Organizers Encouraged by Large Turnout at Kalispell Disability Rights Forum

Aug. 22 event provided opportunity for 15 legislative candidates to meet with public, advocates and providers

By Myers Reece
Frank Garner, left, listens to Diane Carrell and others during a community forum to discuss mental health and disability rights issues at Kalispell's Gateway Community Center. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

At a well-attended Aug. 22 meeting in Kalispell focused on disability rights, a unified message emerged from the diverse set of assembled voices: community-based services are essential to Montana’s well-being.

Yet, the plea came at a time when the state’s community-based model is experiencing widespread erosion due to severe state budget cuts.

Providers, advocates and members of the public have all expressed concerns, in media reports, at legislative hearings and during Wednesday’s dinner at Kalispell’s Gateway Community Center, that Montanans who need services are being left in limbo, at times with tragic consequences, and that the state is in danger of drifting back to an age of institutionalization that communities have spent decades trying to escape.

Fifteen Flathead Valley legislative candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, as well as a representative from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s office, attended the gathering to hear firsthand stories from families who rely on community-based services.

“That keeps me up at night, wondering if the wheels are going to fall off,” said the father of a son with autism who depends on services to remain active in his community, living at an assisted-living facility, maintaining a job and pursuing independent endeavors such as grocery shopping with assistance. “I’m worried that we’re going to go backward.”

“It’s how we make people with disabilities successful in their communities, by giving them the opportunity to contribute,” he continued. “I think it’s very satisfying for anybody to have a job they enjoy and to feel like they’re making a contribution, to feel like they’re making a difference, and to feel like they’re part of the community instead of being locked away in a remote, end-of-the road institution.”

The Arc Montana and eight other disability rights organizations hosted the event. The primary organizer was Mary Caferro, director for The Arc Montana and a longtime state legislator from Helena. Caferro, who has served in the Legislature since 2005 and is wrapping up her second term in the Senate, is running unopposed in November’s election for House District 81.

Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, speaks to a group of local legislators and families during a community forum to discuss mental health and disability rights issues on Aug. 22. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Caferro was pleased with the turnout of roughly 80 attendees, seated in groups of six or so for dinner with at least one legislator at each table. The evening’s format encouraged frank discussion, eschewing a formal forum environment and discouraging politics. Legislators were invited to listen to and connect with constituents who depend on services that are impacted by legislative decisions.

Addressing the crowd, Caferro discussed the impact of state budgets cuts that particularly decimated the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), to the tune of nearly $50 million since last year’s Legislature, including cuts to Medicaid reimbursement rates, all exacerbated by the loss of federal matching funds. Mental health and disability providers were hit hard, as were nursing homes, with wide-ranging layoffs and facility closures across the state.

Caferro said the big turnout, while an “organizer’s dream,” spoke to the level of concern surrounding the erosion of services.

“It shows that there’s a need for a change in the direction the state is going,” she said. “Right now we are in the tank when it comes to community services.”

In early June, nursing home advocates sued the state over its cuts to Medicaid reimbursement rates, followed by mental health and disability advocates filing their own lawsuit in late July.

Gov. Steve Bullock announced on July 25 that funding will be partially restored thanks to state revenues coming in higher than expected, with the lion’s share to be distributed to the DPHHS. The exact details of the restoration won’t be known until Sept. 1, and mental health, disability rights and nursing home organizations, while welcoming the news, say the funds won’t undo much of the damage already inflicted by the cuts.

But Caferro was heartened by the Aug. 22 forum, both in its turnout and spirit. She noted that the legislative candidates were enthusiastic, compassionate listeners and encouraged attendees to stay involved. A few said the experience was “eye-opening.”

“It shows that (the public is) hungry to get involved, and the fact that so many candidates showed up shows they care and want to know more and want to make the right decisions when they get to Helena,” Caferro said. “It was really exciting to see that.”

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