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PA lawsuit seeks to stop possible welfare spending cuts at the pass

By   /   March 15, 2012  /   No Comments

Administration says lawsuit would be frivolous
By Stacy Brown | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett and Department of Public Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander said filing a lawsuit over Corbett’s proposed budget is frivolous.

But, the Pennsylvania Disability Rights Network said it is seeking to protect critical services threatened by Corbett's proposed cut of $319 million, effectively killing the state's General Assistance Program. The organization's lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Commonwealth Court.

The network, a nonprofit designated as the federally mandated organization to advance and protect the civil rights of adults and children with disabilities, includes the Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania, The Arc of Pennsylvania, PA Mental Health Consumers Association, Vision for EQuality, National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southwestern PA, Speaking for Ourselves, and the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

“For years, DPW (Department of Public Works) has consistently asked for and received woefully inadequate appropriations to support services for Pennsylvanians with disabilities that are mandated under the Mental Health and Intellectual Disability Act of 1966,” Disability Rights Network CEO Mark Murphy said at a news conference Wednesday when the lawsuit was revealed.

Additionally, the “ill-advised attempt to balance Pennsylvania’s budget on the backs of people with mental illness and disabilities is a recipe for social and economic disaster,” said Debbie Plotnick, director of Advocacy for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

However, the $27.1 billion budget unveiled last month was simply a proposal that has yet to be negotiated with lawmakers, said Corbett spokeswoman Kelli Roberts.

"There is still a long way to go," Roberts said.

But, the network's managing attorney Carol Horowitz argued that the lawsuit was not filed prematurely.
It was filed now, because "as soon as the governor submitted his budget to the Legislature asking for insufficient amount of funds, that was a violation of the law we contend," said Horowitz.

Still, Alexander said DPW is seeking to keep the integrity of welfare intact.

"Our goal is to develop a budget that still protects the core programs in welfare. Efficiency and program integrity and the good name of welfare is what we're trying to keep with this budget," he said.

Telephone and email messages left at the offices of Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Democratic House Majority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, were not returned.

Corbett wants to eliminate the General Assistance Program that provides cash assistance benefits to about 60,000 Pennsylvanians.
The proposed budget also includes a $110 million reduction to community mental health services and a $12.6 million reduction to the Behavioral Health Services Initiative and a drug and alcohol program.
According to the lawsuit, the network is asking the court to declare the budget a violation of the federal Mental Health and Intellectual Disability Act of 1966, which mandates that the government must establish and maintain mental health programs for qualified residents through grants and other financial support.

“While we support the administration’s desire to eliminate fraud, waste and abuse in welfare programs, it is important to separate critical services needed by persons with disabilities from welfare fraud,” said Maureen Cronin, executive director of The Arc of Pennsylvania. “There are almost 16,000 Pennsylvanians with intellectual and developmental disabilities on waiting lists for services, more than 3,000 of whom are in need of emergency services. We know of no families that are ‘gaming’ the system — they are simply desperate for help.”

The lawsuit, a copy of which can be read by clicking here, seeks an injunction to require Corbett and Alexander to comply with the state obligations under the Mental Health and Intellectual Disability Act.