COLUMBIA, S.C. - Lawmakers are considering cutting all services for nearly 26,000 people with disabilities as South Carolina tries to plug a $560 million budget hole.
Parents say the proposed cuts to day care programs and other services would force them to give up much-needed jobs to stay home and care for their young and adult children.
Andrew J. Imparato, chief executive of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said he is hearing horror stories about budget cuts around the country, but South Carolina is the most extreme example. Shutting down everything but federally required residential care is "the most draconian kind of thing I've heard," he said.
Lawmakers say they have little choice. They are trying to close a shortfall in next year's budget in a heavily Republican state where tax increases are not considered a viable option.
Mary Bennett, a single mother of three, said the budget cuts would mean sending her 11-year-old autistic son to an institution or giving up her job at a Columbia program that helps parents like her. Her son goes to public school a few days a week and a state-funded program cares for him the other days.
"He's completely dependent on other people. He can't do anything himself," said Bennett, 47. "I wouldn't be able to work if they cut his services."
The budget approved by a House committee last week would provide services only for 4,800 people with disabilities living in group homes or institutions, the only type of care the federal government requires the state to provide.
Theoretically, others who need help could move to those facilities, but there are only two open slots in the entire system and those are reserved for those in most dire need.
More than half of the proposed cuts in the current version of next year's $5 billion budget - about $113 million in all - affect Medicaid and other human services programs. The Department of Disabilities and Special Needs would see its funding slashed by $42 million, or 28 percent.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, a Piedmont Republican, said he's trying to find a way to soften the cuts, but there's simply not enough money in other agency budgets to readily make up the difference.
House Minority Leader Harry Ott, a St. Matthews Democrat, railed against the proposed cuts, but doesn't believe they're being used as bargaining chips to free up money elsewhere in the budget. They "just misread their numbers in their haste to get the budget out," Ott said. "They just kept cutting and nobody really looked at the ramifications of what those cuts meant."
Other states have raised taxes to deal with similar problems, but that's unlikely in South Carolina.
"There's just not a willingness to raise taxes in a Republican House," Cooper said.
On Wednesday, activists and people with disabilities packed the Statehouse lobby to ask legislators not to cut their programs. Disabilities Advocacy Day is an annual event, but has more urgency this year.
State Rep. Lanny Littlejohn, R-Spartanburg, was on the House floor reading letters from disabled people who would lose adult day care and work programs.
"We are the only the ones that can help these people and it's our responsibility to do that," he said.
Advocates say the cuts will make it tougher for people to survive or thrive: No more door-widening or ramps for people using wheelchairs; parents caring for adult children with disabilities would lose day care programs where they learn basic skills and earn a little money; 48 percent of the state's Medicaid recipients would lose prescription coverage as the state imposes a three-drug cap instead of the current maximum of 10.
"We just by necessity have to cut that optional stuff," Cooper said.
Other states, like Oklahoma and California, are also cutting services for people with disabilities, but the changes are minor in comparison. Advocates say the South Carolina cuts are shortsighted because they eliminate early-intervention programs that could help prevent more expensive problems down the road.
In Aiken County, Board of Disabilities Executive Director Ralph Courtney says budget cuts in the current fiscal year already have forced him to shut down programs that offer in-home help for parents of children ages 3 to 5 who have disabilities including autism or at risk of developing them. The need for help is "generally decreased if you get to them soon enough," Courtney said.
The state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs estimates that at $9,000 to $13,000 a year, providing in-home services for people with disabilities is less expensive than sending them to an institution or group home, where full-time care costs between $28,500 and $114,000 annually.
Shelia Dull, 46, said that under the proposed budget she would lose day care services for her 24-year-old daughter in Dorchester County that allow her to work a couple of days a week, as well as catheters and other supplies. Her daughter has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.
"I can't leave her alone for eight hours by herself," Dull said. "What happens if she fell in the bathroom? Who would help her?"
Carolyn Myers, an advocate for people with disabilities, said people often believe parents have the sole obligation to provide care. She said many don't understand how physically demanding it is to care for a child who is older than 13 or an adult.
"You're talking about someone who has to have a lifetime of this kind of care," she said. "It's not like you can go out and hire the neighborhood teenage baby sitter to come in and do the job, either."