December 1st, 2011

Reduced SSI checks means drop in aid for mentally ill

After months of voicing frustration and taking legal action over proposed cuts to their Supplementary Security Income (SSI) in the fall, Rhode Island’s elderly and disabled are losing their battle. The state’s Supreme Court has upheld the cuts as they were originally outlined and passed in Rhode Island’s budget.

The cuts are part of an overall slash to state-wide human services, which will allegedly save the state some $900,000. In complaints argued before a rotating lineup of judges in September and October, plaintiffs claimed that since the people suffering the cuts are mostly elderly and mentally ill, the cuts targeted the disabled.

The Rhode Island Disability Law Center (RIDLC) provides free legal services and representation to the Ocean State’s disabled population. In this case it represented seven plaintiffs indicative of the population affected – namely, people living in assisted living facilities, many of whom suffer mental illness.

Kathleen Kelly is the executive director of the Rhode Island Assisted Living Association (RIALA), which represents the state’s assisted living facilities. Kelly was in the courtroom in October when RIDLC was not granted the immediate injunction against the cuts that it was seeking.

According to Kelly, the judge said he had “great concerns about the impact of the cuts,” but understood from reviewing previous testimony, that it was possible for displaced assisted living residents to be relocated to another facility if they could no longer afford their rent. And because the court believed some residents could be reassigned to other facilities, the injunction was prevented.

“I do know that some of those residents are not eligible,” says Kelly, who has her master’s degree in gerontology and has led RIALA for seven years.

Those suffering the cuts have seen their SSI checks dwindle from approximately $1,100 to $900. “That’s a huge cut,” says Kelly, noting that if someone’s rent was roughly $1,000 per month they would be left with nearly nothing.

In Rhode Island, if disabled, developmentally delayed or mentally ill residents live in a facility, it’s likely to be a small one. With only 14-20 residents, Kelly says, “it’s like family.”

“Unfortunately, there are 10 small providers who have been deeply affected…Individual providers are saying, ‘We won’t take additional people on SSI, but we’ll keep those that we have.’” But, she says, when 90 percent of a group home’s residents are affected, it’s nearly impossible for these homes to stay open.

RIALA has been working on behalf of the assisted living facilities to promote their voice and subsequently the voice of the residents and has coordinated efforts with the Departments of Elder Affairs and Human Services, who within the purview of the latter comes the SSI program.

One of the heartbreaks, says Kelly, is that the state didn’t better anticipate who would be affected by the cuts.

“It is truly appalling to me that the General Assembly could decide to make a cut like this and not have ready access to who would be affected,” she says. “Only in the last three weeks has the state gotten a handle on who is truly being affected.”

Rhode Island’s Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts recently has taken an interest in the issue and has scheduled meetings with the House and Senate finance committee.

Kelly offers the same advice for all psychologists, whether their patients live in a Rhode Island facility and are dealing with SSI cuts or not: become politically active, know who your representatives are, and know the issues facing your clients.

“Politicians get 10 or 12 calls and to them that’s a groundswell of concern,” she says. “By and large – and I’m to blame, myself – we don’t call. But especially psychologists: they have perspective that is not [typically] heard.

“I was in court when the psychologist testified on behalf of the plaintiffs,” she says, “and their testimony pointed to how fragile these people are. If you have a practice, wherever you come from…people have to know their elected officials.”

By Jennifer E Chase

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