Blunt - Cuts won't harm disabled kids

Friday, February 4, 2005

Children who truly need services provided by First Steps will still receive them if the early childhood special education program is eliminated, Gov. Matt Blunt said Thursday in response to concerns about his recommendation to cut funding next year.

Blunt's proposal shocked local parents and First Steps workers, who say the services the program offers are not available through other sources.

"A lot of people don't know about our program, " said Nancy Hale, regional project coordinator for the Southeast Missouri First Steps. "But we're Missouri's early intervention program. No other program in the state serves this purpose."

The Southeast Missouri branch serves 339 children, infants to age 3, in 17 counties. Statewide, some 8,000 children with disabilities or developmental delays are enrolled in First Steps. Locally, children who qualify receive free, in-home developmental, speech, occupational, physical and nutritional therapy from therapists contracted from other agencies.

Blunt says those services can also be paid for using Medicaid or private health insurance instead of taking up money in the state's social services budget.

"We should encourage Missouri families to use those options," Blunt said. "Having said that, I care about these kids. These are kids that have some real disabilities that we can help them to overcome and surmount."

Blunt said he would work to create a similar program through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education or the Department of Mental Health to provide services to those who can't get them through Medicaid or private insurance.

"At the end of this budget process, no children that are in the First Steps program are going to go without the care that they truly need," he said.

Options like private insurance and Medicaid will not cover costs for some families, said Julia Kinder, a Cape Girardeau parent whose daughter is enrolled in First Steps. The Kinders do not qualify for Medicaid, but their insurance covers only $500 a year for the therapies that 5-month-old Ella Kinder receives. Without First Steps, Kinder said, Ella's therapies for Down syndrome would cost $500 every week.

"I can't believe they'd consider cutting it. Missouri is the only state considering cutting it. We've talked about moving to another state if that happens," Kinder said. "Ella's entire future depends on the next three years."

Ella began First Steps at 2 months of age. Four First Steps therapists come for one hour each once a week.

Ella is currently meeting all of her developmental targets. Having the therapists come to their house is a great benefit as well, Kinder said, because it decreases the chances that Ella might become sick. Any therapy lost to illness would have a cost, since Ella is already behind other children in development.

Amy Franklin of Jackson became a First Steps therapist and coordinator after seeing how much the program benefited her son, Carson. She said many of her clients fall just above the limit for Medicaid coverage.

"Unfortunately, private insurance allows a set number of visits per year," Franklin said. "To make progress, these children need ongoing services. Also, developmental therapy is usually not covered on an insurance plan, and that's all of the behavioral and cognitive skills."

Franklin holds First Steps responsible for the success her son had after being born 13 weeks premature.Carson just turned 3 and is in public school's early childhood education program.

"You feel so helpless when your child is not born like typical children," Franklin said. "Just the support of having someone there was important."

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