For the past 10 years as Executive Director of The Arc of Colorado, Marijo Rymer has led policy campaigns across the state to shed light on the issues of our community of individuals with developmental disabilities. At the end of this month, she is retiring from her position. However, she is not retiring from advocating for the IDD community.
In a “farewell” interview with Catherine Strode, Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist, she says she will be staying involved with The Arc of the US and with the local Arcs in New Mexico. Her policy legacy? She says it’s a call for collaboration.
What do you view as the highlights of your tenure?
“The first highlight has been the opportunity to work on behalf of children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It has been a personally enriching experience. I’m grateful to The Arc for having had the chance to do that. The last 10 years have seen the chapters of The Arc coalesce and work together on public policy. We’ve made some great inroads in building relationships and helping people understand the issues our community faces. Ten years ago, we launched a ballot initiative that had it passed would have increased state sale taxes to eliminate the DD waiting list for children and adults. Even though we did not win, the awareness that was raised among legislators and the public about the issue of the DD waiting list was significantly enhanced. If we had not had the opportunity to go around the state and talk to civic groups what followed would never have occurred. Toward the end of Governor Hickenlooper’s first term, the budget called for eliminating the waiting list for the Children’s Waiver, as well as for, the Supported Living Services Waiver. We were told in various arenas that had it not been for that campaign, the awareness that led to the policy decisions to eliminate those waiting lists would not have happened.”
What recent policy decisions have had impact?
“With the Joint Budget Committee, we were able to get established the DD cash fund. The fund allowed Colorado to retain revenues appropriated for DD services that, after the waiting lists were eliminated, didn’t get spent. Those funds are now allowed to be used to support projects and programs for people with IDD. Among those is an effort to start two pilot projects for mental health crisis centers for people with IDD. They are going into their second full year of operation and will more than likely be expanded in the future. Additionally, we were able to secure funding to launch three pilots for inclusive higher education at Colorado colleges and universities for people with IDD. The Arc of Colorado has taken the lead with other chapters of The Arc on waiver reform. We’ve been at the table on improving Medicaid state plan benefits, ensuring that children with autism who qualify for Medicaid can get all medically necessary services covered under the Medicaid state plan.”
What are the challenges going forward?
“Securing the appropriate funding to flow through Medicaid to pay for services and supports will continue to be a challenge. The TABOR amendment limitations, both on revenue as well as on spending, will continue to hamstring our state. If Congress does move forward with reductions to federal Medicaid dollars, people with disabilities in Colorado can be devastated. There is no way for the state to make up the shortfall with state general funds. It simply can’t be done.”
What future legislation is needed?
“The Arc and other DD advocacy organizations are going to continue to work on changes in school discipline policies. Last year, legislation was introduced that would have required schools to do something other than suspend or expel preschool through second graders. That legislation failed. With Disability Law Colorado and JFK Partners, we’ll be pursuing that again. We will pursue the issue of corporal punishment in schools. I’m hoping we will be able to address the lack of out of home placement for children with extreme behavioral supports. Currently, the only way to access that help is through the child welfare system. That means voluntarily relinquishing parental rights or acknowledging abuse, which in most cases, is not occurring.”
How would you grade Colorado in its support of individuals with disabilities?
“Colorado might get a “C- “on funding. In terms of departments and providers doing their best to support people, we get an “A.” As the market for employees tightens, we are going to have to increase rates. In some states, that can be done via a legislative mandate. That would be challenging in Colorado for the legislature to mandate a particular wage for direct service providers. That’s because of the competing interest for direct support professionals that serve seniors and other people with disabilities. We aren’t going to have the people needed to support people with IDD. Funding has got to be the biggest issue we face. It was the biggest issue we faced when I started ten years ago.”
What do you think your legacy is?
“Understanding that compromise is not a four- letter word and sometimes it takes a while to get things done. We have to acknowledge competing interests and different points of view in order to really accomplish something. We get more done if we work collaboratively than if we are confrontational.”