The state of California recently descended into such financial difficulties that British paper The Guardian questioned whether it might prove to be the first failed US state: “Desperate to pay off a crippling budget deficit, California is slashing spending in education and healthcare, laying off vast numbers of workers and forcing others to take unpaid leave.” The California Progress Report, a local forum for progressive advocates, listed the extent of permanent state budget cuts in social services as including developmental services, Medi-Cal, SSI/SSP (Supplemental Security Income/State Supplemental Payment Program), programs for senior citizens, mental health services, and programs for students with disabilities in community colleges.
Amidst the reductions, cutbacks in the In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program were particularly disappointing to disability advocates. The In-Home Supportive Services program currently serves approximately 450,000 children and adults with disabilities and mental health needs, people who are blind and low-income senior citizens. The Department of Health Care Services also plays a big role in overseeing the program for the state, because the program receives matching federal Medicaid (Medi-Cal) funding as well as state and county resources. The IHSS program is administered locally at the county level.
Beginning November 1st, the state of California decided to eliminate all IHSS services for an estimated 40,000 low-income senior citizens and people with disabilities. Another 90,000 people were slotted to lose services such as food shopping and assistance and help with laundry and housecleaning. These services are often crucial to a person’s ability to live independently, outside of more costly and generally inappropriate institutional settings.
Rather than let this happen, a coalition of lawyers and advocates filed a class action lawsuit on October 1st, in hope that the court would stop the cuts before they went into effect. The state had chosen October 19th as the date it would begin to inform the 130,000 people that they would be losing all or some of their services under the program.
In V.L. v Wagner, a federal judge named Claudia Wilken ruled that the state must suspend its proposed cuts to the IHSS program, because they would result in substantial harm, damage and injury. The judge objected to the arbitrary withdrawal of essential services, saying that the indicators that the state used to revise program eligibility were clearly not based on need, and, as such, “people could lose something irreplaceable – the ability to remain safely in their homes.” Judge Wilken argued that the plaintiffs were likely to show at trial that the cuts to services violate federal law.
Melinda Bird of Disability Rights California, the attorney leading the legal battle, spoke about the significance of the victory: “We are convinced a humanitarian disaster would have resulted from the precipitous and arbitrary withdrawal of essential services approved by the legislature and the administration in the budget, and are delighted that the Court agreed with us.”
This is a great example of the way in which our system of checks and balances works. In this case, the court system came through to protect 130,000 Californians from an arbitrary government action that would have had real consequences for their well-being. Yet again, our access to justice makes a difference.
(Photo by Borya.)