“This therapy is crucial. It’s my only link to get my child back. It’s my only hope,” Jenny Robson said through tears. Her 10-year-old son, Ben Sears, who is covered by Medicaid, was hit by a truck outside of their Mueller home last year and has been denied weekly physical and occupational therapy, even though he’s unable to stand, talk or eat without a feeding tube.
Since last November, more than 2,500 complaints from providers and families have been lodged against STAR Kids, the state-created Medicaid managed care program for disabled children, according to the health commission.
“We knew challenges would occur when launching a new program, and we put a strong system in place to help families. We have been able to quickly resolve the vast majority of issues,” commission spokeswoman Carrie Williams said.
But some parents, providers and their advocates say that lawmakers and commission officials in recent years have irresponsibly slashed funds, and thus services, for children with disabilities.
In a double whammy, the Texas Legislature trimmed Medicaid reimbursement rates to physical, occupational and speech therapists by $350 million two years ago. Lawmakers restored a quarter of the cuts this year, but health commission officials made further reductions in September.
“We are monitoring these issues carefully to ensure that Medicaid services are readily available, recognizing that taxpayers should not be forced to pay rates that are significantly higher than those charged to other payers,” state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, told the American-Statesman.
Nelson, who in recent months has sent at least two letters to the health commission regarding concerns about access to care in STAR Kids, was the author of the 2013 bill that created STAR Kids. She also chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which approved the Medicaid cuts to pediatric therapy.
The therapist payment cuts also have led to cuts in Early Childhood Intervention, a state-administered program partially funded by Medicaid that provides therapy and other services to babies and toddlers with disabilities. Cuts to Medicaid and money specifically allocated to the program have caused six of the state’s roughly four dozen provider groups to stop offering Early Childhood Intervention services since July 2016, affecting at least 44 counties. A seventh provider, Texoma Community Center in North Texas, recently notified the health commission it plans to end services in February.
“Texas children are at the heart of what we do every single day, and at the same time we have to watch our budget. We have to be very thoughtful and efficient with the taxpayer dollars we’re spending on services,” Williams said. “We want our programs to really help people, and we’re always working to administer them as effectively and carefully as possible. As with all state agencies, we are working within the appropriations we’re given and with legislative direction.”