Suggested state cuts put center on edge

Posted: Sunday, January 19, 2003

When Tera Lou Kuhns describes herself, "independent" and "adventurous" are two words that quickly come to mind.

The young woman spent several years living in the Alaska Bush, teaching in an isolated village without running water or electricity. Now, however, she's living a different adventure: trying to regain her independence.

Two years ago, Kuhns was collecting firewood with a dog team in the Bush when a small earthquake started an avalanche that swept her down the mountainside.

Critically injured, she waited nearly two weeks before she was found. By the time she came to the Kenai Peninsula, she was in bad shape, and for a while, things just got worse.

"It had been a long time since I was out of the Bush," she recalled Friday, laying on a couch in the Independent Living Center in Soldotna. "I couldn't find anyone I knew."

She had some property and money, though, and managed to start seeing a doctor -- until the money ran out. She had no food, no place to stay and no way to pay for her medical care.

"I learned that those signs in the hospital -- the ones that say 'regardless of race, gender or financial status' -- they're not true," she said. "One night, they said I needed to be med-evaced to Seattle. Then they found out I had no money, no insurance. They sent me home.

"I didn't know where to turn."

Somehow the staff at the Independent Living Center heard about Kuhns' case and came to her aid.

They helped her get medication and medical equipment to take care of herself, referred her to other agencies for services and provided moral support along the way, Kuhns said.

"They have replaced my family," she said, holding back tears. "They literally saved my life, more than once."

Now, Kuhns is trying to save the Independent Living Center. And she's not alone in her quest.

The Kenai Peninsula Independent Living Center -- one of four in the state -- is funded through the Division of Workforce Rehabilitation, under the Department of Labor. It operates out of offices in Soldotna, Homer and Seward and provides outreach services to Kodiak, Cordova and Valdez.

Staff members provide transportation vouchers for the elderly and people with disabilities, help clients find or remodel homes for accessibility, provide skills training for independence and employment and make referrals to help people receive equipment such as walkers and wheelchairs.

Last year, the center served about 385 people with disabilities, said Joyanna Geisler, founder and director of the peninsula center. It also helped eight people avoid moving into nursing homes, saving the state a potential $1.3 million a year, she said.

But now, staff at the center believe the programs are in danger of significant budget cuts under a proposal by the Labor Department.

A new budget proposal reportedly cuts $619,000 from the four Independent Living Centers across the state. That cut would take the budget for the Kenai Peninsula center from $255,000 to $54,000 and mean closing offices in Soldotna and Seward, moving the Homer office to a smaller facility, cutting outreach services to people of the peninsula, removing seven staff positions and curtailing services for nearly 300 people on the peninsula.

"This isn't a scare tactic, this is real," Geisler told about 50 clients, health care providers and other community members during a rally at the Soldotna office Friday. "This is politics, but this is real."

The Labor Department would not comment on the cuts and referred all calls to the Alaska Office of Management and Budget.

Jay Hogen, deputy director of the OMB, said the proposal is in response to a directive for all state departments to submit 5 and 10 percent budget reduction plans for consideration by the governor.

"At some point, the Department of Labor put together a scenario that would have taken about $600,000 from Independent Living budgets," Hogen said.

But, he added, the OMB has not seen that proposal yet, though staff members have heard significant outcry from the public.

The OMB is scheduled to hear budget recommendations from the Labor Department on Tuesday. After all the public feedback, Hogen said the Independent Living Center cuts might not even be in the proposal to the OMB.

And even if they are, the recommendations from the departments are only the first step in the long budget development process.

Gov. Frank Murkowski likely won't submit a budget until late February or early March, and then it will have to go through review and approval by the Legislature, Hogen said.

"This is just an idea now," he said. "There's a lot of time for both good ideas and bad ideas to be discussed. Hopefully, the bad ideas will be discarded."

However, Geisler said the public needs to make its opinion known now so the governor knows this is a bad idea.

"We need to keep this out of the governor's budget, because if it gets in that budget, we'll be hard-pressed to get it out," she said.

Deborah Shimmins, a client at the center, agreed. Shimmins, who lost her eyesight about two years ago, credits the center for helping her continue working and taking care of her son.

"I understand there needs to be better standards for using state money," Shimmins said. "I understand why the state would take that position. But take the money where it's not being used properly."

Cathleen Remmey, a former personal care attendant, went even further, saying the decision shouldn't be about money, but about morals.

"By funding the grants that run this (program), the state gave hope to all these people," she said. "Today we're talking about taking that hope away."

"Freedom and independence are the same thing," she added. "There are a lot of things going on politically. We talk about Iraq and North Korea, and there's all this funding to keep people free around the world, but we're walking away from people who need freedom in our own country.

"We can't save the world if we can't save our own most vulnerable citizens."

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