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Unique Kansas coalition encourages thousands with disabilities to open ABLE savings accounts

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Initiative invites all 5,100 people on waiting lists for disability services to take part

Patti Garbeff recalled a meeting at her kitchen table about enrolling her daughter Pattie in the Kansas ABLE savings plan enabling people with disabilities to save for education, housing, transportation, employment training and other basic living expenses without jeopardizing essential federal benefits.

Without the tax deferred account approved by Congress in 2014 and authorized in Kansas during 2017, Pattie Garbeff would be compelled to limit her savings to $2,000 or lose means-tested Medicaid and Social Security assistance. Individuals who participate in ABLE protect up to $100,000 in an interest-bearing account under administration of the office of the Kansas state treasurer.

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When made aware of the program, Patti Garbeff didn’t hesitate to sign her daughter up.

“We are thrilled to be here to talk about one of our favorite subjects, and it’s ABLE,” she said during at the Robert Dole Institute of Politics. “Patti works at Hen House. Her check is a direct deposit to her ABLE account. I have a sense of peace of having this account for Pattie. And, she has a sense of security for her future with an ABLE account.”

The Garbeffs were present for announcement of an unusual partnership to promote ABLE among Kansans with intellectual and developmental disabilities on Kansas’ waiting list for Medicaid services.

The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities and the state treasurer plan to work together on a statewide campaign to inform families and self-advocates about how ABLE could be a game-changer.

So far, Kansans have established 1,800 ABLE accounts that hold $16.9 million. It’s unclear how many of the record-high 5,100 individuals on the intellectual and developmental disability waiting list in Kansas were among the 1,800 enlisted in the savings-and-spending program, but at minimum of more than 3,000 individuals with disabilities have yet to make use of the tax-advantaged financial tool.

Nationally, about 8 million Americans qualify for the ABLE program. There are about 158,000 ABLE accounts in the United States with $1.5 billion in deposits.

“Here at home,” said Kansas state Treasurer Steven Johnson, “we do not want the benefits of the Kansas ABLE program to be one of our best kept secrets. We want to ensure that all stakeholders recognized where ABLE can be a vital financial tool to make a difference in an individual’s life.”

The idea would be for the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities, the state treasurer’s office and the state Department for Aging and Disability Services to promote a new online educational resource regarding ABLE and take part in a 2024 tour of the state to inform the public of the program. The Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities will provide catalyst for the endeavor with a grant to the treasurer’s office to finance the largest outreach effort since ABLE was launched.

Kansas state Treasurer Steven Johnson, accompanied by a sign language interpreter, outlines Wednesday at the Dole Institute of Politics formation of a coalition dedicated to urging more than 5,000 individuals on the state's waiting list for intellectual or developmental disability services to participate in the ABLE savings plan and maintain eligibility for Social Security and Medicaid assistance. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas state Treasurer Steven Johnson, accompanied by a sign language interpreter, outlines formation of a coalition dedicated to urging more of the 5,100 individuals on the state’s waiting list for intellectual or developmental disability services to open an ABLE savings account that won’t interfere with eligibility for Social Security and Medicaid assistance. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Laura Howard, secretary of the state Department for Aging and Disability Services, said the project was initiated by Sara Hart Weir, executive director of the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities. Both have relationships with disability network stakeholders in Kansas who interact daily with individuals and families.

“I think there’s something we can do together that can really make a difference for people today,” Howard said. “We think we can make a targeted effort, particularly for those individuals and families who are waiting for those services on wait lists.”

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Weir said discussions about forming the collaboration began in September. She said she was emotional about launching the project to bring more Kansans into the ABLE fold. She began working on federal Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, or ABLE, legislation in 2006. It took eight years for Congress to adopt the law recognizing Virginian Stephen Beck Jr., who had Down syndrome and died in 2015.

“There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears put in that effort. But most importantly it was the personal stories of our self-advocates, our family members and caregivers,” Weir said. “To be able to sit around kitchen tables and help families open up their ABLE accounts, it really does come full circle.”

Weir said the disabilities council would propose to the 2024 Legislature a series of ideas for shrinking the Kansas waiting list for services to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. She said the council also would urge lawmakers to address the workforce and caregiver crisis in Kansas.

The announcement occurred at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. It was intentional, given Dole’s legacy as a disabled veteran from wounds suffered in 1945 and his advocacy for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

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