My Turn: Alaskans’ dignity worth paying for

  • By SHELLY VENDETTI-VUCKOVICH
  • Thursday, September 24, 2015 1:00am
  • Opinion

Like every 7 year old, my granddaughter says the darnedest things.

When Claire was getting ready for her first plane ride a year ago, I’d occasionally floor the gas pedal in the car — very briefly and only when safe, of course — so that she’d know what high-speed accelerating felt like.

Great idea, right?

Travel day arrived, the jet engines roared and we were leaving the runway behind. Suddenly Claire turned to me, the person who does most of the chauffeuring in our family, and said in a loud voice: “Who the heck is driving?!”

Then there was the 2014 race for governor.

Claire and I knocked on so many doors that by the time Halloween rolled around, she was just as likely to say “Vote for Walker” as “Trick or treat” when people answered the doorbell.

Like other second-graders, she likes to sing with her Kincaid Elementary classmates. Sometimes she impersonates Elvis.

But you should know that my granddaughter wasn’t supposed to be like every child at all.

In fact, there was one long hospital stay when three-month-old Claire lay comatose following abuse, which occurred at the hands of her birth father when she resided with her biological family as an infant, and who no longer remains in her life. Doctors told us she might not last 24 hours, let alone seven years.

Yet here she is, beautiful and thriving, safe and secure with us; her adoptive family, her family of the heart.

Blind, developmentally delayed, in need of speech and occupational therapy and susceptible to seizures, Claire requires round-the-clock care. She endures post-traumatic stress and early childhood trauma. She takes medication four times a day. When she first began going to school, I would sit in the hallway, waiting for a small bell that signaled it was time for me to give Claire a hug, to tell her she was safe. After two years in the Anchorage School District Early Learning Program, Claire was ready for more independence. She’d go to her classroom while I sat in the car in the school parking lot, just in case I was needed for reassurance.

Those days are gone. And while love and kindness have a lot to do with Claire’s diagnosis-defying progress, none of it would have been possible without taxpayer commitment to programs that help all of us lead dignified, independent lives. For our family, that program is a Medicaid waiver that funds health and education services for developmentally disabled children.

Hundreds of Alaskans are on a waiting list for funding that helps people like Claire. For the past several years, just 200 waivers have been granted annually, yet every year demand grows. Starting this month, the number of new waivers was expected to be cut to only 50 a year. Depending on when they joined the list and the degree of care needed, some people wait 10 years or more for services.

Proposed deep cuts to Alaska’s Medicaid waiver program are causing me to lose sleep, especially at Permanent Fund Dividend time when Alaskans are tempted to forget that we face a budget crisis. Here’s a reminder: We’re short about $4 billion this year alone.

Lots of other health and education programs are targeted by officials who want you to believe that eliminating services — along with state jobs — is the best way and the only way to close our budget gap.

But here’s what “cut-to-the-bone” advocates don’t say: We’d still fall short even if education and health services budgets were skeletal. We’d be left with a state where our most vulnerable children are denied a right to care — it’s federal law, after all — while practically ensuring that Alaskans like Claire require public support for life.

Maybe it’ll come as a surprise to know that I’m a Republican. I’m 100 percent behind lawmakers who want to identify program waste and fraud and get rid of it. In fact, I help lead a group that collects ideas from Medicaid recipients and their families to stop reckless spending. We want to suggest ways to improve Medicaid waiver paperwork and processes. We want to be a part of the conversation to save money first before drastic cuts are imposed.

I’m ready to talk with any official who wants to know more. What I’d tell them is there are plenty of constituents like me — middle-class voters, small business owners and longtime Alaskans — who understand that cutting is needed even while new sources of revenue are added.

I favor a 1 percent income tax. It’s straightforward and would require minimal administrative costs. It won’t close the shortfall, but it would make more Alaskans watchful over how public money is spent.

Most of all, it would remind us that respecting the dignity of every Alaskan is a right worth paying for.

• Shelly Vendetti-Vuckovich owns a small business in Anchorage, where she and her family have lived for 22 years. She is a founder of “Save the Waiver,” a group committed to ending Medicaid fraud and abuse while identifying cost-saving measures for all Medicaid programs.

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