State disability program to end soon for Mid-Columbians

Hundreds of people in the Mid-Columbia are about to lose a lifeline when a program that pays cash grants to disabled people deemed temporarily unemployable shuts down Oct. 31.

Recipients will get their regularly scheduled $197 Disability Lifeline check for October, but that is the last time a payment will arrive.

Instead, starting Nov. 1, the Disability Lifeline program -- formerly known as General Assistance-Unemployable -- will split into three new programs, each serving different groups.

The change comes as the result of legislation passed earlier this year as a way to save money in the state budget.

The new Aging, Blind and Disabled Program will continue to provide cash payments and medical assistance for former Disability Lifeline recipients who are 65 and older, blind or likely to meet the disability standard for the federal Supplemental Security Income program.

The Pregnant Women Assistance Program will provide cash grants and medical help for pregnant women who aren't eligible for the welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

But most former Disability Lifeline recipients will fall under the umbrella of the new Housing and Essential Needs program, which will not pay cash grants, but will provide housing assistance and items such as personal hygiene products and bus tokens.

Disability Lifeline participants should get a letter in October first notifying them that the program is being discontinued, and then whether they are deemed eligible for one of the three new programs. If so, they will be told how to get in touch with local agencies for help.

For residents of Benton and Franklin counties, the bicounty Department of Human Services will contract with the state to manage the local Housing and Essential Needs money, but officials expect there will be money to help only about 340 people -- about half the people who are eligible.

The department also will work with the Benton Franklin Community Action Committee, The Salvation Army and Lourdes Counseling Center.

Ed Thornbrugh, the agency's administrator, said he is concerned people won't understand what is happening or where to turn once the monthly cash payments stop.

Many of the people who receive Disability Lifeline checks have mental illnesses or developmental disabilities that prevent them from working, and also may prevent them from understanding why they are no longer getting a check or how to navigate the bureaucracy to get housing help under the new program, Thornbrugh said.

The human services department is hoping to reach caregivers and others who may be able to help disabled recipients through the process.

Tracy Diaz, who is overseeing the department's Housing and Essential Needs program, said the main goal of the program's housing assistance is to keep former Disability Lifeline recipients from becoming homeless when what is the sole income for many goes away in November.

Thornbrugh said the human services department will start taking calls about the new program, dubbed "HEN," after Oct. 15.

The department's phone number is 783-5824.