EKU occupational therapy students take a stand

By Samantha Tamplin

Members of EKU’s OT program, Haley Rohleder, Bethany Keuter and Katelynn Harwood, are pictured above in Frankfort to lobby for House Bill 283. (Photo courtesy of Abby Emanuelson)

On February 21 and 22 a group of graduate students from EKU’s occupational therapy program traveled to Frankfort to lobby for a bill during the Multiple Sclerosis State Action Day. At the end of the last legislature meeting, the bill was tabled for the time being by the Kentucky legislature, although, the students — and many supporters of the motion — said they hope that it will be reopened and passed within the next year.

The bill, House Bill 283, would allow a tax credit to be afforded to people with disabilities in order for them to improve their homes and make modifications that could drastically increase their quality of life.

The recipients, many of whom would end up institutionalized if they could not stay in their homes, could use this tax credit to their advantage and be able to afford any costly renovations.

To initially begin this endeavor, the students, Katelynn Harwood, Bethany Keuter and Haley Rohleder, worked with an MS support group to offer some student support on HB283. Keuter said “the leader of the group asked (us) to lobby for it” because they were looking for a “healthcare perspective rather than just individuals with MS.”

HB283 would allot up to $7,500 annually for up to five years to help those with disabilities improve accessibility of items in their home, increase safety and be more independent. Individuals with MS could use the money to remain in their homes longer and more safely by preventing major falls and other injuries. According to Center for Disease Control (CDC), “falls are the most preventable cause of nursing facility placement.” These home modifications allow people to keep connected to their jobs, community and family, while maintaining a higher quality of life according to a flier advocating for the passage of the bill.

People with MS are at higher risk for falls and other injuries and are often required to make costly medical modifications to their home or else be institutionalized. According to nationalmssociety.org, MS is “an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.” This disability can impair muscle strength, balance, walking and coordination as well as inflict the individual with crippling fatigue.

“People do better in their own homes,” Harwood said. “Not only does that improve their quality of life, but also saves our state money from having to pay for long-term care facilities that can be very pricey and often Medicare and Medicaid have to pay for.”

Rohleder spoke of one client who paid nearly $6,000 for a tub replacement and stressed how important it is to “increase safety … and quality of life in the home environment.” She said as occupational therapists “we will be advocating for our clients.”

Keuter said that home modifications are “super important” and “incredibly expensive.” People who spend money to stay in their homes will benefit from this tax break and “the overall quality of life is just so much better.” She said, “It is not just individuals with MS (who will benefit) but anyone with a disability.”

Anne Fleischer, the students’ professor and a former clinician, said that while she did not have any direct impact on the bill, she helped start her students on the path to bill lobbying by teaching them how to research bills, giving them recommendations and connecting them to the MS support group that initially invited them to lobby for HB283.

“There are a lot of simple adaptations that can be done,” Fleischer said. Private and public modifications like unisex bathrooms, wider doors, shower grab-bars, ramps, elevators and other adjustments can make a big difference in the life and abilities of a disabled person. Occupational therapists can go into disabled people’s homes and make recommendations for needed home improvements. She said a tax credit would be a huge help to individuals with disabilities. Kentucky would have to set aside around $500,000 annually to pay for these accommodations, according to the tax credit flier. Fleischer said, “There’s nothing cheap about living in an institution.”

The main issue to overcome, according to Fleischer, is the need for more awareness. “More people need to contact their legislature … to say that this is really important … student involvement in legislation is important.”

Abby Emanuelson, an MS activist leader and a spokesperson for this issue, said that “if people can modify their homes affordably … with the tax credit … they’ll be able to stay in their homes longer and remain safe in their homes and be independent.”

Currently, the status of HB283 is inactive as the bill is being for the time being. In an email from the Kentucky legislature addressed to Harwood, it read, “Due to larger pressing issues in Kentucky legislature, the Home Modification tax credit will not be considered this legislative session. Instead it will be considered as part of a tax reform.” Harwood said, “It’s not the end of the road, it’s just a stop sign.”

The advocates for HB283 said they hope that it will soon become a reality as it would notably help individuals with disabilities stay in their homes. For more information contact Emanuelson at Abby.Emanuelson@nmss.org.

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