Money meant for disabled goes unspent

Published 11:01 am Monday, February 16, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS — County governments are failing to spend millions of dollars that have been set aside for providing services and therapy to thousands of Minnesotans who are struggling with physical and mental disabilities.

Records show that nearly $200 million in state and federal money allocated to the counties went unspent in the last two years alone, resulting in disabled people being put on long waiting lists for services and being wrongly told that funds to help them are unavailable.

Disability rights advocates and providers are now pressing Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration to accelerate reforms that would expand access to independent housing, transportation and other services for the disabled. The advocates say rules the Legislature adopted a decade ago encourage counties to be overly stingy with Medicaid benefits, which represent the largest source of money for social services for disabled Minnesotans. Some lawmakers plan to introduce a bill that would force counties to spend more of the available money or face action.

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“This is a blatant mismanagement of public funds that flies in the face of everything government agencies should be doing to serve vulnerable populations,” said Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, who plans to introduce the legislation. “It simply has to stop.”

One attorney is threatening a class-action lawsuit. In a letter to Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson last week, attorney Shamus O’Meara accused her agency of mismanaging at least $1.1 billion over the last 15 years. If the state had managed the money better, prolonged waits for disability benefits, which can last a decade or more, would have been dramatically reduced or eliminated, he argued.

Department of Human Services officials argue that the advocates are exaggerating the scope of the problem, but say they are preparing to take steps to eliminate disparities from county to county. Some counties fail to spend 20 percent to 40 percent of the money allocated to them by the state, while others spend nearly all of what they receive.

“Clearly, we need to manage the dollars better,” Assistant Commissioner Jennifer DeCubellis said. “There is a significant need.”