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The Sacramento Bee

October 20, 2009

Judge halts cuts to California in-home aid

By Susan Ferriss

A federal judge on Monday halted the state of California's plan to cut or reduce caregiver services for 130,000 disabled and low-income seniors starting Nov. 1.

Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland imposed a preliminary injunction against the plan, which is intended to cut $82.1 million this year out of In-Home Supportive Services.

The Department of Social Services planned the cuts in the wake of budget reductions approved by the state Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Wilken's order freezes the state's plan pending future hearings on a lawsuit filed against the state by groups representing seniors and the disabled as well as caregiver unions.

The groups argue that the state's plan for deciding whom to drop from services is an arbitrary method that violates federal protections for the disabled and elderly.

The state wanted to send out notices last Thursday to all 130,000 who were going to be affected by the cutbacks, but Wilken blocked that plan with a temporary restraining order.

On Monday, Wilken ordered the state to instead send out notices to all those who were going to be affected to reassure them that services will not be cut Nov. 1.

"I am very relieved," attorney Melinda Bird of Disability Rights California said.

Bird said that the notices the state must now send are part of a directive from the judge to reassure people they won't be left without help.

"The notices are like a prophylactic 'Don't Worry' notice," Bird said.

Bird said the judge's order shows she is taking disabled activists' lawsuit seriously.

The groups contend that vulnerable people with dementia and mental illness could lose vital caregiver services if the state is allowed to use a "functional index score" to decide whom to cut from the program.

Disabled people or seniors who can feed and clothe themselves can score well, the groups say, but they may suffer from dementia or other mental problems that require some hours of in-home care for cooking, cleaning and shopping aid.

The Department of Social Services argued in court Monday that the cuts could not be stopped by Nov. 1 because new information had already been put into the state's computerized payroll system.

Lizelda Lopez, a department spokeswoman, issued a statement Monday repeating this claim: "We will comply with the judge's order, but we cannot quickly reverse some of the complex payroll system changes that have already been made, so there may be some delay."

Lopez said that the department will review the judge's detailed order and "do our best to communicate" with program recipients.

Bird said that the state has proposed asking counties in California to assume the burden of reprogramming data so that recipients won't have services cut as of Nov. 1.

Lopez said she needed more information before commenting on this proposal.

Bird said that her group will file objections with the court Tuesday, arguing that such a plan is too costly and difficult for counties to carry out.

The caregiver program pays in-home caregivers for seniors and the disabled through a mix of federal, state and county money, with some contributions from recipients' own money.