Despite an agreement last week to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff,” experts say considerable uncertainty remains regarding the future of the nation’s disability programs.
The last-minute deal struck shortly after the new year rang in halted tax increases for many Americans but failed to address a series of sweeping federal budget cuts. Instead, lawmakers opted to put off a process known as sequestration for two months, meaning that deep cuts that were expected to take effect at this beginning of this year for nearly all government programs will be delayed until March.
While offering a temporary reprieve, advocates say that the move leaves the fate of countless programs benefiting people with disabilities in the balance, with further budget negotiations in Washington virtually inevitable to deal with the impending cuts and the nation’s debt ceiling.
“Everything is on the table,” said Marty Ford, director of public policy for The Arc. “The next three months will make a huge difference in the way our federal government addresses people with disabilities for years to come.”
Of utmost concern to Ford is the future of entitlement programs like Medicaid and Social Security. Though not subject to sequestration, advocates say the programs are vulnerable in any big budget deal that lawmakers may try to reach. Changes to these initiatives could be critical for people with disabilities, Ford said, with entitlement programs often making the difference between a person being able to live in the community or having no choice outside of institutional life.
Meanwhile, under sequestration, everything from special education to transportation, housing and health care programs serving people with disabilities are slated to be slashed in March in an effort to trim billions from the federal budget.
The two-month delay of sequestration means that less money will be chopped than was forecast last fall when more than $100 billion was expected to be cut, but how much is not entirely clear. Regardless, the effect of such significant spending reductions on people with disabilities would be severe, said Lindsay Jones, senior director for policy and advocacy at the Council for Exceptional Children.
“One of the major concerns is that these cuts are indiscriminate and across-the-board,” Jones said, noting that disability programs have already sustained significant cutbacks in recent years. “I think we have these two months to re-energize our membership and get them focused on how they can best explain their concerns to Congress.”