Delegate candidates find agreement on helping those with disabilities

Del. Tony Wilt, a Republican from Broadway, is running for re-election in 2021 and faces Democratic challenger Bill Helsley. (File photos)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Area candidates for the House of Delegates agreed that Virginia needs to increase funding to help those with developmental disabilities, including for housing subsidies, Medicaid waivers and general services and care. The challenge, they said at a virtual forum Monday, is finding funding and how best to prioritize it.

Republican Del. Tony Wilt, the incumbent from the 26th District that includes Harrisonburg, said vulnerable groups, such as those with developmental disabilities who have limited incomes are hit particularly hard when affordable housing is scarce. And when demand for housing outstrips available spaces, those who control apartments, such as landlords and developers, cater to those who can pay more. 

“They’re gonna go for the higher dollar, the biggest bang for the buck if you will, and so that’s the broad challenge and unfortunately it’s rolled over into providing housing,” Wilt said.

He mentioned how the candidates attending the Zoom forum — sponsored by Arc of Augusta and the Arc of Harrisonburg and Rockingham — said it was a priority to secure more funding to ensure that integrated, affordable living is accessible. 

“But we’ve got to overcome some of these barriers,” he said. 

Bill Helsley, the Democrat challenging Wilt in the 26th District, asked rhetoricallt  “is it too much to give somebody some dignity with a bedroom, a clean bathroom, a nice place to come home after work?”

“And I think that’s how we need to address this, but I understand that that situation will not work for everyone,” Helsley said.

He also pointed to the possibility of making public-private partnerships, looking at more housing trusts, and looking at local zoning laws “so we can make it more affordable to build housing for more people.”

“But at the end of the day my heart is with those people and trying to find a way for them to live independently if they’re capable of so doing,” Helsley said.

Wilt and Helsley were among the nine candidates running this November for area seats in the House of Delegates who attended Monday’s virtual forum. 

One question pointed out that Virginia has a waiting list of more than 13,000 people —3,000 of whom are in urgent need — for Medicaid Developmental Disability Waivers, which fund home and community services that help those qualified live fully included in the community.

Wilt said during the General Assembly session, lawmakers had to leave waivers on the table because there weren’t enough health care professionals to fill the slots.

“And that’s been a challenge for a while now, but certainly the pandemic and legislation requirements like raising the minimum wage and so forth didn’t help the situation,” Wilt said. “We have to try to address that.”

Wilt said he is among a group of lawmakers who want to put federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act toward programs that would help Virginians with developmental disabilities.

“There’s still a chunk of money out there, and going into the next session that’s going to be a priority of mine to continue to fight for that, to get this funding available,” Wilt said.

Helsley said he found it unacceptable “that we have 13,000 or more people on the waiting list, and that you mentioned some people have been waiting 20 years to receive funding from this.”

“And for me it gives me a visceral reaction in my stomach — that we’re living in 2021 in the richest nation that the world has ever seen and that we take our vulnerable people and make them wait 20 years to get funding,” Helsley said.

He quoted Hubert Humphrey in saying “you judge a society not by how much wealth it creates, not by how many millionaires it creates, but how you treat the most disadvantaged folks among you.”

“And I don’t think we look really great as a society today,” Helsley said.

Del. Chris Runion, a Republican who represents the 25th District that includes southern Rockingham County, said he thinks the waiver issue hasn’t been handled correctly over the past few years. 

“We’ve got to look back, we need to stop and say why is the program not working? We’ve got to have funding for Direct Service Providers in conjunction with additional waivers,” Runion said. “We’re in a situation where we’ve added waivers but we’ve not chosen to fund DSPs adequately, and so 42% of the awarded waivers back earlier this year were unused because the families couldn’t identify providers to help them with that. So there’s a situation where we’ve got to have the system functioning.”

He said Virginia should look at states that are doing it better and cited Arizona as a model.

Jennifer Kitchen, the Democratic challenger in the 25th District, said she’d be the “consistent, relentless voice pushing to fully fund the waivers.” She said lawmakers should look to cut wasteful spending in the budget and find new revenue streams, such as from legalizing cannabis.

“And we need to make sure that the money the commonwealth has is being used to serve all Virginians,” Kitchen said.

She also said Virginia has a history of not living up to its obligations to people with disabilities. Specifically, she cited the 2012 agreement between Virginia and the U.S. Department of Justice after an investigation that found the commonwealth’s system in place was so inadequate it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act

“Our legislature was not providing funding for the services we are required to offer by law,” she said. “We cannot make that mistake again, we must do better.”

She echoed Runion’s point about early investment, saying it doesn’t make economic or moral sense to wait until a person is in crisis for the state to step in to help. 

“In the House of Delegates, I will be an advocate for the disability community because it’s personal, and because I work in the field and I know how important it is to get folks help as early as possible,” Kitchen said.

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