Minnesota lawmakers push for aid package to save disability service providers

Two long-time Minnesota state senators are calling for swift action to save Minnesota’s disability service providers who may be forced to close because of COVID-19.

Dozens of programs across the state are in dire straits. They haven’t had substantial income for more than three months. Program administrators told lawmakers last month that many could close before the end of the summer.

Service providers told 5 INVESTIGATES they have been asking for emergency funding from the state to offset their income losses.

Last in line: Minnesota disability services on life support with no safety net from the state

But as the Minnesota Department of Human Services restricted access to those essential services to slow the spread of coronavirus, the agency also failed to secure emergency funding for programs, according to a review of federal Medicaid data and interviews with providers across the state.

"Every day that we wait, there’s a chance that one more spot will close," said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. The Republican chairs the Senate Committee on Human Services Reform Finance and Policy.

Both Abeler and his colleague, Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, said they began raising the issue of lack of funding for these programs when the pandemic hit Minnesota.

In early June, Hoffman led a bipartisan group of 34 senators, who sent a letter to DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead and Gov. Tim Walz, urging the administration to "exhaust all options" to provide financial relief to disability service providers.

At a Senate committee hearing last week, Hoffman grilled DHS representatives, asking why the department didn’t seek a special waiver from the federal government that would allow providers to still be paid through emergency situations, like a pandemic.

"They started giving more and more states that flexibility," Hoffman said, talking Medicaid’s flexibility that the 35 other states have already sought and obtained through the waiver.

DHS recently defended that decision, arguing there were "several barriers" the department faced, including not having the appropriate legislative authority to apply for federal relief.

In light of the administration’s position, Abeler and Hoffman crafted a $30 million rescue package for providers. The Senate passed the bill unanimously during the June special session, but it never received a vote in the House.

"We need to go beyond that political bickering and the bureaucratic side," Hoffman said.

Sen. Abeler argues the quickest way to get providers the financial relief they need is through an executive order. The pair are now calling on Gov. Walz to take the Senate bill and sign it into law as an executive order.

"Please, write the executive order," Abeler said during a recent interview. "Bad things are going to happen if we can’t get an injection of cash into these businesses."

"If they’re gone, what do you do?" Hoffman said. "What do you replace it with? You go backwards 30 years."

In response, a spokesperson for Walz’s office confirmed they are looking into the request and will "work with the Department of Human Services on this matter."