Long-awaited help for the personal care attendant (PCA) program was a highlight of the Minnesota Legislature’s October special session. The bonding bill Gov. Tim Walz signed into law October 21 includes needed dollars for the program.
Direct care for people with disabilities was in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. A shortage of staff, due in large part to low pay, put many people with disabilities at risk. Many people struggled to fill all of their worker shifts, with some spending days in bed because they had no help.
The pandemic worsened those problems. The measure Walz signed includes several key changes. One is an emergency 8.4 percent rate increase for PCAs, Consumer Directed Community Supports (CDCS), and the Consumer Support Grant (CSG). This extends to February 7, 2021.
Another change that was approved allows parents, stepparents, and legal guardians of minors to provide PCA services through February 7, 2021. Also approved is a permanent increase to the monthly hourly cap from 275 to 310 hours.
Having the PCA funding and other needs addressed with the bonding bill is another atypical occurrence in what has been an atypical year for state lawmakers and those who closely follow public policy. The pandemic sent committee and floor sessions online in March. Disability-focused groups and self-advocates found themselves following issues at a distance, learning to use online meeting platforms and weighing in from afar. The supplemental budget bill that was merged with the bonding bill is not only used for direct care and treatment services, but also corrections staff overtime and public safety funds for response to unrest around the Twin Cities.
The bill found itself caught in some of the session politics, with efforts to tie at least one Minneapolis capital project request to that city’s debate over defunding or reshaping its police department. The much-debated Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline also became a flash point. So did the civil unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul after the May murder of George Floyd, and Walz’s mandates for mask wearing and other measures.
Most debate in the House and Senate focused on bonding and the amount earmarked for capital projects, with less attention paid to the supplemental spending bill. The supplemental spending amounts to an additional $31.37 million in general fund spending for fiscal year 2021.
Funding came from agency savings and a 2021 general fund appropriation change to the Department of Human Services for Medical Assistance. The appropriation change results in a nearly $25.06 million savings, from increased federal reimbursements for Medical Assistance.
The spending provides more than $16 million to support Department of Human Services’ direct care and treatment services.
While the interim funding and added hours are welcomed, the SEIU Healthcare Workers union is making its case for a wage increase for workers in upcoming contract talks. Members met with Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan October 21 in a virtual meeting to discuss the challenges they face. SEIU is in the information-gathering stage, before formal talks begin.
Walz acknowledged the needs when speaking to the group, saying, “There is much more to be done.”
Speakers at the virtual meeting described the hardships they face as caregivers or as people needing care. They described not feeling safe in their current caregiving situations, and not in control of their own lives. Some have unfamiliar staff and the inability to fill some shifts at all. People have had to move back in with family members or go to transitional care, when they could be living on their own with adequate staff support.
“Investing in PCA pay is an investment in peoples’ lives,” said self-advocate Lauren Thompson. Losing staff support means losing choices and options, She recently had to resign from the state’s Council on Disability due to her staffing situation.
“There is this perception that our families will be there all of the time to provide care,” said Brittanie Wilson, who uses a wheelchair. But relying on family isn’t everyone’s situation.
“I’ve never had a PCA whose only job was taking care of me,” said Wilson. “I am one person away from losing everything I have worked for.”
With the pandemic, “our fragile system is collapsing all around us,” said Jacqui Kelly. She described the challenges she faces as caregiver for her teen son, who has autism. Her son is coming into adulthood and will want independence, but that cannot happen without caregiver support.
How contract talks will fare is a huge unknown. Minnesota has a looming state deficit, with projections for a $2.4 billion budget hole in the current two-year biennium. A $4.7 billion gap is anticipated in the two years after that.