Gov. Tim Walz issued two far-reaching executive orders Friday designed to ensure continued access to health care and other safety-net services for Minnesota's most vulnerable residents during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The twin orders would remove multiple regulatory barriers to critical services such as in-home health care and food assistance, while granting state and local agencies more flexibility to maintain public health benefits for older Minnesotans and people with disabilities. State officials said the changes are designed to protect people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus from being cut off from essential services, and to enable them to stay at home without putting their health in jeopardy.
The orders are the latest in a series of extraordinary measures this week by Walz, largely designed to slow the spread of the pandemic that has now been confirmed in 115 Minnesota residents in 21 counties.
Since declaring a "peacetime emergency" last week, Walz has signed a flurry of emergency measures that significantly expand his administration's power and the government's role in people's daily lives. The orders have led to the closure of schools, restaurants and other businesses; expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits; enabled state agencies to hire more staff; and ordered hospitals to postpone elective surgeries to conserve resources during the pandemic. On Friday, the DFL governor also issued an order banning price gouging; and he is weighing whether to impose a "shelter in place" order, a dramatic measure already being deployed in California and Illinois.
The latest emergency orders are a response to a growing chorus of complaints that the state was not doing enough to protect its most vulnerable residents, particularly individuals with disabilities as well as frail and elderly people who live at home. This week, disability advocacy groups and provider organizations raised alarm over the sudden closure of more than two dozen day activity centers across the state that provide a wide range of services, including vocational training and behavioral therapy, for adults with physical and developmental disabilities. As a result of the closures, many of the roughly 30,000 people with disabilities who rely on day programs were suddenly forced to stay at home and rely on a patchwork of family, friends and volunteer providers to fill gaps in care.
Disability advocacy organizations said they have received reports of people with significant disabilities being unable to access care because of a sudden staffing shortage related to the coronavirus. In many cases, home health care workers have been reluctant to enter people's homes because they are afraid of catching COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The Minnesota Council on Disability, a state advisory group, said it has also received several troubling reports of home care workers being barred from seeing clients with disabilities because apartment building landlords have refused entry to outsiders amid the outbreak.
"Already people across the state with disabilities are having serious disruptions in receiving critically needed care," said Jeff Bangsberg, a board chairman of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, a St. Paul-based nonprofit.
Pressure on the Walz administration to take action to support vulnerable populations intensified this week after it became clear that lawmakers would not reconvene to pass an emergency relief package for disability service providers. A bill that would have provided such temporary assistance failed to pass Monday after several lawmakers raised concern that it would give the state Department of Human Services (DHS) too much authority.
Under the new orders, people who are c enrolled in Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare insurance programs would be allowed to maintain their benefits without having to reapply for them, to protect recipients from losing coverage. Payments to low-income Minnesotans through a host of other programs — including food stamps, cash welfare and the state's Group Residential Housing (GRH) program — would also continue without the usual renewal process. In addition, older Minnesotans and people with disabilities could be assessed for services by local governments over the phone, rather than in person, to account for new social distancing guidelines and the fact that many counties are curtailing personal visits. Mental health providers would also be authorized to provide a wide range of services by phone, and not in person.
The measures will also enable the DHS to waive certain background check requirements, so that service providers can ramp up staff more quickly during the crisis. They would also allow for more flexibility; for instance, by allowing a home care worker to work for more than one provider without having to go through a second, time-consuming background check.
"This will make it much, much easier for people to get care at home," said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee, who helped craft the emergency measures. "Now we can be sure that essential services will continue and people will be kept safe and well-served, even in these tough times."
Dena Belisle, president of the Minnesota First Provider Alliance, an organization that represents nearly 200 direct care providers statewide, said the emergency measures to maintain in-home health care services "have the potential to save lives."
"Home care workers are the last step," she said. "Without us, the next alternative is to call 911, and that would overwhelm the health care system."
Belisle is the mother of a 39-year-old son, Anthony, with severe cerebral palsy who can no longer attend his day activity program because of COVID-19 concerns. Yet she noted that Anthony still needs round-the-clock help with a wide range of daily activities, such as bathing, dressing, going to the bathroom and taking medications. Others rely on ventilators and need in-home providers to help them, Belisle said.
"Even if they do not get the virus, people with disabilities continue to need in-home services to get up every day, stay healthy and avoid costly complications that can cause them to need hospital or nursing facility care," she said.
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308