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Personal care assistants urge lawmakers to restore cut pay

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Some personal care assistants in Minnesota are urging lawmakers to revoke a new law that cuts their pay by 20 percent.

More than 17,000 Minnesotans with disabilities rely on personal care assistants to help them with everyday tasks like eating and getting dressed. In about a third of the cases, family members are paid to provide this care to their adult relatives.

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To help balance the state's budget last year, the Legislature reduced personal care assistant wages paid to family members.

A judge has temporarily blocked the cut. But personal care assistants say lawmakers still need to find a permanent fix.

Among them is Bob Harding, a retiree in Chisago City, Minn., who cares for his 29-year-old daughter Megan. Her brain is damaged because she didn't receive enough oxygen at birth. She also has Pierre Robin syndrome, which limits the movements her mouth can make.

Megan can say some words and she uses sign language. But she can't walk on her own and needs help with most of her activities, like eating lunch. Her father cuts her food, because for Megan, chewing can be a scary experience.

"You have to be there all the time," Harding said. "She chokes a lot, and I gotta watch her."

At 68, Harding is on a fixed income. The $11.50 an hour he receives as a personal care assistant to take care of Megan helps him and his wife pay the bills. He said they definitely noticed when his wages were temporarily cut to about nine dollars last fall.

"It really helps a lot," he said. "We've got regular house payments and car payments."

Minnesota is one of 21 states that pay family members to take care of their disabled loved ones.

State Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who oversees the committee that reduced the wages of family members serving as personal care assistants, said the cut is expected to save the state about $24 million.

"The reason it happened in the first place wasn't to be mean or cause harm to any population group at all," said Abeler, chairman of the House, Health and Human Services Committee. "The goal was to keep a system intact."

Trimming the pay for family members prevented an across-the-board cut to all home care providers. Abeler said he understands that the decision is hard on families, especially in a down economy, and he's interested in finding a solution. But he said the money would have to come from somewhere.

"Our budget is not, you know, like flush," he said. "There's a small surplus but we've restored the cash flow account first, then the reserves, and then people don't like the school shift and those are the three priorities. I personally would be surprised if I'm given any new money to spend in my area."

A group of families last fall sued the state over their pay cut. They argue it's not fair for the state to pay them less to provide the same care.

State Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, is sponsoring a bill that would get rid of the wage cut.

"We shouldn't wait for the courts to tell us that we have to take care of our people," Liebling said. "That's the job of the Legislature."

At least one other state, Washington, tried unsuccessfully to pay family caregivers less. A Minnesota judge is still deciding whether the state can implement the cut or whether personal care assistants who care for family members must be paid the full rate.

"They're not getting rich off of this," Liebling said. "It's a labor of love. They're giving their relatives care probably far better than a stranger would give it, but they're able to do it only because they make a little bit of money from the state."

Advocates say personal care assistants save the state a lot of money.

"The proposal to cut 20 percent was based on the fact that families would continue to provide care," said Steve Larson, policy director for The Arc Minnesota. "But since this passed in July we have heard from thousands of families about how this is going to be a financial burden and put their loved ones at risk of going into a nursing home or some other institutional placement. That will absolutely be more costly for the state long term."

A judge is expected to rule on the cuts to family caregiver wages by the beginning of April. At that point, lawmakers might have to come up with the money to restore the cuts -- or they could get permission to leave them in place.

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