Congress Mulls Rights for Disabled

The Associated Press


WASHINGTON (AP) - Eight years after passage of a landmark disabilities law, Congress has opened a new debate about further expanding the rights of disabled people.

Advocates for the disabled are pressing for a bill that would give them more control over their care. It would allow a larger portion of the Medicaid funds that now pay for care in institutions to be used for community- or home-based care, if that's where the individual wants to live.

The debate opened Thursday with support from two House members who rarely agree on anything: Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. Gingrich told the House Commerce health and environment subcommittee that government shouldn't force people with disabilities into institutions and nursing homes for care that can be delivered more effectively and cheaply in a home or community living arrangement.

``Everyone deserves the opportunity to lead a full and independent life,'' Gingrich said, adding that ``people with disabilities are no exception.''

His remarks drew applause from the audience of advocates, many of whom sat in motorized wheelchairs and took notes or were accompanied by seeing-eye dogs. Others wore purple buttons that said ``There is no place like home'' or red T-shirts printed with ``Mi Casa,'' the bill's acronym, which also means ``My Home'' in Spanish.

Gingrich introduced the bill last June, with Gephardt as a co-sponsor.The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act banned discrimination against people with disabilities.

Gephardt said too much of the Medicaid funds spent on the disabled goes to institutions. With the right services, he said, many people with disabilities can live productive lives on their own. ``Further, they have a right to do so,'' he said. ``People with disabilities have that right as much as others that don't have disabilities.'' But some are already questioning the potential price tag.

Margaret Hamburg, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the Clinton administration embraces the goals but has concerns about the cost and whether the bill is the best way to achieve those goals. The Congressional Budget Office says the bill could cost between $10 billion and $20 billion a year, depending on how many people use the benefit and other factors.

Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, told advocates that it's easy to get support for bills, but harder to get lawmakers to vote to spend the money. ``Talk is cheap in Washington,'' he said.