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Originally published Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 4:04 PM

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Editorial: End waiting list for people with developmental disabilities

The Legislature is finally working to eliminate a sprawling waiting list for developmental disability services.

Seattle Times Editorial

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WHEN the state issued a performance audit last summer highlighting glaring problems in developmental disabilities funding, longtime advocate Ed Holen grimly noted that audit “may be the 39th study” with a similar message.

Well, thanks to a change in federal law, the message has finally been heard.

State Sen. Andy Hill, the Redmond Republican who chairs the Senate budget-writing committee, has sponsored a bill to effectively eliminate the waiting list for developmental disability services. An estimated 15,100 people are eligible for state aid but linger on the waiting list, often for years.

Hill’s proposal, SB 6378, would tap a new federal Medicaid program created by the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Traditionally, the federal government has split Medicaid costs with states down the middle. The new program ups the federal share to 56 percent. That would save the state about $40 million a year, which would be plowed back into services to cut the waiting list.

These new services would provide respite care for an estimated 4,000 families caring for loved ones with disabilities, and extend employment support for 1,000 more people. It would be fully rolled out by 2017.

Although the waiting list is at 15,100 people, only about 5,000 of them had requested services, Hill said. This proposal, he said, would “effectively eliminate the waiting list.”

This is good progress, but the claim may be overly optimistic. The need for these services is likely greater than the waitlist because many people didn’t apply for assistance so long as there was no hope of getting any assistance.

Nonetheless, attention to the waitlist is overdue. But it also leaves unaddressed a larger inequity in the developmental disabilities system.

The state spends about $194,000 per person on the 876 people living in four state developmental disabilities institutions while providing no services to thousands of eligible people. It is a system of haves and have-nots.

Closing institutions and increasing community-based support has come up regularly in Olympia since the 1980s; it came up in the recent audit. But state employee unions and local communities dependent on the institutional jobs have killed one proposal after another.

In passing Hill’s smart and timely fix of the waiting list, the Legislature shouldn’t ignore the larger problem. And it shouldn’t take a 40th study to solve it.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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