The House has voted to expand access to job opportunities and greater salaries to Missourians with disabilities by passing legislation that, backers say, will let those people simply live their lives.
House Bills 970 and 971 make changes to the state’s Ticket to Work health insurance program within MO HealthNet. The key provisions increase the limit to how much a person can earn before they would lose benefits under Ticket to Work and disregard up to $50,000 of a spouse’s income, relative to that limit. It will also direct state agencies to have policies to recruit and keep employees with disabilities and create competitive ways to integrate them into workforces.
The bills are carried by Representative Melanie Stinnett (R-Springfield), whose career in healthcare and as a speech-language pathologist has included a great deal of focus on serving the disabled community. She said she is honored to sponsor this legislation.
“It provides language that tells individuals with disabilities that we value them as important members of our community. It allows these individuals to enjoy the opportunity to enjoy competitive, integrated employment by decreasing barriers imposed by government,” said Stinnett.
She said these changes address outdated statutes that might have made sense in their time, but set limits that today are far too low.
“The restrictions we have in place limited them from being able to utilize the degrees that they had and the skills and the trades that they had in our communities in an effective way, and with today’s work force crunch, too, we certainly don’t want to be limiting our workforce,” said Stinnett.
The legislation has been offered in the House for about eight years. One person who has carried it throughout that time, Representative Sarah Unsicker (D-Shrewsbury), said individuals with disabilities have Missouri’s lowest unemployment rate, largely due to discrimination and lack of accommodation and understanding.
“Disability is a natural part of the human condition that affects everybody at some point in their lives, some sooner than others. The existence of a disability should not stop somebody from working and living to their fullest capacity,” said Unsicker. “There are people right now with master’s degrees who cannot work because of services they need just to get out of bed and survive and be physically able to meet the day even if they are mentally able to do incredible work. This will help them be taxpayers to the fullest extent of their ability. This will help people get jobs.”
Representative Bridget Walsh Moore (D-St. Louis) is a Missourian living and working with a disability and has also for several years sponsored this legislation. She said some people in the disabled community choose not to get married because if they do while the current limits are in place, they will lose their health benefits under Ticket to Work.
In her own life, said Walsh Moore, “If anything were to happen to me, my husband makes over $60,000. We would receive nothing from the state, zero support, and $60,000 for the two of us plus our child is not enough, especially with any medical needs I might have,” said Walsh Moore.
She said individuals need the benefits provided by that coverage to function daily, to hold jobs, and to live with dignity. She said she often thinks of a friend of hers who is in her 20s and has a master’s degree.
“She had to go to her job and say ‘Cap my salary at 40 grand.’ They wanted to pay her almost double that and she had to say no because even 80-thousand won’t make up enough to cover the assistance [she needs]. She is in a powered wheelchair so she has someone who helps her in morning and night, in getting in and getting out of bed and all that, and it’s not enough.”
“Missouri is losing out twice. They’re losing out on her income tax, and that’s another 40-grand that would have gone into our economy,” said Walsh Moore.
She said the provisions aimed at state agencies are intended to create a system that can be a model outside of government.
“As the system stands, we have sheltered workshops and we have full competitive employment and no bridge in between. What this would do is basically set up the state as a model employer. Basically, we will figure out a program ourselves. All state departments will hire people with disabilities. We’ll kind of work out the kinks, figure out the program ourselves, and then we can sell it to corporate America,” Walsh Moore explained. “A lot of corporations I’ve talked to are very interested. They like the idea, they just don’t know what that looks like, and so we’re taking that burden off of them and saying we’ll do it first and we’ll figure it out.”
Stinnett, who is in her first year in the House, said this was one of the first issues she asked about taking up.
“It’s something that’s come up in my work life outside of this building and was a really important thing to me that I found disability legislation that I could get across the finish line that would make a difference for our everyday Missourians living with disabilities.”
The House voted 151-0 to send the legislation to the Senate, and has amended it to other bills.