In July 1993, lifelong amateur sailor Herbert Meyer, then 62, was crewing on a Rhodes 50 sailboat berthed at Pier 39.
"It was a nice July afternoon at about 4 p.m., and the winds had piped up," Meyer recalls as he sits in an electric wheelchair on a Marin County bus. "We were on a tack coming up from the Bay Bridge, coming back to Pier 39 to disembark some passengers. ... As I tried to ease the mainsail, the winch failed. I got yanked forward, hit a bulkhead, snapped my neck back ... and entered the world of being quadriplegic and disabled."
After going through rehabilitation at San Francisco General Hospital, Meyer learned about a state program that might keep him out of a nursing home — facilities he likens to Roach Motels, where you check in, but never check out — and enable him to live independently in his own place.
Meyer paid his medical bills by selling off all the assets he'd accrued while a DuPont executive, real estate investor, and marketing vice president of an electronics startup, until he had only $2,000 in savings left. That was the amount at which the government considered him poor enough to help pay for a part-time worker to help him with bathing, grooming, dressing, shopping, meal preparation, and care of his wheelchair and splints as well as bladder, bowel, and antibedsore care. He obtained a federal housing subsidy for an apartment in Larkspur. And he made the most of his new life, becoming chairman of the board of governors of the Marin County agency overseeing in-home care workers, and president of the board of directors of the Marin Center for Independent Living. When I spoke with him on Oct. 21, a tardy bus had made him late to an event where he was scheduled to help promote the center's services.
This week, Meyer's 16-year struggle for a productive life will become more difficult. Scheduled California budget cuts will increase the deductible some low-income disabled people must pay for workers from the In-Home Supportive Services program. The cost hike may leave him with as little as $600 a month to live on, pushing him closer to the point where he's forced to enter a nursing home. "I just want to be able to stay here, live a healthy life, and be a productive citizen," he says.
During the past few weeks, news headlines have described a flurry of lawsuits and other actions aimed at halting or stalling cuts ordered by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to services for poor and disabled Californians. The cuts, lawsuits, and the dizzying maze of programs involved are enough to discourage any reader trying to track California's fiscal malaise.
But the state's mind-boggling $26 billion budget deficit and its cuts to schools, scholarships, and welfare and health services come into focus when one asks a simple question: What kind of strange or misshapen government solves its problems by kicking Herb Meyer to the curb?
A sick one.
It so happens that the $5.5 billion-a-year In-Home Supportive Services program that allows Meyer and others to live fuller lives highlights the worst of the feverish behavior that has come to characterize our failing state government. More than other programs, this is a partisan battleground. No-new-tax-pledging Republicans seek to decimate it, heedless of the suffering these cuts will cause. Special-interest-heeding Democrats resist reforms that might fend off Republican attacks. In the middle are 462,000 blind, disabled, and elderly Californians struggling to make independent lives for themselves.
In addition to being a lifeline for needy disabled Californians, the state Department of Social Services' IHSS program is a cash cow for Democrats. Thanks to 1999 legislation backed by the Service Employees International Union, the state's 376,000 home care workers are now union members whose dues help fill a Democrat-friendly war chest. State-funded wages rose from minimum wage to $12.10 hourly, with counties such as San Francisco adding more to keep up with high living costs. The federal government pays about 60 percent of the program's costs.
The program's political status has made it a target for Republicans, who characterize it as a bastion of fraud and corruption, and thus ripe for $1.1 billion in cuts. Those charges seem exaggerated — supposed criticisms include a finding that some disabled retirees in Sacramento had joined a seniors' holiday bus excursion, as if that were inappropriate for beneficiaries of a subsidy promoting independent living. But the program's partisan political role seems to have blinded Democrats to real problems. Under the program, the clients themselves hire and fire home care workers, nearly two-thirds of whom are family members.
Clients may be emotionally tied to workers in ways that can prevent them from demanding paid-for services. A blind shut-in may be loath to fire a ne'er-do-well nephew who won't be able to find another job. Workers sometimes abuse their clients.
But solutions to these problems aren't money-savers. They involve hiring more county social workers and Adult Protective Services investigators to monitor union members' performance — a nonstarter for Republicans and Democrats alike.
In San Francisco, IHSS-funded workers help more than 20,000 people. State-ordered cuts were supposed to trim from the rolls disabled people with the least-severe-seeming impairments, which would have meant that around 1,800 people would lose state-funded help.
"The governor has made this clear: All these reductions are very difficult," Department of Social Services spokeswoman Lizelda Lopez has said. "They were crafted in a way to affect people with the lowest level of need."
But Donna Calame, executive director of the San Francisco County agency overseeing the IHSS program, says it's wrong to allow bureaucrats who don't understand the program to classify some disabilities as too mild to require help. "This is cutting people who need reminders to take medication, reminders to take a bath, reminders to pick up their apartment so they don't have roaches and rats infesting their apartments, which could lead to evictions," she says.
On Oct. 19, a federal judge in Oakland halted those cuts, which would have taken place Nov. 1 and saved $66 million. Advocates for the disabled argued that the criteria for refusing disabled people help were arbitrary and would cause undue suffering. The state is now expected to ask an appellate court to reinstate the cuts.
In the meantime, local governments are struggling to find ways to continue providing services. San Francisco has a Community Living Fund of a few million dollars; the local Department of Aging and Adult Services is trying to route some federal stimulus cash to pay in-home carers; and social workers have been able to reclassify some recipients so that they fit the definition of the most helpless people, whom the new state budget is designed to spare.
These efforts, however, won't necessarily help people like Meyer, whose pensions or Social Security income make them too rich for fully subsidized in-home care under new cost-cutting rules that raise the deductible recipients must pay toward in-home care, leaving them around $600 a month for living expenses. Previously they've been permitted $850 a month.
On Oct. 19, attorneys for disability rights group Bay Area ADAPT and other plaintiffs, including Meyer, filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court complaining that the state's notice of the cuts was confusing and didn't advise recipients of their rights to seek relief.
"These people, these are who Republicans like to call the deserving poor, who worked all their lives, and busted their butts, and then retired," said Elena Ackel, an attorney representing Meyer and his fellow plaintiffs. "Most of them have no savings, and they're going to get their notices in the mail, and they're going to be fucked."
Ackel had hoped to obtain an injunction, but said a judge turned her down, based on the assertion that she had given insufficient notice: "People from the state said we didn't serve them," she said, because she "gave notice on Furlough Friday."
A state government that might possibly have avoided having to pay for care of its poor, elderly, and disabled because it can't afford to stay open on Fridays isn't clever, or even lucky.