- - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Government works best when it is small, limited and closest to the people it represents, but we cannot eliminate it entirely. This may shock some people, but as a conservative I believe there is a proper role for government. And one of the main roles government has is to take care of the people that simply cannot take care of themselves.

Right now, however, the federal government – specifically the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) – is failing to keep its promise to support these exact individuals. A rule change handed down by bureaucrats at CMS will have a dreadful outcome for people with disabilities if it goes into full effect.

CMS recently decided to change the definition of what qualifies as a home- and community-based service (HCBS) for people with disabilities. Under the umbrella of HCBS, Medicaid currently offers funding to non-profits all across the country to provide services, support and jobs for people with physical and developmental disabilities. With the new proposed rule, these organizations will lose that funding and thousands of disabled workers will lose their jobs.

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In my home state of Wisconsin, there are more than 50 community rehabilitation programs that provide these exact services, including Opportunities Inc. in Fort Atkinson and Kandu Industries in Janesville. Both organizations are very much a part of the community.

The individuals who work at each organization learn the value of hard work, get a sense of independence and are paid based on the amount of work product they are able to produce. Many of the jobs consist of packaging goods, assembling products and getting many popular items ready to be shipped to our favorite stores.

And if you ask these individuals if they like working at organizations like Opportunities and Kandu, you can just see them light up. The pride they get from their work is inspiring – especially since many would not be able find a job in a normal work setting.

I met Mackenzie a couple weeks ago, when I visited Opportunities Inc. She was born with spina bifida and unfortunately was let go by multiple jobs she had in the community. Luckily, Opportunities was there and she loves it.

“I was very fortunate to have a place to go because it’s so hard to find a job out in the community with a disability,” Mackenzie told me. She continued talking about the difficulties businesses have in accommodating people with disabilities.

“Like I said, I am very fortunate to actually have a job,” she said as she was getting choked up.

These programs are so important to the people who get to go to work everyday. Without these places, people with disabilities may lose the only option they have to work and maybe the only option they have to get out of the house. Unfortunately, that is exactly what will happen if the rule change goes through.

“The rule change is saying that Medicaid funding coming out of Washington will not support vocational and day services,” Gary Bersell, executive director of Kandu Industries, told me. “That would put us out of commission.”

Proponents of the rule change claim their goal is to integrate people with disabilities into the community. While that is commendable, eliminating choice is not the way to do it. In fact, placing people in community jobs is the ultimate goal of most of the organizations I spoke with.

Kandu, which employs a little more than 150 people with disabilities at its southern Wisconsin facility, has placed 94 people in community jobs in the last two years.

“We have supported community work as an ultimate goal for everybody,” Mr. Bersell continued.

Barb LeDuc, president and CEO of Opportunities, Inc., told me it is all about choice for the people they employ.

“Our industry was established to provide a full spectrum of vocational rehabilitation services to realize each individual’s full potential,” she said. “If CMS ignores the importance of self-determination and choice it will certainly impact the dignity and purpose of thousands of Wisconsin families and businesses.”

Ms. LeDuc could not be more right. This should be about choice.

Individuals with physical or developmental disabilities currently have the right to work in the community, but can choose to work at vocational facilities. Why would anyone want to eliminate that choice?

I think Mackenzie summed it up well when I spoke with her at Opportunities. She told me the organization has made a huge difference in her life.

“That’s what this place is about, making a difference,” she said. “If this place wasn’t here, I would be lost. And so would a lot of other people.”

If CMS continues with this rule change, it will have unbelievably unfortunate consequences for so many people. Before moving forward, I suggest the bureaucrats at CMS take a good look at the amazing work being done by groups all across the country, just like Opportunities Inc. and Kandu Industries in Wisconsin.

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