By Jenny Luna
Despite cutting millions of dollars to aid the state's disabled community, Gov. Rick Scott signed a new law Monday that allows individuals with disabilities to boost their savings from $2,000 to $100,000 without jeopardizing their state and federal benefits.
Scott signed the Florida Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act amid students and families of the Marian Center in Miami Gardens, a school for people with disabilities. The law will go into effect by July 1, 2016.
The more celebrated news, however, was that 2,000 people previously on a wait list for a Medicaid waiver from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities will be able to receive care at home instead of being institutionalized. Under the state budget that went effect July 1, $40 million will go toward providing services for these 2,000; 20,000 people are on the wait list.
Acela Ruiz applied for a Medicaid waiver when her son, Devin Feterman, was a toddler. Devin, 9, is on the autism spectrum and in a wheelchair. He will now receive physical and speech therapy.
"We will finally get the services we weren't able to afford before,'' Ruiz said. She can also buy supplies not covered by private insurance, such as diapers, baby wipes and food.
The other victory for people with mental disabilities is that the new budget allocates $1 million to the Employment Enhancement Project, a statewide program that connects developmentally disabled people with training for entry-level jobs.
"If they are trained they can work and they can become independent. The purpose is not to perpetuate their assistance," said Rosa Barbara, chairwoman for the Family Care Council in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties and mother of two children with developmental disabilities.
Helping disabled people remain financially independent is one of the key provisions of the ABLE act. The law will establish trust funds for individuals with disabilities and their families, which will be managed by the Florida Prepaid College Board. Just like a college savings plan, families can put money into their accounts and those funds won't be taxed.
The law will allow families to deposit $100,000 into the accounts, up from the current limit of $2,000, without losing their Supplemental Security Income benefits.
"Our current system of reducing or cutting off benefits to those who exceed a relatively small income or asset threshold disincentivizes people with unique abilities from pursuing employment opportunities. ...
The Florida ABLE Act corrects this issue and provides for persons with unique abilities to use their talents in the workforce, earn a wage, and save for the future without the concern of losing important state and federal benefits," Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in a statement.
The ABLE Act was one of few bright spots for the disabled community in this year's session.
The Legislature slashed the Adults with Disabilities program from $10 million to $750,000, reducing the funds available to state colleges and school districts to provide assistance to more than 13,000 disabled adults. Scott vetoed another $8 million for college scholarships and job training for people with disabilities, saying the programs failed the go through the proper budget process.
The vetoed programs were a priority of Gardiner, and were part of a package of bills that attempted to increase post-secondary options for children "with unique abilities,'' create new state-sponsored scholarships, and a establish a program to provide increased financial literacy for people with special needs.
The proposals moved through the Senate but never got a hearing in the House, casualties of the bitter feud between the chambers over Medicaid expansion.
Although the Senate failed to get the legislation passed, it used the budget process to inject funding for the programs into the education budgets. Scott, who sided with the House in the dispute, then vetoed the programs.
At the Monday signing, some expressed concerns about the recent cuts, including Debbie Terenzio,chairwoman of the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Miami.
"The infrastructure is crumbling because it has been so underfunded," she said. "We're losing people, we have vacancies and can't fill them."
Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.
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