The following op ed piece is available for downloading for newspaper use at will.
Joe Leean is Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services. Linda Stewart is Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
This column was first posted June 10, 1998.
For more information about this column, contact James Malone, Health and Family Services, 608/266-1683, or Michael H. McCoy, Workforce Development, 608/267-4400.
Pathways to Independence:
A Win-Win Proposal for Wisconsin
By Joe Leean and Linda Stewart
Wisconsinís economy is booming, unemployment is at record lows, and employers are scrambling to find workers. Yet, thousands of Wisconsin citizens who can work and who want to work remain on the labor sidelines.
These citizens are people with disabilities. In 1995, only 7.5 percent of people with severe disabilities in the U.S. were employed.
Many people with disabilities want to work. And many can work, thanks to advances in health care and technology that have made it possible for individuals with even very severe disabilities to hold a steady job. Advances such as voice-activated computers, new psychotropic medications and motorized wheelchairs mean that persons with disabilities are able to compete in the job market.
The tragedy is that thousands of people with disabilities who donít work are unable to reap the rewards of a healthy economy such as purchasing a new car or buying their first home.
So why donít more people with disabilities go to work? The current disability benefit system actually creates barriers to attaining a working income and accumulating assets.
There are two major problems. First is the fear of losing health and long term care coverage, including Medicaid, Medicare and attendant services. Whether they work or not, many people with disabilities need these programs to survive.
Second, the complex and fragmented disability system lacks common income eligibility standards. Even a modest level of work, while acceptable for one program, might mean the loss of eligibility for another program. And that could set off a chain reaction that results in the loss of all or nearly all supports.
We can address these problems. Governor Thompson has proposed a new
initiative called Pathways to Independence. A joint effort by the Department of Health and Family Services and the Department of Workforce Development, Pathways to Independence is a research and demonstration project that will build on existing services and address the issues of health and long term care coverage and system complexity.
During a five-year test period at multiple sites, the project would serve about 1,200 to 1,800 Wisconsin residents with physical disabilities, mental illness, HIV/AIDS and developmental disabilities. Proposed services include benefit counseling to help individuals navigate the current system, and intensive vocational services to help them set and meet their employment goals.
The proposal faces a big challenge: to implement the necessary program changes to make Pathways to Independence a reality, the state needs federal permission in the form of waivers. These federal waivers would allow us to secure the health and long term care coverage and the cash benefits for project participants who are already receiving these benefits.
Obtaining federal approval can be a tedious, time-consuming process. But Governor Thompson and both departments strongly believe the project is well worth the effort.
Pathways to Independence creates a "win-win" opportunity for Wisconsin. The taxpayers win, because upon entering the workforce, people with disabilities become wage earners who will contribute social security taxes and income taxes. Wisconsin's employers also win because they will be able to tap the full potential of Wisconsin's workforce.
Also, individuals with disabilities will be given the freedom to seek and hold a job in a way that has not been available before. They will be able to share in the emotional rewards and self-esteem of having a jobóand this, perhaps, makes the human spirit the biggest winner of all.