With the presidential election decided, there’s a sense of relief among disability advocates in Washington, but new uncertainty is setting in with a series of deep budget cuts on the horizon.
Just days after President Barack Obama secured a second term in the White House and control of Congress remained virtually unchanged, disability advocates say they are happy to know who the players in Washington will be going forward, but remain concerned about the challenges ahead.
In January, funding for most federal programs is set to be slashed by at least 8.2 percent under a process known as sequestration, which was triggered last year when Congress failed to reach a budget deal. Unless federal lawmakers act, the consequences could be severe for Americans with disabilities, advocates say, with more than $100 billion in automatic spending cuts touching everything from special education to research and disability employment programs.
Lawmakers from both parties have indicated that they want to reach a deal to avert the broad-based cuts and disability advocates are working frantically to make their voices heard.
“The uncertainty has been really making it difficult to know what to do, but now we get to move forward,” said Katy Neas, senior vice president of government relations at Easter Seals. “We’re very concerned that if we don’t speak up that people with disabilities are going to be given the short end of the stick and expected to pick up more than their fair share.”
While entitlement programs like Medicaid and Social Security are not part of the cuts mandated under sequestration, they are likely to be considered in a spending deal given that they are big-dollar programs.
Neas said change is likely, but she hopes that programs serving those with disabilities will be reformed to improve efficiency rather than simply cut. For example, Neas said that instead of issuing an across the board funding cut to Medicaid, lawmakers could reconsider the program’s emphasis on paying for people to live in institutions which is often more costly than community-based care.
“Our job will be to help people looking for savings to find reforms within the programs that can be more cost effective,” Neas said.
In addition to lobbying on Capitol Hill, advocacy groups are working to educate those with disabilities across the country about this new reality.
“Prepare to be asked how Medicaid and other important programs helping those affected by autism can be cut,” Autism Society President Scott Badesch wrote in a message this week to the group’s members. “The reality is that we have a national financial concern we have to address.”
Many in Washington are optimistic, however, that the broad nature of the planned cuts will propel public pressure to ensure that lawmakers strike a meaningful deal that’s not too painful for people with disabilities.
“We are hopeful that we are able to come out of these negotiations intact,” said Kim Hymes, director of policy at the Council for Exceptional Children, which lobbies on behalf of special educators. But, she added, “this is going to be a difficult next few months.”