Smith, the associate director for Supportive Living at Stone Belt Arc in Bloomington, had not received notification of a policy change ending a grocery benefit formerly paid to Indiana residents with autism, Asperger’s syndrome and other developmental disabilities who receive a Residential Living Allowance.
Confused and surprised, Smith, who works for one of the largest service providers for the developmentally disabled in south central Indiana, picked up the phone and called a service provider in a neighboring county. She wanted to know if they had noticed the changes too.
The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration enacted this Residential Living Allowance policy change in September.
The allowance is a state-funded program with the goal of enabling individuals to live on their own rather than in assisted living.
The 10-page policy outlines a list of expenses included in the allowance — such as rent, utilities and telephone — and two pages of expenses not included. However, groceries are never mentioned in the allowance.
On Oct. 25, a legislative Select Joint Commission on Medicaid Oversight had a meeting in Indianapolis to discuss the issue.
Before the FSSA policy was enacted in September, The American Civil Liberties Union and Steven Dick, an Indianapolis attorney, brought a lawsuit against the FSSA regarding decreases in the grocery allowance.
FSSA spokesman Marcus Barlow said the changes were made in response to misuse of the grocery allowance. He said 70 percent of the individuals misstated their income.
“We reduced the scope of the program,” Barlow said. “We felt that the individuals who are receiving RLA could also survive off of federal benefits, so we focused that money more on things the federal government doesn’t pay for.”
Twelve Indiana House and Senate members make up the Select Joint Commission on Medicaid Oversight that met last week.
One of these members is State Senator Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, who expressed concern not only for the termination of the grocery benefit, but also for the general lack
of information provided for legislators.
She said she wants specific information from the state administration on budget cuts.
“This is very secretive,” Simpson said. “(The state) will not tell us things we’ve been requesting for a year. It’s important we have these meetings because we get information from the public.”
While budget cuts are expected during these times, Simpson argued that this one went too far.
“Everyone is interested in cutting budgets, but the vulnerable populations have been extraordinarily impacted by these budget cuts,” she said.
“You judge a society by how it cares for its most vulnerable citizens. I would say we’re getting a failing grade.”
Dick said he feels a close tie to the population Simpson referred to.
His son, Michael, is autistic. At 26, he functions as a nonverbal 6- or 7-year-old, Dick said. Michael lives in a rental house and receives help from 24/7 care providers.
Previously, his son was given $200 a month for groceries. Now he receives $181 a month in food stamps or about $6 a day.
“These people don’t have the ability to go to food banks — they’re dependent on service providers or relatives to care for them,” Dick said. “They have no voice.”
Despite public outcry and concern from the Medicaid Oversight Committee, the FSSA is not obligated to change the new policy.
Erik Gonzalez, fiscal analyst for the House Democrats Ways and Means Office, said the committee’s concern was included in the meeting’s final report. The report, a reflection of points covered in the meeting, is sent to the Indiana Legislative Council.
The FSSA estimated that 440 Indiana residents receive the RLA and will be affected by the change. At least 11 of the people live in Bloomington and use Stone Belt as their service provider, Smith said.
With the higher rents in town because of college housing, the budget cuts could be a bigger blow to the locals. But Smith said she is optimistic about the wealth of Bloomington resources that can ease the burden.
“I think agencies are working really hard to be proactive to help make sure people are signed up for every benefit they can get, find the right roommates for people and do the things the state is asking us to do,” Smith said. “We’re trying to do the best
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