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Local activist Betty Field struggles to navigate disability bureaucracy

'Broken system'


Activist Betty Field. - COURTESY BETTY FIELD
  • Courtesy Betty Field
  • Activist Betty Field.
You may remember Betty Field as the passionate activist who hoped to take on establishment Republican Doug Lamborn in the race for the 5th Congressional District back in 2018.

Field, now 50, didn’t win the Democratic nomination, but her outrage at the state of affairs in President Donald Trump’s White House left a lasting impression on local politics.

Now, she’s in dire straits.

Within the last six months, Field lost her apartment, vehicle and ability to walk — and in hopes that telling the story of her latest hardships would help change perceptions of homelessness, she reached out to the Indy about her ordeal.

Field appeared in a photo series a few years ago. - CAMILLE LOFTIN
  • Camille Loftin
  • Field appeared in a photo series a few years ago.
“I’m educated and I’ve been a hard worker, and I’ve paid taxes for a lot of years, and I just finally fell into this spot right now where I need help,” Field says.

Field awoke the morning of Sept. 2 and sat on the couch to check the weather before work. She felt a horrible pain in her back, and within 30 minutes, she says, lost the use of her legs and was essentially paralyzed. The diagnosis: transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord.

She spent a month in the hospital, and had 60 days of home health care through regular Medicaid, which ran out in early January.

As of Feb. 7, Field was staying in a hotel and living on about $80 a week. Her income comes from the jewelry store where she formerly worked full-time and now can only work a few hours a week, plus revenue from her car she recently sold for $1,500. She doesn’t expect that to pay for hotels and short-term rentals much longer.

She’s waiting on a Medicaid Home-Based and Community Services (HCBS) waiver for long-term care, which would allow her to live in a residential care facility. Meanwhile, she’s potentially months or even years away from being approved for federal Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

Field says her long-term Medicaid paperwork was sent to the state Department of Human Services a month ago — and she’s flabbergasted that it’s been so difficult for her to get answers.

She says it’s made her realize why so many people with disabilities end up unsheltered. (In 2016, 27 percent of formerly homeless people in permanent supportive housing had a physical disability, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.)

“People end up homeless, they end up dead, their conditions end up worsening, because of lack of care,” Field says. “...This is insane, the way that we treat the most vulnerable in our community.”

At a November
presentation to state legislators, The Independence Center, a local nonprofit serving people with disabilities, addressed the timeliness with which DHS processes the waivers. Representatives of the nonprofit said local long-term Medicaid clients were waiting around 40 days for HCBS waiver renewals, and some were having to go without care.

In January of this year, 7,200 people in El Paso County received long-term home and community-based care through Medicaid, according to figures provided by the county Department of Human Services.

But before that can happen for a given individual, a lot needs to happen.

Andrew Bunn, director of family and community services at El Paso County DHS, said people seeking Medicaid waivers must apply at the Citizens Service Center or a case management agency such as The Resource Exchange.

Individuals (like Field) who don’t receive federal disability payments must receive a disability review, which includes having a physician submit paperwork that’s reviewed by a state contractor. The county DHS works on verifying the individual’s income and resources. If they don’t meet the requirements, they may be required to set up a trust account that’s approved by state DHS.

Concurrently, a case management agency such as The Resource Exchange determines the level of care that a particular individual needs, Bunn says.

People who want to continue receiving the same level of care are required to repeat this process every year to renew their waiver.

The whole process is required to take no longer than 90 days for people who need a disability review, Bunn says, and 45 days for everyone else (i.e., those already receiving Social Security and most people renewing their waivers).

“We’re trying to get all those down to 45 days,” Bunn says, adding that the department is currently about 80 percent of the way to that goal.

Field provided a timeline of her visits to DHS, The Resource Exchange, and Colorado Community Health Alliance (CCHA, the regional Medicaid organization) based on her own notes.

On Dec. 17, she says, she had an appointment at The Resource Exchange and was approved for a waiver. She completed long-term Medicaid paperwork at CCHA on Dec. 27. On Jan. 8, her long-term Medicaid paperwork was sent to the state. On Jan. 28, Field says she went to the county DHS offices and was told that her application information was lost when her caseworker had been transferred to a different department.

DHS can’t comment on specific cases due to privacy rules, but Bunn says delays can occur at any step when paperwork needs to be reviewed or collected. He expects the department’s caseload will increase as the population ages.

Field calls the whole ordeal “incredibly frustrating,” but says she’s been glad to have the support of The Resource Exchange and her caseworker at CCHA.

CCHA plays a “connector” role in helping all types of Medicaid clients navigate health care and find appropriate resources, says spokesperson Colleen Daywalt.

Field eventually had to go back to DHS to re-sign her paperwork on Jan. 30.

In the midst of all this, she attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January with the help of friends. “Even though I can’t stand,” she says, “I can still stand for what I believe is right.”

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