Parents of Disabled Children Ask Texas Not to Cut Services

Thousands of children with disabilities would be harmed by impending state budget cuts to therapy services, several dozen parents told state health officials on Friday.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from a spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott.

Thousands of children with disabilities would be harmed by impending state budget cuts to therapy services, several dozen parents told state health officials on Friday.

“These children have no voice,” said Columba Wilson of San Antonio, who credited speech therapy with allowing her autistic grandson Cristian to speak in full sentences. "They have every right to have all the services and be the best that they can be.”

Also during the hours-long hearing in Austin, therapists told the Texas Health and Human Services Commission that the budget cuts could put them out of business.  They said the cuts would slash the payments they receive from Medicaid, the public insurance program for the poor and disabled, leaving children without medically necessary services for speech, occupational and physical therapy.

Democratic state lawmakers also provided emotional commentary against the cuts, which amount to roughly $350 million over two years. The budget nixes $100 million in state dollars. When the state cuts its Medicaid funds, it loses federal matching dollars as well. 

“I’m here today to implore you to find a way to make sure there’s not an interruption of service to these children,” state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, told the commission, which administers Medicaid. He said the cuts, which lawmakers approved in the budget they passed earlier this year, felt like an attempt to help Republican lawmakers “fill out a campaign mailer.”

Citing a study with a data analysis by a Texas A&M University researcher, the health commission found that Texas pays therapists more generously than other states. But therapists have rejected the study's findings and questioned its independence.

Legislators from both parties have weighed in on the cuts in recent weeks as representatives for home health companies — who say their industry would face an average 20 percent reduction in revenue — and advocates for people with disabilities have launched an aggressive public relations campaign. The budget provision offers some ambiguity about how the state should slash spending because it directs the health commission to consider how the cuts will affect “access to care.”

House Speaker Joe Straus and state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the Senate’s chief budget writer, recently sent letters to the health commission reiterating lawmakers’ intention to strike a careful balance with the cuts: trimming fat without threatening medically necessary services.

On Friday, John Wittman, a spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott, said in a prepared statement that the commission is "simply complying with the budget directive enacted by the Legislature."

Emails between Abbott’s staff and employees of the health commission show the governor’s office is monitoring the growing opposition to the cuts.

Abbott’s staffers “are hearing from the advocacy community pretty loudly on this issue,” wrote Meghan Weller, the governor’s deputy budget director, in a July 29 email to the Health and Human Services Commission. The Texas Tribune obtained the emails under public records law, through a request of the health commission.

That note was forwarded on July 30 from health commission government relations lead Kirsten Nuckols to Executive Commissioner Chris Traylor and his chief of staff, Cecile Young. In that email, Nuckols indicated that top staff at the health commission had a meeting with “legislative leadership” about the Medicaid cuts, and that the commission had “been asked to produce an alternate proposal.”

Friday’s hearing was the second round of public comment on the proposed cuts. The health commission scrapped its first attempt to implement the cuts after families of children with disabilities and therapists filed a lawsuit against the state.

The health commission said Friday it hopes to implement the reduced payment rates to therapists on Oct. 1.