Dr. Rebekah Gee

Dr. Rebekah Gee

One of the sad rituals of spring is the day of public testimony before the Legislature's budget committees, when parents of the disabled come to plead for more support for programs for their children.

The aid is expensive for the state but also represents a lifeline for parents, who are typically working full-time and need the help.

A chronic complaint: the lack of what the government calls NOW waivers, allowing Medicaid funding for aid. Some families have been 10 years on the waiting list.

The administration of Gov. John Bel Edwards is finally wrestling with the problem, involving both working with the Legislature to get more waivers for services and taking a long look at the waiting list to see if some aid could come through other waivers.

It is a classic bureaucratic tangle with human consequences, but the state Department of Health says that the waiver program for the developmentally disabled is now caught up. Secretary of Health Dr. Rebekah Gee announced the state had finally done away with the waiting list and ensured that every eligible person who was in line asking for help from the state had received some form of assistance.

In many cases, that meant giving some families cheaper versions of waivers, paying for part-time personal care assistants or medical equipment for home.

The department screened all of the families on the list and tried to find a waiver that can get them aid sooner rather than later — much later, in the case of many families.

Department officials said many of the families needed less-demanding levels of care than required by the NOW program, and they were assigned less expensive waivers. The three other types of Medicaid waivers for people with developmental disabilities are significantly less expensive to the state, ranging from $7,000 to $28,000 per person, compared to $52,000 for a full NOW waiver.

Medicaid is paid for by the state with a generous federal match. This new approach to NOW waivers cost $15.6 million in state general fund dollars, leveraging another $28 million in federal funds.

Edwards applauded the move and said a key element was the Legislature approving more than 600 new Medicaid waiver spots.

The problems of the disabled in Louisiana are far from solved: In just one example, LDH still has a waiting list of about 28,000 elderly or physically disabled people who are awaiting similar home- and community-based services. Gee said the department has hired more than 45 people who are working to reduce that waitlist as well, with a priority on moving people with mental illnesses out of nursing homes and into more suitable surroundings.

That, of course, also costs money, so legislators can expect to hear from hard-pressed families during budget hearings in the spring. But this move by the Department of Health represents a positive development for most families and a more creative approach to an intractable problem for state government.

Louisiana now serves 10,000 developmentally disabled people: 'Let's get rid of the wait list'