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NC General Assembly Begins Long Session

Photo credit to Mr. T in DC via Flickr.com

This article was contributed by Jennifer Mahan, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy.

The North Carolina General Assembly began its long legislative session on January 28, spending the two weeks prior to that organizing committee membership and shifting offices for new members and leaders. This year’s legislative session is off to a slow start. The General Assembly will spend a good portion of this session writing a two-year budget for the state and began Appropriations meetings the week of February 5.

News on the budget is mixed: Medicaid is coming in at, or possibly even under, budget for the year, but tax collections appear to be down about $230 million. Legislators are waiting for April income tax numbers before making major decisions on budget issues. Most projections indicate that while jobs are growing, wages are not, resulting in lower tax collections. The budget hole could grow to the $500-million level. Legislative leaders say the state can cover any budgetary holes this year with rainy day funds and other funds set aside for possible budget overruns. There has been little discussion yet on what recent tax changes might mean for future budget years. Gov. Pat McCrory will likely put out his budget proposal at the end of February. The House will be working on its budget bill first and then passing it to the Senate for changes. ASNC keeps a close eye on budget and tax changes because special education and publicly funded services support people with autism and other developmental disabilities, and the need for such services is growing.

ASNC continues to work with the legislature and other stakeholders on a solution for autism insurance coverage in North Carolina on which everyone can agree. Senate leaders must be prepared to address the issue of insurance coverage, or we will find ourselves in a similar situation to the last two years: House support and/or bill passage, but no final resolution.

Federal Update: ABLE Act Passes Congress, Requires States to Authorize Programs

Congress has passed the ABLE Act, Achieving a Better Life Experience, which allows states to set up savings programs, similar to 529 college savings, but specifically for people with significant disabilities. ABLE savings plans would allow families to save money for a family member’s future support, housing, services, and personal needs without jeopardizing their eligibility for other needed benefit programs. People of any age who acquired their disability before the age of 26 are potentially eligible. SSI and SSDI recipients would be automatically eligible; other people who have significant disabilities will have to meet a disability standard of proof established by Treasury regulations that will be written in 2015. Disability Scoop outlines the ABLE Act here, and the National Disability Institute has an informative, 10-minute video explanation here.

Because each state will need to set up its own ABLE savings program, ASNC is working with the NC General Assembly on authorizing legislation for a state ABLE Act/529 program for people with disabilities. ASNC will be monitoring the legislation closely and will alert you to any need for advocacy.

NC DHHS Workgroups and Opportunities for Feedback

North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has been active in a number of initiatives that address Innovations waivers, Home and Community Based Services standards, and the federal directive on autism services.

DHHS is updating the Innovations Home and Community Based Waiver (formerly the CAP IDD Waiver), which is up for renewal. DHHS has been soliciting feedback from workgroups to determine changes to service definitions within the waiver. Kerri Erb, Senior Director of Programs, has been actively representing ASNC on the committee and urging changes that will benefit people on the autism spectrum. You can view presentations made at waiver workgroups meetings on the DHHS waiver page.

The federal government has published final rules under new Home and Community Based Services standards. The intent is to make community settings for people with disabilities more person-centered and to ensure that people are served in the most integrated settings. You can review the rules and continue to comment. NC has set up workgroups to solicit feedback on the new rules and help providers implement them.

NC DHHS is beginning work on changes to services required under the federal government’s new guidelines on serving people with autism under Medicaid’s Early Periodic Screening Diagnosis and Treatment (EPSDT). The guidelines require states to cover services for autism but do not specify which services or what their timeframe is to make needed changes to state Medicaid plans. ASNC staff members are continuing to provide feedback to DHHS staff regarding evidence-based treatments and services that address Autism Spectrum Disorder.

ASNC encourages you to provide input on the programs that serve you. Information about the various workgroups and ways you can make your voice heard are in one of our recent blog posts.

ASNC Public Policy Targets

ASNC advocates with policymakers on a wide variety of public policy issues in our efforts to create communities where people with autism have the respect, services, and support they need. There are lifelong needs across the entire spectrum and many opportunities for change. Our two-year targets focus on increasing access to services and support, accessible education options, and a system that supports the needs of people on the spectrum. Thank you to everyone who participated in our public policy survey this past year and helped us shape our policy targets. The 2015-2016 targets can be seen here.

Advocating for Autism Issues

Change is not possible without your grassroots efforts! Policymakers need to hear your voice on legislative issues, community needs, challenges you face, and potential solutions. ASNC supports communities in advocating for change and staying informed about public policy issues that affect them. Our Advocacy 101 toolkit is great way to brush up on how policy gets made and how you can have an impact!

If you have questions about public policy issues, please contact Jennifer Mahan, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, at jmahan@autismsociety-nc.org.

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