Suit seeks Pennsylvania's restoration of cash assistance program

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Advocates for disabled people Monday sued the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, demanding the restoration of the state's cash assistance program.

The lawsuit was filed in Commonwealth Court on behalf of three former recipients of General Assistance, which had paid $205 a month to poor disabled people.

Gov. Tom Corbett and the Pennsylvania Legislature eliminated the program in June to save $150 million a year.

In the filing, Billie Washington, the lead plaintiff, said she had been receiving General Assistance since last fall because rheumatoid arthritis and other illnesses had left her unable to continue working as a home health care attendant.

She lost those benefits when General Assistance ended Aug. 1. She has been applying for Social Security disability, but that process typically takes two years, and the state's program had served as a stopgap for many people while they waited to qualify for federal help.

In a news release by Community Legal Services, which filed the suit along with Young Ricchiuti Caldwell & Heller and the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, Ms. Washington said she did not know where to turn.

"I don't want to end up in a homeless shelter," she said.

The suit argues that General Assistance allowed the 68,000 Pennsylvanians who had received it to pay for basic needs, such as food and housing.

Anne Bale, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, said she could not comment because agency officials had not seen the suit.

The plaintiffs also want to overturn a change to state funding for social services that allowed some counties to shift money out of health and intellectual disability services. Corbett administration officials have said that change was meant to give local governments greater flexibility combining various funding streams into a single block grant.

The suit argues that the Legislature got rid of General Assistance and implemented the block grants without following proper procedure.

The Legislature "made historic and sweeping changes to seven different programs in a single omnibus bill that had no connection to the bill's original narrow purpose and language," a violation of the state constitution, the plaintiffs' lawyers said.

The case also says the block-grant program gives county governments unlawful spending authority.

"All we are looking for is a fair and level playing field," said Michael Froehlich, a lawyer with Community Legal Services. "If Pennsylvania really wants to eliminate General Assistance, a last-resort safety-net program for nearly 70,000 people with disabilities who are unable to work, it ought to be done lawfully and consistent with our state constitution."

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