Missouri House approves disability laws package

Saturday, April 16, 2011 | 4:28 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Rehabilitation for traumatic brain injuries and medically necessary hearing aids would be covered under the state's Medicaid program, as part of a package of disability legislation the Missouri House of Representatives approved this past week.

The legislation also includes several measures intended to increase awareness of disability and mental health issues that sponsoring Rep. Jeff Grisamore, R-Lee's Summit, said amount to "a historic and unprecedented advancement for the disabilities community in Missouri." House passage of the bill sent it to the Senate.

One of the bill's most substantive changes would include adding hearing aids to the items covered by the state's Medicaid program, also known as MO HealthNet. Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, said some low-income people with hearing loss have simply had to go without aid under the state's current program.

"It makes every bit of sense to help someone have a better quality of life," said Oxford.

Other parts of the bill would add a mental health professional to the MO HealthNet Oversight Committee and authorize the state to reimburse county sheriffs for transporting people to mental health facilities.

Rep. Zachary Wyatt, R-Green Castle, said sheriffs in his district sometimes have to drive three hours to transport someone to a state mental hospital, straining the finances of the area's counties.

"During these tough budget times, it's just another way to give local control back to the sheriff's offices and the local counties," Wyatt said.

Another provision would benefit families whose children have non-verbal autism by adding mental disabilities to the list of reasons why people can be accompanied by service dogs in public areas. Service dogs can help the children learn about social interaction and can also help to locate the child if he or she gets separated from the parents and hides.

"The search-and-rescue dog is vital for the well-being of the family," said Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis.

Other sections of the bill would change official descriptions of people with disabilities. All references to "mental retardation" and people who are "mentally retarded" or "handicapped" would be taken out of state laws and replaced with phrases such as "developmentally disabled" or having a "developmental disability." New signs in parking lots designating spaces for people with disabilities would have to refer to such spaces as "accessible parking" rather than "handicap" or "handicapped" parking.

The legislation also would require the state to automatically renew the eligibility of children in state's Medicaid programs. Currently, children are only eligible if their parent or guardian submits an eligibility form each year. The state's Family Support Division estimates that more than 20,000 children in those lost their eligibility last year because their parent or guardian didn't return the form.

Federal funds would pay for most of the related costs, but the automatic re-enrollment is projected to cost the state $9 million to $12 million per year — a cost Grisamore said was higher than supporters had initially anticipated. Grisamore said he planned to remove that automatic renewal provision when the bill goes to the Senate.

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