Pennsylvanians with Disabilities Sue to Restore General Assistance & Other Critical Human Services
PHILADELPHIA, PA — Three low-income Pennsylvanians with disabilities, Billie Washington, Opal Gibson, and Tina Smith, filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court today seeking to challenge Act 80, signed by the Governor on June 30, 2012. Act 80 eliminated the General Assistance cash grants of about $200 per month that enabled 68,000 Pennsylvanians to pay their rent and eat. Act 80 also creates a pilot block grant program that allows 20 selected counties to shift tens of millions of dollars for already underfunded mental health and intellectual disability services to pay for other services.
These individuals are joined by multiple advocacy and membership organizations for Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities and mental illness and people seeking treatment for addiction, including the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association, the Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania, the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, The Philadelphia Alliance, the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Community Providers Association. They are also joined by Success Against All Odds, a statewide membership organization that helps low-income families obtain education and training.
The lawsuit alleges that the legislative process through which Act 80 was enacted violates the Pennsylvania Constitution for multiple reasons:
■ Act 80 made historic and sweeping changes to seven different programs in a single omnibus bill that had no connection to the bill’s original, narrow purpose and language. Such drastic and extensive changes to an original piece of legislation are considered “log-rolling” that violates Article III of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
■ Neither the Senate nor House considered Act 80 on three separate days as required by Article III. The complex core of the Legislation – including the termination of General Assistance cash grants and the creation of the pilot block grant program – was considered in less than a day by each chamber on the last two days of the fiscal year contrary to Article III’s goal of a transparent and public legislative process.
■ Act 80 violates Article III by giving the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) and individual counties the unlawful authority to spend money for purposes other than those for which the Legislature appropriated funding.
■ Act 80 violates Article II of the Constitution by allowing DPW to implement the pilot block grant program without adequate legislative guidance.
“All we are looking for is a fair and level playing field,” said Michael Froehlich, an attorney with Community Legal Services which represents the individuals who lost General Assistance. “If Pennsylvania really wants to eliminate General Assistance, a last resort safety-net program for nearly 70,000 people with disabilities who are unable to work, it ought to be done lawfully and consistent with our state Constitution.”
“I have suffered since my General Assistance was cut off,” said Ms. Billie Washington, a 52-year-old Philadelphia resident whose sole source of income of $205 a month was terminated on August 1. Ms. Washington had to stop working as a home care attendant because of her chronic rheumatoid arthritis and other serious health conditions last fall. She has a pending application for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration and was receiving General Assistance while she waited for her application to be decided. “I don’t want to end up in a homeless shelter,” she said.
“After cutting 10 percent from already underfunded appropriations for mental health programs and for some intellectual disability programs, the Commonwealth now has created a program that authorizes counties to take even more money away from services for Pennsylvanians with mental illness and intellectual disabilities through the ‘pilot block grant’ program,” said Kelly Darr, Legal Director for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. “If the Governor and Legislature wish to implement this program, they must do it with opportunity for debate and real consideration, as the Pennsylvania Constitution requires.”
This lawsuit, Billie Washington v. Department of Public Welfare, is filed by several law firms, including Young Ricchiuti Caldwell & Heller, Community Legal Services, and the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. It will be heard in Commonwealth Court.
The lawsuit asks the Commonwealth Court to issue a preliminary injunction to stop implementation of and nullify Act 80, restoring General Assistance cash grants, rescinding the pilot block grant programs, and removing obstacles that make it more difficult for low-income families to move from welfare to work.
To read the legal documents filed in the case, please visit the website for Community Legal Services by clicking here.