People who will be affected by Corbett's cuts

for addictions therapy: (from left) Lauryn Costa, Gina Blessia, Tiffany David, Carmen Cook, Jessica McAleer, and Deborah McCutchen. General-assistance funds from the state help pay for treatment. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
for addictions therapy: (from left) Lauryn Costa, Gina Blessia, Tiffany David, Carmen Cook, Jessica McAleer, and Deborah McCutchen. General-assistance funds from the state help pay for treatment. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer (At Mount Airy's Interim House)
Posted: March 29, 2012

Brittany Stevens doesn't talk a lot, but she's a bit of a social butterfly. She was a prom queen and, after a recent performance of the musical Fela!, she spontaneously hugged the dancers, nearly tackling them in excitement.

But Brittany, 21, who is disabled and suffers from seizures, incontinence, hearing loss, and other problems, spends most of her days alone in her North Philadelphia home, while her mother, Harlena Morton, goes to work as a high-school counselor.

Morton had hoped to find Brittany a job in a workshop that employs disabled adults. Now that Gov. Corbett has proposed large cuts to social services programs, Morton fears that Brittany and thousands like her will never get off waiting lists for those spots and for other services.

In addition to disabled adults, the rollback in funding affects the homeless, people with mental-health and substance-abuse problems, HIV patients needing hospice care, children aging out of foster care, and those in the city-run nursing home.

In Philadelphia, the cuts total about $120 million, not including reductions in medical care, city officials say; across Pennsylvania, $317 million, according to state officials.

The Corbett administration says the cuts are unavoidable because state expenses are outpacing revenue, largely due to mandates of the federal Medicaid program.

"Our hands are pretty much tied," said Angie Logan, policy director at the state Department of Public Welfare.

State officials also argue that Corbett has maintained many benefits, including the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.

People who receive the services, their advocates, and some local government officials disagree. They say Corbett could have maintained the bulk of the funding, but instead gave $370 million in tax breaks to corporations, a choice that will destroy a social safety net carefully constructed over decades.

"Gov. Corbett has to own up to those policy decisions," said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Donald F. Schwarz.

Kelli Roberts, a Corbett spokeswoman, said elimination of the capital-stock tax, begun under Gov. Tom Ridge, would make Pennsylvania competitive with other states.

"Some of the decisions being made now are to help bolster revenues for the future," she said. "We are still in a very tough budget cycle, and we acknowledge these as tough and not ideal decisions."

Schwarz and other critics say the cuts will increase costs when, for example, addicts who don't get treatment commit crimes and go to jail.

The impact will be felt throughout the state. In Montgomery County, for example, commissioners are worrying about how to make up for a $900,000 decline in funds for the county-run nursing home.

The reductions fall into three categories. The Corbett administration wants to pool a number of services currently financed separately into a single block grant - including funds for mental health and homeless programs. Total dollars for the grants will be cut 20 percent from current levels, reducing funding by $41 million in Philadelphia and $168 million statewide.

The budget also proposes ending general assistance, cash payments that help domestic-violence victims, recovering addicts, and children who probably would otherwise be in foster care.

In Philadelphia, general assistance provides $205 a month. The amount of general assistance a person can receive over a lifetime is often capped. Drug abusers can receive it for a total of nine months, for example.

More than 68,000 Pennsylvanians receive general assistance. Eliminating it will save an estimated $149 million statewide, about half of which goes to Philadelphians.

Many states do not provide cash assistance, and the decision to cut the funds in Pennsylvania was difficult but necessary, said Dave Spishock, budget director for the Department of Public Welfare.

People on general assistance are eligible for health care through a program known as medical assistance. Spishock says the administration is maintaining medical benefits for those who qualify for general assistance.

But many of those covered by medical assistance never used it, Spishock said. Corbett's budget counts on $170 million in savings on the assumption that many of those losing general assistance will not reapply for the medical assistance that currently comes with it.

The proposed reductions are expected to hit hard people trying to overcome addictions. At West Mount Airy's Interim House, program director Kathy Wellbank says general and medical assistance pays for the majority of care for her clients.

Many of them are victims of "the most horrific" physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, leading them to drink and use drugs, she said. She fears medical-assistance cuts and tightened eligibility will hurt her program.

Tiffany David, 23, receives therapy at Interim. She said she did not know how she would complete her recovery without general assistance.

David celebrated a year of sobriety March 8. She is working to get her high-school degree and says she eventually wants to work as a beautician or as a medical assistant in a doctor's office.

For now, her recovery includes three weekly therapy sessions and daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, leaving no time for a job.

For inspiration, David need only look to Virginia Williams Hanible. Five years ago, Hanible came to Interim House in handcuffs after decades as a prostitute, drug user, and thief.

"When I came here, I said I will never be in handcuffs again," she recalled.

Abused in foster care, she had her first child at 16. She had returned to her mom's house by that time but ran away, overwhelmed at the prospect of parenthood.

Medical assistance paid for her treatment at Interim House, where for the first time she was diagnosed as diabetic and bipolar. General assistance went toward court costs and a security deposit when she left treatment there. With five years of sobriety behind her, she has regained custody of her son, 12, made amends with her adult daughter, and has been married to her high-school sweetheart for 15 months.

Today, she is a peer counselor at Interim House.

Spishock and Logan say that most people who receive general assistance are temporarily disabled adults, not drug users.

Michael Froehlich, a lawyer for Community Legal Services, who opposes eliminating general assistance, says the programs are a lifeline for many people, including about 800 children being taken care of by people who are not family members. Many of the caretakers are "Good Samaritans," and without them, the children likely would be in foster care, which is significantly more expensive, Froehlich said.

"General assistance is an efficient, relatively speaking, way to take care of Pennsylvania's most vulnerable citizens," he said.

Department of Public Welfare officials say a 20 percent reduction in the block-grant funding will affect specific groups. They say they hope counties will be able to identify savings and then divvy up the money in a way that preserves most programs.

Dee Coccia, co-executive director of Vision For Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for the mentally disabled and their families, has no doubt that they will lose services.

"The state would rather let people reach crisis situations and then dump them into a state center rather than provide services now," she said.

Morton, Brittany's mom, says she can't understand why funds that had been ready to help families like hers for decades suddenly are disappearing.

She has believed in Brittany from the day she was born, weighing just 3 pounds 14 ounces. Brittany has Nager syndrome. One of its manifestations is missing bones, which is why Brittany's face has unusual angles.

It took five years before a doctor diagnosed Brittany. She has had 35 surgeries to correct problems the syndrome causes. Morton struggles constantly with insurers to maintain her daughter's care.

When Morton is at work, she checks on Brittany via cellphone, and neighbors look in. But she knows her daughter would rather be around people. Medication helps control Brittany's seizures, but not completely.

"If she were at a workshop and had a seizure there, somebody is going to immediately take care of it," she said. "I would know she is being taken care of, that she's being productive."


Contact staff writer Miriam Hill

at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com, or

follow on Twitter @miriamhill.

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