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Holly St. Gelais sits with her autistic son Matthew on a swing outside of their Milford home, Thursday afternoon. Pending budget cuts could re-enstate a wait list for special education for adults in the state. St. Gelais is worried losing one-on-one care for Matthew would allow for a pause for his development and he may regress.
Friday, March 19, 2010

Bill could be detrimental to developmentally impaired

CONCORD – Holly St. Gelais, of Milford, said the state budget-cutting move to restart a waiting list for services to adults with developmental impairments would rob years of progress for her autistic son, Matt.

Despite having academic skills of a second-grader, Matt St. Gelais will finish Milford High School this June. Thanks to state- and federal- supported help through Gateways Early Supports and Services of Nashua, St. Gelais will have at least two-part time jobs and other activities to keep him productive, his mother said.

“There has been a huge investment by many individuals to get us to this point that will allow Matt to enter his adult life with purpose and some amount of independence with the support he needs,” Holly St. Gelais told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

But Matt St. Gelais turns 21 this summer and would be one of 195 adults back on a waiting list without services if a proposed budget cut becomes part of the final plan to erase a $140 million deficit.

“Without one-on-one care, it is unlikely we will be able to keep the part-time jobs we have worked so hard to get for Matt, and Matt will likely end up in an adult day care where he will not receive the individual care he needs and where he is likely to regress,” Holly St. Gelais said. “If Matt isn’t mentally engaged by someone with ability to communicate with him, his self-stimulating behaviors and rituals will increase and he will slip further and further away from us as a result.”

The House Finance Committee already included this cut in the plan it recommended Wednesday to reduce state spending (HB 1664) by $47 million.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas also included it in a second bill (SB 519) before Senate budget writers Thursday. Combined with other changes, the bill would reduce state spending over the next 15 months by $8.1 million.

Toumpas said the primary goal was to retain existing services for families with children younger than 21. The HHS leader said it’s undeniable that this $6 million cut in state and federal spending for these programs would leave behind many families.

“We are just shifting the burden to someone else,” Toumpas said. “I full well know we are shifting the burden to the families, the communities and the people needing these services.”

A $700,000 cut to an Acquired Brain Injury Program would create a separate waiting list of 23 other clients.

Other cuts would reduce state support for services to troubled juveniles and would eliminate the Catastrophic Illness program that gives up to $2,500 of services for those who suffer from six specific diseases including cancer and Multiple Sclerosis.

House budget writers voted this week to recommend cutting the juvenile diversion spending but to keep the Catastrophic Illness program.

Gelais and other Nashua area families were among more than 100 clients and advocates offering human faces to this budget battle who packed a Legislative Office Building room Thursday.

“I trust you as my representatives to find another solution to protect the investment we’ve all made in Matt’s future,” St. Gelais said.

Todd Hanson, of Hudson, said his son suffered a stroke early in life that’s left him with intractable epilepsy. Hanson said his 20-year-old son came off the waiting list in January and has a job coach who is helping him pursue a paper-shredding business.

“Please keep this program in place and allow people the services they so desperately need,” Hanson said.

Christina Shaffer, of Litchfield, sobbed openly as she recalled the bumpy ride her family has had to finally get services for her son, Wesley, who suffers from Autism and a rare chromosomal disorder.

“I am a person who absolutely loves roller coasters when they are in amusement parks,” Shaffer said.

She later pleaded, “Remember people can’t wait.”

State Senate Democratic leaders championed writing and celebrated adoption of the 2007 law to get rid of this waiting list created when the state closed the Laconia State School in 1991.

The current state budget achieved that milestone last December.

Gov. John Lynch cited it as a big accomplishment during his re-election campaign in 2008.

Sen. Kathy Sgambati, D-Tilton, said senators agreed to sponsor the HHS bill but would not endorse the cuts.

“The needs for our citizens have been outstripped by the resources we have given,” said Sgambati, a retired, deputy HHS commissioner.

“The commissioner can’t raise revenue. We can as a body.”

Hours after the hearing, the Senate Finance Panel voted, 7-0, to recommend killing the budget-cutting bill.

Sgambati noted the Senate has endorsed making budget efficiencies in HHS that should save more than $6 million.

“These services are essential the health and public safety of our constituents,” Sgambati said.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, and Sgambati have proposed legalizing slot machine and casino-style gambling at six locations including 4,000 slots at the destination resort proposed for the Green Meadow Golf Club Property in Hudson (SB 489).

They would amend the bill to set aside for one time $50 million in gambling profit to avert cuts in human service spending.

Avoiding waiting lists for adults with brain injuries and developmental impairments was on Sgambati and D’Allesandro’s list of safety net spending.

State Rep. Kathleen Russell, D-Stratham, passed out a picture of her twin, 19-year-old boys whose disabilities and battle to get care motivated her to first run for the Legislature in 2006.

“This is not a favor we have done for these people,” Russell said as she choked back tears. “To isolate them again is not just a disservice to them but to all of us.”

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.