By Steve Suroviec, President and CEO
As America celebrates its national holiday of Thanksgiving, we at ACHIEVA are thankful for the Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities Act of 1966, which passed over 50 years ago creating the first state-funded community-based service system for Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities. At the time, the new law was cutting edge and paved the way for tens of thousands of people with disabilities to get the support they needed to live their lives in their own community rather than a state-funded institution. Today, billions of state and federal dollars go into the community system first created by the MH/ID Act through the use of Medicaid “waivers” (federal rule that allows states to “waive” institutional care so that the same public funding can be used to support people with disabilities in their own homes and communities). Thousands upon thousands of people with disabilities now enjoy the ability to live self-directed lives, work in competitive-integrated jobs, and have neighbors in typical neighborhoods just like anyone else. I for one am thankful for the community-based system that the MH/ID Act of 1966 started over 50 years ago.
Unfortunately, efforts are afoot in Harrisburg that would radically change the MH/ID Act of 1966. The Senate just passed Senate Bill 906, legislation that if passed into law will turn the MH/ID Act on its head, changing it from a force for community inclusion to one that perpetuates institutional care for people with disabilities. By a vote of 40 to 9, the Pennsylvania Senate voted to stop the state Department of Human Services from implementing its plan to transition people in two of the remaining four institutions into community-based programs and closing the centers permanently. The bureaucracy that would be imposed by the bill before any state center could close makes it likely Pennsylvania’s institutions will operate in perpetuity.
It’s 2019. Next year is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet our elected officials in Harrisburg are still debating whether people with disabilities should live in institutions? Credit goes to Senator Lindsey Williams (38th District in Allegheny County) for voting against S.B. 906 – she was the only senator in our region who had what it took to say no to turning back the clock. While the Senate vote tally is no doubt a sad commentary on where disability policy could be headed in Harrisburg, the good news is that the bill hasn’t yet passed the House of Representatives. We at ACHIEVA hope that Speaker Mike Turzai, Majority Leader Brian Cutler, and House Appropriations Committee Chair Stan Saylor exhibit leadership and keep the bill from moving forward.
This is not a partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans should vote against any effort to change the MH/ID Act of 1966 to keep institutions open in Pennsylvania. Such leadership would be welcome and something for which people with disabilities and their families would truly be thankful this Thanksgiving.
As always, please feel free to send me constructive comments and questions to email@example.com.