Arkansas's Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson and conservative legislature have planned ambitious cuts to the state’s Medicaid spending on people with disabilities.
As those cuts to the program are implemented, some children with disabilities may no longer be eligible for Medicaid-funded programs.
Currently, there are two programs that provide services funded by Medicaid to kids with disabilities in the state. The Arkansas Department of Human Services wants to merge the two programs and create new eligibility requirements. Some parents and service providers worry that thousands of kids will lose care under the more stringent requirements.
According to Melissa Stone, director of the Division of Disabilities Services, the change would elevate standards: Testing for speech, occupational or physical therapy will be required to qualify for Medicaid.
"It’s raising the bar and it’s saying 'these kids deserve to have all these services'," said Stone.
The changes are scheduled to be given a final vote Tuesday by a sub-committee of the Arkansas General Assembly.
Stone says 3,351 children, who cost the state about $22 million in Medicaid spending a year, haven’t been tested for extra therapies and will be moved out of the program and into Head Start, a federal program for low-income families, if they do not qualify upon evaluation.
"We do have concerns that they are not being tested for a therapy need. Some clinics are top-notch and they are doing it across the state right now, but the bottom line is it is not a part of the eligibility criteria so they have not had to do it," she said.
But the plan worries Brett Chancellor who sits on the board of the Arkansas Developmental Disability Provider Association. He says most providers in his group already offer those therapies when they are needed. He says some of the 3,351 kids with cognitive delays that may not qualify for treatments like physical therapy or speech still need the extra support they get in a developmental daycare.
"It doesn’t take a far stretch of the imagination to see a child who has cognitive delays can be just as delayed and fall just as far behind in life as someone with physical delays, if not more so,” says Chancellor.
And he points out that the earliest years of life are critical to brain development, so reducing services to young children may cause them to need more help later on.
"All our brains are wired from the time we’re born until the age of five or six. The entire neurostructure of the brain is wired to learn new skills and pick up things and learn things," he said.
The department is setting up a panel to track the kids who are moved out of Medicaid programs to ensure there are actually enough slots in Head Start and that their care is successful.
Overall, the department has agreed to cut $232 million, less than a third of the total amount the state planned to cut from its total Medicaid spending between fiscal years 2017 and 2021.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. It is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK.