Bill alters program for disabled children

Saturday, June 25, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Parents of young children with developmental disabilities, and the families' insurers, must now help pay for therapy through a state-run program under a bill signed Friday.

The First Steps program serves about 8,000 developmentally disabled children under the age of 3.

It seemed doomed at the start of this year when Gov. Matt Blunt proposed to cut $23 million of its funding, essentially eliminating the program. But parents mounted a massive campaign to save the program and Blunt ended up proposing a plan to keep it, with several changes.

Under the legislation Blunt signed Friday, families with an income of at least 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- $38,700 for a family of four -- will pay a monthly participation fee ranging from $5 to $100 beginning Oct. 1.

Families eligible for Medicaid would not be affected by the fees, which are expected to raise at least $2 million.

The legislation also requires health insurance companies to cover physical, occupational and speech therapy costs and assistive technology for children, with an insurance cap of $3,000 annually per individual for three years. The state could pick up insurance deductibles or co-payments for those services.

Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, who handled the measure, said the bill improves the program and ensures the state can afford it in the future.

But some legislators said the changes were made just so the governor could save face.

Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D-St. Louis, said the current program is working, but Blunt's original proposal to cut most of the funding forced the need for the legislation.

"The governor put us in a situation where it was either take his plan or get nothing at all," Donnelly said.

"If you believe you will at least be able to provide some services, the choice is clear."

Donnelly said she worried the co-payments and insurance approvals could force some families to lose the service, or at least to delay the treatment their children need.

"When you're servicing very young children, those kinds of delays can mean a lot," she said.

Blunt also signed other measures Friday, including a bill protecting from lawsuits trained professionals who try to stop someone from committing suicide, and another making American Sign Language count as a foreign language credit in Missouri schools.

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