[Nfbmo] Missouri could pay blind residents $19 million :News

Nancy Lynn freespirit.stl at att.net
Wed Nov 18 23:07:57 UTC 2015

Missouri could pay blind residents $19 million : News        

JEFFERSON CITY • The state soon could be shelling out more than $19 million in damages for shortchanging blind Missourians’ benefits following a court decision Tuesday.

The Western District Court of Appeals determined that a previous calculation of damages owed to about 3,000 blind residents receiving state benefits was too low. The new figure is around $19 million, up from a previous court’s determination of less than $200,000, said John Ammann, an attorney representing the blind.

Blind residents have received monthly cash benefits from the state since the 1920s. State voters set up the pension plan through a constitutional amendment. These pensions are based on property tax revenues.

But the Missouri Council of the Blind asserts that the state had been miscalculating the monthly pension amount since the early 1990s. Council representatives tried to talk to the state for years, but nothing came of it, said Chris Gray, council executive director.

So, the organization filed a lawsuit in 2006. A court later determined the state was calculating the pension benefits incorrectly, according to court documents.

Gray said that problem was addressed by the state and hasn’t occurred again, but the group has been battling the state over damages for years.

The court of appeals decision Tuesday could be a resolution if the state doesn’t appeal. A representative for Attorney General Chris Koster said the office is reviewing the ruling.

If there is no appeal, the state will have to find the $19 million to pay out to the estimated 3,000 recipients. That money could be added into the fiscal year 2017 budget, which begins July 1, or it could come from a supplement in the current year’s budget, which ends June 30.

Gov. Jay Nixon’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Nixon could request the money in either budget when the Legislature is in session in January, but lawmakers must approve the request before the money is spent.

Republican legislative budget leaders Sen. Kurt Schaefer, of Columbia, and Rep. Tom Flanigan, of Carthage, could not be reached for comment.

Once the money is appropriated, the claims process can begin under the direction of the state Department of Social Services. which oversees the pension program.

“The state has everyone’s name and people will get notice in the mail, eventually, with instructions on how to access whatever they’re owed,” said Ammann, an attorney at the St. Louis University Law Clinic. Even if there is no appeal, “it will be several months until the claims process kicks in.”

To qualify for pensions, people must be totally blind, not just legally blind. They can have no more than 5/200 vision or a visual field of less than 5 degrees. Legal blindness is 20/200.

Pension recipients must be at least 18 years old. The blind pensioner and spouse can accumulate no more than $20,000 in savings or property, not counting their home. Eligible individuals received up to $718 a month, along with state-funded health care coverage through Missouri’s Blind Healthcare Program.

Last year, Nixon reversed a plan to cut pension benefits for the blind less than 24 hours after the Post-Dispatch ran a story about the planned cuts. The $33-a-month drop for all 3,847 recipients would have saved the state an estimated $730,000.

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