Senator on disability eyes Wash. benefits cuts

Senator on disability eyes Wash. benefits cuts
This March 13, 2008, file photo shows Washington Senate Republican Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, during debate on the Senate floor in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - A Washington lawmaker has been drawing thousands of dollars in disability payments each year while leading efforts to eliminate benefits the state provides to others.

Republican Sen. Joseph Zarelli gets $601 a month from the federal government, indicating that he is considered 40 percent disabled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to records obtained by The Associated Press under public records law. He has been receiving the tax-free stipend for years.

Zarelli said the disability payments he gets are far different than the benefits provided in the state programs he's targeting for cuts, in part because he suffered his injury on the job. He said the people in the state system were making poor lifestyle choices - such as drug and alcohol addiction - and argued that lawmakers should be focused more on identifying ways to fix their problems.

"What I do know from those types of so-called disabilities is that aiding and abetting them does not make them better," Zarelli said in an interview. "If you enable people to participate in that type of a lifestyle - you support it and make it more comfortable for them - all you are doing is aiding in their demise."

Those programs provide medical care to thousands of residents, along with temporary housing and other non-cash assistance, such as toiletries and bus passes.

About 60 percent of participants in the Medical Care Services program are primarily incapacitated due to a mental issue, while 40 percent have primarily physical problems, according to data from the Department of Social and Health Services. About 40 percent are homeless. The program is designed for people who are unable to work due to their incapacity.

Figures show the state provided aid last year to some 1,000 clients who were pregnant and another 900 who had cancer.

About half the people in the system also had problems with drugs or alcohol. Participants cannot qualify for the services just because they have a substance abuse problem, and people who have a dependency issue secondary to their disability are required to participate in a treatment program, according to DSHS.

As the top Republican budget writer in the Senate, Zarelli has been thrust into power in recent weeks as the GOP managed to convince three Democrats to sign onto his spending plan. He is now working with Democrats in the Senate and in the House to finalize a plan to fix the state's budget shortfall.

One of the main sticking points left in the budget debate is Zarelli's proposal to ultimately eliminate the two disability programs and save about $100 million. He led efforts last year to stop providing cash benefits in those programs and said people were simply drawn to it because it was free money.

Zarelli's own disability benefits as a veteran act a lot like workers' compensation, providing income to veterans who incurred ailments from their active-duty service. The benefits can last a lifetime even if the veteran holds a full-time job.

The cash payments stem from seven years Zarelli spent in the U.S. Navy during the 1980s, when he had some peacetime deployments.

Zarelli said he injured his back while on a ship and that the pain is now chronic, though he is still able to golf, hike and fish - and he spends much of his free time maintaining his six-acre property in Ridgefield. He said he's learned various ways to manage the pain over time.

"You can do a lot of things - but you pay the price," Zarelli said. "For a while, every so often, my back would simply go out on me and I couldn't move."

It's not the only way Zarelli, a conservative budget hawk, has relied on government assistance over the years. He was criticized in 2002 after collecting unemployment checks for months while also drawing his salary as a state lawmaker.

Molly Firth, director of public policy at the Community Health Network of Washington, said the state programs Zarelli is targeting are designed to help stabilize medical or mental issues so that the participants can eventually get back to work. She said the aid helps prevent other societal consequences, such as jail time, hospital trips, psychiatric care and crime.

"This is a very, very, very vulnerable population," Firth said. "It's going to cost us more if we don't help them."