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Victory for Families of Children with Disabilities

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Victory for Families of Children with Disabilities

A great inventor known for his tireless pursuits to contribute to American society once said: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

The mastermind credited with lighting up the world epitomized a strong work ethic. Thomas Edison certainly would have found fundamental flaws with a federal Medicaid policy that penalized industriousness and productivity.

As chairman of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, I have long worked on shaping public policy to empower individuals with disabilities. That includes my legislative and oversight authority over the $300-billion-a-year Medicaid program.

Children with special needs require access to specialized health care, therapies, medical equipment, personal care and support services and medicines which often are not routinely offered through a basic benefit plan, but are available through the Medicaid program. This means that low-income families who qualify for Medicaid have access to the health care services that their children with disabilities need. By contrast, families of modest means may not have access to these vital services for their severely disabled child.

This is because some rather inflexible federal Medicaid rules have served as a disincentive to families to work hard to increase their take-home pay: a bump up in their wages could bump them out of Medicaid's eligibility formula. For many families raising children with disabilities, Medicaid opens up the doors to essential health care services for their kids.

Parents from all walks of life worry about providing what's best for their children. From the basic essentials, including food, clothing, shelter and health care to the intangibles that build self-confidence and a sense of belonging. And parents of children with disabilities face even greater challenges to provide opportunities that will nurture their children to mature into happy, well-rounded, productive members of their communities.

For years, an Iowa mother raising a son with disabilities declined pay raises to retain Medicaid eligibility. As a policymaker, this flies in the face of logic. Why would the federal government condone a policy that creates a disincentive for parents to earn a better living? It's wrong-headed to cause parents to become impoverished and remain impoverished to retain health care coverage for their children with disabilities.

Since 1999, I led a bipartisan effort in Congress to bring flexibility and common sense to the system. And after six years we finally achieved a breakthrough. The Family Opportunity Act received congressional approval in February.

Now states will have the flexibility they need to create options for middle-income families who have children with disabilities to buy into Medicaid.

This is a big step in the right direction. It gives parents the green light to work and improve their standard of living. No longer will they put their child's health care coverage in jeopardy for trying to build a better life for their children.

Instead of thinking the unthinkable, such as giving up custody of a child to the state to retain Medicaid coverage, parents of children with disabilities won't be penalized for accepting a promotion at work.

The Family Opportunity Act will help parents help their children. That's the kind of empowerment Washington ought to promote: Public policy that illuminates opportunities instead of keeping them in the dark.

Thomas Edison wouldn't find fault with that logic.

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