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People with disabilites urge lawmakers to boost providers' funding

10-28 Jody Fischer ols.jpg
Jody Fischer, of Rochester, at center, gave an emotional speech concerning the plight of disabled Americans at a community forum held Monday at Autumn Ridge Church in Rochester. Fischer and others lobbied for support of the 5% Campaign, appealing to state legislatures to increase spending for home and community based services for the disabled. Aiding Fischer at left is Salwa Muhiden. To the right and behind Fischer is Rep. Duane Quam, of Byron.
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At times overcome with emotion, Jody Fischer implored local lawmakers Monday to boost funding for providers serving people with disabilities so their employees can get desperately needed wage increases.

Fischer was in a car accident and suffered a brain injury. Sitting in a wheelchair, Fischer painstakingly read a prepared statement with the help of a young woman. He credited these support staff workers with giving him the guidance and companionship he needed after the accident.

"This is overdue and very much deserved. Please help us," he said.

Fischer was just one of many who spoke out during the hour and half town hall forum, asking lawmakers to raise funding by 5 percent for providers who care for people with disabilities and older adults. It's all part of a lobbying push called "The 5% Campaign," aimed at building support in St. Paul to increase funding for these providers. The proposal would cost the state an additional $86 million.

More than 100 people filed into the gymnasium at Autumn Ridge Church for the forum. All local lawmakers had been invited to attend, but several were unable to make it due to scheduling conflicts. Four Republicans turned out for the event — Rep. Mike Benson of Rochester, Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa, Rep. John Petersburg of Waseca and Rep. Duane Quam of Byron.

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Hiawatha Homes Executive Director Cindy Ostrowski told legislators that her organization has been struggling to find and keep qualified staff because of the low wages offered. In 2009, 1,274 people applied for positions with the organization. This year, she said they will be lucky if they get 640 people to apply.

"We are facing a crisis in recruiting staff and retaining staff at Hiawatha Homes and throughout the community," she said.

Paula Kane fought back tears recalling how she had ended up leaving a job working with people with disabilities because of the poor pay. Her husband later encouraged her to get back in the field despite the low wages because she loved the work so much. She has been at Hiawatha Homes for 17 years and said she has watched plenty of her coworkers leave due to the poor pay. That turnover has a big impact on the people they serve.

"I couldn't imagine how it must feel to get to know someone and enjoy their company and trust them with their most intimate cares, and then they are gone just like that and you never see them again," she said.

All of the lawmakers agreed that funding for programs that work with the state's most vulnerable populations need to be a priority. Benson took the strongest position, promising the crowd he would work to pass a bill raising pay for personal care attendants by 5 percent. He also expressed disappointment tat despite the DFL-led Legislature's decision to pass $2.4 billion in tax increases, they did not choose to provide a significant increase for providers.

That sentiment was echoed by Drazkowski.

He asked, "Why is it that we cannot focus on the needs of the people who take care of the people who are the most vulnerable among us?"

Drazkowski did not specifically say he would support The 5% Campaign, but did say he would set a high priority on funding for programs that care for the state's most vulnerable.

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In an interview, House Health and Human Services Policy Chairwoman Tina Liebling said it is important to remember that the GOP-led House passed legislation in 2011 cutting funding for these programs by 1.67 percent. Democrats prevented those cuts from taking effect and increased funding by an additional 1 percent. Meanwhile, nursing homes received a 5 percent pay increase. She said she supports efforts to find additional dollars for these providers in the upcoming legislative session.

"They are right. We don't pay enough to do what we need to do for people in long-term care, and it really was unfair that we providing a 5 percent increase to nursing homes and must less to long-term care."

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