SC budget cuts could shorten Medicaid benefits

Parents and caregivers are protesting state budget cuts that could keep South Carolina children with autism and other conditions from getting much-needed therapy.

Catholics and other denominations are loudly calling for state officials to create a moral budget that does not forget children and other vulnerable members of society.

An estimated $700 million shortfall has led lawmakers to propose large cuts, targeting public education and other state programs that help children, the poor, and the elderly.

Medicaid is one of the programs on the chopping block.

Marie, a Catholic from the Upstate who did not want to use her full name for privacy reasons, said Medicaid funds provide important therapy for her four-year-old grandson, who is autistic and has other special needs.

The boy has made progress that would be impossible without the occupational, speech and physical therapy sessions he has received at home, she said. He recently was able to pick up a fork and feed himself for the first time, a huge milestone for him.

Cuts to Medicaid announced in the past few months would cut her grandson’s covered therapy from 225 hours annually to 75, she said.

“This is just one child,” she said. “One in every 91 children these days is being diagnosed with autism, and this is a big, big problem.”

Jeff Stensland, director of communications for the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Medicaid, acknowledged cuts have been made, but said clients with children who are nearing the annual cap of 75 hours can contact their primary care physician, who will then evaluate the patient and submit a written request for any needed additional therapy hours.

“Any medically necessary service has to be offered under Medicaid, and if the primary physician says the additional visits are medically necessary, he can write the letter to our medical team who will then sign off on it,” Stensland said. “We’ve found the turnaround for these requests to be about a week.”

Marie and other adults are concerned, however, that the written requests simply mean more paperwork for doctors who are already overworked.

Parents and caregivers are also concerned that therapy cuts would be especially difficult for children because they are most teachable and able to learn new skills at an early age.

“These are kids who could be making progress and will end up needing more help down the road if they can’t get the therapy they need now,” said Sue Berkowitz, attorney and director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, one of the organizations campaigning for a moral budget.

Marie, meanwhile, said she will be praying for her grandson and others who rely on state programs for help.

“We all have to live on less these days, and do more for each other,” she said. “We must look after the people in our society who are the least among us, who through no fault of their own are very, very vulnerable. The more that’s being cut, the more people will be relying on the rest of us for help. We have a moral obligation to do all we can for those who need our help, and not judge them.”