Advocates for ill and disabled in Vt fear being cut out
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | January 16,2013
MONTPELIER — Advocates for mentally ill and disabled Vermonters are cheering the Shumlin administration for seeking a $3 million budget supplement to cover unanticipated demand for government services.
But proposed revisions to the process by which the executive branch adjusts to mid-year budget pressures has drawn fire from advocates, some of whom think it could result in undue cuts to services.
At a public hearing Tuesday hosted by the House Appropriations Committee, advocates offered both praise and criticism for an adjustment to the current fiscal year budget that aims to address unforeseen financial pressure at the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living.
Of particular concern, advocates said, is proposed language that would change how the department can amend the “system of care” in response to financial pressure.
The department’s commissioner, Susan Wehry, said that in a state with a “very rich advocacy community,” the external response to mid-year budget shortfalls is often “well, just go ask for more money.”
“But there also is an expectation from the Legislature that we live within our budget, and there is often pushback and tension about whether that’s what the Legislature really intends,” she said.
Wehry said the proposed changes seek to clarify legislative intent and to affirm in statute that “the intent of the Legislature really is for us to live within our budget.”
To do that, she said, the administration is also seeking to alter the mechanism by which budget changes can be made. Wehry said it’s part of an effort “to be transparent.”
“It’s saying to the Legislature that in order to live within our budget, we may need to make modifications to our system of care plan that allow us to do that,” Wehry said.
Barbara Prine, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, said the changes aren’t necessary. She told lawmakers that the proposed language is unclear and “appears to authorize the department to bypass the small amount of public process that changes to the developmental services must go through.”
Under current law, Prine said, the department must vet proposed changes to the “system of care” with a committee composed of advocates, providers and recipients of care.
“The language in the budget adjustment act appears to circumvent this process,” Prine said in written testimony. “It is unwise, undemocratic and is also against the existing statutory requirements of 60-day notice and opportunity for comment by affected individuals, advocates and professionals.”
Wehry said Prine and other advocates seem to be concerned that the department aims to use the language as an end-run around outside scrutiny of its decisions. She said they need not worry.
“If the worry is we’re trying to get a new process, that’s not what we’re trying to get,” Wehry said. “What we want is to be transparent about our intent to work with (advocates, providers and clients) to modify the system of care plan as needed to stay within our budget target.”