Clinton Twp. man with disability fights benefit cut-off

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Clinton Township – Chris Meadows always considered himself as leading an independent, if challenged, lifestyle.

Meadows recalls as a child being able to run and ride a bike like other boys. Now 39, he accepts that muscular dystrophy has robbed him of the use of his legs and left him with limited arm movement.

But despite setbacks, he went on to graduate from high school with honors and obtained a degree from Michigan State University in four years.

He found a full-time job with the Social Security Administration and purchased and modified his own home, where he lives with Del, his chihuahua.

He is now facing the reality that health care budget cutbacks may cost him his Medicaid benefits, forcing him to move out of his house and stop living on his own.

“I never considered myself disabled until recently,” said Meadows, who was informed this year by Macomb County Community Mental Health his “needs” had changed and he should find somewhere else to live.

Meadows – who insists his health has been stable for 10 years – is comfortable in the neat bungalow he outfitted with wooden floors, widened doorways and an entrance ramp to accommodate his wheelchair. He also bought a wheelchair-accessible van with his savings.

“I want to look someone in the eye and have them tell me why I can’t live on my own,” he said. “I’m not looking for a crutch. And I sure don’t want sympathy. I just want to be treated like everyone else.

“I am fighting this for myself but also for other people like me whose lives will be affected by cutbacks.”

Towards that end, Meadows recently obtained a face-to-face hearing for July 18 before an administrative law judge in Macomb County to request that his Medicaid benefits be left in place. If his appeal is rejected, Meadows was told he has two options.

“I can stay where I am and get a Life Alert program, like those ‘I’ve fallen and can't get up’ commercials,” Meadows said. “If I am in need of help, I can call for paramedics or the fire department. If it’s not a matter of life or injury, I will be responsible to pay for their response.

“That means if I need repositioning in bed, which I do at night, or my wheelchair is stuck, I need to contact people and possibly taking them away from life and death situations,” he said.

The second option? To sell the house he bought nearly four years ago and move into a skilled care nursing facility.

“I’m faced with losing everything I ever worked for – all gone,” said Meadows, looking around at walls decorated with framed photos and reminders from his college days.

“I don’t need skilled care workers. My mind still works. I’m not confined to a bed. I just need a little help.”

Meadows has visiting home care workers 24 hours a day who help get him out of bed, get dressed and take care of his meals. They also make sure Meadows gets to appointments or trips out of the house.

Meadows, who said he has dutifully paid all his bills and taxes, has found himself in the crosshairs of state-ordered budget cutbacks being felt by those with developmental disabilities, said his attorney, Lisa Lepine.

Lepine said the state, which is in charge of disbursement of Medicaid funds, has been seeking county reductions for several years.

And the Macomb County Community Mental Health agency in particular was targeted after a review found recipients were receiving an inordinate amount of hours in home care visits.

“He is not in need of skilled nursing care,” said Lepine. “And he certainly shouldn't be in a nursing home at 39 years of age.”

John Kinch, executive director of the Macomb County Community Mental Health agency, declined to discuss any specific case because of federal privacy restrictions involving medical records of patients and recipients.

Kinch oversees a budget of $189 million, one of the largest in the state. He fears things may get worse, depending on whether Congress passes an overhaul of the Affordable Care Act.

Kinch said he was notified in July 2015 of a new Medicaid rate structure in Michigan, called “rebasing,” which is attempting to distribute federal dollars to other counties in Michigan that felt they were not getting their fair share.

“It’s illegal for me to even confirm on one of our cases,” said Kinch, who said his philosophy has been to help consumers become as independent as possible. “But I can tell you over the past two years I have been trying to deal with $37 million in cutbacks in services and that does not make me happy.

“I try to look at everything on a case-by-case basis and I went the best for all our consumers,” he said. “But of course these cutbacks impact the services we provide.”

Lepine, who is also executive director of ARC of Macomb, a nonprofit advocacy group, said she has seen a “significant” increase in hearings and appeals over cuts in care for people dealing with physical and mental health challenges.

“Macomb County Community Mental Health is being punished for making efforts to permit people to lead their lives as independently as possible,” said Lepine. “In (Meadows’) case, he is in need of help but doesn’t require a skilled nurse. Direct care workers at homes are sufficient.”

Direct care workers, who assist people with their everyday needs, are paid about $14.85 an hour. Meadows requires someone at home around the clock. But Lepine said Meadows, while having limited use of his arms, can assist workers with some of his needs, such as repositioning himself during the night to avoid bed sores.

While frustrated, Lepine remains optimistic Meadows’ case may be resolved before reaching the administrative law judge, who will decide whether eliminating his benefits is appropriate.

Recipients routinely lose such arguments, Lepine admits, but she said other appeals are possible, including in federal court.

“He is paying all his shelter costs and the costs of direct care workers is about the same or less than a skilled nursing home,” she said.

Friends such as Steve Johnson, who has known Meadows since 6th grade, are upset by his treatment.

“It’s not like he’s buying food or other things (with aid),” said Johnson. “It’s going to pay workers who can help him cope with his day-to-day needs.”

He spoke admiringly of Meadows, who he described as “the greatest guy I’ve ever known.”

“He has done so much on his own,” said Johnson. “He is very smart, determined and the type of person who deserves help. He has accomplished more than many able-bodied people. He has helped others seeking help and been inspiring to other people with muscular dystrophy, especially children.”

Meadows graduated from Warren Woods Tower High with honors in 1996 and obtained a degree in telecommunications with a minor in computer science from Michigan State University in 2000.

He lived in an apartment and worked as a claims representative with Social Security until 2009, retiring on a disability pension.

“I liked helping people,” Meadows said. “I wish I could have worked longer but it got to be too much.”

His friend Johnson explained Meadows had to get up three hours early every day just to get ready to go to work.

“He has always known challenges,” Johnson said. “Can you imagine being a kid and someone telling you that your life expectancy was in your teens or 20s? Most of us would probably have given up right then. But not Chris.

“If they put him in a nursing home after all he’s been through, that would be tragic,” Johnson said.

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