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Advocates for the disabled voice frustrations

Mike Burke, executive director of the Alexandria Opportunities Center, speaks Tuesday, Aug. 23 during a forum on housing and employment for people with disabilities. (Jeff Beach / Echo Press)

There are winners and losers in a new state funding formula for agencies that serve people with disabilities and Mike Burke, executive director of the Alexandria Opportunities Center, put his situation bluntly: "I am a loser."

Burke helped lead a discussion Tuesday evening of people expressing their frustration with federal rules and state funding on housing and employment for people with disabilities.

The Alexandria Opportunities Center provides day services for people with development and mental health disabilities. At its facility on Donna Ave., the center provides employment for about 120 people with disabilities, working with companies such as 3M and Tastefully Simple for jobs including light assembly work and packaging.

A new state formula means the Opportunities Center is at risk of losing $336,000 annually in state funding by 2019.

While the old system provided a flat reimbursement rate per client served, the new system adjusts for how much help the client needs and adjusts for average wages paid in different regions of Minnesota.

That adjustment hurt the Alexandria area the most of the state's 10 regions, with Mankato getting the greatest benefit.

And because the Alexandria Opportunities Center serves mostly high-functioning people with disabilities, it is hit with a double whammy.

Burke, who also is president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation, and other advocates brought in a panel of state legislators and candidates to hear their concerns that included a lack of state funding increases for agencies serving the disabled and consequences of the federal Olmstead Act.

Advocates said that while the Olmstead Act intended to provide more choices in housing and employment for people with disabilities, a lack of funding may eventually eliminate some of those choices.

Minnesota changed its funding system to comply with the Olmstead Act and while the changes were intended to be budget neutral, Burke said that hasn't been the case.

Many at the public forum expressed frustration with the wages paid to people who work with the disabled.

Curt Lind of Parkers Prairie has a daughter living in a group home for the disabled.

"People who work with the disabled do not get paid enough," Lind said, drawing applause.

Lind said caregivers are able to earn more in fast food or leave to work in a nursing home.

The success that rural nursing home providers had in lobbying for higher reimbursements and wages was cited as an example of how advocates for the disabled can succeed at the Legislature, which has a budget setting session in 2017.

A group called the Minnesota Families and Advocates Coalition formed earlier this year to educate the public and government leaders on disabilities issues.

"These types of forums need to be happening across the state, " said state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, who himself is blind.

"There is hope that you can be just like the rural nursing homes," he told the audience.

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