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Deal will avoid deep cuts in home care for elderly, disabled

Gov. Brown, unions and social service advocates agree to an 8% cut in service hours rather than the 20% the state sought last year.

March 19, 2013|By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times
  • Members of the United LongTerm Care Workers union rally in 2009 outside the Ronald Reagan State Office Building in Los Angeles to protest cuts in home care benefits for the elderly, disabled and people with special needs.
Members of the United LongTerm Care Workers union rally in 2009 outside… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown will no longer seek steep cuts in home care for the elderly and the disabled, ending a prolonged court battle spawned by the state's persistent budget crisis.

The Brown administration reached an agreement with unions and social service advocates to allow an 8% cut in service hours, less than half the 20% reduction the state tried to enact last year.

State funding for workers' salaries will not be reduced, and Sacramento will not further restrict qualifications for receiving the services under the settlement — two changes originally sought by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009.

Over the years, courts have blocked these cuts in the program, known as In-Home Supportive Services, which pays for 350,000 workers to provide hygienic and other personal care, housecleaning, grocery shopping and other forms of aid to 448,000 Californians who might otherwise have to live in nursing homes.

"Today's agreement represents a significant compromise for all sides and preserves access to this important benefit," said a statement from Toby Douglas, director of the California Department of Health Care Services.

Activists and unions also hailed the accord, which resolves two lawsuits, as a victory for workers and the people they serve.

"This looming cloud of huge cuts is gone," said Melinda Bird, litigation director for Disability Rights California. "It helps everybody move forward."

All parties involved said they plan to ask that the lawsuits be dismissed and to pursue legislation to finalize the agreement.

The lawsuits, emblematic of California's budget crisis, were among several filed to block cuts sought by Schwarzenegger and Brown when the state faced ballooning deficits.

Brown planned the 20% cut in service hours in January 2012 after tax revenue fell short of projections, but the move was blocked by a federal judge in Oakland.

The governor was still able to slice 3.6% from the program in the current budget, which expires June 30. The new agreement will extend that reduction and add a 4.4% cut, for a total 8% reduction.

The average recipient will get roughly one hour less in assistance each week. The cut will be reduced to 7% next year.

Officials also agreed to seek a new, unspecified fee from providers to help restore money to the program. Such a fee, which would qualify California for more federal matching funds, would need to be approved in Washington.

The legal settlement will allow the state to save $160 million in the next fiscal year, rather than the $180 million assumed in the budget Brown has proposed, according to H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

Rebecca Malberg, home care director for SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, said the agreement will be a relief for Californians who count on the program for critical assistance.

"They have been living with a massive amount of fear and uncertainty for the last four years," she said.

The lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits was David Oster, who has been diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia. Restrictions proposed by Schwarzenegger would have cut him off from home aid because he has mental, not physical, disabilities.

He relies on a woman who lives in his Torrance apartment complex to help him with meals and cleaning.

Without her, he said, "I'd be lost."

chris.megerian@latimes.com

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