JEFFERSON CITY - Thirteen-year-old Stella Blackmon sat on the grass in front of the state Capitol. Her younger sister, Grace, was sprawled out next to her in an oversized beige bean bag chair. Grace wasn't paying any attention to her sister or the sign she held. Instead she played with her hands and staring at the sky, completely content in her own little world.
The poster Stella held has a photo of Grace on it and reads, "This is my sister Grace. She can't talk because she is autistic. I'm her older sister, Stella, and I'm talking for her. She needs her Medicaid-waiver for a lot of reasons. Please don't take it away from her."
The Blackmon family along with many other disabled people from around the state filled the capitol lawn and rotunda to protest Gov. Matt Blunt's proposed cuts in Medicaid. The bill would take more than 100,000 Missourians off of Medicaid. The protesters spoke in hopes of swaying Gov. Blunt's and other legislators' decision to pass the bill.
Craig Henning, Executive Director of the Disability Resource Association in Crystal City said the key to changing legislators minds lies in the power of voting. He said he wants "them to know we're serious" and challenged the protesters to go out and register to vote.
"We're just out here today to kind of put a face on how these cuts affect specific people," said Julie Blackmon, Grace and Stella's mother.
Rep. J.C. Kuessner, D-Eminence put a different kind of face on the issue when he announced to the crowd that he doesn't accept any type of state funding for himself.
"I don't take state insurance because I want you to be able to have what you need to be able to stay in your own homes," Kuessner said.Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington took a different approach to the protesters. He stressed the need to have a balanced budget, but suggested that cutting Medicaid was not the way it should be done. Engler said all programs that were wasteful should be cut first and the remaining programs, such as Medicaid, should then be evaluated. He appealed to the people that if it was necessary, perhaps higher taxes should be placed on minor things.
"We have to look at cutting everything we can to trim our budget in the state of Missouri so we can meet its needs and then we need to go to the people and say 'We have trimmed the waste, fraud and abuse,'" Engler said. "These services that are going to go next are essential so we have to ask you for some revenue."
He asked that the crowd to support taxes on gaming or cigarettes to help fund medical services.
Blunt said he was glad the protest group came to the Capitol and encouraged them to continue voicing their views. Blunt however reiterated his stance that Medicaid cuts are necessary.
"Our state has a fiscal crisis. We have to get our fiscal house in order. The budget that I've submitted to the Missouri General Assembly I believe does that," Blunt said.
He added that the proposed budget would increase funding for Missouri schools. Blunt said that leaving social welfare programs as they are would increase taxes this year by $601 million. He said it would be both harmful to individuals as well as the economy.
"If you don't fix some of the problems in social welfare programs, you not only have to raise taxes this year, you'll probably have to raise taxes next year, certainly the year after that and on, and on and on into the future," Blunt said.
Outside little Grace was being spoon fed her lunch by her father, W.D. The eleven-year-old girl calmly accepted her father's help, and he praised her for it. This type of hands on care is something Grace needs every day, along with constant supervision.
Grace's grandfather is the same boat. The 67-year-old man has Alzheimer's Disease, and it has seriously deteriorated the man's ability to take care of himself. Blackmon refuses to place her father in a nursing home, preferring the sick man live at home with her family. Although he is eligible for Medicaid, Blackmon says she won't take advantage of the option unless she has to. Regardless, the option won't be available with the Medicaid cuts.
"We only wanted to use Medicaid as a last resort. We're not in any hurry to put him in a nursing home but the situation is deteriorating every day," Blackmon said.
Blackmon not only has an autistic daughter and an Alzheimer stricken father, but also a seventeen-year-old brother with Prader-Willi Syndrome. The inherited disease causes mental retardation, decreased muscle tone, emotional lability and an insatiable appetite. Frank is currently in a group home that specializes in his disease and his sister says his conditions have been vastly improving since he began his stay there. Blackmon fears that the passage of SB 539 will cut funding to the facility and Frank will be forced to leave. And if Frank leaves, the only place he can be adequately cared for is in Blackmon's home.
The Blackmons consider themselves a middle-class family. They pay for health insurance. Both parents work but Julie is only part-time employed so she can care for her daughter and father. The cutting of Medicaid would force her to quit her job since she would now have to care for her brother as well.
"We're managing right now," Blackmon said. "We love having our dad with us and we love our daughter, but we can't do the impossible. Any one of these cuts, any little cut is gonna be the weak link that could really put us over the edge."
Blackmon remains an optimist though. She says despite her family's illnesses, their lives remain filled with joy.
"We wouldn't trade it. We just don't want to see our lives take a turn for the worst," Blackmon said.