Disabled, ill Alaskans file suit over federal Medicaid restriction

MORATORIUM: Temporary ban prevents nursing care in the home.

August 19, 2009 

Some disabled, ill and elderly Alaskans are suing over a temporary ban that prevents them from getting help in their home through Medicaid.

The class action lawsuit targets a federal moratorium that bars new people from being admitted to certain Medicaid programs that offer help including nursing care in the home. The programs were started so that people don't have to live in nursing homes or be stuck in a hospital, but according to the suit, that's what is happening as a result of the moratorium.

The suit was filed this week in federal court by public interest lawyers on behalf of four named individuals and others like them.

The plaintiffs are: Barbara Olsen, 68, who recently fell and broke her back and is stuck in the hospital in Cordova; Juanita Gielarowski, 62, who is bed bound and stranded in an assisted living facility; Doreen Myers, 38, who has chronic pulmonary disease and is in a nursing home; and Alice Callahan, 66, who has lung cancer and speaks only in a whisper. Callahan is still at home but needs care and fears having to go into an institution. The first three all would like to go home, but can't without more help, according to the lawsuit.

The suit accuses Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of overstepping her authority in imposing the ban. It also says Bill Hogan, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Social Services, never should have gone along with the moratorium.

State officials say they can't comment on the lawsuit but are doing everything they can to get the moratorium lifted.

One reason federal officials put the ban in place was because of a big backlog in annual evaluations of individuals to determine what services they needed. Since June 26, when the ban began, the state has completed more than 400 assessments of people in the programs, according to Sarana Schell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Social Services.

The Disability Law Center of Alaska and the Northern Justice Project want the ban to be lifted immediately so that everyone who qualifies gets help.

The types of help affected include renovations to make a home wheelchair accessible, supports on the job for someone with developmental disabilities, in-home nursing care and stays in group and assisted-living homes.

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer.

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