Texas House Speaker: Cuts to Therapy for Poor, Disabled Children "Maybe" a Mistake

The Texas House Speaker says the deep cuts to disabled kids' therapy last session were a mistake – "maybe." - FACEBOOK.COM/SPEAKERJOESTRAUS
The Texas House Speaker says the deep cuts to disabled kids' therapy last session were a mistake – "maybe."
The day after Texas health officials quietly acknowledged that they will, in fact, slash some $350 million that currently pays for therapy for vulnerable children with disabilities this month (just in time for Christmas), Texas House Speaker Joe Straus acknowledged that "maybe" it was a mistake for lawmakers to order the state to carry out those cuts in the first place.

During the Texas Tribune's "85th Legislature preview symposium" on Tuesday, the San Antonio Republican acknowledge that while, yes, lawmakers last session slashed the Medicaid reimbursement rate to pay for pediatric therapy for disabled children, "maybe we made a mistake." Straus also made sure to point out that the whopping cuts were "not initiative of the Texas House," through which he's shepherded legislation since 2009. Straus also added, "I think you’ll see us addressing" the problem in the coming session, saying he might seek to restore the cuts in a supplemental budget. (*When we asked Straus' office for more specifics, spokesman Jason Embry sent this statement: "Speaker Straus believes that the reductions have not been implemented well. The Speaker hopes that the Legislature will address the issue in the supplemental budget bill so that children have access to the services they need. Speaker Straus also welcomes the opportunity to take a thoughtful look at these rates, with access to care being the priority.”)

Last year, providers and relatives of kids with disabilities who receive Medicaid funding for speech, occupational and physical therapy sued the Texas Health and Human Services Commission over the staggering 26 percent rate reduction ordered by state lawmakers in 2015. The lawsuit, which was filed weeks before the cuts were set to take effect, argues that many providers would be forced to close their doors if the cuts go through, and that as many as 60,000 children could go without care. In September, the Texas Supreme Court effectively killed the lawsuit when it refused to hear the case, upholding a lower court's ruling the service providers and family members of poor, disabled kids lacked standing to sue the state over deep cuts that could impact their care.

While Straus didn't defend the cuts in his comments to the Tribune, he called them "well intentioned" but simply said "it did not work."

The cuts, set to go into effect December 15, are just the latest blow to disabled children in the state. According to a new report from the advocacy group Texans Care for Children, enrollment in Texas' Early Childhood Intervention program, which offers therapy services for babies and toddlers with disabilities, dropped some 14 percent between 2011 to 2015 following a series of funding cuts.

“The Legislature’s decisions to cut funding for the youngest Texans with speech delays, Down syndrome, autism, and other developmental challenges means that many children will have an even harder struggle to reach their full potential,” the group's CEO, Stephanie Rubin, said in a prepared statement. “Thousands of Texas kids are missing out on therapies that could help them communicate with their families, walk on their own, or be ready for school.”

But "maybe" that was just a mistake.

*Updated 11/30/16 at 11am to include a statement from Straus' office.
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