Texas state senators are failing their neediest constituents

Photo by Jennifer Whitney for The Texas Tribune

In the waning days of the legislative session two years ago, state lawmakers created a self-made disaster by relying on bad data to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s Medicaid acute care therapy program. Our state senator, Jane Nelson, was the primary architect of the cuts and additional policy changes that have created a crisis leaving our son — and thousands of other Texas kids — waiting for months and even years for therapy care.

Acute care therapy provides speech, physical and occupational therapy for kids who, like our son, have birth defects, genetic disorders, physical or cognitive disabilities or those born prematurely. The therapy enables them to function in daily life.

Ryan has a rare genetic disease. Now that he’s 15 years old, his speech is still very limited and, for those who don’t know him, difficult to understand. Because of his medical condition, we applied for a Medicaid waiver to receive speech therapy when he was three years old. It took more than a decade to be approved for the limited number of spots available to kids like him. As a result, our son missed out on years of therapy that evidence shows is most beneficial early in life.

More than a year ago, we learned Ryan was finally approved to receive therapy — but then learned the harsh reality that the budget cuts and policy changes have reduced the number of home care therapists. This has resulted in long waits and limited or no access to care.

Home care therapy for Ryan is our only viable option. While his therapy can also be provided at clinics, that is not an option for our family: Both my husband and I work and have two other children we must provide for. Ryan needs intensive therapy several times a week and there are no therapy care clinics close to our home. Choosing the clinic option would mean losing the income and self-paid health-care benefits of one of two working parents.

As parents of a special needs child, we are accustomed to hardship. But lawmakers should not force families like ours to either quit working and rely more heavily on taxpayer-funded benefits or continue working while skipping medically necessary therapy for their children. Our lawmakers are making penny-wise and pound-foolish decisions with tax dollars.

When the cuts were made in 2015, lawmakers cited a study they believed demonstrated no harm to kids would result. They ignored warnings that the data was wrong and that cuts would reduce the number of therapists available to provide therapy in communities across the state.

The evidence is now undisputed: lawmakers used “seriously flawed” data in making their budget cuts and policy changes.

Amid the current darkness comes a twinkling of hope: Responding to the mounting evidence that kids are waiting for care that is out of reach and these kids are suffering, the Texas House has worked to reverse the damage, to restore funding for the program to levels that make it sustainable and to eliminate the therapy policies that had the effect of deepening the rate cuts. The Senate Finance Committee, led by Nelson, put forward a budget that added zero funding for the program — ignoring the needs of thousands of children with disabilities.

Budgets highlight the values of our lawmakers and the Senate budget does not provide medically necessary care that helps children with disabilities reach their full potential and live more independent productive lives.

Lawmakers in Austin are working right now to arrive at a budget for the next two years. In the next few days they will make their final decisions. The House has put forward responsible solutions and the Senate now should recognize that kids are waiting and kids are suffering and adopt the House version of the budget for these critical services.