Disabled face longer waits for services

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 12:23 a.m.

Florida continues to struggle with finding a way to serve some of its most vulnerable citizens: the developmentally disabled.

Over the past few months, the Department of Children & Families has

been caught in a controversy when officials cut some service rates because of a projected $30 million deficit in the program, which helps residents who have mental retardation, cerebral palsy and other developmental problems.

This week, DCF Secretary Jerry Regier told a Senate budget subcommittee that the program's deficit is closer to $15 million, although the agency has no immediate plans to back off its Nov. 1 rate adjustment.

But beyond the rate controversy, a more troubling aspect emerged in the debate.

The list for developmentally disabled citizens waiting for state services continues to grow, despite the fact that the state has more than doubled funding for the program since 1998.

Currently, 13,589 residents are waiting for services, which is nearly double the 7,864 who were waiting for state help in January 2002.

That list is growing despite an aggressive effort - led by Gov. Jeb Bush - to put more funding into the program. Since the 1998-99 budget year, the program's funding has jumped from $260 million to $870 million, according to the DCF.

Yet, the state is actually serving fewer residents, currently at 24,248, down from 25,470 in the 2000-01 budget year.

``What I'm concerned about is: why have we increased our budget astronomically over the last three years and still our number of clients stays the same?'' Regier said.

Regier said he wants to get ``to the bottom'' of why the cost of the services keep rising - from $18,865 per client in 1998 to $35,894 today - preventing the state from substantially expanding the services to more residents.

In the meantime, Regier said he expects the governor to request more funding for the program when he presents his budget plan to the Legislature in the next few weeks. One option, Regier said would be to offer a more limited array of services to the residents on the waiting list, attempting to stretch the dollars to reach more clients.

Democrats argue that the state should take a portion of the federal economic stimulus funds, which are being held in reserve, to address the problem.

``We're not even getting close'' to resolving the waiting list issue, said Senate Democratic leader Ron Klein of Boca Raton.

``We've doubled the number of people on the waiting list. These are the people who are the most severely handicapped and need the most support and assistance,'' he said. ``We have the money sitting in the bank.''

But the governor has thus far opposed using the federal money, arguing it should be held in reserve to offset any future financial problems.

Senate poll numbers

While U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Sarasota, appears likely to jump into the race for a U.S. Senate seat, a new poll shows that Mel Martinez has edged his way to the front of other GOP contenders.

Martinez, who until last month was U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George W. Bush, was the preferred candidate among 15 percent of those surveyed in December by the Florida Chamber Political Institute. FCPI is an arm of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The poll of 800 likely voters was done on Dec. 18-19, which was more than a week after Martinez had resigned from his Cabinet post amid speculation that he was planning to seek the seat now held by U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Miami Lakes. Graham announced last year he would not seek a fourth term.

The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

Martinez's polling number was only 1 percent better than former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Longwood, who mounted an unsuccessful candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 2000.

The chamber's political institute did not announce how other GOP contenders - including House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and state Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Park - fared. And it didn't release any numbers assessing Harris' prospects.

The institute poll did confirm the findings of other polls when it came to the Democrats: Former Education Commissioner Betty Castor was favored by 32 percent of those surveyed compared with just 8 percent for U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Miami-Dade

Mayor Alex Penelas.

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