Illinois DHS Secretary Gregory Bassi: Kick My Nephews Out of Early Intervention

I have a new piece up at CNN on the Bruce Rauner budget. It attacks core services that both are necessary to help the most vulnerable and sound fiscal policy in the long-term sense. I write:

The Rauner budget slashes state spending by over $4 billion, much of the savings gleaned by eliminating or reducing eligibility for programs based in the Department of Human Services (DHS). Each cut will come with costs to families and individuals who need the state’s help most. Moreover, many of them actually save the state money over time.

I then go on to discuss two programs – early intervention and respite care. I’ll talk more about these in the context of Down syndrome in the next few days. It’s a long essay (hundreds of words longer than my usual CNN length) and I had to cut discussing my own involvement with the program. I’ll have more to say soon.

Today, though, I want to focus on an extraordinarily revealing statement from the Department of Human Services acting secretary Gregory Bassi. See my emphasis at the bottom of these paragraphs:

The program [Early Intervention] is extremely economically efficient. For each dollar spent on programs like Early Intervention, according to studies by people such as the Nobel Laureate James Heckman and the Rand Corporation, the state saves at least $7 in future services. Those savings are, in fact, most likely to be realized most dramatically with precisely the children that DHS is trying to exclude. Children with only mild delays can, with Early Intervention, avoid requiring the more expensive special education services in school when they are older. Everyone wins.

Despite this Gregory Bassi, acting secretary of DHS, is undeterred. At a recent state Senate budget hearing, which I attended, Bassi kept saying that the program was too expensive and seemed unable to address the long-term costs of short-term savings. He even, in a revealing moment, said that his own nephew ought to get booted from the program because the nephew’s parents make too much money (a spokesperson clarified that Bassi actually has two nephews in the program, both of whom have benefited from the therapy).

Bassi was being asked by a Democratic senator about early intervention, and he started talking about how much he cared about Early Intervention. He cited his autistic nephew who had benefited from the program as a sign that he cared. Then said – “Honestly, I think my nephew shouldn’t be getting the service because they have the means to pay for it.”

Some points.

  • A DHS spokeswoman told me that he actually has two nephews who have benefitted from EI and neither has autism. She wrote: “Secretary Bassi has two nephews with delays – not autism – who have gone through the subsidized EI program. He believes that the program has been great for his nephews and is in favor of their participation in the program. But he also understands that the family has the means to pay for the benefits of the EI program and do not need to be subsidized by the taxpayers – that the priority for the subsidy should fall in favor of those families with the greatest need.”
So why did he say autism? And why did he just say one nephew? Was he confused about their diagnosis? Is he not actually all that close to the kids and is unaware of their challenges? Or was it just a convenient way to make a point that he cared and he didn’t want to let a more complicated set of facts get in the way of the testimony? Or was it just a slip of the tongue? It’s baffling to me. 
  • The second part, though, is more interesting. The principle behind EI is that it is available and necessary for all kids with relevant needs. All kids. Co-pays are means tested, but when EI acts not as a benefit for the poor only, but as something to which we all contribute and on which we can all draw, is becomes part of the fabric of our society. Republicans resist such programs and use means testing as a way to undermine essential services. 
And that’s one of the big problems with the GOP. Rauner may not be able to pass much, given veto-proof Democratic majorities in both houses, but he – like fellow Republicans – can appoint people to run things that they fundamentally don’t believe in. Bassi wants to turn EI into a program only for the poor. And then, in typical right-wing fashion, it can be demonized as an entitled for “those” people.” And then it be cut further. 
We see this playbook all the time,  and we have to resist it here in Illinois.

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