I have long been frustrated by our system that provides support to Mainers with disabilities. I have dealt with this personally for many years on behalf of my son who has a severe physical disability, and I know well what it is like to spend hours on hold, waiting for someone to respond to my son’s needs. I have had a simple error result in my son losing all of his services with no warning, and I have spent dozens and dozens of hours to fix those errors. At its worst, the system feels to have been designed to create maximum frustration in a population that is already overloaded.

Rep. Tina Riley

As a state legislator, I have heard too many heart-wrenching stories from others who are struggling to care for their family members, sometimes in unthinkable situations, lacking the support they need. It should not be this hard.

The people in the agency offices are too often stuck with a workload that no human being could realistically carry — I have seen it up close, and I feel terrible for those employees. But more than anything, I need to know that the system is going to work for my son and for every person who needs those services. My experience over the past decade has left my confidence sorely shaken.

Long ago, people who could not support themselves were farmed out to families who were willing to take them in for a small stipend. There was little oversight, and horrific abuse was common. We tried institutionalization, with dismal results. My first job was as a janitor in Pineland Hospital. In orientation, I saw photos of rows of patients chained to their beds. They would file to the showers in groups to be hosed down and chemically de-loused. The people living in Pineland when I worked there had their teeth removed — without their consent — because dental care was just too much work.

Our society has evolved since then, but we still struggle to balance the dignity of those who require support with the needs of taxpayers. For quite a few years, the system has been starved to the point that it no longer provides a baseline level of safety. Caseworkers are wildly overloaded and vulnerable people are falling through cracks created by long-term underfunding. Sometimes trying too hard to save a buck not only puts people at risk but also costs us financially: Maine taxpayers are sending well over $50 million to the Feds because of the corners we cut at Riverview. Some of the stories that emerge from these situations are painfully reminiscent of the horror stories I heard during my time at Pineland.

The public conversation has turned away from the needs of the people that the system is designed to support, to instead focus on the apparently healthy people who might be cheating to get benefits. The angry taxpayers I hear from voice compassion for people who truly need help, but push for stricter rules to prevent fraud. Efforts to prevent welfare fraud have made the process of getting and keeping any publicly-funded support services a frustrating, humiliating and exhausting process. Those whose disabilities are invisible or difficult to diagnose struggle against a system that is designed specifically to weed them out and a public that openly scorns them. Innocent people have died, and still, fraud exists. How can this be the right way to steward our limited resources?

As furious as I am with scammers — law-breaking practitioners included — I am far more aware of those who want to support themselves but who need public support. Too often, those who understand little of the lives of people with disabilities (and the families of those people) make harsh and destructive judgments, and they vote for politicians who promise to cut budgets to the bone. We are witnessing the end result of that forgotten compassion.

We will always need to police the system against fraud and abuse, and those in charge of the programs must be strong fiscal stewards. But compromising the support system’s ability to protect those in its charge cannot be part of our money-saving plan. The system that should be serving our neighbors in need has been shredded by our political arguments. The public’s compassion has been corroded by rage, and those bear no fault end up paying dearly for it.

If you witness fraud or abuse of public support services, please call 866-348-1129 or visit maine.gov/dhhs/fraud to report it.

Rep. Tina Riley is serving her second term in the Maine House of Representatives. She is a member of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee and represents Jay, Livermore Falls and part of Livermore.

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