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What's Next: Blackwater Homecare Visits?

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Ever since he took office, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared war on one of the most humane, cost-effective programs in state government--the nationally recognized In Home Supportive Services (IHSS) homecare program.

More than 450,000 low-income elderly, blind and disabled Californians receive care through IHSS, which allows them to stay in their own homes and communities. It costs a little more than $10,000 a year to care for someone under IHSS. Without the program, that individual would be forced into a nursing home or other institution. Cost to taxpayers: $55,000 a year or more.

Ignoring these savings and the people the program serves, the Governator has put IHSS on the chopping block over and over again. Previous attempts to severely cut or eliminate this program have been blocked by the Courts because they may violate federal laws like Medicare and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Nevertheless, the governor's proposed 2010-2011 state budget offers two less-than-desirable alternatives: Cut the program by 90 percent or eliminate it altogether.

Along with attacking the program head-on through budget cuts, Schwarzenegger has also mounted a campaign aimed at branding IHSS consumers and the low-wage providers who care for them as "fraud criminals."

At a Sacramento news conference last summer, he was joined by a few ambitious district attorneys in declaring that there was "massive" fraud in IHSS. As the DA's and the governor's staff nodded in approval, he claimed that one-in-every-four (25 percent) IHSS claims are fraudulent, an estimate that was roundly ridiculed by experts and the media.

Nonetheless, the governor was able to force the State Legislature to appropriate more than $10 million in last year's budget for an IHSS "anti-fraud" program. This includes mandatory fingerprinting of all IHSS recipients and providers (retinal scans for amputees and quadriplegics may be considered later), unannounced home visits by fraud investigators, and an orientation video for providers that looks more like something from America's Most Wanted than vital information for caregivers.

But wait, there's more.

In early March, the Schwarzenegger Administration announced plans to purchase up to $5 million worth of military/security camera systems to photograph IHSS recipients and providers. The "MorphoTrak" cameras are currently being used in Iraq and other military locations. According to their manufacturer, they are also recommended for, among other things, "border crossings, gang enforcement, and airport/maritime security." The camera itself costs $4,200, plus hundreds of dollars more for docking stations and other equipment.

The State Legislature has never authorized photographing recipients, nor has the Administration proved how the photographs will help stop fraud. As the Sacramento Bee noted in an editorial slamming the camera purchase:

In the welfare realm, fingerprints and photo IDs are used primarily to prevent duplicate fraud, cases in which aid recipients go to different counties and apply for welfare or food stamps under different names. IHSS services are delivered in recipients' homes. It's hard to conceive of an elderly frail or disabled IHSS recipient traveling from Sacramento to Yolo to apply for help bathing or feeding him- or herself at two different addresses.

Noting that all IHSS consumers must be visited and assessed at home by county social workers before being approved for the program, Herb Mayer, 79 year old IHSS consumer and Korean War veteran, said "My social worker knows who I am without needing a $5,000 camera. How can the administration find money for these cameras but no money to keep the IHSS program going?"

Despite sharp criticism from legislators, the media and the homecare community, the Administration has borrowed several of these devices from the manufacturer and has solicited Sacramento and San Diego Counties to use them in a pilot project beginning in April. The District Attorneys in these two counties have been among the strongest proponents of the administration's anti-fraud campaign. However, a recent report from Sacramento County found a total of only 19 potential cases of IHSS fraud out of more than 20,000 consumers.

Each $5,000 used to buy a "MorphoTrak" camera would purchase nearly 500 hours of IHSS homecare.

Steve Mehlman is Communications Director for the 65,000-member UDW Homecare Providers Union/AFSCME Local 3930. The only union in California made up solely of homecare workers, UDW was founded in 1979 by some of the same people who helped Cesar Chavez found the United Farm Workers Union. Indeed, UDW was only the third union in the U.S.--after A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Chavez's UFW--to be founded by African-Americans or Hispanics.