Pauline Shaw has her share of worries, but she also has hope. The worries are about her daughter Dakota’s future. Shaw, who lives in... Legislation to empower Georgians with disabilities gains steam

Pauline Shaw has her share of worries, but she also has hope.

The worries are about her daughter Dakota’s future. Shaw, who lives in Rincon in east Georgia, says Dakota suffered a stroke while still in her womb. The child, now 12, has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism, and is blind in one eye.

Pauline Shaw and daughter Dakota

Pauline Shaw and daughter Dakota

Under current law, Shaw says, Dakota is limited in terms of how much she can have in assets and retain her Medicaid health coverage.

The hope comes from more recent developments. Shaw envisions much better prospects for Dakota with the advent of ABLE legislation, currently moving through the Georgia General Assembly.

House Bill 768 would allow tax-exempt saving accounts for people with disabilities to help them live independently and not lose their Medicaid health insurance or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. The savings could pay for qualified expenses such as housing, transportation, education and personal support services.

The bill passed the Georgia House unanimously Tuesday.

Families spend much of their life savings in caring for a disabled child, Rep. Lee Hawkins, a Gainesville Republican who sponsored the bill, said on the House floor Tuesday before the vote.

The ABLE [Achieving a Better Life Experience] Act will allow people with disabilities to live independently, Hawkins said. “This is one of the greatest things we can do for these folks.’’

The bill is an offshoot of national legislation passed in Congress in 2014. Hawkins said 35 other states have passed such legislation so that people can open ABLE accounts, but none has begun operating the accounts.

Currently, these disabled individuals can only have $2,000 in assets in order to retain Medicaid and SSI.

Retaining Medicaid coverage is vital for people with disabilities, said Kathy Keeley of All About Developmental Disabilities, an advocacy group. “Individuals do everything they can in order to keep it.”

Shaw said the legislation “allows us to invest in their future,’’ Shaw said. “[Dakota] can be an employed, taxpaying citizen of Georgia. She can have a future to save for.”

Lee Hawkins

Lee Hawkins

“People with disabilities have been trapped in poverty,’’ Shaw said. “Without the ABLE Act, they will stay there.”

The legislation would set up a Georgia ABLE Program Corporation, governed by a board of directors that would administer the program. The board would require and collect fees to cover costs of running the accounts. A 10 percent penalty would be imposed on withdrawals for non-qualified expenses.

Only one ABLE account can be created for each individual, and other people can contribute to it. Contributions for each year are capped at $14,000.

SSI would be suspended for individuals with accounts exceeding $100,000. Accounts may not exceed $235,000.

“We have disabled young adults who would like to have a job and possibly earn a living,’’ Hawkins told GHN recently. The legislation also allows states to join together to invest the money, he added

The board would create a trust fund, administered by the state treasurer, who would invest the funds according to board guidelines.

An account would be available to a person with a serious disability incurred prior to age 26.

The legislation also contains a Medicaid pay-back provision when the beneficiary passes away. When the person dies, remaining account assets reimburse Medicaid for payments made from the date the account was created.

Pauline Shaw works as a family support coordinator for B&B Care Services, which provides services to people with disabilities.

“I deal with several people who are limited to the type of housing they have access to, how much they can work,’’ she said. The ABLE Act “allows them to have more goals.”

House Bill 768 now heads to the state Senate.


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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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