Early in November, Lori Taylor of Norman, Oklahoma, received a letter from the state Department of Human Services.” I felt like I got sent to prison, to death row,” she says.
Richard Anderson, who lives across the street from her at the Willows apartment complex, received the same letter. He calls it the “letter of death.” He says, “Oklahoma stabbed me in the heart.”
The letter said, “We regret to inform you that DHS must eliminate the ADvantage Waiver effective December 1, 2017.”
Taylor and Anderson both have cerebral palsy and use motorized wheelchairs. The ADvantage waiver is a state Medicaid program that pays the wages of the people who come to their homes and help them get out of bed, shower, prepare meals, etcetera. “They are our arms and legs,” Taylor says.
Yep, their arms and legs would be cut off in less than a month, the letter said, unless the legislature finds a way before then to fill a $59 million budget hole.
Taylor can’t get out of her bed without the help of her assistants, who come to her home eighteen hours a week and are paid $11.55 per hour. Anderson also gets eighteen hours a week of assistance. Both live off Social Security, so they sure as hell can’t afford to pick up the tab for their assistants if ADvantage is terminated.
Anderson says the twenty-four-apartment Willows complex is full of disabled people who also rely on assistants paid by ADvantage. What will happen to them on December 1? You’re not supposed to ask questions like that in places like Oklahoma, where any kind of tax is a four-letter word. If you start examining what public revenue pays for and how this benefits actual humans, the political landscape isn’t so simple anymore. The selfishness and brutality of austerity is exposed.
I put the question to Sheree Powell, director of communications for Oklahoma DHS: What will the residents of the Willows do if ADvantage is yanked out from under them?
Powell acknowledges that there is no Plan B. The only option for a great majority of the 21,000 disabled Oklahomans using the ADvantage waiver, she says, would be to check into a nursing home. This would not only be callous and mean-spirited but what Powell calls “fiscally absurd,” because it would cost the state three times as much to keep ADvantage people in nursing homes.
“We didn’t want to send those letters out. It grieved us terribly,” she says. “We knew what kind of stress and anxiety this would cause our clients.”
One problem is that it takes a 75 percent legislative majority to pass a new tax in Oklahoma. Earlier this year, a simple majority imposed a “fee” of $1.50 on each pack of cigarettes purchased in the state, but this tax hike was shot down as unconstitutional by the state supreme court. Among the plaintiffs challenging the fee were cigarette pushers Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
That’s what blew the hole in the budget, Powell says, and she adds that DHS has been forced to cut its budget so many times that it’s impossible to avoid slashing vital services anymore.
Some proposals to plug the budget hole have been put forward in the legislature, but nothing has gotten enough votes to pass. Meanwhile, residents of the Willows are caught in the middle of a cruel game of chicken.
“We’re really hoping for a happy ending,” Powell says.
I’ll check in with Taylor and Anderson at the end of the month. But whatever happens to them, rest assured that Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds will be just fine.