Uncertainty Over Healthcare Funding Worries Schools

Proposed cuts to Medicaid would have a dire, direct effect on services for students with disabilities.

With many Republican lawmakers and the White House still unable to accept the Affordable Care Act as the law of the land, the ongoing debate may have a direct effect on millions of vulnerable students who are impacted by severe symptoms due to their disabilities. As the future of healthcare hangs in the balance, so does the funding that provides the medical assistance for students during their school day.

Presently, 1 percent of all Medicaid funding goes to schools, representing roughly $4 billion annually. These funds enable most schools to cover any medical needs students might have while at school. In their push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are seeking to slash Medicaid specifically — an action that would put public schools in limbo and potentially unable to meet the obligations of the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires schools to do everything they can to meet the educational needs of each student. With the funding currently in place most schools have the ability to cover any medical needs the students might have during the day.

In addition to covering the cost of services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy and personal aides, districts are responsible for further medical expenses, such as feeding tubes or life support. Only 1 percent of Medicaid's funding is allocated for public education. However, the program is vital to offsetting costs that would otherwise be too burdensome for school districts, especially since never in this country's history has the federal government provided states with 100 percent of the funding needed to fully support special education. Although recent attempts to repeal or replace both Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act have failed, there is growing bipartisan support to make changes to the broken healthcare system.

Advocates like Sasha Pudelski of the American Association of School Administrators says she fear cuts to Medicaid will give responsibility to the states. "If school districts are competing with hospitals and clinics and other providers for scarce dollars, I don't see how a governor or state Medicaid director or state legislature is going to decide schools need this money, not a hospital, not a doctor," she said recently on PBS Newshour.

Republicans would argue that the nation is in a debt crisis and if the country continues to spend more than it earns, its economy will become stagnant. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan leads the charge among conservatives to shift control to the states and calls for putting caps on the amount of federal money a given state could receive. The Congressional Budget Office estimates 24 million people would become uninsured if Ryan's plan was implemented. This cap would force states to reduce some eligibility and cut services such as those that would be provided to schools.

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