A presidential preview

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Attendees of the first National Forum on Disability Issues, held in July in Columbus, got a taste for what life may be like for people with disabilities under a new president, be it Barack Obama or John McCain.

Suffice it to say, “There are fundamental differences in where they want the country to go, including for people with disabilities,” said Permobil’s Darren Jernigan, who attended the forum.

Both candidates have personal ties to the disability community. Michelle Obama’s father died from complications of MS when she was 27. Cindy McCain used to be a special education teacher. Jernigan wonders: “Does McCain consider himself a person with disability?” (McCain can’t raise his arms above his head due to injuries he suffered as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.)

In general, Jernigan liked what he heard from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who was there representating Obama (Obama was touring Europe and the Middle East at the time). If elected president, Obama says he would make room in his Cabinet for a disability adviser. That would be a first, Jernigan said. In the past, presidents have had disability advisers, but they’ve stuck them in the Department of Justice or some other less visible office.

“They’re not in the White House, part of the president’s policy team,” Jernigan said. “It’s huge. This is someone who would say: ‘This is what needs to be done.’”

Jernigan didn’t like what he had to hear from McCain, who was there via satellite. When asked about the Community Choices Act-a bill that would help people with disabilities stay in their homes and out of nursing homes-McCain said the $3 billion bill was too costly. Harkin’s retort: We spend about $3 billion a week in Iraq.

Surely, what Jernigan heard at the forum doesn’t sum up either candidate’s position on people with disabilities, let alone health care or, more specifically, HME. But with two months until election day, these are the bits and pieces of information that manufacturers, providers and other industry stakeholders are going to want to start collecting.

Invacare CEO Mal Mixon, for one, planned to meet with representatives from Obama’s and McCain’s camps in the months leading up to the elections. Mixon, a self-proclaimed “big Bush supporter,” said recently that he won’t make the same mistake this year that he made four years ago. That is, supporting a presidential candidate without knowing exactly his stance on HME. As we all remember, Bush was a supporter of national competitive bidding and vetoed the bill that would delay the program, only to have the House of Representatives and Senate override him.

“Now that the smoke has cleared on competitive bidding, we need to find out (about the candidates),” Mixon said recently. “People ask me who I’m going to support, and I can’t answer that question right now.”

The clock’s ticking.