More than 118,000 students in Georgia cope with disabilities. Some are students with visual or hearing impairments while others have autism or developmental delays. Many have learning disabilities, speech impairments or other intellectual or physical disabilities. These children need extra support to attend classes with their peers and fulfill their potential. This extra support requires more money. Many school districts across the state rely on Medicaid funds to help cover the cost of physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, nurses and other staff who assist these students. Specialized medical and instructional equipment and technology are also needed. U.S. Senate leaders are now urging deep cuts to the Medicaid program, pushing these added costs onto districts with few resources to cover them. That is a threat to the well-being of these students.

Districts in Georgia are already coping with a shortfall of $167 million in state funding for the upcoming school year and a $430 million hike in the cost of health insurance for non-teaching staff after the state eliminated funding for it. Student transportation costs continue to rise, while state funding for it declines. Meanwhile, the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act covers about 16 percent of the cost of educating students with disabilities, instead of the 40 percent it should. 

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute surveyed the state’s 180 school districts in recent weeks to determine the role Medicaid plays in the delivery of special education services and how the proposed cuts might affect their students. More than half responded so far. The responses, including three highlighted below, reveal the harm these cuts could inflict on Georgia’s students.

Barrow County School System, $316,957 in Medicaid funds in fiscal year 2016

“Medicaid funds were used to provide one-on-one nursing services, behavior therapy services, purchase equipment for students with physical needs and some web-based programs for supplemental supports for students with low cognitive abilities. If we did not have Medicaid funds, these services and equipment would have to come from federal IDEA funds, thus reducing the number of paraprofessionals that are able to support students with disabilities in the general education classroom who are paid for with IDEA funds.”

Oconee County Schools, $250,000 in Medicaid funds in fiscal year 2017

“Our district uses Medicaid reimbursement for critical supplies such as wheelchairs, therapeutic bicycles, hydraulic changing tables, walkers, lifts and student-specific items that are necessary for each child to access curriculum as closely as possible to their peers without a disability. Replacing this equipment would be difficult if not impossible without Medicaid reimbursement. Significant reductions to Medicaid spending could have devastating effects on children and youth, especially those with disabilities. Due to the underfunding of IDEA, programs rely on Medicaid reimbursements to ensure children and youth with disabilities have access to the supports and services they need to access a free appropriate public education, as required by federal law.”

Paulding County School District, $406,917 in Medicaid funds in 2016

“Medicaid funds were used to provide necessary services to Special Education students. Expenditures included but are not limited to contracted nurses, psychologists, contracted speech therapists and occupational therapists. These services are evaluated and monitored through the student’s IEP (individual education plan). If Medicaid funds were reduced or eliminated, the quality of the services to the Special Education students would be reduced. It would be difficult to achieve the goals set in the student’s IEP and provide them the best care in their education.”

A complete listing of responses as of this writing is available here.

Students with disabilities want to be healthy, learn, build friendships and participate as fully as possible in school activities, just like other children. Medicaid helps them do so. The deep cuts the U.S. Senate continues to push in this week’s latest iteration of federal health legislation threaten this. For the sake of some of Georgia’s most vulnerable children, the Senate’s health bill needs to be scrapped and the current structure of Medicaid needs to be protected. More than 118,000 Georgia students and their families are depending on it. 

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Claire Suggs
Claire joined GBPI in 2012 as a senior education policy analyst. Her research focuses on education finance and school reform issues related to early childhood education, K-12 education, and higher education in Georgia. Claire holds a master’s in public affairs from LaFollette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a bachelor’s in English and History from the University of Michigan. Claire has begun work on her doctorate in education policy at the University of Georgia, College of Education.

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