Dan Smith - Disability Attorney
In the last two weeks, two major decisions involving the Florida budget have come out of Governor Rick Scott’s office which are upsetting and concerning for many of my clients and Floridians in general: the Governor’s proposal to cut state Disability funding, and his decision not to have Florida participate in the Class Action Lawsuit against BP and DeepWater Horizon for the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill.
Earlier this month Gov. Scott placed an emergency order to cut funding for the Medicaid-waiver program by 15%. This program is offered by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which is over-budget by $174 million. Gov. Scott lifted that emergency order on the condition that the state Legislature can find a way to cover the gap. The House and Senate have resolved to work out this issue over the next two weeks. So, while the immediate danger to Medicaid funding may have been avoided, the bottom-line problem of insufficient funds remains.
The program, which supports independent living for over 30,000 Floridians and has a waitlist of almost 20,000 more, is a big concern for lawmakers as well as the people who rely on that funding. Tallahassee.com reports that without this funding, the executive director of Habilitation Management Services is afraid that it will “likely be a death sentence” for some people. “It’s real frustrating,” Gov. Scott said this week, “we’ve got to come up with a funding mechanism and a management team that’s going to make sure we can take care of this very vulnerable group of people but also make sure we live within our means.”
Meanwhile, on April 19 Gov. Scott announced that Florida will forgo joining the Class Action suit against BP for last year’s oil spill, which has outraged many. State Representative Rick Kreisman called it a “dereliction of duty” not to “make a claim for damages and other relief beyond what BP may pay through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF).” The House is scheduled to meet with the GCCF’s attorney this week or next to discuss compensation distribution to individual Floridians, but they will not be discussing any compensation to Florida itself. A spokesperson for the State Attorney General’s office says that they agree with Gov. Scott that “filing a claim against BP is the best and fastest way to recoup losses” for the state.
Two days later, BP announced their voluntary creation of a $1 billion Environmental Restoration Fund to be divided between the effected states so the Gulf area can begin the process which Gov. Scott called “restoring our natural treasures to pre-spill status.” Florida’s piece of this pie is reportedly $100 million, but no one has any accurate estimate of the total cost it will take to repair the environmental damages. At least we know that it will be BP and not tax-paying Floridians who will foot the initial bill of repairing the effects of this disaster.
The Governor is an experienced businessman used to handling big numbers and big business, but he seems to be upsetting so many people who feel he is missing some of the small, yet important, details for Florida’s long-term financial and social goals.
The funding generated by a 15% decrease to the Medicare-waiver program may be a short-term fix for that program’s deficit, but it would likely be a band-aid over a bullet wound to the whole state budget. While BP is voluntarily providing funding to begin environmental recovery, the state could both take advantage of that funding and pursue any additional avenues for possible income – including claims through the GCCF.
The federal trial for the class-action lawsuit isn’t scheduled to begin until next February, and no one has an estimated cost for the litigation yet. Maybe this is the reason that Gov. Scott decided not to join in – to avoid encumbering the State with the additional up-front expense. I only hope that the money the State saves by not participating in this suit will help citizens by making its way into programs which Floridians already enjoy and are benefited by, like Medicare. There’s also the timeline to consider: if litigation doesn’t even begin until next year who knows when the State may actually receive any compensation? A claim through the GCCF may end up being much quicker.
Many of my clients are on SSD or recipients of Medicare and have concerns about the changes taking place in Tallahassee. Right now, all I can tell them is that we’ll have to see how the Legislature works things out in the next couple weeks. Of course, I myself am very anxious about the potential changes. My last blog, talked about the national attention that Medicare costs and cuts have received, but here we see the issue at our own front door – amongst our family, friends, and neighbors. While Florida’s natural beauty may be on its way to recovery, we must remember the damage that can be done to our community if responsible budget management is not balanced with basic human kindness.