Politics

Children’s Disabilities Inform McMorris Rodgers and Hassan

Diverging views on health care shaped by personal experience

New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan credits her son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, as the reason she got into politics. Also pictured, husband Thomas and daughter Meg. (Courtesy Julian Russell)

Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest ranking Republican woman in Congress, supports the House GOP’s legislation to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. New Hampshire Democrat Maggie Hassan, who pulled off a Senate squeaker last year, expanded Medicaid in her state as a two-term governor.

Despite their differences, both say their perspectives on health care and other policies are shaped by raising children with disabilities.

McMorris Rodgers’ son Cole was born in 2007 with Down syndrome. She’s a co-founder of the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus. Hassan’s 29-year-old son Ben has cerebral palsy.

“I was reaching out early on to people who have children with Down syndrome,” said McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. “You want to do everything you can so your child has every tool to succeed.”

Sara Weir, president of the National Down Syndrome Society, said McMorris Rodgers’ openness in talking about her son played a role in the passage of legislation known as the ABLE Act in 2014, which established tax-exempt savings accounts for people with disabilities.

“I give a lot of credit to Rep. McMorris Rodgers and her husband for telling their story,” she said.

Washington Rep. <a class="memberLink" title="Click to view member info in a new window" href="http://data.rollcall.com/members/21425?rel=memberLink" target="_blank">Cathy McMorris Rodgers</a> with her son Cole, who has Down syndrome. (Courtesy McMorris Rodgers’ office)
Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers with her son Cole, who has Down syndrome. (Courtesy McMorris Rodgers’ office)

McMorris Rodgers is now working on a legislation package she calls ABLE 2.0. that expands on the existing law. It would make it easier for people with disabilities to save money and increase the age limit to open an ABLE account from 25 to 45.

A reason to serve

Hassan credits her son Ben as the reason for her getting involved in politics. During her Senate campaign last year, she featured Ben in an TV advertisement.

“I started just being involved, like most parents of people who experience disabilities, with the school system — just to make sure that the program that was put in place for him was going to meet his needs,” Hassan said. “That got me interested in how we make sure schools meet all children’s needs.”

Her efforts led then-New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, now the state’s senior senator, to appoint Hassan to an education financing board to provide a parent’s perspective.

Shaheen compared Hassan to former Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Both senators had family members with disabilities, which motivated them to push for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“There’s no better person to carry on that important work than Maggie Hassan,” said Shaheen.

Hassan served in the state Senate and as governor before unseating Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte last fall.

The next frontier

Both McMorris Rodgers and Hassan recognize that they are just the latest in a line of parents who’ve advocated on behalf of their children.

McMorris Rodgers said her son got a good education because of the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act, which guarantees children with disabilities access to services and a free appropriate public education. The law was passed as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. It was renamed when amendments were added in 1990. 

“I’m grateful to those who fought the battle and got the passage of IDEA and opened up the doors,” McMorris Rodgers said, adding that the next frontier is ensuring people with disabilities are able to work with dignity.

Hassan said she might have been pressured to put her son Ben in an institution were it not for the work of advocates in previous generations. Instead, he attended the same school as his sister Meg.

“Her son and her story stands to the idea of integrating someone to the fullest extent possible,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. Decker has known Hassan since she was on the board of his group’s New Hampshire affiliate.

Betsy DeVos, now the Education secretary, came under criticism by Hassan during her confirmation hearings in January for not understanding IDEA. When DeVos said she would be sensitive about the needs of students with disabilities, Hassan responded by saying it wasn’t about sensitivity — it was about enforcing the law.

“Being sympathetic to somebody’s plight, while it is nice and it is a good way of establishing understanding, isn’t a substitute for making sure they have the right tools to be independent and be full citizens,” Hassan told Roll Call.

Divided on health care

Earlier this month, McMorris Rodgers wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying Cole was a reason she voted for her party’s bill to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.

McMorris Rodgers wrote that the Republican replacement legislation still ensured protections for people with pre-existing conditions but also gave states flexibility instead of having a one-size-fits-all approach to health care.

Many disability advocates worry that protections for people with pre-existing conditions could be eroded and Medicaid services could be cut.

McMorris Rodgers met with chapters of The Arc, a group which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to address what she says is misinformation. And she reiterated her commitment to protecting Medicaid.

“So many around the table believed we were going to eliminate Medicaid,” she said. “And they are panicked and fearful — and it broke my heart.”

Donna Tracy, advocacy and recreation manager for The Arc’s Tri-Cities chapter in Washington, said she appreciates McMorris Rodgers’ work on ABLE, but she is concerned about the GOP legislation and its effects on Medicaid.

“Rep. McMorris Rodgers probably knows the most and she felt people would not be hurt,” said Tracy, who nevertheless worries that Republicans don’t “have a full plan to make sure the most vulnerable will not be hurt.”

Hassan has a personal interest in what happens to Medicaid. Her son is primarily covered by her family’s insurance plan, but Medicaid provides secondary coverage.

“Medicaid is what has allowed us to include Ben in our home, have home nursing services so he hasn’t needed to be hospitalized very often,” she said. Medicaid also helped pay for his education — including how to write and how to use a pottery wheel.

Hassan worries about cuts to Medicaid that could affect the quality of health care and education for people with disabilities.

“Some school systems aren’t going to be able to get those payments that help them include people like Ben in school,” she said.

Despite their differences, both McMorris Rodgers and Hassan understand the deeply personal stakes in this debate.

“I’ve learned a lot because of Cole and he’s made me a better legislator because of his experience,” McMorris Rodgers said.

Hassan said living with disabilities — or raising a loved one with a disability isn’t easy.

But when people speak up, the abstract becomes more real.

And that, she said, presents challenges “in a very concrete way to policymakers.”

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