ANNAPOLIS – Advocates for the poor and disabled pleaded with lawmakers Wednesday to restore a welfare program slashed from the 1996 budget by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Community activists and poverty experts packed a special House Appropriations subcommittee briefing to oppose elimination of the Disability Assistance and Loan Program.
Each year, the program provides emergency money, medical care and other services to about 22,000 people who are both disabled and poor. Clients remain in the state-funded program until they either go back to work or become eligible for federal disability programs.
Glendening estimates the cut would save the state $48 million.
But the advocates argued that ultimately, the move would hit taxpayers harder than it would help them. Rather than save money, they said, the state would:
– Create an unfavorable environment for business and tourism. “There’s going to be more people on the streets and more panhandling,” said Rick Mosely of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, where about three-fourths of the program’s recipients live.
– Force the impoverished ill to turn to private charities.
– Increase the costly use of emergency rooms in publicly funded hospitals.
“We are going to jeopardize the lives of those who need it most,” said Norma Pinette, executive director of Action for the Homeless, a Baltimore-based advocacy group.
The cut would put Maryland among only five other states that provide no general assistance or medical care for their disabled population, critics said.
“I’ve never seen a crueler budget cut than this one,” said Stanely Herr of the University of Maryland Law School. Herr noted that states where similar programs were cut have reported increases in homelessness and crime.
Glendening’s budget also ends two related programs:
– The $2.7 million Disability Entitlement Advocacy Program, which assists recipients in applying and qualifying for federal Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance.
– The $13.5 million Primary Care Medical Program, which offers primary care to recipients not eligible for federal Medical Assistance (Medicaid).
In a related matter, a spokesperson for Secretary Martin P. Wasserman of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene briefed lawmakers on a plan to address the medical needs of the population the program serves.
The spokesman, Deputy Director Alan Baker, acknowledged that details were sketchy. But Baker said officials anticipated some savings this year, given that the program would serve fewer clients than expected. That money could be held for next year, if the legislature approves.
In addition, Baker said, the department wants to renegotiate some health care provider contracts at rates more favorable to the state.
According to a report by the Department of Fiscal Services, the General Assembly’s nonpartisan policy analysts, Glendening’s cut would leave current program recipients with few options.
Remaining would be food stamps, federal programs for the disabled, a state program that subsidizes the cost of prescription drugs and Medicaid. Beyond those, the report said, recipients could turn to soup kitchens, shelters for the homeless and emergency rooms.
But without the program Glendening wants to cut, the advocates said, some people would never find their ways to these alternatives. And that would mean the loss of millions in federal assistance funds that now flow through Maryland’s economy. “We’ve heard the options, they’re illusionary,” said Jeff Singer of Health Care for the Homeless. “As state officials, we ask you to be hard headed and practical about this and not send 21,000 people into freefall.” -30-