By Betty Lehman
My son Eli has autism and complex care needs. Thousands of Colorado families know caring for a family member with significant disabilities can be all consuming — and a massive financial strain. Medicaid helps fund the care supports we need. Without access to Medicaid’s Home and Community Based Services program to help Eli stay in his home instead of a more expensive and isolating institution, Eli would only have me and my limited resources for his full-time care.
As Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper ended substantial Medicaid waiting lists for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, like Eli, by fully funding two Medicaid waiver programs. I’ve been an advocate for people with disabilities for 30 years. We continually face obstacles to end wait lists for supports for eligible people who need them. Year after year, we pressured our lawmakers — but we couldn’t get additional resources to take eligible people off those two wait lists and into critically needed services. Hickenlooper changed that. He was decisive and acted — it was life-changing for thousands of overwhelmed, disadvantaged Coloradans and their families.
If you do not have a family member with a disability, it’s harder to fully appreciate the enormity of Hickenlooper’s actions. For me, a single parent, Eli’s Medicaid resources means I can have a job. And it means Eli can live a quality life with the care he needs. Fully funding those two Medicaid waivers was — and continues to be — monumental. Everyone deserves to be able to look forward to productive, fulfilling lives.
But while Colorado was expanding supports for people with disabilities, Sen. Cory Gardner was in Washington D.C. voting to “cap” Medicaid. This would result in defunding essential resources for millions of Americans, including children, adults and seniors, who need health care and long-term care services because of disabling conditions and chronic illnesses.
When Republicans crafted the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017, they included this cap on funding Medicaid. Instead of the federal government matching a certain percentage, Colorado would receive one inflexible lump sum. During this pandemic, Colorado’s Medicaid program received an increase in federal matching funds to be able to offer Medicaid to many thousands who lost jobs and needed health insurance. Without adequate and potentially fluctuating federal resources, Colorado would not be able to maintain essential health care services and the programs Colorado chooses to provide so people with disabilities have the supports they need to live in their homes, work and pay taxes, and sustain their opportunities to live just like everyone else.
As Gardner considered bills to cap Medicaid, ADAPT, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, led a sit-in at his office. Like many parents, I joined them to ask him to oppose devastating health care repeal. ADAPT’s members’ lives and livelihoods were on the line. But instead of listening and caring, Gardner had them arrested. It was horrific.
Sadly, I wasn’t surprised — not when Gardner had people in wheelchairs dragged out of his office, nor days later when he voted to slash Medicaid spending and threaten all the progress achieved for Coloradans and people with disabilities. I knew Gardner was never our friend. He told me himself.
In 2009, Colorado became one of the first states to require insurance companies to cover treatment for autism. That bill was one of the hardest fights I ever spearheaded. It ultimately passed on a narrow vote, over opposition from then-state Rep. Gardner. Before the vote, I met with Gardner. I told him that autism was treatable. I told him that this treatment was essential health care; just like treatment for cancer or therapy for stroke recovery.
Gardner told me “those people” can be served by their churches. That was an insensitive, clueless and a completely nonsensical comment.
In the state legislature, Gardner voted against insurance coverage for autism treatment. And in Congress, he voted to gut coverage for any type of preexisting condition. Gardner will vote for anything President Donald Trump tells him to, without intelligent thought about the consequences for millions of Americans and Coloradans. Who does that?
When John Hickenlooper funded the two Medicaid wait lists, he changed the lives of thousands of people with disabilities and their families. We didn’t even have to ask him — he just did it, because he really cares about all people’s lives.
Betty Lehman is co-founder of ADAN, an innovative community for autism and other developmental disabilities.