the Legislature's effort to marginally increase the tiny flow of state aid for those underserved Louisiana families. "These are services that assist people to stay in their homes and in their community, people with severe disabilities," Winchell says. "The [NOW] waiver is more cost-effective and affords a much higher quality of life."
Also cut by Jindal (and not specifically addressed in his letter to editors) was about $800,000 for Children's Special Health Services (CSHS), a division of the Office of Public Health. The public health office is part of the much larger state Department of Health & Hospitals, which Jindal once ran. The CSHS funds were intended to underwrite small clinics around the state that provide "wraparound services" for disabled children and adults, many of whom have not just one medical issue, but a constellation of problems. "When they have children with these complex medical conditions, you have access to more than one physician," Winchell says. "If your child needs more than one specialist, the physician can look at the medical record" and help coordinate social workers, nurses and other professionals to ensure the best care.
Jindal's letter says — again, with technical accuracy — that his office has increased spending in many areas related to Louisianans with disabilities since he took office. But Winchell says overall funding has gone down in recent years. Both may be right, depending on how you view the problem. Of course, none of that matters if you're one of the 10,000 families waiting in line to get a scrap of help from the state.
Advocates for the disabled are urging voters to contact lawmakers in hopes of calling a special session to override Jindal's vetoes. Unfortunately, the chances of that happening are about as remote as a family with a developmentally disabled child actually getting help from the state under the NOW program.
The governor misses no opportunity to tout his pro-life bona fides. We can think of nothing more "pro-life" than helping the state's most vulnerable citizens and their families. Jindal's vetoes were heartless — and indefensible.