Legal Issues and State Government and Lawsuits and Government and Law

Man's lawsuit claims Indiana agency broke law

July 3, 2012

A decision by Indiana's social services agency to stop helping hundreds of severely developmentally disabled people in a Medicaid waiver program pay for food violates state law and forces them to do without other necessities so they can eat, the father of an autistic man on public assistance claims.

Indianapolis attorney Steven Dick filed an administrative appeal with the Family and Social Services Administration in December and again in March on behalf of his 28-year-old son, according to previously unreleased documents provided to The Associated Press.

The food allowance was part of a larger subsidy called the Residential Living Allowance. The agency stopped providing the food allowance in fall 2010. It previously had reduced the allowance for those who receive food stamps — a move that welfare advocates and legal experts said was in violation of federal law. The agency ended the benefit weeks after saying it would stop reducing it.

Dick claimed at the time that the move was retaliation for a related lawsuit he filed against the agency. That lawsuit was later settled out of court.

Spokesman Neal Moore said that the Family and Social Services Administration would not comment on Dick's appeal. But he did say there hadn't been any change in the Residential Living Allowance policy since 2010 and the agency hadn't received any complaints.

An administrative hearing on Dick's appeal that was scheduled for Thursday has been rescheduled for Aug. 22, according to the agency.

The administrative law judge at the hearing could deny Dick's appeal, opening the way for him to file a class-action lawsuit, or find that the policy does violate state law, forcing the agency to pay for groceries.

Reinstating the food allowance would cost the agency an estimated $900,000 at a time when the state is running a $2 billion surplus, much of which comes from money returned by agencies to the state's General Fund, said Erik Gonzalez, a fiscal analyst with the Indiana House Ways and Means Committee.

"For a small amount of money, these people can be appropriately served," Gonzalez said Tuesday. "If they don't have these kinds of supports, they're going to end up in institutions, which will be even more expensive," he added.

After the agency did away with the food allowance, Democratic Rep. William Crawford of Indianapolis sponsored legislation to force the agency to reinstate it, but the bill didn't get a hearing in committee, Gonzalez said.

Now, the only money Dick's son receives for groceries is $173 a month in food stamps, Dick said.

"He's supposed to subsist on that or do without," Dick said. "We've had to cut back and eliminate other things. All he gets is his Social Security and food stamps. If eating more important than new clothes or something else, that's where money has to be put."

Dick's son is enrolled in a state program that provides money to help the developmentally disabled live on their own. Dick said his son lives in an Indianapolis apartment with a roommate who also is autistic. Both function at the 6 or 7-year-old level and are in the same Medicaid waiver program, Dick said.

"They're surviving; they're just living at a sub-poverty level," he said.

Dick claims in his appeal that the agency's decision to do away with the state food benefit nearly two years ago violates an Indiana law that requires the state to cover "the actual costs of room and board expenses" for those in the Medicaid waiver program.

The Sept. 1, 2010, policy statement from the agency includes rent, utilities, telephone and property insurance — but not groceries — as allowable expenses. Gonzalez called the way the agency discontinued the food allowance without mentioning it as "sleight of hand."

At the time the policy was issued, an agency spokesman confirmed that it no longer covered groceries.

"If you're now saying that we're not allowed to include meals, then you're violating the state law," said Dick.

John Dickerson, executive director of The Arc, an advocacy group for Indiana's developmentally disabled, said Tuesday that he wasn't aware of anyone going hungry without the grocery allowance. Indiana requires everyone receiving assistance for developmental disabilities to apply for food stamps. But he acknowledged that many are forced to do without other things to make sure they get enough food, and many are unhappy with the extra bureaucratic step that is now required.

Dickerson said the shift was part of a pattern of trade-offs that resulted from Indiana's effort to conserve state funds by increasing the use of federal programs.

"We're living in a time when unfortunately we have to stretch every dollar as far as we can," he said.

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